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EXCLUSIVE: Ken Davitian

by: Leslie Bunder - Last updated: 2007-03-11

Ken Davitian and Sacha Baron Cohen

Ken Davitian and Sacha Baron Cohen

A year ago, actor Ken Davitian was relatively unknown, but thanks to the success of Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen's smash hit comedy, the 53-year-old actor of Armenian descent has gained a cult following.

Leslie Bunder interviews the man better known as Borat's producer Azamat Bagatov, and finds out more about what it was like working with Baron Cohen and wrestling with him naked in a hotel room.

Was it just one audition that got you the role of Azamat Bagatov and what was it like? There's rumours that you went along smelling of roast beef....

That's funny. I actually didn't, I don't think I smelled of roast beef, but I went in in character, wearing another baggy baggy suit – that suit you see me wearing in the film is my suit. I was about 80 or 90lbs heavier in the 80s and I went in in character, and I was asked if I could do any ad libs and I said, (adops accent) "what you mean, can I do adding, you mean one, two three?" So they said, no, could I do any improvisation, so I said, "Oy, improvisation, I take it in classes!" and I heard someone say "My God, he's taking classes? What is he doing here?" And they were laughing not with me but at me because I was so strange and a fish out of water. And I heard one executive producer say to the director, "He's perfect, but how do we use him, because he really doesn't know anything?" So then I did some improvisation with Sacha, and for the first time made him laugh – the first and last time I saw him break character – he started to laugh, he walked off camera, he came back, we continued, and then I said to him, "Sacha, you very good boy, I like you very much, you want to call me for I become in movie, I appreciate it, thank you and if you guys liked the audition please give me a call." They called and they said "Listen, we want him to come back because we're not sure if he's a crazy old man who can do an American accent for ten seconds, or an American actor who can do a crazy old man." And it was the latter, an American actor going in for an audition like everybody else in the world trying to get a part.

What made you want to do the role?

I didn't know who Sacha Baron Cohen was. I only knew Larry Charles, I had heard of him, everybody in America knows that he is an icon in the comedy world. I had no idea of Sacha's talent and his abilities, and after working for about three weeks with him I was in awe of what he was able to do, to bring people in and submerge them into what he wanted to do.

That famous naked wrestling scene – was it in the original script that you read and did you realise you would have to run naked through a hotel? that a trick question? There was no script. If there was a script I would not be in the picture, because Ali G and Borat and Bruno, they're all one person with another person that doesn't know what's going on. But what they told me was that if you're dressed and you're sitting in the van you can come with us and we'll use you whenever we need you. And fortunately he kind of allowed me into his world and I'm privileged and grateful that he let me into it and let me work with him. I knew that there was going to be some kind of a naked scene and they told me "we have censors, this is 20 th Century Fox, maybe the DVD will be a little racy," and I said, "OK, are you sure you want to see a fat guy naked, that's not a pretty sight." And Sacha said it had to be naked, and I remember him in a little hotel room with six or seven people and he was explaining his vision of the naked fight, and he said, "And then your balls will fall on my chin," and I turned to one of the executive producers and said, "Did he say balls?" and they said yes, and I said, "Is he serious?" I never thought it would be as funny as he did, and I was lucky to follow him and Larry Charles because he was right, that was the scene that made me famous.

Sacha's bits and your bits are blanked out. Can you reveal what the audience is missing?

Yes. I can. Now should I is another question, but I can tell you categorically and positively, that he had a very good mohel.

Any plans for you to become the Armenian answer to Ron Jeremy?

I don't think so, I don't have the tools that Mr Jeremy has. I'm just content to be a happy American actor and happy as heck to have known Sacha Baron Cohen.

How much Hebrew or Yiddish did you learn prior to making the film?

I learned one word because so many times we were in the van and he was in the back seat and he would be speaking to his mother, and say "Ken!" and I would turn around, and he would say, "I'm speaking to my mother!", and then he would say "Ken!", and I would say "What, why are you calling me?", and he said, "No, I'm talking to my mother!" That was the only word I learned. But he learned a lot of Armenian curse words and a lot of Russian curse words.

So being a nice Jewish boy, he was regularly on the phone to his mother?

Yes, and in fact when we were in London at the premiere his mother said to me, "Why did you have to get naked?" and I said, "It wasn't me, it was him!" and then she said, "OK, if you had to get naked, why was he on the bottom?" and I said, "That was up to him too! I just work here lady, I did whatever he said." But she was great, and now I know where he gets his humour from, his mother and father. Especially his father, he's hilarious. He reminds me of Jackie Mason.

Which is your favourite moment from the film?

Mine is the moment which I wasn't there and I didn't see, when he threw the bag down and the chicken clucked, that I just thought was hilarious. Another piece of Sacha where you didn't think he was going to do that but he put that in there with the chicken.

Can you recall a least favourite moment?

The scariest moment was when we went into the 'hood, because we tried desperately to talk him out of it. But he went there and he was able to disarm them with humour. But I can't tell you anything that I didn't like – it was difficult to find kosher food, and he eats kosher, and we didn't work Saturday – 5 o'clock on Friday we stopped working, the whole film crew, Saturday was our only day that we didn't work. And he told me all the times he went to the Kibbutz and the stuff he did, he's very religious, that guy.

Did he go to shul?

Yeah, he did. When we did the scene with the bed and breakfast, I turned to him and said, "You know your mother's going to see this," and he said, "My mother? My rabbi!"

Would you like to develop the Azamat character into an entity of his own?

That would be up to the genius himself. If he wanted to, we'd do it.

How did the scene when Borat appears on the news show come about?

Well, we were told we were scheduled to appear on the show and that was it. That's all you get. Whatever happens, happens. If it's funny and further the story, it gets into the movie, if it's funny and it doesn't further the story, it's in the DVD. There's one scene on the DVD, it's the actual Channel 10 journalist going to the rodeo, interviewing the people at the rodeo and never actually figuring out that was Sacha Baron Cohen and this was a movie, they actually announced on their news programme that some person from Kazakhstan came and caused chaos at the rodeo. We never let on from beginning to end. When we left the nice people at the bed and breakfast the man stood on the steps and he asked, "What happened?" and he said, "I don't know. These people are from Kazakhstan, we don't know what they're doing."

What do you think Azamat really thinks of Jews?

I think he has absolutely no problem with them at all, just as long as they stay on their side of the fence and the rest of us stay on this side of the fence.

Are you looking forward to working with Alan Arkin in Get Smart?

Yes. I can't tell you how exciting it is to be working in this industry with all these great people. I only hope that some day I get to work with one of the great directors like James Cameron or Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola and do something that really stretches my abilities.

Prior to Borat, you had a lot of TV and film roles. What do you think you were best known for prior to Borat?

Well, I'll tell you, at least two or three times we were stopped what we were doing because I was recognised as the guy from SWAT. That and Holes were my favourites before Borat.

Sacha has many male and female admirers, as seen on the DVD. Did you have the same repertoire with the fans?

Only if I'm naked, they know who I am.

Tell us about your restaurant. Do you employ struggling actors?

We do actually, struggling actors and musicians who we employ at the restaurant. It's right next door to the Chinese Theatre in the Kodak Centre, so we get a lot of tourists there, people that come from Israel, in fact I think it's today, it's the Israeli film festival in Los Angeles and I'm not sure but I heard Sacha was going to appear. But I couldn't go because I was here. And it's happening right next door to The Dip.

Has the film helped business?

Yes, unfortunately The Dip wasn't in the film but there's a lot of reference to it now and it's starting to grow. There are autographed photos of Sacha there and posters and it's like a little Borat museum.

Any Kazakh dishes on your menu?

Not yet. Coming soon.

What reaction have people shown when finding out the Hebrew language option on the DVD doesn't exist?

I thought it was funny. You have to know where it's coming from, it's from a guy who went to Kibbutz, whose girlfriend is converting to Judaism, who stops work on Friday at 5 o'clock, so to me it makes it even funnier because I know how serious Judaism is to him and how he utilises it.

Tell us one secret about yourself and Sacha Baron Cohen?

Well, you can't tell anyone but....remember the naked fight, and the big black bar they put on his body? Was it necessary? It was a bit of an exaggeration.

Did you enjoy making the Baywatch spoof?

No, I was freezing. It was the dead of winter and they to me "Put this on," and I said, "Is this what you want me to do, boss?" and that's what we did, but it was very cold. That was filmed actually on a beach in California somewhere, in the winter.

When are you going back to the US?

I leave tomorrow morning, to have a fitting to film Get Smart at the end of this month. That should take about three weeks to a month.

Any plans to go to Israel yourself?

I really wanted to go, my wife wanted to go, it's been a financial impossibility till now. Some day if it's possible I'd like to go.

Borat (cert 15) on DVD is out now from Fox.