Meet the Real People in 'Borat'
Oct. 16, 2006 issue - He arrives at the very last second for his interviews, and he doesn't stick around afterward for small talk. As soon as the camera's off, he vanishes. "His crew wouldn't let anybody near the guy," says Jim Sell, a car salesman at the Criswell Dealership in Gaithersburg, Md. About 18 months ago, Borat Sagdiyev, a "TV journalist from Kazakhstan" who's actually an English guerrilla comedian named Sacha Baron Cohen, visited Sell to buy a vehicle for a "documentary" he was making about his experiences driving across America. "We had to move to a remote area on the lot," says Sell, "and now I understand why." After a few hours, during which Borat, cameras rolling, requested a car with a "p---y magnet" and tried to buy a $70,000 Hummer for $600, the strange visitor was gone. Later, while Sell shared the story with his co-workers, one woman rushed off to print out a photo from HBO's Web site. "It was Borat," he says. "I got set up pretty good, and I'm not real happy about it. For $150, I wasted three hours and he never even bought a vehicle."
Even if you're an HBO subscriber, the name "Borat" might not ring a bell. He's one of several characters on "Da Ali G Show," all of whom are played by Baron Cohen, and all of whom get famous squares and average Joes to say really dumb things on camera. It's an old gag, but Baron Cohen has a genius for it, especially when his target is American xenophobia. The hip-hopping ghetto-wanna-be Ali G is the show's nominal star, but Borat—an uncouth, anti-Semitic but weirdly lovable horndog—has blown past him in cult fervor. Now comes the "Borat" movie. (Actually, the full title is "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.") It opens Nov. 3 and has generated more advance buzz than any movie this year. Before one early screening in New York for an audience culled from MySpace users, 400 fans killed time by serenading each other with a sardonic Borat tune from his HBO days, "Throw the Jew Down the Well." The film, a series of interviews and sketches as Borat crosses America in search of Pamela Anderson, has already stirred up a fuss over its anti-Semitic humor. (Baron Cohen himself is Jewish.) Even if most viewers decide it isn't offensive, there's no avoiding the fact that it is kinda mean.
It's also hilarious, but how did Baron Cohen get people to participate? NEWSWEEK tracked down many of the unwitting costars. Some are angry, some amused. But to varying degrees, all of them feel foolish. "I was disappointed that Mr. Cohen never let me in on the joke," says Kathie Martin, who runs an etiquette school in Birmingham, Ala. "And I would've liked my 15 minutes of fame in this life to have been for something more worthwhile than an R-rated movie." (Baron Cohen and Twentieth Century Fox did not respond to requests for comment.)
It always began the same way: with a phone call out of the blue from a producer representing a phony company called One America Productions. The producers claimed to be working with "a Belarus TV station"—too many people had gotten wise to the Kazakhstan bit, presumably—on a documentary about America. They used fake names (try Googling "Lawrence Wenngrodd"), gave out inactive cell-phone numbers and e-mail addresses and paid interview subjects between $150 and $400 an hour. "They paid me in cash. Eight $50 bills," says Pat Haggerty, a humor coach from suburban Washington, D.C. "One tenth of 1 percent of my clients pay me in advance, and nobody pays me in cash. That's when I should've smelled a rat."
The next step was the release form. The producers usually pulled it out just before the cameras rolled, at a moment of maximum bustle. Bobby Rowe, a rodeo veteran of nearly 50 years from Dickson, Tenn., agreed to let Borat sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" before a major rodeo in western Virginia. He says the "Borat" crew showed up 10 hours later than he requested, just before the show began. (He also says he asked for a CD of Borat's singing the anthem weeks in advance; the producers mailed him one, and it was blank.) Most of the folks contacted by NEWSWEEK admit they barely read the release. Even if they did, they might not have grasped the legalese about waiving claims for "breach[es] of alleged moral behavior" and "fraud (such as any alleged deception or surprise about the Film)"—which is a nifty way of getting people to agree that it's OK to defraud them.
The people contacted for this story say they knew early in their Borat encounters that something was fishy, even if they couldn't put their finger on it. According to Haggerty, what tipped him off was the way Borat cracked up whenever Haggerty brought up handicapped people. Grace Welch, of the Veteran Feminists of America, says her radar beeped as soon as she laid eyes on Borat. "He had this powder-blue suit on, and it was the cheapest thing you ever saw! The seams were puckered!" Martin, the etiquette teacher, says it was the whole interview, nothing in particular, that got her wondering. But she's just being polite. It had to be the moment when Borat asked her if it was rude to show family photos, then offered up nude snapshots of his well-endowed teenage "son."
Unfortunately for Rowe, the rodeo man, he caught on too late. Once Borat took the mike at the rodeo, he saluted President George W. Bush by saying, "May he drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq," then butchered the national anthem so badly that a horse reared up and fell over. Rowe, in a word, freaked. "I go out there," he recalls, "and I say, 'Get the hell outta this dadgum building! Half the sumbucks in here are probably packin' heat, and they'll put you in front of the firin' squad.' Boy, they got in their trucks and hauled boogie." When Rowe later learned that Borat was an actor on HBO, he breathed easy. He doesn't get HBO, and neither do his friends. Then a couple of months ago, a pal called him up after seeing the "Borat" trailer in a theater and said, "Hey, movie star!"
Most of Borat's victims manage to avoid saying anything that might embarrass them in front of, say, an international audience. Others aren't so careful. Before sending Borat out to sing the anthem, Rowe imparts some advice about blending in with Americans and, along the way, makes derogatory comments about gays and Muslims. Reminded of what he said on camera, the normally gregarious Rowe falls silent. "Man, oh, man," he says. "I guess I'll go see that sumbuck so I know whether to run off and hide." Late in the film, a trio of fraternity brothers from the Chi Psi house at the University of South Carolina pick up a hitchhiking Borat, share a few beers with him, offer their commentary on sexual politics and generally do America not-so-proud. (The fraternity's national chapter did not follow up on a request to locate the young men.)
Given the likelihood that Baron Cohen's movie will make piles of money—and the loose legalese of those release forms—someone is sure to try taking Borat to court. It's one of the few lessons in American life that Borat doesn't learn on screen: in this country, we sue. "I have a lawyer friend who said, 'Let me represent you! This is fraud!' " says Linda Stein, a New York-based sculptor whom Borat interviewed alongside Welch. Stein says she'll leave it alone, but she has terms. "If he invites me to the screening," she says, laughing. "And if he comes to my next gallery opening." Be careful what you wish for.