NEW YORK—Jason Mantzoukas has important feelings to share about dictators. After all, he plays a nuclear physicist who works for one in Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator. “Very pro-dictatorship now,” he says one recent morning in a New York hotel room. “I feel like, hey, you know what? A lot of these guys are kinda misunderstood.”
Perhaps he is being misunderstood himself, this minute, when someone asks his feelings about the dictatorial penchant for a well-stocked nuclear pantry. “How do I feel that they all try and get nuclear weapons?” he asks, laughing. “I mean, are we now going with the assumption that I genuinely do like dictators?” Beside him, costar (Sir) Ben Kingsley is enjoying things. “There’s a lot of foreign press here,” Mantzoukas says, “and I just want to make sure my English is right and my humour is being understood. I would not like to be represented like, ‘There is one actor who is very pro-dictatorship and also wants them all to have nuclear weapons!’ Now I’m trying to decide whether to give humorous answers or to backtrack aggressively.”
The Dictator (which opens May 18), a comic film, and Mantzoukas, a comic individual, would seem an obvious match. He has appeared in the movie Baby Mama with Tina Fey and on Parks and Recreation, among other TV shows, and he regularly performs improv with New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Nevertheless, he has other theories about his gig as flunky scientist to Baron Cohen’s General Aladeen, supreme leader of the fictional African nation of Wadiya.
“Being an ‘ambiguously ethnic man’, an actor working in Hollywood, I get called a lot to be anything like brown, basically,” he says, clearly entertained by this. For the record, he is Greek.
There is also his other key attribute to be considered. “Pretty much, giant beard! That’s what I brought.” The beard is, indeed, impressive.
“And his charm,” Kingsley interjects.
“Oh, thank you, Sir Ben. Thank you very much,” Mantzoukas says.
“It shines through,” Kingsley says.
“We’re best friends,” Mantzoukas adds.
“Now we are,” Kingsley says.
“Now we are,” Mantzoukas agrees. “We’re doing all our movies together now.”
Being nothing if not a man of improv, he enjoyed improvisations with Baron Cohen about such subjects as whether the dictator’s understanding of nuclear weapons came from watching cartoons. “We’re debating whether or not Popeye the Sailor Man is, in fact, a sailor man or a nuclear scientist.” Apparently, that debate lasted several hours.
There is still the decapitated head to be discussed. “I’m not gonna lie. We shot an entire shadow movie that is just me and the decapitated head,” Mantzoukas says of a charismatic severed noggin featured in The Dictator. “I’m here to announce that the spinoff movie is me, Sir Ben, and the decapitated head. It’s a buddy comedy. It’s pretty terrific. It’s a road movie. We have to get to Arizona so I can win my girlfriend back. The only way to do it is with the head. Spoiler alert: we do not end up together.” Right.
And what of his director, Larry Charles, who got him through “the crazier, more difficult sections, which was mostly just boner jokes”? “He was pretty fantastic.”
Not to mention: “Also, pretty great beard! The guy’s got a pretty substantial beard on him.”
Watch the trailer for The Dictator.