When you think of Ken Davitian, you probably think of him naked, obese and pendulous, nearly suffocating the tall but waifish Sacha Baron Cohen in their famous naked hotel room fight in the hit movie Borat.
But there is so much more to Davitian, the 53-year-old actor who so completely inhabited the part of Borat's humorless Kazakh producer Azamat Bagatov that industry people with whom he is taking meetings even now don't realize he is a thoroughly local American actor.
"Last week, I met with executives at Disney," said Davitian, who speaks slowly and deliberately. "They said, 'We wanted to call you in because we thought you'd already gone back to some foreign land. We had no idea you were an American actor."
"And I said, 'But I was in Holes - one of your movies!" (He played the pig farmer Igor Barkov in the 2003 Disney adaptation of Louis Sachar's popular teen novel.)
As it happens, Davitian, who always yearned for the life of a Hollywood actor, grew up in East Los Angeles and now owns a sandwich joint called the Dip in the San Fernando Valley, where he lives modestly with his family.
It was like that at the Borat audition too, Davitian said. When his now 28-year-old son, Robert, a cinema major at California State University, Northridge, heard that "the great Larry Charles from Seinfeld" was directing a picture with the guy from Da Ali G Show, he insisted his dad read for the part of the "frumpy Eastern European."
"My perfect character!" said Davitian. "All my relatives are frumpy Eastern Europeans, Armenians with accents. This is the character I have been doing since I was a child," he said, lapsing into broken English to prove it.
Davitian, who has been riding high since Borat became a movie phenomenon last fall, has arrived at his moment in the sun through a rather circuitous route.
Though he studied theater arts in college and later had a small role in an Albert Brooks movie (he ended up on the cutting-room floor), Davitian went into his family's waste-management business and for years made a good living picking up other people's trash.
"With the rubbish money that was coming in," he said, "we were doing very well."
And then he made a disastrous business foray into Mexico, securing a waste-management contract for a suburb of Mexico City. The fiasco ended in multinational litigation, trade arbitration and bankruptcy.
"It was the worst experience of my life," said Davitian of his Mexican misadventure. "I neglected my family, I neglected my rubbish business here. I lost everything. I came home broke, broke, broke. My family was mad. I worked as a car salesman, a telemarketer, a salesman for another rubbish company. It was horrible."
But he also had years of restaurant experience, so with help from his father-in-law, he and his family opened a cafe in Burbank called Gotham Grounds and later the Dip. His two sons and wife went to work, and he decided to put as much energy as he could into getting his acting career off the ground. He took acting classes and about seven years ago began getting cast more often, mostly guest spots on TV shows.
Like many swarthy actors with caterpillar eyebrows, Davitian has been typecast. He's had dozens of small roles in TV shows and a few movies, often playing Armenian-surnamed characters - Sarcasian on The Closer, Hovanessian on Six Feet Under, Papazian on ER.
At the Borat audition in front of Baron Cohen, director Charles and writer Dan Mazer, Davitian showed up in character, wearing the ill-fitting beige suit he later wore in most of the movie, his 8-by-10 head shot folded to fit in his pocket. "I did the audition in character without giving them a resume or telling them I am an American actor," Davitian said.
When it was over, in perfectly enunciated English, Davitian announced: "'Thank you very much, gentlemen. If you liked the audition, please call me, I had a great time.' They stopped me, and said, 'Wait a minute ...'"
After winning the role (for which there was no script but a detailed outline), he was told not to expect much screen time.
About three weeks into the four-month shoot, a cross-country romp in search of Borat's love object, Pamela Anderson, during which the faux-naif Borat elicits racist, sexist and anti-Semitic views from unsuspecting Americans, Davitian was pretty sure of a couple of things: He was in a good movie. And he'd be getting plenty of screen time.
"I don't want to sound immodest, but I thought, 'This is edgy, this is different, this is new. And there is a chemistry between this tall, skinny Cambridge-educated genius and the short, fat guy. It works!'"
On screen, when they were supposed to be speaking Kazakh, Davitian spoke Armenian; Baron Cohen spoke Hebrew. Davitian said he usually had no idea what Baron Cohen was saying.
As Borat's grim-faced straight man, he blow dries Borat's hair and other body parts, and turns up as Charlie Chaplin on Hollywood Boulevard after the pair have a falling-out.
But the scene that will confer cinematic immortality is the horrifying naked fight, which begins in a hotel room, spills into a hotel elevator, and ends with his character tumbling off a low stage in a hotel ballroom during a banquet for mortgage brokers.
At 5-foot-5 and weighing over 300 pounds (and having just undergone a hip replacement), one might assume Davitian would be reticent about taking his clothes off. That's true, he admitted. He tried to persuade Charles and Baron Cohen to keep him in boxers, or at least briefs. "I kept saying, 'Fat, naked guy: not funny. That's a Wes Craven movie. Fat guy in boxers: hilarious.'"
And yet, when it came time to film the fight, he didn't hesitate to disrobe. "I will tell you why not," said Davitian. "Because you are in a room with what you consider geniuses, and if the genius is gonna get naked, I am following the genius."
It was this scene that Baron Cohen relived when he brought the house down at last month's Golden Globes, accepting for best actor in a comedy or musical. He recalled how "my 300-pound co-star decided to sit on my face and squeeze the oxygen from my lungs," and the awful, "rancid" predicament he was then faced with.
Reaction shots of Davitian, who hadn't been invited to the Globes but was slipped tickets by a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association at the last minute, showed him first shrugging and raising his wine glass to Baron Cohen, then finally, as the actor lampooned him, swigging from a wine bottle. "I was anticipating being on the list of thank-yous," said Davitian. "But not that."
Though he worked for close to scale on Borat, which cost an estimated $18 million and has grossed $247 million, Davitian has no regrets.
"I am doing E.R. next week. Special guest. First time for me - no audition, no nothing, they called and said, 'We want you.' People are calling. This has the potential to change my life."
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