Actor Sacha Baron Cohen unveiled his new Showtime series Sunday night, a politically minded prank show titled “Who Is America?” In its seven episodes, Cohen travels the country inhabiting different characters and aiming to expose the self-seriousness of American institutions ranging from politics to art, Hollywood and the media.
One of Cohen’s prime targets in the premiere was the art expert Christy Cones. As viewers of the first episode know, Cohen’s made-up ex-con character engaged the gallery staffer in a conversation about art, after subjecting her to claims (and the visual evidence) of painting in prison with his own bodily fluids. He also rendered her in a painting using some of his unconventional, graphic methods.
Cones, it turns out, is a serious figure on the Southern California art scene. She has been working as a fine-art consultant at Orange County’s Coast Gallery and recently earned a PhD from the University of California at Irvine. She also runs a watersports foundation created by Bruce Hopping, an artist, World War II veteran, watersports ambassador and local cult figure who died this year at 96 and whom Cones considers a mentor.
The Washington Post caught up with Cones before Sunday night’s episode aired. She had yet to see what had been done with the interview from May 2017. In fact, until speaking with The Post, she had no idea that the person in the ex-con makeup was Cohen.
The first thing I think any viewer wants to know: Why on Earth did you agree to film this interview?
Someone had come in to the gallery where I work and said that they had an ex-con who’d recently gotten out of prison and wanted to talk about art for a British reality-television show. The owner of the gallery next door had said he wouldn’t; he’s very private. But I’ve always been a bit of a risk-taker and love the camera. So I said why not? And the next day he comes in with a crew of maybe four or five people.
What was your impression of him?
I thought he was a psychological time bomb. I was like, this guy could blow up, so I should just be as respectful as I can.
What were you thinking as he’s describing, in incredibly graphic detail, how he made art in a jail cell?
I thought it was fascinating; I really did. Even now, I know now it’s fake, but I still think a lot of the ideas are real. Art is what we say it is. Is it art for rain to fall on the sidewalk in a certain way? Some would say tears dropping down on a love letter is art. Is this art? Someone who is stuck in prison, and they put their whole heart into something? I’d love to have that argument.
Is what Cohen does with this show art?
I’d love to have that discussion with him, too. Art is always subjective, but to me it seems like it is — a kind of performance art, at least. But I can also see why some would say it’s not. I will say I was impressed with what he painted in the gallery. It really did look like me. And to think of the, um, materials he used.
Wait, that wasn’t real, was it?
I think it was! I really think it was. When he handed me the painting he said he made in prison with his own waste, it stunk. And then when he went into the bathroom to paint and came out with the portrait of me, it also stunk. I mean, stunk. I really do think he went in there and painted it from scratch.
You have to admire the commitment.
I did. I mean, I was afraid to touch anything afterward. But I admired it. [Pauses and then laughs] And that was Sacha Baron Cohen? What a nut case. God bless him.
It seems like you leaned into the whole enterprise, particularly when you went off to the side and . . . let’s just say volunteered to devote your body to Cohen’s artistic cause.
Oh, my God, I did do that! [Laughs in disbelief] Well, I went through a death a month and a half ago [Hopping’s death]. It’s nice to have some comic relief. But I think I surprised him. He didn’t expect me to be as amenable as I was. We used to make home movies in my family when I was a kid. I don’t fold up in front of the camera.
I know you haven’t seen the segment yet, but at least at the moment it doesn’t sound like you have regrets.
I don’t. He duped me? He made me the fool? Am I supposed to be upset? That’s okay. I don’t care. Sacha Baron Cohen doesn’t impress me. I’ve been with billionaires, and I’ve been with bag ladies. No one is better than the other. It will come around and get him. These things always come around.
I can’t tell if you’re mad or amused by what he did.
Maybe a little of both?
What would you say to him if you could?
First I would say: “What happened to the painting you promised me? I never heard from anyone on the show again.” But I would also say: “Come down to the gallery. Come down and buy a painting.” And I want a follow-up interview. Let’s put it to the test — let’s see the real guy, without the charade. He got this interview to help boost his ratings and his ego. I spent years studying art, in this country, in Greece. So let’s see what he really has. If he wants to play intellectual and butt heads, then come down, and let’s do that for real.