“It has been, like, teenage pregnancy or teenager with mental illness or teenager with disabilities or teenager with transgressive relationship with her father or teenager who is about to commit suicide,” says Maria Bakalova, rattling through a list of previous film and theatre roles in her accented, machine-gun English.
The 24-year-old Bulgarian actress, who plays Borat’s daughter Tutar in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, is both the film’s secret weapon and its breakout success. Delivering a performance that manages to be as guileless as it is fearless, Bakalova’s transition from “really hard, depressive parts” to improvised, character-based comedy seems to have been effortless. But actually, she says, comedy is perhaps even harder: “You have to react to a situation in a way which is as serious as in a drama, but the problem is smaller somehow and that makes it funny.”
There was also the fact that, working alongside Sacha Baron Cohen, whom she describes as “my mentor and teacher”, it was sometimes hard to keep a straight face. Baron Cohen coached her in techniques to avoid the ever-present risk of corpsing during a scene. “He said when you feel like you’re going to be kind of exposed, or you’re about to laugh out loud, just concentrate and go deep inside the character,” says Bakalova. “Believing, believing that this person actually exists. And that was helpful — I was able to go deep inside and live her life.”
Bakalova was born in Burgas, Bulgaria in 1996 — around the same time, she gleefully points out, that Baron Cohen and his Borat collaborators first started working together. An early interest in music — she trained as a singer and flautist — evolved into a passion for acting, and she trained at drama/art schools in Burgas and Sofia. “I want to escape, to live different lives,” she says. “I decided that I am going to try to be an actor because this is going to give me wings and I am going to fly all over the world.”
Even so, when she was first invited to audition for the Borat sequel by a casting director who had seen her supporting performance in The Father (Bulgaria’s candidate this year for the international feature film Oscar, which began its festival run at Karlovy Vary in July 2019), Bakalova was doubtful.
People assumed she was joking when she mentioned in previous interviews her first thought was that it was a human-trafficking scam. But she is at pains to point out that she was serious in her concerns. “I mention that and it sounds weird, but in Eastern Europe human trafficking is a big problem. I was thinking, ‘Is this real? Can they actually give me that huge a chance?’”
Bakalova recorded several audition tapes — one of which was cobbled together in a forest during the shoot for another film, using a phone with no reception — and was then summoned to London to meet Baron Cohen. There she proved her mettle through a series of auditions during which, among other things, she attempted to eat live fish from an aquarium. “There were three people that I tested with alone, and none of them recognised that I’m an actor,” she recalls. “Probably that gave them hope I might handle this movie.”
The natural exuberance that makes her such an engaging film presence is heightened when she talks to Screen — she has woken up to the news the New York Film Critics Circle named her best supporting actress. “I’m losing my mind. I had the best morning ever.”
Even coasting on the news of her win, Bakalova admits the film — which reached a large global audience courtesy of Amazon Studios — presented challenges. She says the toughest scene was a monologue, originally conceived as a dialogue with Baron Cohen, about the joys of self-pleasure delivered to a stony audience at a conservative women’s centre. She was crippled with nerves.
“I start shaking and crying, shaking and crying. They are fixing my make-up, I’m crying. They fix my make-up again, I cry again. And Sacha jumped on the phone and said, ‘Use your nerves. Your adrenaline is with you there. Just use it.’ He somehow emotionally prepared me to handle the scene.”
Another scene required her to shave off her hair. “I was so ready for it. I love V For Vendetta with Natalie Portman when she is shaving her hair. Or Demi Moore shaving her hair [in G.I. Jane]. I was, like, ‘I am going to be one of these actresses and it’s going to be an important, impactful scene. Tutar becoming strong, independent.’ Then the next day they said, ‘We decided not to use it. Here’s a wig.’” She laughs. “It is what it is.”
With the momentum of Tutar behind her, what is Bakalova looking to do next? “No limits. I have an open mind. Because the bar is really high now. I am really grateful that people actually liked it and it touched them. Now, I want to work on a project which is worth something and that is going to make an impact on the world. Make art valuable. Make films not only to entertain but to make the world a better place.”
And will she be taking anything she learned from the Borat process into future projects? “I don’t think there is going to be a role similar to this one. But for me as an actor, it has made me more confident. I have learned that actors — and artists — should be ready to risk everything because they might win everything. How is it? Go high or go home? Something like that.”