Interview: Ken Davitian on Making Movies, Accents and Being Armenian
Ken Davitian is trying to get to back to his old neighborhood. “I’m on my way to Holy Cross for a funeral of a guy who was like one of the members of the Rat Pack in Montebello,” he tells me as he makes his way through surly Los Angeles traffic. Despite achieving massive success following a string of films that began with 2007’s “Borat,” where he ad-libbed Armenian lines and fought with Sacha Baron Cohen naked, Davitian is still very much a hometown man. Though acting runs in his family (his grandmother was a stage actor in Los Angeles with famed director Rouben Mamoulian), for Davitian, success in the industry took some time, coming well after his foray into the family waste removal business. But since its arrival, it hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, which Davitian is grateful for.
After Borat, Davitian went on to land roles in “Get Smart,” “Soul Men,” “Meet the Spartans” and most recently, award-winning silent film, “The Artist.” In his newest venture, “You May Not Kiss the Bride” which debuts in theatres on Sept. 21st, Davitian plays a Croatian mob boss named Vadik Nikitin who forces pet photographer Bryan (Dave Annable) to marry his daughter Masha (Katharine McPhee) in order to secure her U.S citizenship. But things go incredibly awry in this action packed romantic comedy when she’s kidnapped at a remote tropical resort where they spend their honeymoon.
Just a little more than a week left until its premiere, Davitian took out some time to talk to Ianyanmag about his experience making the film, the foray into Hollywood, his colorful upbringing and how Armenians need to stop helping, instead of harming each other. In fact, he’s even encouraging you to go see “My Uncle Rafael,” an Armenian-themed comedy that opens on the same day as “You May Not Kiss the Bride.” If he’s climbing up Hollywood’s ladder, he’s ready to lend a helping hand to the Armenian community along the way.
Q. In Borat, you portrayed Azamat Bagatov, a Kazakh documentary producer. In your new film You May Not Kiss the Bride, you’re a Croatian mob boss. How do you feel about being typecast?
A. It’s OK. If that’s what makes people laugh, leave me alone. All I want to do is entertain and make people laugh and I want to make people cry. I’ve done that in other movies, it really depends on the part, and I don’t care.
Q. What was the filming process like for You May Not Kiss the Bride?
A. They called me in, I had a meeting with the director and he liked me and I liked him and what we agreed upon is that I’m going to be a Croatian mobster and I’m going to be very serious, so a departure from comedy. But as we started doing it, it just got funnier and funnier.
But my character is just, he’s a terrible mean mobster like the Godfather, but this is his soft side, and he wants his daughter to get papers to stay in the US, little does he know that the son – he saves the day and everybody’s happy. I give him a giant handgun as a present for his wedding. It’s like if you take a date, it’s not a chick flick, great action in it , good stunts, none of it is CGI but done with stunt people.
Q. You were born and raised in the U.S., so we’re dying to know where do you get inspiration to do your accents from?
A. My uncle, my father and my aunt. I’ve listened to it all my life, it comes really easy. I was actually born here. So I like it. But most of it comes from those three people. That’s where I draw with the accent and the personality. My father was the guy that knew everything, he was right all the time, so is my uncle and so is my aunt. My uncle is in Yerevan and he’s been here several times and I’ve been to Yerevan several times. I picture him if the house is burning, he would get out of bed, and put on a robe, make breakfast. But If you pissed him off he’d run after you naked.
Q. Tell me a little bit about why audiences should go see You May Not Kiss the Bride?
A. First of all Katharine McPhee. She’s a fantastic actress, not only a singer. David Annable is great. Rob Schneider is hilarious. If you were going to try to get your boyfriend to go, this would be the best one to take him to, it’s right on the line of cute romantic comedy, but there’s a lot of action in this film. Not only that, the scenery is gorgeous. Besides the supporting Armenians, I think it’s a great movie on its own. I’m trying to support the independent film market and this new format is going to be shown in nine different cities, but it’s also going to be On Demand relatively quick.
Q. Do you have a favorite scene from the film?
A. My favorite scene I wasn’t in. It was at the honeymoon where the two of them flop into bed completely dressed , they look at each other and they realize they’re in love. I’m a romantic at heart and I just think it’s so cute and he knew and she knew and with all the other obstacles they have to overcome, they’re in love.
Q. How did you get your start in film industry?
A. My grandmother was a stage actor in Los Angeles with Rouben Mamoulian’s acting company and my uncle, his name was Chris Christy (Khatchig Khatchigian), who in real life sold cars in Pasadena, but he was an actor too. They were the classic group, the would go to Fresno and San Francisco and they would put on plays, like Anoush. When I was 10 years old I saw my grandmother do it, and I thought that’s a lot easier than picking rubbish because my family was in the rubbish business.
I thought I would be famous by the time I was 18, but it took a while. It’s much more difficult than rubbish and it beats you up. You’ve got to be able to take the rejection, the lows are so low. The highs are fantastic, it’s a great business if you can do it.
Q. After your initial success, did you receive any criticism because of the roles you were involved in?
A. Ive gotten criticism from five people. One of them was a waitress at a chicken restaurant she said to me she didn’t like Borat after she took my order. I said “I’m sorry you didn’t like it, but in this business you gotta do these things.” I remember doing an interview with Armenian television where I was in Burbank and they were also simultaneously in Armenia, and someone said, “we don’t do things like that, amota (it’s shameful).” Fortunately a friend of mine was there and he defended me. There was a lady at Holy Cross – she came up to me and told me “that I don’t like that kind of stuff,” and then later said “but I would really like a picture for my grandson.” Everyone already in the hall had heard her tell me, and I said “no, you can’t.” You just wrung me, and told me how “amot” I was, and every old lady I have known all my life came to my rescue, don’t listen to her, she’s crazy.
That was all because of a naked fight scene.
Q. How are other people’s reactions in the entertainment industry to you?
A. It’s very good because there was a time when I was a kid, that there was a store called Zody’s, that had a sign in Hollywood that said “no animals, no something else and no Armenians inside the store.” We went through that. Now we’re accepted from both sides. I have not had any negativity on being Armenian. The problem is we don’t have clout in the business yet. That’s the problem.
Q. At the beginning of our conversation you mentioned how you sometimes feel like Armenians can be their own worst enemy. What do you make of that?
A. I think it’s ridiculous, I think it’s sad, something we all have to work on and if it starts with my movie opens and Uncle Rafael opens, go see both of them. “Hyeroo hamar pardakanutuyneh” (For Armenians it’s a responsibility) that we support each other. But we don’t, and it’s very difficult. I don’t know what it is, because I think we could have gotten a lot further than where we are, so it bothers me.
We are always trying to figure out how to get the other guy and the other guy, because we’re a small community, hes always an Armenian guy. I accept the previous situation where Armenia was under communist role, and I get it. but now we need to work together and even harder.
I tell you something, a friend of mine named Kev Orkian, he did a thing for AGBU Olympics and I’m telling you, young kids that know who I am, said “what are you doing here?” I said what do u mean what am I doing here? I’m supporting Kev. And they brought up politics. And they knew I was a Dashnag, and I said we’re all Armenian.
They need to have a giant conference. But the problem is you still have that mentality of “amen pan yes gidem” (I know everything).
I have friends that came after the war in Lebanon, I have friends who were born here like myself, we had no problem, with “he’s from over there.” A lot us picked up garbage. In the 50s and 60s and 70s the waste removal industry in Los Angeles was controlled by Armenians. Out of 700 companies, we had 400 of them.
Q. So besides your new film, what other projects are you involved in?
A. I have a web series that I’m doing called Chasing the Hill, and Richard Schiff, Josh Molina both from West Wing.
My son who is a writer was the one who was involved in it and got me involved. That again is a new concept. We are charging $2 to view it, and we have gotten great critical response, it’s so well written. And I have an accent – but my accent is a Texas drawl. It’s a face paced half hour drama.
I have two movies that are not out yet. One of them is called Melvin Smarty. I also just finished another movie. It should be going to Sundance – it’s called Sharkproof. My son’s got a short out called “Last Day Foundation,” but what I really want to do is a television series. I would love to spend the next 5 to 8 years on a television series, because it gives you a platform. I’m doing another film with a kid named Michael Aloyan, who wrote a film called Forget Me Not.
Q. What kind of influence did your culture have on your upbringing?
A. I was a member of the AYF and ARF and I still am, the majority of the people I hang around with that are personal friends are all Armenian. It was a big influence. It was the thing that shaped me. All of the guys that I hang around with were guys that I knew when I was 15 years old in the AYF.
Everything about me is Armo. My older son is “OK OK we got it” because my wife’s not Armenian. Love has no boundaries, though. I fell in love with this woman when I was 17 years old in Montebello and I chased her ever since.
I’ve been to Armenia four times. My father would not let me go until the Soviet Union collapsed, because honest to God when I was 15 years old he went on a tour to Armenia with 62 people, and I wrote on his duffel bag, “to hell with Moscow” and the plane was stopped, it was searched. 62 Armenians came back wanting to kill me. When it was free, I went. The three times I went, it was really sad. But I went back in 2006 and it was fantastic.
I thought we were in big trouble after the 1999 Armenian Parliamentary Shooting. I thought “Oh God here we go.” But I think they have done quite well. I was on CNN bitching about the Armenia-Turkey Protocols and I was against that and they didn’t do it. I mean America is 236 years old. These guys are just on their own, so I’m giving them a break. I think they’ll make it.
My mother was born here and her parents came right after 1915, and the rumor that I heard is that my grandfather saved my grandmother from getting killed, and they came here and they brought people, they signed and sponsored a lot of people. My mother was born here, and my father was a Russian soldier forced into Russian army at 18 to fight against the Germans. He was captured by the Germans and put into Armenian concentration work camp, then he became a valet for an American general during the occupation of Berlin, then he ended up in Boston,and then LA. One of them spoke no English and was a gyooghatsi (villager) from Arevashat in Armenia, about 45 minutes from Yerevan, over the railroad tracks– and the other one was an American born-woman.
When I went to Arevashat, my aunt said “sovads es?” (Are you hungry) and I’m thinking she’s going to go bring KFC. She went outside, she grabbed a chicken, she broke its neck and started picking its feathers off and the first thing that went into my mind, was “oh we’re not gonna eat for hours.” But in less than an hour we had chicken. It was like having Zankou in your backyard.