Film Reviews

Old World Charm

As we've seen from British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's guerrilla-style comedy hit Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, one actor's deadpan dedication to heavily accented cultural naiveté in the face of unsuspecting victims can do wonders. Actor Ken Davitian, who played Borat's bearded and oversize film producer, confidante, and combatant, Azamat Bagatov, knows this well.

"I didn't break character," says Davitian, 53, of his audition for Borat. The breakdown called for a "frumpy eastern European" man who didn't understand English. But instead of showing up as his needy American bit-player self and then performing the role for a casting camera, Davitian arrived a bewildered foreigner sporting baggy threads, a gruff demeanor and a parlance inspired by his Armenian relatives. Outside the audition, among fellow actors he recognized from the ethnic-part circuit, all dressed as themselves, he kept up the act. "One of the guys came up and said, 'You really want this part.'"

Inside, Davitian didn't even hand over a real résumé. "I had a white eight-by-ten that was folded in my jacket pocket," he says. "I took it out, straightened the creases and gave it to them, and you could see in their eyes, 'How did this guy get in?' From what I understand, they thought, 'This is so sad. Let's just go through with it a little bit and ask him to leave.'"

But Davitian made Cohen laugh, and afterward the L.A. native brought out his regular voice and actual résumé — a 15-year Hollywood grinder's menu of one-line cab drivers and shop owners named Igor and Ramon, an ER here and a Boston Legal there, a Vin Diesel movie and something called Frogtown II. (He got his SAG card for Albert Brooks' Real Life, but was cut out of the film.) A Curb Your Enthusiasm audition years ago didn't pan out, but Borat director Larry Charles, a Curb executive producer, had a cosmic take on it for Davitian: "He told me, 'If you had gotten it, when you walked into this room we would have known you were an actor.'"

Of course, in a comedy that upends our notions of role-playing, Davitian comes across as more than a mere actor or sidekick. With his determined waddle, non-English dialogue (he responded in Armenian to Cohen's Hebrew) and bearish, floppy-suited countenance, his Azamat is arguably the movie's true center of Old World verisimilitude. We know Cohen's a fake as he spotlights bigoted America, but unless you're a regular at L.A.'s The Dip — the delicious sandwich joint Davitian owns and has used to pay the bills — why wouldn't you think the roly-poly tagalong was the genuine article?

Davitian, a good-natured, gregarious sort in person, is certainly one kind of reality: the struggling performer who juggled his dream with the demands of raising a family (he and wife of 30 years, Ellen, have two grown sons) until the breakthrough role came. When asked about his reaction to the Borat juggernaut — controversy, promotional appearances, awards-season parties — he offers a Borscht Belt-timed response that's also achingly personal. "I have been preparing for this for 53 years," he says. "I'm really thrilled. I've gotten offers. For the first time, I actually passed on a project, and I've never passed. I've been the guy who would be shooting a commercial in Fresno, drive to L.A. to shoot something there, and then go back to Fresno, and the amount of money made would be nothing. But that's your job. And I want to work."

Okay, but most actors outside the world of porn aren't asked to flout public decency laws, wrestle nude and park their nuts on a costar's chin. Already a cinema classic — the homounerotic extreme version of a Laurel & Hardy bit — Cohen and Davitian's grapplefest inspired a memorable Golden Globes acceptance speech from Cohen, who thanked Davitian for providing him a "rancid bubble" of trapped air with which to stay alive.

But how did Davitian feel, having to stare down genitalia himself? "Thank you, thank you, thank you," he says, grateful to have his side heard. Of his costar, he notes, "One, he had a very good mohel. And two, that big black [censor] bar was a bit of an exaggeration."

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Robert Abele