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Q&A with Borat star Luenell, headlining at Tommy T's this weekend

Raised in Castro Valley, Luenell would go on to be the queen of Kazakhstan in the Borat movie

In 2006, Sacha Baron Cohen’s guerilla comedy Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, became a box office smash, raking in $260 million worldwide. I can't wait to see the follow-up, Bruno, which hits theaters next May. In Borat, one of Cohen's jaw-dropping pranks involved Borat inviting an African-American prostitute to a formal Southern dinner. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I’m talking about, if you haven’t you should bump it to the top of your Netflix and put the kids to bed. Anyway, the prostitute was performed by East Bay-raised comedienne Luenell, who happens to be performing stand-up comedy at Tommy T’s in Pleasanton tonight though Sunday. I recently got on the phone with Luenell, who grew up in Castro Valley and will soon be seen on Comedy Central’s Chocolate News, to talk about life in the East Bay, and life after Borat.

Diablo: Where are you, right now, Luenell?
Luenell: Funny you should ask. I’m on the Hollywood Center Studios lot, in the very exact studio where I Love Lucy was filmed. I’m a huge I Love Lucy fan, so that’s a pretty big thrill. I’m filming an episode of David Allan Grier’s new Comedy Central show Chocolate News. I’m playing Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration party planner in a skit.

Diablo: I keep reading that comedians don’t know what to do with the Obama presidency, that he’s not as inherently funny as Clinton or Bush.
Luenell: Oh, I don’t know about that. You don’t have to have made some foolish mistake like Clinton and Bush did to be funny. I can’t wait to see what decorating Michelle does in the White House, hang up some Earth Wind and Fire posters maybe.

Diablo: You went to high school in Castro Valley, correct?
Luenell: Yes. And Castro Valley elementary school, AB Morris Junior High. Growing up in the East Bay, was…not the greatest. We were only one of about 12 black families living there at the time and we had all the adversities that went with that. We had tomatoes thrown at our house, certain epitaphs thrown around. You have to remember that in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, we didn’t have Denny’s restaurant in Castro Valley, we still had Sambo’s restaurant. It was a much different time. My personality was able to shine through, I suppose.

Diablo: OK, on to the Borat film. You played a prostitute who Borat calls to be his date at a dinner party in the South, much to he horror of the hosts. First of all, how did you get the part? 

Luenell: I got the part the regular way that anyone gets any part, they were looking for someone who can do improv. I didn’t even have a car at the time. I got a friend to drive me there. I didn’t know who Sacha was, even though I had seen him do Ali G and Borat on HBO, but he wasn't in character…and I didn’t know who (director) Larry Charles was, except for his name from Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. I was the first person that they saw. I did put Sacha’s finger in my mouth in the interview, I remember that. (laughs)

Diablo: the scene where you show up was classic Borat; the audience is completely uncomfortable because we know it’s a set-up. What was that like as an actor, knowing that you can’t break character or yell cut?
Luenell: It was not good. Because, those weren’t stunt racists, they were real racists. We did have to make a mad dash for it because they called the police were called. Actually, the police were called a couple of times—we did that with three different dinner set-ups to get the reaction you see in the film.

Diablo: So after the film came out, and it was a smash, you must have been recognized everywhere. Did people get it, that you were an actor in on the joke?
Luenell: Well, lots of people in the black community already knew me as a comedienne. But the white community that did see it had no idea that I was an actress, they thought I was a prostitute. Plus, I was on a contractual gag order for six months after the film came out, I couldn't say I was an actor! It started getting kind of frustrating actually. I would go to a restaurant and people would whisper about me. I got recognized everywhere. I walked through a hotel one time and they were having a bar mitzvah downstairs someone asked me to come in and take a picture. So I did, and then I had to take a picture with everyone there. It took like an hour!

Luenell headlines at Tommy T's Comedy Steakhouse through November 30. For tickets, click here.