Q&A w/ Ken Davitian
Ken Davitian might have first caught your attention for his provocative role alongside Sacha Cohen in Borat as the producer who traveled the U.S. with him or one of his other roles over the years. And if that’s the case then you know that he’s great at delivering comedic material and being a part of memorable scenes. What isn’t so widely known is that even though he’s of Armenian descent he was born and raised in Los Angeles so he doesn’t speak with an accent at all in normal conversation. There is a very interesting story about how he landed the role in Borat and the lengths he went through to land that role despite originally being from L.A. He has been in many roles since Borat such as Get Smart, Meet the Spartans, and the Artist, and he still remains busy with a few upcoming movies this year as well as some TV appearances. So I was able to catch up with him regarding his new movies and what life has been like in the movie industry for so long. He also discussed financing for movies, one of which would be a movie about the Armenian genocide he hopes to produce.
Me: You was in the movie industry for a number of years prior to your role in Borat, which could be considered your break out role. What was it like going in to that audition compared to others and did you think it would be such a huge success at the time?
Ken: My agent called them at least 10 times and they kept saying he’s an American actor, we don’t want him. We want a foreigner who’s a fish out of water. So finally on the last day of callbacks, where they were definitely going to pick someone. I got a call and I went in character. And I fooled them. They thought I was a crazy old man. I even had my 8×10 (photo) folded up in my suit jacket and so when they asked for it I took it out and rolled it on my knee to straighten it out and I gave it to them. And I heard one producer tell another producer, “how the hell did he get over the gate? What’s he doing here?” And when I heard that I thought, ok I got them on a hook, now let me see if I can catch this. And I just stayed in and Sacha came out I still stayed in character. And the last 5 seconds before I left I changed my voice and I was talking like I’m talking now. Otherwise I was all in accent, and it worked because God was with me. It was a life-changing role, and since then it’s still been a difficult thing because I have 2 scripts, which I’ve had for the last week. And one producer called me up and said that the director said that he’s not sure that you could handle the part because you’re a foreigner, and he doesn’t know you speak English. And she said, I told him but he doesn’t believe me. And the other guy that we’re doing a Taken movie with, he said, the director said to make sure that somebody teaches you everything that’s in the script word for word so you can memorize it. And I said “Cameron, what did you tell him?” He said I told him you were born here, you’re American and you speak English. And these two people still think that I’m some crazy guy from Kazakhstan. So it worked, it’s a blessing but it’s still somewhat a hindrance sometimes.
Me: Usually with big roles that are cult hits fans often want to see that actor in similar roles going forward. Did you feel any pressure after Borat from people wanting you to be typecast or did it open up new doors for you unlike before?
Ken: Both. Both. They still like the fact that they want me to do comedy. And Two and A Half Men that’s airing tonight, Sunny in Philadelphia…all of them I had pull. In Walk of Shame, they were massaging me and Elizabeth Banks was standing on top of me doing a foot massage. In all 3 I’m still half-dressed, I’m still in my boxers. They like the fact I’m short, fat and hairy. But in Abstraction, and one of the reasons I did it was it was a small film but I did it because it was a serious role. It’s doing the festival circuits and I won best villain. So both. They typecast you and think that’s what you’re gonna do but I’m breaking that mold and I”m trying as hard as I can. And sometimes they just expect you to come in and do your thing, which usually has an accent involved, and sometimes it’s great without it. I did a pilot and it was supposed to be an accented Middle Eastern guy. It was me and Bernie Mac before he passed. I had done a movie called Soul Man with Bernie and Samuel L. Jackson and that character had an accent. So when Bernie was doing the pilot they called. So a week, half a week into it, the director says “Ken, let’s do it without the accent.” So we did the whole pilot without the accent. So all I care about is the camera is on and someone wants you to do work. As long as I’m working I’m happy.
Me: You have a role in an upcoming movie called Walk of Shame and it has the makings of a hilarious comedy. Can you tell me a little about this film and the role you’ll be playing?
Ken: I play a Russian cab driver in L.A. and (Elizabeth Banks) is a beautiful blonde who is really just a square. She doesn’t do anything exciting, she’s a newscaster and she wants to get a job for a network instead of local news. So they tell her that she’s not gonna get it so her girlfriends take her out, get her smashed and she meets one guy and she’s thinking what the heck, who cares? And she goes to the guy’s apartment and they have a great time, and she now realizes (the mistake) when she wakes up and she’s sober. And she gets a call from the local news station and they say listen, network is coming down and they want to see you tonight. And she has to get back home and take a shower and get dressed. So she grabs her stuff, she’s half-dressed, and she goes down to get her car and her car is being towed away. And the next thing you know is she has another encounter and another encounter, and she finally gets to my cab, doesn’t pay me and runs off. And I’m so unhappy about this I decide I’m gonna go to my favorite massage parlor and get a happy conclusion. And I go over there and somehow she is one of the masseuses because she’s trying to get away from the police. So she’s a masseuse and she starts massaging me and then I realize it’s her and I run after her bare ass naked. This wasn’t something they thought of, her and I said if he’s getting a massage he’s not wearing anything. And if he’s getting a happy conclusion he’s definitely not wearing anything. I always think it gotta be something that works for the character. That Elizabeth Banks movie is gonna be hilarious. She has to get back to the news station and by the time she gets back to the station she’s already…you’ll piss in your pants laughing.
Me: You’ve been very busy and Small Time is another movie that will be out this month and you have a role in that also, yet this one isn’t a comedy. Tell me about this movie and your role in it
Ken: Small Time is a story that was written by Joel Surnow, who was the creator of 24. This is a story about a father, who is a small time car dealer…and that’s all his life was. It messed up his life, he ended up getting a divorce. His son ended up living with his ex-wife and a doctor who had a lot of money. I’m one of the people he plays poker with and it’s a very touching father-son story. It’s a real ensemble cast. Chris Meloni is the star, and one of the guys from Breaking Bad is in it, (Bridget Moynahan) from Blue Bloods. (Joel Surnow) called and said Ken, you have to be in this movie, I’ll send you the script and pick what you want to do. And I’m a big poker player, so I said I’ll be one of the poker players.
Me: I do enjoy your comedic roles including a quick cameo in a spoof trailer called Taken 3: Back to Normal. But if I’m not mistaken you have another role in a serious movie called Killer Odds about two sisters finding trouble abroad. Who will you be playing in this movie and is this your Liam Neeson moment?
Ken: No, because the movie has not been greenlit yet. We were supposed to be shooting in January. But it is a serious thriller, and we’ll see if it’s gonna happen. That’s one of the things about this business, it’s a roll of the dice. One day you’re working like crazy and everything falls apart. I had a guy who called me up two days ago and he says I’m really depressed. I say what happened, and he says I had a deal and I got 4 million bucks in the bank but the deal fell apart. And I said well that’s funny because I have a movie that needs 4 million dollars and the movie fell apart. So, we put the two together and we got the thing done. So you never know. But that one hasn’t been shot yet…it’s supposed to be shot in Paris. And that’s one of the ways they convinced me to do it. They said, Ken, do you want to go to Paris? And I said sure I want to go to Paris.
Me: And they told you it was for a movie later right?
Ken: No, *laughs* they sent me the script but I would’ve gone anyway.
Me: You mentioned Abstraction earlier and you played a villain in it and won an award. Can you tell me more about it?
Ken: This is a real thriller. This beautiful woman goes and finds 2 guys who are down and out, had just done a heist, and screwed the heist up. So she befriends one of them and she convinces them to steal a painting in a box. And she tells them it’s worth half a million dollars. And they go out and they do it but she’s really doing it for them to get caught because she steals it and brings it to me in Turkey. To be honest, it was my first love scene with a female and she was absolutely gorgeous. Her name is Korrina (Rico). This guy called me up and said look, I don’t have any money but I really want you to do this one scene. And I said send it to me. He’s an Armenian kid so you know you do what you can for your own. I read it and said look, you just want to use my name in the film but the character has no substance. And he said I know but I can’t afford you. I said, did I ask you for money? So we sat down, we rewrote it and gave the character some real substance and we shot it. He and the other producer/writer…it was all a dollar here, a dime there, his mother did the cooking for the crew. And it was very nice to see how you can go from 0 to 60 in this country if you break your ass. And he ended up with a really good film that I loved. There were so many twists and turns. It’s won a lot of little awards all over. So I’m very happy with that. Sometimes you take these movies and it’s just a shot in the dark and you hope it all works. And there are so many people involved, 200 people involved. And if everyone does their job very well you get something amazing. When I did the Artist I even told the director, “you want to do a film that’s black and white and it’s silent? And Avatar just came out and that’s what you want to do?” So I read the script and they didn’t have money then, they didn’t have the Weinsteins behind them, and I ended up on the screen for 45 seconds but it won the Academy Award. It was such a romantic love story. So you take some of these artsy films, and just hope that everyone else does the best they can do and you get yourself a great product.
Me: As one who’s been in the movie industry for as long as you have what would you say are the major differences in the industry now compared to when you first started and how have you maintained your longevity?
Ken: Some of the people who I thought were mentors of mine, Robert Evans who ran Paramount, and he did Godfather and greenlit Chinatown, and he did Love Story. I think those people who took those risks, and I also think the changing of the system made Hollywood completely different. None it’s run by corporations and now is why there are so many independent film companies and independent films. Walk of Shame is an independent film, and Lakeshore is a big company but it’s no comparison to Spider-man, which is opening up on the same day. So the studios are doing 75 million and up (per movie) and the market for the independent films has grown, especially with the new cameras and social media. You can actually make a film look like you spent a million bucks. When I was a kid a million dollar movie was a big deal. Now, a million bucks is a small, low-budget SAG movie. But you can do it at 5 million and 10 million because the studios aren’t doing these small movies and it just gives room (for Indie films). It shows how they’ve grown because they’re all about the dollars in the corporations and board members and how many toys, games and stuff they can sell that has to do with the movies. There was only James Bond who I as a kid saw ever change, they would change the James Bond every 4 or 5 movies. Now they do it with all these movies. It’s the story, the special effects, and the gigantic (scope) of the movies, not the actors. So you don’t have Woody Allen films anymore, well you have them, but they’re not big studio films anymore. If you want to do a Woody Allen film that has a lot of laughs in it and is well written, you have to go the independent route.
Me: If there was a role you’ve always wanted to play but never got the opportunity to play what would it be and which genre?
Ken: It would be a film that has to do with the Armenian genocide. And that is a passion (of mine). In fact today is Armenian Martyr’s Day and that’s a big day for the Armenian people. And I would like to do a dramatic film for the Armenian genocide and next year is the 100 year anniversary. And I have a couple of scripts and we’re working on it. But you also don’t want to alienate the people who pay the bucks to see you to make them laugh. But it’s something that I would like to do for me. But I like to make people to laugh and I like this part too (with) the interviews, the television appearances you have to do to publicize the film. You have to work to make the film a success. You know what else I would really like to do? I have a pilot for a television comedy show called Poo Poo Papa. And I would like to close life out with a 5 or 7 year sitcom. That would be a dream.
Me: You’ve made appearances on many different TV shows such as ER, Chuck, The Cape and with the most recent being It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Do you have any future TV appearances planned or are you staying with movies now?
Ken: I love television. And tonight I get a cameo on 2 and 1/2 Men and that airs tonight. So I love television, I think it’s a great medium. Really, for the regular guy, you go and break your ass for 12 hours, you come home and all you want to do is sit with your lady and watch TV. I won’t tell you what’s after but…
Me: You have a hot dog stand in Sherman Oaks called the Infield, and I have to know: do you still have the Charlie Dog with Tiger Blood, and is it difficult to get authentic Tiger Blood?
Ken: Let me tell you what it is. Charlie came by on a Wednesday when the shit hit the fan in his life. He did that Dateline and Wednesday they came to take his kids away. He was really at his height of the cuckoo’s nest. And he came by and ordered a Chicago dog, and this was the first time he had Twitter. He had a Chicago dog and he opened a bottle of hot sauce and he poured that all over this dog and he tweeted this is a Tiger blood dog and then he ate it. I could not have eaten that much hot sauce. But he actually ate the hot dog and he tweeted it to over a million people and it’s now on the menu. We have a lot of celebrities that come by. They sign a baseball, get their car washed. And the Infield has stadium seats so we have seats from different (baseball) stadiums bolted into the concrete. And I remember this 12, 13-year-old kid was sitting in a Dodgers seat and his mother was sitting in the Chicago seat. And she says c’mon, and he says I don’t want to sit there. She says why, he says I’m from L.A. this is a Dodgers’ seat. She says well I’m from Chicago. This was so cute, they were cracking each other up and they ate their hot dogs and they left. And I thought ok, this is a good idea, I like it.
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