This has to be the worst film I will see all year. It has to be.
“Sacha!” Mark calls out from across the set. “Can I talk with you for a sec?”
“Sure thing, Mark!” replies Sacha as he finishes talking with Grimsby’s director, Louis Leterrier. About what, Mark does not know and nor does he much care. Everybody involved with Grimsby is about a third of the way through shooting but, thanks to the wonders of scheduling, they’re all filming the Second Act’s big show-stopping finale today. Nobody seems in much of a hurry to get things ship-shape, instead preferring to bunch up in tiny groups to talk about general nonsense. Debbie’s talking to Steven about a crummy ex-boyfriend, Matthew and Leo are arguing over football teams again, and, in the corner of the studio leaning against a pillar, Mark sees what he presumes to be a Runner starring out into space, possibly pontificating on the life choices that have led him to this moment.
Mark sympathises. His time so far on Grimsby has not exactly been a fun one, as day in and day out he is asked to continually humiliate himself well above and beyond the call of duty, and it’s begun to take its toll on him. Up until now, he has suffered in silence, trying to rationalise the acts that the film has commanded he perform, like some kind of debased monkey, with the argument that Sacha Baron Cohen is a proven genius and that this will all lead somewhere strong soon. However, this morning, Mark looked at the call sheet, saw what it asked him to do, and he decided that he would not and could not stay silent any longer. He needed answers, and he was going to get them. What were they going to do? Fire him? He’s one half of the movie, dammit! They’ll listen to what he has to say!
Sacha finishes crossing the studio set, face beaming in anticipatory glee. This concerns and unnerves Mark deeply although, quality actor that he is, he does not show it.
“What’s up?” Sacha inquires, completely unaware.
“Well, Sacha…” Mark is struggling to get the words out. Despite the objections he wants to express, he doesn’t want to get fired. He likes Sacha, he has very fond memories of seeing Ali G and Borat in their prime, and Sacha is clearly happy to be working on Grimsby. Getting this wrong could break the man’s heart, and Mark doesn’t want that. Mark’s a nice guy.
Sacha is still looking at him, wondering what Mark’s trying to say. It only just now occurs to Mark that he hasn’t said a word in the last 10 seconds. Now or never.
“So, I was looking at the scenes we’re filming today…”
“Oh, yeah! Can’t wait for them, can ya?”
“Well worry no longer, we’re getting started in just a few moments!”
“I was wondering…”
“Come on, spit it out! You’re like a child confessing to a Primary School teacher!”
Mark swallows. Here it comes.
“Do I have to do this scene?”
He winces. That could have been phrased infinitely better. The excitement on Sacha’s face disappears, replaced by inquisitive confusion.
“You know how come.”
“But I really don’t, Mark.”
“You’re just trying to get me to say it, aren’t you?”
“Look, Mark, just tells me what about the scene bothers you.”
“Well, quite honestly, it’s the fact that you and I have to climb into an elephant’s vagina and be raped, twice, by giant elephant dicks.”
“It’s neither a real elephant vagina and nor are there any real elephant di-”
“No, that’s not the point, Sacha!” Mark shouts unexpectedly. He composes himself, having not meant to blow up like that. He can see that he’s hurt Sacha’s feelings.
“I’m just wondering why our characters have to do this. Like, what does the movie gain from us being raped by an elephant?”
“OK, first of all, there’s no rape going on here. We’re trying to jack off the male elephant’s dick in order to keep it from beating the both of us to death.”
“But that’s still against our will. We’re not consenting to this. That’s rape.”
“No, you’re misunderstanding me, Mark…”
“How am I? And, more importantly, why?”
“What do you mean, ‘why?’”
“I mean, we’re in a spy comedy, right? Why are two spies hiding in the vagina of an elephant? Why has this scenario been contrived in the first place, Sacha?”
“Because it’s funny.”
“But it’s not, Sacha! It’s shocking, yes, and gross, also yes, but it’s not funny. It’s not a joke! Surely you, a world-famous comedian who has a sterling reputation, recognise that?”
“Well, you see..”
“And, again…” Mark is practically pleading at this point for some kind of satisfying answer. “Why twice? In a row! Over something close to 5 minutes of film!”
There is a pause between the two men. The joviality has disappeared from Sacha and a desperate sadness has engulfed Mark. To Mark, this is like meeting Santa Claus and then pointing out all of the logical inconsistencies about his existence to his face. Then, however, a curious thing happens. A wave of palpable relief has come over Sacha. He starts to laugh and then relaxes.
“Oh, thank fuck, I thought nobody else would ever bring this up.”
Mark is now hopelessly confused, something Sacha picks up on and moves to defuse.
“Oh, Mark. You know you’re the only person so far who has bothered to actually question what’s in this script?”
“Honestly, I would have thought you’d have complained before the 3 minute sequence where I have to suck your prosthetic bollock for an extended homophobic incest gag.”
Now: mild irritation.
“Wait, then why didn’t you stop me from doing that scene? And, more to the point, why did you write it in the first place?”
Sacha gestures Mark to follow him to a secluded corner of the set. Questions of all sorts are spinning through Mark’s mind. He’s unsure if he’ll get answers to any of them, but he’s hopeful about the fact that Sacha seems to be opening up to him. That indicates that something has changed, and if something has changed, Mark reasons, then Mark doesn’t have to be struck in the face repeatedly by a prosthetic elephant dildo today. Maybe he’ll be able to go home to his kids and never have to tell them about the time he played a character who is trapped in an elephant’s vagina and has to jerk off against his will another elephant’s penis.
They arrive at the corner, well away from the barely existent hubub going on around the main floor. Both men take a needlessly dramatic breath.
“Mark, why do you think Borat was so successful?”
“That’s easy. Because the point of Borat was to get the public to examine their own subtle internalised racism and prejudice in a gentile, poking way. Rather than scream at those on the receiving end about how awful they are, you instead gently prodded them and led them to recognise their more quietly racist standards and beliefs in an attempt to make them understand, in a productive self-betterment way, how that kind of prejudice is just as bad as out-and-out prejudice.”
“No. That’s why Borat worked, Mark. Why was he so successful?”
Mark thinks he has an idea, but declines to speak it, worried that he might offend Sacha.
“Borat was successful because he had easily-quotable catchphrases that you can repeat in a slightly racist voice in front of your drunk friends, and because there’s a scene involving naked wrestling and the public find naked people hilarious.”
“No! No, that can’t be…”
“You’re in denial, Mark. Don’t worry, I was too. It took me a while to realise that myself.”
“Are you trying to tell me that you’re making Grimsby because you believe that the public will eat up anything?”
“It’s like this, Mark. Sylvester Stallone, right? He wrote Rocky. You ever read the script to Rocky? The script to Rocky is fantastic! Simple, yes, but fantastic. And his performance in it is the same. He got showered in Oscars, acclaim, and money, but it took a lot out of him and now he has to follow Rocky. Now, he could sit down and crank out another passion project, but that takes a lot of time, and a lot of energy, and a lot of people only have one great script in them anyway. But Stallone still wants to work, still needs to work, and since he lucked into First Blood he’s also a star now. So, Stallone realises that he can earn just as much money by starring in any old garbage and, rather than sequester himself away making films that he truly cares about, he stars in crap like Cobra cos he gets paid and, more importantly, the people still pay to see him regardless of the film’s quality.”
“What about those films that bombed? Over the Top? Rhinestone?”
“You’re missing the point, Mark. People are still seeing Stallone movies today, even after all the crap that he made or that no-one saw, they still go. He willingly made crap, and yet he still makes money. So, can you blame him for not hunkering down and trying? Why go to any kind of genuine effort when the public will watch pretty much any kind of dumb shit?”
The revelation hits Mark like a tonne of bricks. He now knows why Grimsby is the way it is. He needs to be sure, though.
“So, you’re Sylvester Stallone? Willingly making garbage?”
“So, the whole depicting lower-class people as benefit-scamming, violent, drunk, imbecilic scumbags who are all out-of-shape and hooked on drugs of various kinds?”
“I just wanted to make some lazy jokes at the expense of an easy target that nobody will complain about.”
“But they’re your target audience! They’ll complain!”
“Except that they won’t because I’ve crowbarred in a phony and undercut tolerance message near the end to pacify them, and the majority of them will just laugh anyway. You’ve seen the ratings Benefits Street got, right? They don’t care when they’re being insulted, and if they do then it’s just free publicity.”
“The bit where you name a child Django Unchained?”
“Look, like I said, these people will laugh at anything, I guarantee you.”
“The endless sequence of you sucking on my prosthetic balls?”
“Gay panic jokes are all the rage in American comedies, nowadays, it’s not like we’re doing anything new.”
“The sequences where people are infected with AIDS blood?”
“Controversial but not to an excessive film-sinking amount.”
“This goddamn elephant rape?!”
“It’s the kind of line-crossing gross-out sequence that we can take around chat shows to drum up some ‘Too Hot for TV’ publicity nonsense.”
“TWICE IN A ROW?!”
“Gonna be honest, I really did not have enough ideas in this character and concept to sustain a feature film. Hence why we’re aiming for 82 minutes with credits.”
Mark takes a moment to process this mind-rocking honesty. To witness somebody he admired, respected, openly admit to completely phoning it in, with so much blatant contempt for the audience he was making it for, is hurting Mark’s very soul. A terrifying thought has now emerged in his brain and, try as Mark might, he can’t fight it on his own. He needs an assurance from Sacha on this, even though he already knows the answer he’ll get.
“Wait, then why are Rebel Wilson, Gabourey Sidibe, and Barkhad Abdi here?”
“You know why, Mark.”
“No! No, it can’t be! Rebel Wilson has been trying push forward representations for plus-sized stars! Gabourey was nominated for Best Actress awards! Barkhad is an award winner! Why would they agree to a movie that paints them as either disgusting for being fat and therefore deserving of mockery, or being Black and non-English and therefore scum?”
“Because they need the work, Mark. They want to star in films, but great scripts don’t always appear on their front doorstep and they have bills that need paying. Hence why they’re here.”
Mark’s eyes widen in horror.
“Then that means…”
“…that I too…”
“…am just taking advantage of the intelligence of filmgoers worldwide for a paycheque.”
“Indeed you are.”
“I’m just as bad as you. I too think that audiences are complete morons who deserve obviously terrible and brazenly, childishly offensive shite that only exists to give me a solid payday.”
Sacha hugs Mark, who has now shut down. The realisation is too much for him to take. He is not part of some secretly subversive piece of comedy genius by a once supremely clever and talented comedian. Mark really is just in a movie that plays a scene of sexual assault for laughs, has Sacha suck on Mark’s prosthetic balls for gross-out ‘comedy’, that treats all members of the lower-class as monstrous scum deserving of unloved mockery, that is openly and frequently racist and sexist and homophobic, that finds fat people disgusting, that has so few ideas that it has to reuse all of its set-ups and gags to some degree multiple times within just 82 minutes, and is so openly lazy and contemptuous of its audience that it believes that they will sit through and enjoy quite literally anything so long as it appears to be ‘edgy’ enough. The elephant rape means nothing other than open contempt for the audience. This realisation has hurt Mark on a deep personal level from which he is uncertain that he shall ever truly recover from. It’s a betrayal of everything he believes in. And for what? Money. He could be bought after all, and that fact disgusts him deeply.
“OK, CAN WE SET UP THE SHOT PLEASE?” calls out the director who also seems to want to get out of here with his money as fast as possible.
“Don’t worry, Mark,” Sacha whispers into his ear, “I’ve been there. Trust me, knowing is freeing. You’ll get through this.” Sacha releases the hug and looks Mark dead in the eye.
“Now let’s go get fucked by a fake elephant dick.”
The two make their way over to the contraption used to simulate the elephant vagina and get into position inside of it. The director yells action and the dick proceeds to hit Mark in the face. Mark no longer cares, though. He knows that he has hit bottom, just an actor-for-hire with no taste or dignity levels willing to appear in any old shite so long as a decent paycheque was involved. But, of course, he was always like this; he just didn’t know that fact about himself. What’s more, other respected actors and actresses are in the same position as him. He’s not alone, he’s not unique, hell, this is arguably normal. The only thing that has really changed is his awareness: now he knows that he is like this. And as Mark starts jerking off the fake elephant dick, he comes to accept it. For he is now aware and he can take steps to ensure that this kind of situation happens to the most minimal of extents in the future. For he is Mark Strong, he is a serious actor, and he has the self-respect to not appear in any old shit. He smiles softly to himself.
And then the fake elephant dick sprays fake elephant ejaculate all over his face.