Meet Ken Davitain.
You may recognize him from his work in Get Smart, Meet the Spartans, orThe Artist. You probably know him best from his role in Borat - where he played the role of Borat's producer. Due to his Armenian heritage, Ken is routinely cast as a foreigner - even though he was born and raised in Los Angeles.
When Ken isn't acting, his time is occupied in the restaurant business. He currently owns The Infield, a hot dog restaurant made famous by a tweet from Charlie Sheen, and is looking for a new location for his restaurant The Dip known for, well, French Dips.
Ken talked to us about his restaurants, Borat, and making a life in Los Angeles.
How did you get into acting? Was it always a passion of yours or something that developed later in life?
I knew I wanted to do this since I was 13. Watching my grandmother perform Armenian plays for the community is what inspired me to be a thespian.
Most people first saw you in the comedy Borat. How did you get involved with that film and what was it like working on Borat?
I auditioned like every other working actor in Los Angeles. I came in on the very last day of call backs and I knew I had to go into the room and dazzle them. Apparently I did a good job, because I got it. Working on that film was an experience like no other. It was like taking a masters class at Julliard in a way. It was educational to say the least. Working with Larry [Charles] and Sacha was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before or since. Many people still don’t realize: There was no script. It was all improv and often we didn’t know what the other one was saying. The director gave us instructions and we just went for it. We almost got arrested once or twice.
What was your fondest memory of working with Sacha Cohen?
I remember we were standing there completely naked and listening to direction from Larry. Just picture two adult men standing there naked with someone else in the middle discussing what the next scene should be like. Larry was sandwiched between Sacha and me, saying "I think we should do it this way or that way and then we should be doing this..." Sacha and I just stood there, staring at each other, wondering if anybody realized that we were naked and thinking "Man, we are standing here in our birthday suit- lets roll!"
Another fun memory was when I met his wife Isla Fisher. She just looked at us and started laughing. She thought we looked like Laurel and Hardy, the typical comedic team, the short fat guy and the tall skinny guy... and that’s while we were dressed.
Recently you were in The Artist which cleaned up at this year's Oscars. Tell us a bit about your role. For those who have not seen it, what is the significance of your character?
The Artist is a Golden Era love story about a silent film actor who can’t make the transition into the sound era and a young actress who is very successful during that transition. Michel asked me to do a cameo in the film and I just fell in love with the script because it was a love story within a love story. He actually wrote it for his wife (Berenice Bejo who plays the female lead). My role was that of a pawnbroker.
I think my role was significant because it was the last straw for Valentin (Jean Dujardin). He was at the bottom of his existence and had nothing left to lose other than that tuxedo. I feel that right after my scene is when his life starts turning around. The Tuxedo was the last thing he had left from his Golden Era, from the height of his fame that he so tragically lost when he couldn’t make the transition to sound. Once he let go of that, he was able to move on.
What were some of the challenges involved with working on a "silent film"?
For me it was NOT TALKING. I love talking and that’s why I never took a mime class.
You're not just an actor though; you're also a restaurant owner. Where did the idea to start a French Dip restaurant come from?
I realized there was a void that needed to be filled - in my stomach. I really wanted a good pastrami sandwich and I couldn’t find it. So I made it! I only serve what I would eat, so the sandwich has gotta be big and it's gotta be good.
What is it like owning a restaurant in Los Angeles?
It’s like anything else with its pros and cons. It’s challenging with all the competition and no small business support from the government. It was much easier to own a restaurant or a small business in general in the 70’s when your local government supported entrepreneurs. On the other hand, it’s great being part of a community and getting to know your customers and watching their families blossom. A neighborhood place should be somewhere you can go and be yourself. The Infield is that for Sherman Oaks.
Acting and owning a restaurant seem like to very different professions on the surface. Are there any attributes that you have found cross over from one career into the other?
You all have to eat; actors, producers, extras, cab drivers... everybody’s gotta eat! But, really, preparation and persistence is required in both professions. Without it you will not survive.
Do you have any advice for any aspiring actors and restaurant owners out there?
If you are an actor, get out of the restaurant business and if you are a restaurant owner get out of acting. I have a big extended family that will come and do the actual work in the restaurant business and I have a little army around me for the acting. If you don’t have that, it’s more likely you will fail in one or the other.
What can we expect next from you?
In the restaurant business we are looking for another location for The Dip and for The Infield. In the acting, there are several projects in the can, some I just wrapped and we are looking to produce several projects. The next film coming out is Wreck-it Ralph, a Disney cartoon with John C. Reilly, Jane Lynch and Sarah Silverman and in the fall they will release an indie film called Melvin Smarty in which I star opposite George Hamilton and Tyler Hoechlin (MTV’s Teen Wolf). I also shot a film called “You May Not Kiss The Bride” with Katharine McPhee, Dave Annable, Kathy Bates, and Rob Schneider that I hope will come out soon. I did a few Indies and shorts, but no release date on those yet. I’ve been pretty busy, which I love.