Story and photos by Darl DeVault, Contributing Editor
After 30 years of working at the national headquarters of an Oklahoma City-based insurance company, Jeanise Jones could see a pleasant retirement peeking over the horizon. With a pension ahead and a growing 401(k) retirement account, Jones’s future seemed secure—until suddenly it was not.
Her position at the insurance company abruptly ended in 2018, six years before her planned retirement. She eventually transitioned to a receptionist position at a metro counseling center until COVID-19 squelched her new start early in 2020. By summer of last year, Jones was out of work and wondering what else could go wrong.
Then lightning struck—and only in the best sense of the word. By late fall 2020, she was being praised for her role in Sacha Baron Cohen’s feature-length film Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. She was also giving phone interviews to overseas reporters and soon had a six-figure sum in a personal GoFundMe account.
The improbably series of events began with a phone call from Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, where Jones regularly attended and volunteered as an usher. Knowing Jones was out of a job, the caller asked if she was available for a day or two of work on a documentary.
“The film producers said they were looking for a grandmother-type for a foreign documentary,” said Jones, who fit the bill with six grandchildren of her own. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. They said I probably wouldn’t even see it in the United States.”
It did not sound like much money, but at the time Jones needed anything she could get. She drove to Guthrie, where she thought she would continue interviewing for a part in the documentary. But her unassuming, forthright manner quickly won over the movie producers, and she was taken to a local residence to meet the zany Borat from Kazakhstan (played by English actor and producer Sasha Baron Cohen) and his alleged 14-year-old daughter Tutar (played by 24-year-old Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova).
Unknown to Jones at the time, the supposed documentary was actually a “mockumentary,” the second of Cohen’s hilarious, risque productions since 2006. Just like a number of those who would appear in the production, Jones was unaware she was being duped. Cohen’s Borat movies are a takeoff on the old Candid Camera gag, but with a strange twist of Kazakh humor.
She was told that Borat had brought his daughter Tutar to America to find a mature, rich husband after certain cosmetic enhancements were made to the teenager. Jones’s role would be to mentor her for a short while. Jones was shocked by the low self-esteem shown by the compliant Tutar and the girl’s acceptance of her abusive father’s plans.
“But I let her know that she didn’t have to change herself to please anyone,” Jones recounted. “I told her, ‘Girl, you’re way too young for the cosmetic changes your dad wants, and you don’t want to be married to some old man anyway.’”
Although completely unaware she was being set up, Jones’s refusal to support father Borat’s schemes and her motherly attempts to rescue Tutar became an audience highlight of the movie. Sometimes actors can steal a scene when the genuineness of their empathy in their performance outshines the script.
Who knows if her honest advice changed the direction of the film as it evolved, being written by seven screenwriters? One thing is certain, it was the young Bakalova playing Tutar who garnered the lion’s share of the critical acclaim from the movie including an Academy Award nomination.
Borat did not receive any nominations for his over-the-top performance.
Jones was asked to appear in a couple of more scenes in the production, one of which took her to Washington, D. C. She was paid $3,600 for all her work, plus expenses for her travels. Still looking for employment when the movie was released in fall 2020, she was taken aback when a cousin called to ask her about her appearance in the comedy production.
“He told me I was in a movie that was about to be released on Amazon Prime,” Jones said. “I said, ‘Movie? What movie?’”
Her heartwarming efforts to help the abused Tutar won her a big following on Twitter when the movie was straight-to-streaming distributed. Recognizing the viewers’ outpouring of affection for Jones, Cohen donated $100,000 to her church last fall.
Great for her church, but not much help to the out-of-work Jones. In gratitude and as a way to help her benefit more from the movie, her pastor, Rev. Derrick Scobey, set up a GoFundMe web page for her. The site pointed out that she had been out of work during the pandemic. Money poured in from around the globe.
Jones is certainly grateful for her sizable GoFundMe account, but retirement is now just ahead, and the money in the fund might not be enough. “Maybe lightning will strike one more time,” Jones said with a laugh, “and I can get a good job for a few more years.”