November 20, 2006

Driving Mr. Borat

The driving instructor who tutored Sacha Baron Cohen's Kazakh alter ego tells Gelf what audiences missed and how his unexpected film stardom has affected his life.

Adam Rosen

First came Borat, a surprise hit with $90.5 million in US ticket receipts through Sunday. Next came inevitable interest in the unwitting co-stars of the mockumentary—the Americans who thought they were meeting with a Kazakh reporter, found themselves with an impossibly uncultured buffoon, and learned when the film debuted that they were the stooges of a prank by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. What did they know, when did they know it, and how does it feel to have been had?

Mike Psenicska
To Psenicska, his erstwhile driving student is a 'comedic genius.'
While at first he was reluctant to speak—telling Gelf, "I'm all Borated out"—Mike Psenicska, a 63-year-old former high-school math teacher, a grandfather, and Borat's infinitely patient driving instructor, agreed to answer our questions about what viewers of the film didn't see from their lesson, which character he thinks came off worst on the big screen, and whether Cohen smelled bad in that suit he always wears while in character. Psenicska thinks his former student is a "comedic genius," yet he's thinking about suing to get a share of the box-office bonanza. Here's an edited transcript of the interview:

Gelf Magazine: How much media exposure have you gotten so far?
Mike Psenicska: Quite a bit, actually. There was a front-page article in the Baltimore Sun, and I also had articles in the Towson University paper, Rolling Stone, and People. I had a phone interview from New York for a magazine in Germany. On TV, Inside Edition did a story on Monday [Nov. 13] and the [Baltimore] Fox affiliate did one today [Nov. 16]. Other TV people wanted me but I turned them down.

GM: Why did you turn them down?
MP: I don't know, I just was not too happy about the whole spectacle in the beginning. I'm not too happy about being in an R-rated video. It'll pass in a few weeks and I'll be on with my life. I have 14 grandchildren who are of an age unable to see the video. I'm not ashamed of anything I did in the movie but there are some crude parts. I guess when [my grandchildren] eventually do see it they'll see the crude parts.

GM: What do you attribute the exposure to?
MP: Probably because I was an individual. In the movie I didn't succumb to bashing people…evidently [Cohen's] type of humor is to bash people, and I didn't succumb to that. I'm not that kind of person. I'm gonna disagree with you. I didn't agree with what he was saying.

GM: Why are people in America so receptive to this movie?
MP: [The producers and Cohen] are masters at promoting something. I guess it was sort of underground. In my age group, if I weren't in the movie, I probably wouldn't have gone to see it. I'm not too much into the crude stuff even if I laugh at it. We laugh at tragedy…a guy's falling down the steps and damn near broke his neck, and we laugh at that. [Cohen] is able to make people laugh. I don't know if there's anything else…but he is a funny guy.

GM: Why were you receptive to this character when you first met him?
MP: In May of '05, a gentleman called me from California, inquiring about driving lessons. I teach foreign people all the time to drive cars. I know it's important for them when they come to this country for them to be able to drive, so I corresponded a few times with this gentleman over the phone. I never saw Borat in my life 'til he came out of the limo (where he was waiting until just before the scene) and did the huggy-kissy thing with me.

GM: You've seen the movie—which of the people Borat interacted with do you think came off the worst? Do you think they're like that in real life?
MP: Probably the poor guy in the rodeo…he said some things perhaps he shouldn't have. He didn't come off too well. He's probably not like that in real life; sometimes people say things. He's probably not a bigot. A lot of people make statements that don't necessarily tell their true character. I knew I was on camera, so I didn't want to say anything to create any interest—I didn't think [Cohen] was a comedian.

GM: How has the movie affected your life? Are you concerned about any possible fallout from your appearance?
MP: Nah. It hasn't affected my life. There's been a lot of attention, obviously now in my community when I go somewhere and I see people looking at me—it's probably just nothing but you feel like it could be something—I think, "why are they looking at me?" It means nothing—I did nothing I feel ashamed of. They defrauded me. It's not gonna change my life. My reputation in life has been set for a long time.

The scene that made the editor's cut in Borat: an education in driving and women's rights.

GM: There's been so much focus on the exchange between you and Borat on-camera. What was it like off-camera? Did Cohen stay in character the entire time? How did he act? Was he as boorish and outrageous when the cameras weren't on him? What did the filmmakers cut from the scene?
MP: Not shown: As he was talking and driving, he talked about how cheap Jewish people were. My response was, "In our country we respect everyone, we don't stereotype people." He kept bashing people, including women—I said, "look I gotta tell you something, we have a hell of a lot of women in this country that are smarter than you." I think he propositioned me sexually, too (he mentioned something about being his boyfriend), but I don't remember exactly what it was. He wanted me to go to California with him. I told him, "When you drive you won't make it out of Columbia [another Baltimore suburb] alive."

GM: Did he stay in character the whole time?
MP: My scene was just one take, unlike the others interviewed. He just drove. Beforehand he was waiting in a limo someplace. I didn't see him until we started. I don't have HBO, so I wouldn't have recognized him. He just drove around the area. And when it was done, and I said goodbye, he immediately disappeared. I went to the producer—he was there with three or four other people—and I said, "Did you see what he was doing, what he did?" They just sort of shrugged their shoulders and played dumb. I said, "Look, you set you me up." In response they didn't say anything, just looked at me like I was imagining things. Then I had to run off and be somewhere.

When I got home later I told the story to my wife, and she started laughing like hell, and said it sounded like a Jerry Lewis movie. I called the guy Todd who set this up, and of course he wouldn't return any of my telephone calls. Then I talked with my son and found out who [Borat] was. Of course, it all happened in June 2005. I expected it to appear on HBO and it didn't, so I completely forgot about it, until about a month ago when my son called me up and said he had a friend who saw me in a trailer.

GM: How did you feel when you knew you were in the trailer for a major motion picture?
MP: It's kind of interesting, kind of surprising to see yourself on the screen. Did I laugh? I did laugh. It's been different. I was a little bit angry at the beginning. I don't like to be lied to. But, it's a part of life. It'll be done, and I'll move on down the line, as will Mr. Borat.

GM: Did people recognize you at the movie theater?
MP: The first time my wife and I saw it at a theater downtown, and when the movie was over I could see a few people looking at me funny. The second time was at White Marsh Mall [a popular suburban mall close to Psenicska's town], and everyone started cheering when I came on the screen.

GM: It's claimed that Cohen has never washed the suit that Borat wears. How did he smell?
MP: (Laughs.) I didn't smell anything different. I didn't smell a thing; it didn't affect me. I didn't know that. I've read some articles saying he likes to stay in character.

GM: If you could sum up this experience in one word, what would it be? If you could sum up Borat in one word, what would it be?
MP: The experience: interesting. Borat: comedic genius.

GM: Do you think Borat will be able to trick anyone else in America again? Cohen has just signed a contract worth $42.5 million to make a similar movie with his other alter ego, a gay Austrian fashion reporter named Bruno. [Reuters] Do you think it can succeed? What are your thoughts on this?
MP: It's going be a little more challenging but let's face it: There are a lot of people who don't know this movie even exists. He's a little more well-known now. There're still people who don't pay attention to that. Last Sunday out at dinner, my wife made up some kind of neat picture with me and Borat, and the waitress didn't know who the hell this guy was. She was in her mid-30s. It's probably a higher percentage who don't know who he is. I guarantee it'll be more difficult [to make the Bruno film], but he'll pull it off. If a scene doesn't go his way, he'll just leave and get someone else.

In a deleted scene, a fake Kazakh squares off against a seatbelt.

GM: If you could meet Sacha Baron Cohen, what would you say to him? What if you could meet Borat?
MP: To Cohen I would probably ask him about his family, is he married, has he gone to school somewhere. I would try to find out about his life—like I do whenever I meet anyone. Find out what he's like as a human being—he seems to be quite good at his craft. Borat: I'd say he's an awfully bad driver and his views of some of the things in the world about people need to be straightened out, and I don't feel that way. He feels bashing Jews is OK. There probably will be a point where [his act] is not funny anymore.

GM: Is it true you are suing HBO?
MP: At the present point in time I'm not suing anyone.

GM: In a recent ABC News article you said, "I don't care what I signed; I know what they did to me and it's just not fair. Borat has not totally heard the end of me." Why did you say this?
MP: I'm not totally finished with him. I haven't filed any lawsuits yet, but it's possible.

GM: What do you ultimately hope to achieve?
MP: Well, I guess it's going to depend on them. I'll probably get in contact with them before I proceed for some type of financial settlement. I feel that I was duped into doing the movie, and as a result of that I think the movie's been very successful and I just know in every ad for the movie you see me! I was in the advertisement for the movie, so I think they should share with me, without my having to go to court.

GM: How will you contact the movie?
MP: Probably a letter. I haven't done it though…I'm gonna wait a little bit.

GM: Do you think people will remember you years from now?
MP: Years from now, probably only close family members and friends. I'm not gonna continue doing it—I'm not an actor. It'll be something to chuckle about every now and then…"Do you remember when…" I have a 20-year-old granddaughter at Towson University and she's having a good time with it. I hope it's not my legacy in life and they remember me for other things. It is neat on occasion; I think everyone would like to be recognized on occasion. But I won't have to wear a disguise.

Related on the web

FHM, Newsweek, and Salon tracked down the people Borat duped for his film.

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Article by Adam Rosen

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