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Sacha Baron Cohen has spoken out about why, in 2013, he left the biopic of queer pop star Freddie Mercury, citing creative differences with the frontman’s surviving Queen bandmates.
Originally, Baron Cohen was set to play Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara). The comedian, who has offended and amused in equal measure with characters such as Borat and Ali G, preferred to focus on the star’s ‘wild’ side rather than the more family-friendly story Mercury’s bandmates wanted to tell.
On The Howard Stern Show, Baron Cohen said, ‘There are amazing stories about Freddie Mercury. The guy was wild. I mean he was living an extreme lifestyle. There are stories of . . . little people with plates with cocaine on their heads walking around a party.’
He went on to say he thought the band wanted to protect their own image and centre the story more on themselves in the second half of the film, rather than focusing on Mercury’s story.
‘The problem is – and I think it’s with any biopic, and I fully understand why Queen wanted to do this – if you’re in control of your rights and your life story, why wouldn’t you depict yourself as great as possible?’ he said.
Baron Cohen said that, in an early meeting with the group, one of the band members had suggested that Mercury’s 1991 death of AIDS should take place in the middle of the movie so that the rest of the movie could follow the surviving musicians.
‘I said, “Listen, not one person is going to see a movie where the lead character dies from AIDS and then you see the band carry on.”‘
The film remains in development, and the band has brought in award-winning writer Peter Morgan to deliver the script after Baron Cohen left.
Another director, Eddie the Eagle’s Dexter Fletcher, also quit the project in 2014, citing his own creative differences with producers. Acclaimed directors David Fincher and Tom Hooper have been attached to the project, although a final director hasn’t been named.
Queen guitarist Brian May in 2013 said that comedian Baron Cohen left the production because he was ‘too recognisable’ to play Mercury.
‘It seemed like a good idea in the beginning but the truth is, he’s too recognisable,’ he said. ‘He’s very much a style and a character. I think that he would have been very distracting. That’s the conclusion we came to.’
Baron Cohen told Howard Stern: ‘Brian May is an amazing musician; he wrote half their stuff. But he’s not a great movie producer.’
Adding fuel to the claims that the film will be whitewashed, white actor Ben Whishaw has been lined up to play Mercury, who was a Tanzanian-born Gujurati Parsi. Previously, Captain America‘s Dominic Cooper and Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe had been linked to the role.