Years before Rami Malek won an Oscar for playing Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it was “Borat” mastermind Sacha Baron Cohen who was set to play the iconic Queen frontman on the big screen. A Freddie Mercury biopic was a long-gestating Baron Cohen passion project for years, and the comedian even got “The Crown” creator Peter Morgan to develop the screenplay. Several directors came and went in the early stages, from David Fincher to Tom Hooper, before Stephen Frears landed the job.
On the most recent episode of “The Director’s Cut” podcast (via The Playlist), current Oscar contenders Fincher (“Mank”) and Aaron Sorkin (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”) had a nearly one-hour discussion that touched upon their shared history with Baron Cohen. The comedian stars as Abbie Hoffman in “Chicago 7,” prompting the following response from Fincher: “At first I was really nervous [about the idea of Cohen playing Hoffman]. And then I found him to be so winning.”
“He’s so deft and specific,” Fincher said of Baron Cohen’s talent. “He’s such an intellect about the things he’s doing. He’s so thoughtful. He’s so quiet and thoughtful and chooses his words so specifically.”
The conversation turned to Fincher’s own experience with Baron Cohen during the early stages of the Freddie Mercury biopic. Fincher asked Sorkin if he ever got to see the test photos of Baron Cohen in character as the Queen rock icon. When Sorkin said he never got to see the images, Fincher replied, “Dude, you have to see…these photos are spectacular.”
Artistic differences between Baron Cohen and the studio ultimately killed the project. As Stephen Frears revealed in 2018, “Sacha wanted to make a very outrageous film, which I would imagine Freddie Mercury would have approved of. Outrageous in terms of his homosexuality and outrageous in terms of endless naked scenes. Sacha loved all of that.”
Frears and Baron Cohen committed to a movie that was “a gritty R-rated tell-all,” but Queen band members Brian May and Roger Taylor had a “certain amount of caution” over Cohen’s vision and feared it would not preserve Mercury’s legacy the way they intended. As Frears said, “You could always tell there would be trouble with the rest of the band. Because [Sacha] was so outrageous and they weren’t. They were much more conventional.”
Listen to Fincher and Sorkin’s full “Director’s Cut” podcast episode below.