'I trusted them,' plaintiff declares

The Baltimore Sun

Mike Psenicska says he's tried to be a good sport about his unwitting big-screen debut in the blockbuster Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

He went to see the movie with his family. He has answered strangers' questions about his sudden celebrity, has smiled for pictures and, he says, even autographed one teenager's wrist.

But the 64-year-old Perry Hall driving instructor says he didn't seek the attention, and he was hoping yesterday's snow would allow news of his lawsuit against the filmmakers to come out without too much notice.

"It doesn't make me special because I was in some goofy movie," said Psenicska. "All along, I knew in my heart, what they did was unfair. They duped me into it."

Psenicska, a retired Loch Raven High School mathematics teacher who was among a long line of unsuspecting, everyday people drafted as comedic foils for the film, is now the latest of these reluctant stars to sue those behind the hit movie.

The lawsuit, filed this week in U.S. District Court in Manhattan against Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, alleges that the filmmakers deliberately deceived Psenicska and fraudulently obtained his consent to appear in the movie.

The suit seeks at least $100,000 in compensatory damages and unspecified punitive damages - money that Psenicska's lawyers contend he's entitled to because his image was used to market the comedy, which according to the suit has grossed more than $330 million in theater and DVD sales.

"I don't know what actors are paid," Psenicska says, but he's sure it's more than the $500 he received from the Borat producers.

Psenicska says he was told he would be appearing in a segment on how to drive as part of a documentary designed to help immigrants assimilate into American culture. He was willing to participate for free.

"I thought I was doing a public service," Psenicska says. "I trusted them."

In an e-mailed statement, 20th Century Fox spokesman Gregg Brilliant said: "He signed a release and we have an agreement. Now, 2 1/2 years after giving his consent, and more than one year after the movie was released, Mr. Psenicska has decided to file a lawsuit, citing the financial success of the film, in spite of our agreement."

In the movie, Cohen portrays a journalist from a backwater village in a Eurasian republic who, sent across the sea in search of insights into American life, ends up tracking down actress Pamela Anderson. At times, the character's ill-mannered and bigoted ways bring out similar behavior from those he encounters.

Psenicska's suit is one of at least a half-dozen legal actions that have been filed by people in the film.

One of those cases, involving two South Carolina fraternity brothers filmed riding in an RV, was dismissed by a California judge last December. Other suits have been filed by a pair of Romanian villagers, a South Carolina man who was in a scene that was not in the film's final cut, a New York man shown running away after Borat tries to hug him, a subway passenger and the owner of an Alabama school for etiquette, according to news accounts.

Mark Litwak, a Beverly Hills, Calif., attorney who has practiced entertainment law for 30 years, suggested that the plaintiffs could have a tough time prevailing.

"If you are portrayed truthfully, if you're not being misrepresented to the audience by virtue of some sort of editing or special effects, you might have a difficult time," said Litwak, who is not involved in any of the Borat suits. "If you act foolishly and are captured on film, you may have no one to blame but yourself."

But Edward D. Fagan, a New York attorney representing the two Romanian men in their suit, suggested the flurry of lawsuits surrounding Borat should send a message to filmmakers: "If you want to make a motion picture in which you're going to be making fun of somebody, you'd better tell them exactly what you're doing."

Psenicska's attorney says the Perry Hall man's suit is different in that regard, because he didn't embarrass himself.

"He maintained his dignity rather well," said attorney Peter M. Levine, adding that the claim isn't based on defamation or intentional infliction of emotional pain. Rather, Levine said, "Our argument is that he should be paid for his services in the movie."

"I know he's not Jack Nicholson," said Levine. But, he added, the filmmakers shouldn't have "tricked him" into signing a consent form.

"They weren't making a documentary. They were making a mockumentary," he said.

Psenicska said one of the producers had come to his house and talked with him extensively about how the documentary could help immigrants. In June 2005, Psenicska agreed to meet the film crew in Columbia.

The crews didn't tell him ahead of time that he'd need to sign anything, and when they put a contract before him, Psenicska says, they told him it was standard. He signed it without hesitating. And, he said, he mistakenly didn't read it.

The antics began as soon as Cohen got into the car. The comedian uncapped a bottle of what looks to be vodka and offered Psenicska a swig.

Psenicska grabbed the wheel and said, "You can't drink that while you're driving. It's against the law."

When Borat asks whether he can follow a woman in a car "and maybe make a sexy time with her," Psenicska explains the concept of "consent."

When the lesson was over, Psenicska says, he asked the producers whether they heard what the student had been saying. They didn't respond, according to Psenicska.

"The last thing I said to them was, 'You set me up. What you set me up for, I don't know.'"

In April, Pseniscka sold his driving school, which he had opened in 1974. The sale "had nothing to do with Borat," he says.

By August, he was tired of retirement and returned to give lessons part time.

Psenicska says he can understand why the filmmakers didn't want to use professional actors for the comedy. But at the very least, he says, when the filming was over he should have been told what was going on, given a choice about whether to be included and paid accordingly.

For months, Psenicska says, he tried to settle his differences with the movie makers. But he says the lawyers made him a low-ball offer - he declined to give the amount - and he resorted to contacting an attorney.

He says he just wants to be treated fairly.

"I'm not going to be scarred for life. I've always been secure about who I am," he said. "We'll see if our system works. I've never been in a courtroom before."

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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