Dictator, The: Interview with Sacha Baron Cohen

The North African nation of Wadiya has the potential to be the next Duba–if it weren’t for the crushing poverty, lack of refinement and the man who rules from his inherited throne—General Haffaz Aladeen.

“He has lost the legitimacy to rule,” President Obama of the United States has gone on record as saying. “He must step down.”

On the verge of being officially sanctioned by the United Nations, the General has announced his first trip to the U.S. to address these insults, slanders and charges.

“It is outrageous to call me a dictator. I am the undemocratically elected leader of my people. Actually, my full title is Admiral General Aladeen, Supreme Leader, Chief Ophthalmologist, Invincible, All Triumphant, Beloved Oppressor of the People of Wadiya…and excellent swimmer, including butterfly. I have 118 PhDs, and a diploma in spray tanning from the Qatar Community College.”

Writer/performer/filmmaker Sacha Baron Cohen has made a living out of culture clash. Whether as a British Jamaican-wannabe rapper slash chat show host, a somewhat naïve Kazakhstani television reporter or an out and relatively out there Austrian fashionista, Baron Cohen is in the business of finding humor and revelation in the often uncomfortable collision of vastly differing viewpoints and lifestyles. His stupendously and deservedly popular British television series made its wildfire way to the British movie screen. His subsequent and unstoppable transition to Hollywood was made in a film helmed by director Larry Charles, who again collaborated with Baron Cohen on his follow-up project (and now, once again, with The Dictator).

Larry Charles comments, “When we did Brüno, we were shocked because we had thought that after Borat, we’d never get away with it again. And then we put Sacha into the Brüno make-up, the hair and the outfits, and we went around Los Angeles with him—we kept thinking that we were going to get busted in two seconds. But generally speaking, nobody recognized him. He looked so different—and there’s a fascinating psychological component to all of this. It’s like when people are eyewitnesses to crimes, but it turns out that what they saw is not actually what happened. People don’t look as closely at things as you might think. And when someone like Brüno is walking around the street, they tend to not look him in the eye; they don’t want to look at him too closely. So, we took advantage of that, and insinuated Brüno into all of those situations without ever being discovered.”

Co-star Jason Mantzoukas remembers the effect Da Ali G Show had on him and his friends: “A friend of mine sent me this show from the U.K., and told me that we had to watch it…and we became obsessed with it. It was the idea at the time, which was quite novel and amazing, to be playing a fictional character within real life, in the real world. It was hilarious to us, going after those politicians as Ali G. I thought those were amazing. And then he subsequently followed that up on a continually larger scale. It’s really evident that the ethos of Sacha Baron Cohen is unrelenting commitment to a character.”

Going in with the character of General Aladeen, however, was to be a different experience, and the ‘real’ world was to be replaced with a facsimile of a real, scripted world—however, just outside of the borders of this fictitious North African country, a real world waits…

Baron Cohen’s prescience with regard to story and character proved preternatural – as work on The Dictator started in earnest months before the first demonstrations in the Middle East began a chain reaction of unrest, and long before the world had ever heard of (or used the phrase) “Arab Spring.”

Larry Charles states, “This movie really began more than two years ago. The fact that the Arab Spring emerged as we were making the movie did affect us, with regard to locations and shooting schedule. But here we were, developing this project, and then to watch it happening on the news was uncanny.”

As usual for Baron Cohen, the character also needed to be grounded in truth. During the early stages of development, General Aladeen (Baron Cohen in full costume) was placed in several interview situations with people unaware of the ruse, and the resulting discussions were recorded. Larry Charles says, “Again, we were able to get away with it. It gave Sacha a chance to play with the character and interact in a spontaneous, improvised way. But we knew going in that this was to be a scripted film, that it would be ‘unrealistic,’ as it were, to try and do it the other way—there was too much story, too many other characters, too many others aspects that had to be serviced. Throughout the process, however, we tried to maintain the same edge as in those earlier projects.”

The differences in the project intrigued both Baron Cohen and the director. Charles again: “There are a lot of layers to it. There’s a political layer to this movie that talks about the modern, real politics of the world with a very unique point of view. And we’re using that to question very basic assumptions about our society—what is democracy? what is a country? When you have large countries being dominated by corporate interests, lobbyists, those kinds of influences, what do the borders of our country mean? Is there an America? or is America just a brand? Is ‘democracy’ just a word? What does ‘dictatorship’ ultimately mean? What system is the best for people? and what system ultimately works? There is suffering in all political systems, so we examine how the media covers these stories, these themes and these issues. So we were able to deal with all of these things in an intentional way that gives the movie many layers beyond the story itself, and it delivers as a comedy. We believe it’s as funny as the other movies, if not funnier.”
“Larry Charles is a guy walking the tightrope,” says Academy Award®-winning actor Sir Ben Kingsley, “because any great comedy is all about taste. You have to have men of great taste and intelligence on the set who know exactly how far we can push any given envelope: when to retreat, when to charge forward again. Larry and Sacha are very fine generals.”

Among the many charges being leveled at Aladeen are accusations of hostility toward neighboring nations. “I am not hostile. My country has existed for over seven million years, ever since the dinosaurs were wiped out by the Zionists. And during that whole time, we have never attacked another nation, unless it was an emergency or we were really bored. But who cares about the past? This is about the future,” he hisses beneath his Versace sunglasses.