In 2018, Maria Bakalova had one more year of drama school at the National Academy in Sofia, Bulgaria, when she went on vacation to Denmark. Her plan was to stake out the offices of Zentropa, the production company co-founded by Lars von Trier, to work with the directors whose Dogme ’95 projects inspired her.
“I said, ‘That’s it, I’m moving to Denmark, and I’m going to do my best work there,” Bakalova said in an interview via Zoom.
A few months later, at the age of 22, she was cast in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” as the fake Kazakh journalist Borat’s daughter, Tutar. She moved to L.A., and her career went in a very different direction.
Bakalova not only holds her own opposite prank artist extraordinaire Sacha Baron Cohen; she also injects his incisive satire with a surprising emotional arc. The role was a crash-course on Baron Cohen’s complex hidden-camera process as well as its subversive intentions. Within weeks, the trained theater actress had to adapt to the risky technique that Baron Cohen had honed for 20 years, ever since “Da Ali G Show” premiered on HBO.
Not that she could use Cohen’s comedy work as a reference, since she had never seen it before. “I knew his face, but I couldn’t connect it to other movies,” she said.
In the flurry of hype around “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” this fall, just a few months after its clandestine production, nobody anticipated Bakalova as its secret weapon. From goading Rudy Giuliani into a compromising hotel room encounter to bleeding fake menstrual blood before mortified Southerners at a cotillion ball, Bakalova became the centerpiece of the movie’s best stunts as well as its unexpected soul. Overnight, she was a contender for Best Supporting Actress. “If she doesn’t win an Oscar,” Baron Cohen told talk-show host Stephen Colbert just a few days after the movie’s release, “I don’t know what the Academy is for.”
Comedies don’t always resonate in awards season, but “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” is not like other comedies. The documentary-like production found Baron Cohen and Bakalova parading across the America, jolting non-actors with crude antics designed to evoke their biases as hidden cameras looked on. Borat’s ill-conceived attempt to present Tutar as bribe for Mike Pence (and later Giuliani) yields many outrageous stabs at Trump-era extremism, with targets including conspiracy theorists and a pro-life clinic. In the midst of it all, Tutar wakes up to her independence and rejects the grotesque misogyny of her father’s expectations.
“Tutar’s story is about strong women,” Bakalova said. “The art that Sacha is doing is designed to make the world a better place.”
Bakalova tends to speak in the measured patterns of a media-trained newcomer, navigating shaky English and the expansive code of silence that surrounds Baron Cohen’s process, but lights up as she recalls her whirlwind year. “Sacha’s been saying ‘Don’t ruin the magic!’ a lot,” she said. “He is one-of-a kind in terms of what he does. I’d never seen anything like it before.”
Audiences, however, had seen plenty of Borat, a character Baron Cohen developed in the late ‘90s to elicit virtually every kind of American bigotry. They hadn’t seen Bakalova, and Amazon Studios marketing played into that surprise, initially crediting her as “Irina Norwak” on the movie’s IMDb pages.
Some critics compare her zany physicality to Tracey Ullman, though the more direct precedent is Baron Cohen himself. Yet Bakalova’s prior film credits are scant and limited to her home country. How did an industry novice with no English-language credits, or even a working familiarity with Baron Cohen’s work, hold her own against the world’s most famous public clown?
Casting director Nancy Bishop, who specializes in Eastern European actors, auditioned 500 contenders for the role, and even she didn’t know the full scope of the project.
“I was told I needed to find an Eastern European girl who spoke an Eastern European language as a first language for a comic role, and was given material to audition them with,” Bishop said. “It was mostly improvisation, but eventually they sent me actual text for them to perform to see if they could deliver jokes.”
Over time, Bishop learned of Baron Cohen’s involvement, but that didn’t make the job any easier. “My staff and I all signed strict NDAs, and so did all the actors who auditioned before they got the material,” she said. “Some agents wouldn’t let their clients audition and I couldn’t say, ‘But it’s Sacha Baron Cohen, for god’s sake!’”
Bakalova came to Bishop’s attention through a fleeting role in “The Father,” a well-received Bulgarian road comedy that she saw at the 2019 Karlovy Vary Film Festival. Through Bulgarian actor and advocate Julian Kostov, Bishop tracked down Bakalova for a remote audition. She intrigued the filmmaking team enough for an in-person followup in London.
That was where her improv faced the ultimate test. To date, Baron Cohen has been elusive about his pre-production approach, but revealed his expectations to Colbert a few days after the film’s Amazon premiere. “I didn’t want to start filming until we found the perfect daughter for Borat,” he said. “You have to be an incredible improviser, you have to be able to stay in character for many, many hours, you have to be able to play emotionally in the reality of the scene, and you have to be hilarious.”
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Bakalova’s audition process went far beyond the casting office. As Borat’s wild-child daughter, she was forced to interact with non-actors as a camera trailed her every move. “We did all these crazy things,” Bakalova said. “I drank from the toilet, I tried to eat a fish from the aquarium.”
She also ad-libbed one of Tutar’s funniest lines, spoken the first time she walks into a building and doesn’t understand the concept of a roof. “That was the moment I said, ‘Why is the sky so low?’” she said. “It was our idea that she had never been inside someplace and was surprised by this thing up there.”
Even then, Bishop said, the producers hesitated. “They liked Maria, but weren’t 100 percent sure that she would work and they wanted to exhaust all possible options,” Bishop said. “Only Sacha could really determine that Maria was right for the role by working with her, and seeing if and how she could play off him.”
Bakalova finally watched “Borat” after she arrived in Los Angeles for pre-production. “That was when I realized it was going to be a sequel to a big, famous movie,” she said. “I was extremely impressed and inspired. And I was a little bit scared, because he is huge.” Blockbusters, she said, were never in her scope.
“I hadn’t spent that much time thinking about bigger movies,” she said. “Most of the parts we are given are like two lines as a prostitute, a hooker, or maybe a Russian mafia person who’s not even Bulgarian. I thought I should not dream of such things.”
Her academic training prepared her for the task. As a drama major, she juggled audacious stage renditions of David Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” and Kafka’s “The Trial,” among others. These experimental renditions forced her to deal with unusual physical challenges before a live audience. “When you’re acting in a play, you can still make lapses or do something stupid, like falling on the stage, and you have to go with it,” she said. “This was a similar situation, but there were cameras watching us do it.”
At the National Academy, she studied under artistic director Ivan Dobchev, one of the pioneers of the Theatre Laboratory Sfumato. The term “Sfumato” describes the company’s acting technique, which draws on a painting concept popularized by Leonardo da Vinci that emphasizes subliminal messages and describes the blurry regions of a frame beyond the focus of the human eye. Bakalova credited that concept, along with a healthy appetite for Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, for preparing her to take on the challenge that “Borat” demanded — namely, pushing unsuspecting victims to reveal hidden biases.
“We had to trust our instincts,” she said. “You don’t know how these people will react. They’re all different. We prepared ourselves by talking about the goal of the scene. Theoretically, there is always a better joke, and Sacha is a perfectionist.”
The pair often workshopped lines in advance, waiting for the right moment to unleash them. That’s what happened when Bakalova asked a Dallas-based plastic surgeon if he “would make sex attack with me,” eliciting the cheerful and chilling reply, “If your father was not here.” Her subsequent high-five with Borat was genuine. “Anytime you say something like that, there is always a risk that somebody could start laughing or get really angry,” she said. “But sometimes they react in ways you could never imagine.”
She also learned the ropes of Borat’s language, mimicking the character’s crass mannerisms and stilted speech, while using a bastardized version of Bulgarian when interacting with him during subtitled bits. (He spoke mostly in Hebrew with a Russian accent.)
Bakalova developed such a powerful mind-meld to Baron Cohen that she found herself under duress when asked to perform without him. That included a pivotal cringe-inducing moment in Tutar’s evolution. While visiting a real-life gathering of Women Republicans at a hotel, Tutar heads to the bathroom and discovers the thrill of self-pleasure, rejecting the fear of her own body she has been taught in her home country. She then takes the stage to announce her newfound sexual freedom as the jaws of her middle-aged white audience hit the floor.
Prior to shooting the scene, the “Borat” writing team handed Bakalova a monologue that ran several pages and featured a graphic breakdown of masturbation. “I was freaking out,” she said. “I was not completely sure who Tutar was yet. I hadn’t established the character, Sacha wasn’t there, and I had been given this big monologue. Since I’m not fluent in English, I didn’t know what a lot of the words meant.”
In Bakalova’s telling, she started crying and shaking until Baron Cohen hopped on FaceTime. “He said, ‘I see that you’re nervous. Use it,’” she recalled. “He encouraged me to go with it, and I’ll always be grateful.”
Nothing in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” was more nerve-racking than the movie’s climactic Giuliani moment. Tricking the president’s deranged lawyer into a private hotel room to spout conspiracy theories about the coronavirus was a producing feat unto itself, but Bakalova had to maintain her performance all the way through the movie’s most shocking scene — when it appears as if America’s ex-mayor is pleasuring himself on a hotel bed, just in time for Borat to burst in.
A disgraced Giuliani later claimed he was fiddling with a microphone, while both Baron Cohen and Bakalova have been coy about the specifics. “Heaven knows what he’s done with other female journalists in hotel rooms,” Baron Cohen told “Good Morning America.”
Bakalova maintained the ambiguity. “I saw the same thing you saw,” she said, but was more forthcoming about her preparation. “I tried to believe I was this character, who was doing everything to save her father,” she said. “As Maria, I was doing everything to save the scene. I was using what I was given as a resource.”
When Giuliani reaching forward to grab her hands, she responded in turn by touching his leg. “He touched me first,” she said, and chuckled, lowering her eyes to avoid giving up too much about the movie’s newsworthy coup. “I was quite confident that I had to do the scene,” she said. “I’m not an American. I’ve only been here for a year. But I’m an actress, and I had a duty.”
Bakalova was more animated about Jeanise Jones, the babysitter who looks after Tutar and pushes her to recognize her independence. Audiences cheered the Oklahoma City grandmother’s sincere reactions to Tutar’s wildest provocations. Baron Cohen made headlines by donating $100,000 to Jones’ community; a separate crowdfunding campaign has scored her close to $200,000. Bakalova has yet to interact with her co-star out of character.
“I’m waiting for the right moment,” Bakalova said. “All day long, I was saying crazy things to her that were super-offensive, but she was still there for me. I want to talk to her and I want to hug her.” Bakalova choked up as she recalled the encounter. “She just wanted to help a young girl be a strong woman,” she said.
And perhaps she did. The “Borat” production — and Bakalova’s own introduction to American living — hit an unexpected jolt when the coronavirus shutdowns threw her potential breakout moment into limbo. She had just cut her hair for an upcoming scene that was subsequently killed. “I was here, alone, with no idea for how long, with my hair shaved,” she said, gesturing to the walls of her L.A. apartment. “We were just waiting to go on. By then, it was addictive. I’m not an addict. I just wanted to go back.”
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A few weeks later, production resumed as the writers worked in the pandemic to an ever-evolving plot, including Bakalova’s trip to the White House as a fake journalist in footage that didn’t make the final cut. “That was a place where you could get COVID, and it was quite scary, because my guardian angel wasn’t there,” she said, referencing Cohen. “I kept wondering, what if they find out I’m an actress?”
Nobody did; but now, many do, and Bakalova is experiencing a most unusual form of overnight fame. With the pandemic ruling out red carpets and afterparties, she has been forced to experience her emerging celebrity in mostly virtual terms. In November, she signed with CAA, but has yet to determine her next move on American soil. She continues to eye Danish cinema, geeking out about how her idol, actress Trine Dyrholm, followed her on Instagram, and she sang the praises of Thomas Vinterberg’s upcoming “Another Round,” the country’s Oscar submission. “I remembered why I love cinema that much,” she said.
Bakalova insists that she remains a dramatic actress, and the conviction she brings to Tutar proves it. She remained open about her next moves. “Only time will tell,” she said. “I want to do movies that have purpose and an impact on the world. Art is amazing for entertaining people, but if you can make people think while you’re entertaining them, it’s the most beautiful thing.”