We caught up with the female star of Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest film, The Dictator to discuss the hilarious new movie and what it was like to work with the controversial comedian.
TDU: Have you seen the finished film?
A: No I haven’t been able to see it yet. I’ve just seen little snippets here and there and I did see the new trailer, which is going to hit soon.
TDU: Who do you play?
A: I play a young woman named Zoe and I run a health food store in Brooklyn. It’s a co-op, it’s vegan and has a sort of feminist angle. I’m very passionate about helping refugees and so that’s how I run into The Dictator. We meet at a protest and I think that he’s a refugee. He has no resources, no money, no ID, so I let him live and work at my store.
TDU: So your character tries to help him and at some point does she find out who he really is?
A: Yes, at some point (laughs) but I can’t give too much away.
A: It’s all actors this time – there aren’t real people. It’s not the man-on-the-street feel, it feels like a big movie with huge set pieces. All the early stuff with The Dictator in his fictional country of Wadiya, is all palaces. He has a virgin army with all these hot women and animals and compounds, so the whole feel of the movie is visually very lush and big. So that’s a little different from his previous movies. Even though he is playing a crazy character – and he stayed in character all of the time too, which he also did with Brȕno and Borat – I think this movie will be a departure from those other films.
TDU: What’s that like when Sacha stays in character? Do you have to interact with him as The General?
A: Well, you know, I think other people did, but I played it like my character doesn’t know who he is, which is the same as it is in the story. So I treated him as if he was the guy that I know of in the movie. But when he wasn’t in character, Sacha is just incredibly lovely – he is so kind and considerate, he’s a family man who is devoted to his wife and his kids and his parents, and that’s always so nice to see. He is so incredibly successful, but he is a really lovely man.
TDU: Did you know him before this project started?
A: I’d met Sacha a couple of times at parties, but it was so brief and I never really knew what to make of him… but then they asked me to come in and meet him for The Dictator. The whole project was top secret and nobody really knew anything about it. My agent got a call asking me to come in and meet him. I was terrified, really nervous, because he’s so good, he’s a genius, and you want to step up to the plate. And so we met and we ended up doing some of the scenes, all improvisation. The director gave us some loose scenarios and we started playing around. I think, about three months later, I actually got the role. I think I had to be fully vetted (laughs). And as you can imagine, I was very, very happy to be a part of it.
A: We did a ton of improvisation. There was a script and I would say that about 10 per cent of the time we followed the script. We had the writers behind the monitors, throwing out lines to us all of the time – different jokes, different ideas. And Sacha is a genius at improve, so the challenge as an actor when you are in those scenes is to stay on your toes. You have to step up to the plate and be able to play with them—it was really rewarding in that way.
TDU: You said it was terrifying, so did you enjoy the experience of making this film?
A: I did. Everything about it was crazy – even the logistics were crazy because we were shooting in the summertime in New York and everywhere he goes now, Sacha gets recognised by a huge amount of people. People are just crazy for him. So even if he wanted to do those man-on-the-street Brȕno and Borat type scenarios, I don’t think he could anymore.
TDU: Was he recognised even when he was in costume as The Dictator?
A: Yes, he was. I think he must be pretty bummed about not being able to do that kind of stuff—like he did in Brȕno and Borat—because that’s what he loves.
TDU: Were you a fan of his comedy before this? His satire is hilarious, but certainly pushes the boundaries…
A: Yes, I was a huge fan and I think one of the many things that makes him so brilliant is that while he is mocking other people – strangers or whoever he is acting with – he is also mocking himself. He plays these characters that are just incredibly doltish, and it’s a kind of genius. And it’s the same with The Dictator – all of our characters are ridiculous, and we are mocking their ideas and also mocking these groups of people, I guess. But I think how he gets away with it is because he plays these severely flawed characters, and that puts it all into perspective a little bit.
TDU: His comedy is fearless isn’t it? I’m thinking of the nude scene in Borat…
A: I know. I have no idea how he can do those things. Like the Oscar stunt – I’m terrible at that stuff. I need to hide behind the filmmaking process. I can’t pull pranks on people like that because it just terrifies. It amazes me that he can do all that stuff.
TDU: Did you know he was going to pull that stunt at the Oscars?
A: I had heard some things through the grapevine. I went to the Oscars this year, because my husband was in Moneyball. I saw Sacha about 30 feet in front of me on the red carpet, and I thought, ‘I’m just going to avoid him for a little bit. I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I don’t want to get roped into that scenario in any way…’ (laughs).
TDU: And did you see it when Sacha spilt the ashes over Ryan?
A: I watched Ryan Seacrest about 30 seconds after it happened, and I saw the pile of dust at his feet. Ryan was brushing himself off and I just thought, ‘Well, Sacha is a marketing genius…’
A: I think he is in a class of his own. I think he is doing something completely unique. It reminds me of Jim Carrey back in the Ace Ventura days. Sacha is inventing a new wave of comedy and it’s really exciting to watch and be a part of. And do I think that it will make a lot of people mad? Probably. But I think that same quality also makes so many more people laugh.
TDU: And when satire is uncomfortable like that, its purpose is also to make you think…
A: Yes, I think that’s a great point to bring up. Sacha’s humour is very thought-provoking and with a movie like this, it’s so incredibly timely. I’ve had a couple of people ask me if I think that the subject matter is too soon with things the way they are, and I’m not sure that I’m qualified to answer that, it doesn’t seem too soon to me but, in America, we’re sort of insulated from the horrors of those scenarios. But I do think it will most certainly be thought-provoking.
TDU: Making movies can be a serious business – even when it’s a comedy. What was the atmosphere like on set?
A: I think you’re right, many people assume that when you’re making a comedy, we all don’t stop laughing all day long, which was true for some days – but most days, you’re concentrating on getting the take right. And we had a lot of complicated scenes – you know, animals and a lot of crazy props or gags that were very complex. And to get all of those things right takes mechanics, so everyone was concentrating very hard. There weren’t too many pranks or that kind of thing that I noticed. But I may have escaped from that (laughs). I caught wind of some stuff that Sacha would do to his assistant, or some of the other writers, so I don’t know if I was left alone because I was the girl. But you know, at the same time, everything was very spontaneous – there were lots of ideas being thrown around, and there was a general feeling of…chaos, I guess you could call it (laugh)!
TDU: Are there any specific scenes that you did that are particularly memorable for you?
A: Well, we have a scene where things get a little romantic, but I don’t think I can tell you much about it (laughs). But when you see the movie, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. And that scene was definitely an adventure! (laughs). It really was…
TDU: I’ve seen the cameo that Megan Fox did. Do you have scenes with many other actors? Or is it just Sacha?
A: At the health food store that I run, there are a few co-workers that also work there, but most of my scenes are just the two of us, myself and Sacha. I have a very brief moment where Sir Ben Kingsley and I are in the same scene, and even though we don’t interact, it was such a thrill to get to know him a little bit. It was an honour to meet him. Sir Ben plays his part very straight and it’s so funny. He is incredibly sincere in every moment and that just works for this type of comedy, so it’s great.
TDU: Because you did various versions of different scenes, the finished film will be a surprise to you. You must be excited to see it?
A: I’m very excited, but I also get pretty terrified – I have a hard time watching myself. But I am excited to see all of the scenes that they did when he is in Wadiya as The Dictator, because I wasn’t a part of that. And the pictures I saw, the huge spectacle, it looks great. And I’m excited to see how an audience responds to the film.
The Dictator hits cinemas this Thursday, May 17th.