Interview: Sacha Baron Cohen on ‘The Brothers Grimsby’, Comedy, and Donald Trump

Maddie Crichton ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Sacha Baron Cohen. Photo Credit: Variety.

It has been three years since Sacha Baron Cohen last appeared on the big screen, but now he is back with his first action-comedy, The Brothers Grimsby, which he wrote and stars in. The story follows Nobby, who was separated from his brother as a child. Nobby is a football-loving, not so quick-thinking guy who spent his whole life trying to reconnect with his brother. When Nobby finally finds him he learns his brother is an influential spy, and gets tangled in a mission involving high-profile figures and the safety of the world. Check out Emertainment Monthly’s review of The Brothers Grimsby here.

Cohen is known for mockumentaries like Brüno and Borat: Cultural Learning’s of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, which he earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Emertainment Monthly had the chance to sit down with Cohen and participate in a round-table interview with other Boston area colleges to discuss his career, The Brothers Grimsby, and that crazy elephant scene that you will just have to see to believe.

Boston University (BU): What is it like having these (promotional) events for your movie? You showed up and you were bombarded by a ton of people. Is it fun?

Sacha Baron Cohen: Listen, it’s great to meet people who are actually going to come and see the movie. It’s something that makes me fairly uncomfortable, because I’ve spent the last eighteen years trying to prevent myself from being seen by anyone. So normally, all the press events have been done in character. This is the first time that it’s not. But it’s great to meet the people, they all seem very nice. I didn’t get punched, which is always nice.

Emertainment Monthly (EM): When you promote movies in character versus out of character, how is the experience different for you?

Cohen: Up until now, they’ve all been done in character. And in character, you know, you put on the costume and try to be as funny as possible. And out of character, well I’m trying to work out what I’m like out of character. So we’ll see.

Sacha Baron Cohen in The Brothers Grimsby. Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): You’ve always been pretty immersed in your roles. Do you think Nobby was a character that you really had to get into, or did you have a different approach?

Cohen: I got into it. I did research, went up to the North of England to hang out with a lot of real-life Nobby’s. And also, part of the process is, I go under cover in order to get into the character. So, I set up a bunch of interviews with real people as Nobby, and then I workshop the character that way.

BU: Your films like Borat and Brüno were inspired by old characters of yours. Where did the inspiration for Nobby come from?

Cohen: Phil Johnston, the guy who wrote Wreck-It Ralph, came into the office and said, “Pitch this idea: James Bond’s brother.” And so my immediate response is okay, who is the best guy to act as a foil to a James Bond guy that could create havoc with him while on the road? When you think about what are all the common attributes between all these action heroes, generally they are lacking any empathy, they’re ruthless murderers, they’re often alcoholics, they use violence towards everyone, they have no loving relationships, they’re misogynistic, and they’re almost monosyllabic. So you can logically work out who is the opposite character. Someone who is loving, who has real relationships, who has kids, who is nostalgic, who cannot stop talking, and who is from, sort of a lower brow of society. That’s a complete embarrassment to his brother. So you sort of work it logically out, that this is the foil to this character. It sounds very mathematical.

BU: It does.

Cohen: It doesn’t sound very funny. That’s the problem with comedy. It becomes very unfunny once you start talking about it.

Sacha Baron Cohen and Mark Strong in The Brothers Grimsby. Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing.

EM: What were the big challenges of shooting this big action film?

Cohen: We wanted it to be an authentic action movie, but we had about $150 million dollars less than your average action movie has to make it. So the first thing we had to do was create a style of action that could be as exciting as any other action movie out there. So, we couldn’t be Bond in terms of big, magnificent action scenes. But we realized if we create this new style of action, this POV shooter kind of action, we could make the action film more visceral and alive. I saw this video online called “Bad Mother F*cker” that had point of view action. And we called the guy up and said “Hey we want you to help us on this movie.” And so then we started playing first-person shooter games to work out what kinds of things would work well in this movie. I was playing ‘Call of Duty’, have you guys heard of ‘Call of Duty’?

Collectively: Yes.

Cohen: Okay, well I had never played it before. So I started playing it, and I thought okay this would be great for a style of movie, and thinking if we did stunts like that it would be sort of fun. So we played a lot of the stunts that you see in action movies and played them for real. And we got the main stunt guy who does the stunts for the Marvel movies, you know he’s the real Captain America, and we got him out and got him to choreograph real four-minute scenes. And have people do some of these things for real. And we thought, alright, if we can actually do that, that would be a much more visceral experience and make the action feel old fashioned.

BU: It was very cool; it really was like an action video game.

Cohen: And the cool thing is, someone was actually doing that. And there were a few broken bones on the way. But luckily we could just replace the stunt man along the way.

BU: And they didn’t have to be your broken bones.

Cohen: Listen, I have broken bones before making movies. But I didn’t want to break any this time.

Sacha Baron Cohen and Mark Strong in The Brothers Grimsby. Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing.

EM: Did you do any stunts of your own for this movie?

Cohen: Yes, I did some of the stunts. Ironically, the only time I ever broke a bone was for Brüno, and we had a bodyguard whose only job is to make sure I didn’t get arrested. Because if I got arrested, it would mean that security could stop me from coming into America again. So I would be denied a green card. So we did one scene in Brüno where I wake up and I’ve slept with my assistant, who is a guy. And he wakes up and he has a toilet brush in his mouth. And we are chained together. And we were in Kansas. And the Kansas police had found out I was there, and they had made it very clear that if they found me they would arrest me. So we called up the hotel manager to come up to the room and as we’re shooting all this he calls the police. At which point my bodyguard says, “Alright let’s get out of the room and run.” And I’m still attached by chains to another guy. Anyway, we always have an escape route when we make these movies. We had like, a service elevator and we knew there was an escape car waiting down below in an alleyway with the doors open and the engine running. He said, “Alright, let’s go in here I’ve got this all done.” We get in the service elevator, and all of a sudden the hotel security turn up. They block the door, so we realize we have to go a different way. We were on the seventeenth floor. We manage to separate the chains as we were running, but my assistant still has this toilet brush as we were running. And we were dressed in complete S&M outfits. I say, “Where are we going?” and the security guard just says, “Follow me! Follow me!” And we run to a window on the seventeenth floor and he lifts open the window and says, “Get out!” We climb out the window because he hears that the police are downstairs waiting to arrest me. So we start climbing down this rickety staircase, like 1920’s staircase, running down in this S&M outfit. And in Kansas, as a lot of places in America, the fire escapes don’t go all the way down. So we get down to the first floor, and I can see the getaway van down there and I say, “How are we going to get down there?” And he says, “Jump! Jump now!” So I go, “Really?” and he goes, “Just jump!” And I was wearing high heels, platform shoes. And I jump, cracked my heel, and broke my heel, which is apparently an injury no one has had since 1970. And then we jumped into the car and zoomed off. But I broke my heel.

EM: Wow, that’s really crazy.

Cohen: Yeah, and bloody stupid. I’m sure there’s an easier way to get out.

BU: What was it like working with your wife (Isla Fisher) on Brothers Grimsby?

Cohen: Well, I didn’t really do a lot of scenes with her. But I was on set while she was on set and it was surprisingly good. I mean, we’re still married, which is more than I can say for most people who work together.

Rebel Wilson and Sacha Baron Cohen in The Brothers Grimsby. Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing.

EM: When you were writing, did you have her in mind for that role?

Cohen: Not really, we don’t really cast it while we’re writing the script. We tend to write the movie, then we draw out the characters, before we call up anyone. Then we go into the casting process.

MIT: So, I know you had a lot of issues with the NPAA making sure the movie was not NC-17. Did you end up still being able to make the movie you wanted to make?

Cohen: Yes, I think ultimately we used some tricks to try to get them to give us what we wanted. By extending or shortening certain scenes, like the elephant scene. (There is a scene in the film that may or may not take place inside an elephant, but let’s leave it at that.) But because I’ve dealt with them beforehand, we kind of had techniques. And I think, ultimately, it’s pretty close to what I wanted.

BU: So with that elephant scene, which is just crazy and hilarious and absurd, your parents see stuff like that, so what is it like interacting with your parents after seeing that stuff? What is it like going to family dinners and talking to your great aunt about that kind of stuff?

Cohen: Well, my great Aunt, I’m 44 now, so they’ve all kicked the bucket a while back. But, you know my parents are fairly permissive, so there is a certain amount of embarrassment. But they are also quite proud that their son is not a total conformist in the northwest London Jewish community. But yes, I mean when I was doing Borat and coming out with very anti-Semitic phrases, saying “throw a Jew down the well,” it was not entirely easy for my dad to walk into town, into a place where there were a lot of Jews, but he did. I think to have a certain amount of artistic freedom, it’s good that I had supportive parents. They always had my back.

Gabourey Sidibe and Sacha Baron Cohen in The Brothers Grimsby. Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing.

EM: In a world where political correctness is so topical, and everyone is trying to monitor it, does that influence you when you write and perform at all? Or do you choose to push the envelope regardless?

Cohen: I always try to make sure what we do is not consolidating any racial or gender stereotypes, or sexual stereotypes. So when there is a scene, in the writer’s room we say, “this would be really funny.” Then we analyze whether it is the ethical thing to do. Now, I would say, I’m a comedian. I’m not a politician. I’m entitled to be a complete hypocrite and I don’t have to be ethical, because I’m not enforcing my movies on anyone. If you hate them, you don’t have to go and see them. But, I do feel a sense of responsibility to not do something that is morally bankrupt. Ultimately, I hope the name of the movie is to make people laugh hysterically but underlying it, it would be great if they take something out of it other than some cock jokes.

MIT: There were some scenes in The Brothers Grimsby where Nobby makes some remarks about being interested in fat women. Do you think these were at the expense of larger women, or was there deeper meaning behind it?

Cohen: I don’t think there’s any deeper meaning behind it, but I think it was not a joke about fat women. Essentially, what we’re saying is, this guy is attracted to larger women. We are not saying whether it’s good or bad, but that those women are attractive. The concept of being attracted to skinny women is a modern once, and it is also pretty specific to certain countries, the west of Europe and America. The rest of the world, at the moment, it is completely unattractive to have a thin woman. So we just say, alright, in the town of Grimsby, he’s got the sexiest woman in that town. And it’s Rebel Wilson. And that’s the premise. That’s who he is.

MIT: And you don’t think that this was at the expense of fat girls?

Cohen: I don’t think so. Personally, I think she’s sexy in the movie. When we spoke to Rebel, the idea was, I said, “Alright. You are the sexiest woman in this town. You need to dress provocatively. You are the Kim Kardashian of Grimsby. You flaunt it, and you own it.” And I think she looks gorgeous in the movie.

Mark Strong and Sacha Baron Cohen in The Brothers Grimsby. Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing.

BU: There was a huge cast, just a ton of famous names, was there a favorite that you loved to work with on the movie?

Cohen: Well I think that Mark Strong is one of the greatest actors of his generation. He’s in A View From The Bridge with a variety of applauds and accolades. I think he’s a classically trained actor and he’s wonderful. He totally grounds that movie. He’s so real in it that I could do the most outlandish things and you can believe that the scene is actually going on.

BU: Even when he does outlandish things, like put his balls in your face, it’s still realistic.

Cohen: Yeah, it’s believable. You know we ran the movie by some security specialists. We tried to find some real life versions of Jason Bourne and Bond. Who are those guys now? Rather than doing the conventional thing, we found a couple of guys, including one guy who worked for…well I don’t want to give away too much of what they did. But they did that kind of stuff, they are the real life Jason Bournes. And we ran the script by them and said, “let us know if anything in this could not happen.” So we were guided by that particularly in the assassinations. We could go, okay what is a real way that someone would assassinate someone? Where would you actually hide? The things that distinguish those good agents, or assassins, which is essentially what they are, is that they’re intelligent and outside the box, and they use things around them to outwit their opponents. You have now, and you see it in the War on Terror, is campaigns fought less by armies and more by individuals and small groups who were sent in to essentially assassinate. That’s what the modern Bond is. It’s obviously very controversial. This guy is more of a government assassin. You have them here in America; essentially every government has their own MI-6. But then they have off shoots of that, which are the kind of assassinations.

BU: That we probably don’t even know about.

Cohen: Yeah, the assassinations are never claimed by the government, but they are authorized by the government. We read up a lot on these kinds of wings and the people who do this, which is quite interesting.

MIT: So, you said there was a lot of improvisation on set, what was filming the average scene like?

Cohen: What happens is we write the basic scene, we shoot the basic scene a few times, and then we say, “okay lets do a completely improvised take.” Then we do variations of the scene, try to change the dynamics, try and change the lines with particular jokes, and we try to give ourselves as much space as possible with the particular scene, so that the best idea will come out. So, “What happens if I end up there, and dump balls on me?” Or whatever it is. And a lot of things that are in the movie were actually improvised. It came out, we just work shopped it from that. So for me, normal movies would get a little bit boring because I came from a background where everything was real, and there’s the tension of is this guy going to punch me or will the police turn up or will the crew get arrested. So to keep that tension, and adrenaline, I improvise to keep me motivated.

Martin Scorsese and Sacha Baron Cohen on the set of Hugo. Photo Credit:

BU: You’ve done some really amazing dramatic narrative films too, what is it like going back and forth from Borat to Hugo to Brüno to Les Mis? Jumping back from comedy to dramatic narrative?

Cohen: Well I love it. I haven’t done it much. I’ve probably worked less than any other actor because my feeling is, unless it’s a no brainer, unless it’s so exciting, then I’m probably not going to do it. If Scorsese calls up, I’ll do it. I love Scorsese and I want to learn from him. Or if Tim Burton does it then I’ll do it. But I’m probably a little bit of a snob when it comes to doing other movies. It’s incredible. When I did Hugo, it took six months and I really used it as an opportunity to learn form the greatest living director. And I asked to sit next to him while filming on set and I promised I wouldn’t say anything, and eventually he allowed me to. I’m interested by film, and I’m incredibly lucky that I’ve managed to earn a living doing what I love. So it’s amazing that I get to spend six months with Scorsese and learn from him. But it’s fun to do those other things. I remember when I did Talladega Nights, which is the first scripted movie I ever did, and I had just come off of Borat. And in Borat, we would be in a van, six people in a van. The director would be in there, the makeup person and the costume person and co-writer. And in Talladega Nights everyone had their own trailer. And in the trailer there’s a sofa and a TV and a bed. I go, “What is this? Is this where we all get to hang out?” and they go, “Yeah this is your trailer.” I didn’t quite understand the concept that you could watch TV during the workday, or go to sleep. And so it seemed like an incredibly easy job, being an actor after doing Borat. And so I always am slightly suspicious when I hear about actors complain about how difficult it was to make a movie. Because at the end of the day, they could go to sleep during the workday. And they have people bringing them lunch and dinner.

EM: Sort of switching gears, but Donald Trump is the punch line to a big joke in the movie. Are you nervous about what he might have to say about that, since he’s such a wild card?

Cohen: Not really. I mean years ago I interviewed Mr. Trump in his office in Manhattan. And I remember he was kind of a Batman villain at the time. He kept me waiting for an hour and I could hear him screaming from the other room, “Get me the mayor on the line,” and shouting at the mayor, “What the f*ck are you doing?” So I don’t think he’s a terrifying guy it’s just terrifying if he becomes president. But he’s realized that saying the most offensive things will get you a lot of publicity. So it seems more than a coincidence that he has targeted a variety of minorities or people who are lacking in status or power in order to garner attention. He’s an incredible manipulator of the media.

This interview has been condensed from its original form. The Brothers Grimsby is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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