Maria Bakalova: ‘I dedicate every award to all the eastern European actors’ | Movies

Bulgarian actor Maria Bakalova broke through last year as Sacha Baron Cohen’s co-star in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. She has won more than 20 awards for the performance, including best supporting actress at the Critics’ Choice awards last month, and has been nominated for a Golden Globe, a Bafta and an Academy Award.

This year, we have all put more effort into getting dressed from the waist up for the benefit of a work Zoom call. Actor Maria Bakalova has been doing the same, only in her case she has been getting fully dressed and made-up for red-carpet events, while wearing slippers and pyjamas just off-screen. “The past 12 months have been really crazy,” she says over the phone now. “Probably it’s a little bit different from the normal way of becoming famous. It’s been… interesting!”

The 24-year-old Bulgarian actor has had to attend quite a few of these virtual ceremonies recently. Bakalova shot to international fame last year after starring in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, the follow-up to Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 mockumentary in which he posed as a Kazakhstani journalist travelling around the United States. Bakalova plays Borat’s daughter, Tutar, a breath of fresh air in the film, pairing its trademark gross-out humour with genuine pathos and emotion.

Tutar’s character arc, from semi-feral creature to sophisticated and ambitious woman, has endeared Bakalova to both audiences and critics. So far, she has won more than 20 awards for the performance, as well as garnering nominations for an Academy Award, a Bafta, Screen Actors Guild award and a Golden Globe. Her biggest win to date was last month’s Critics’ Choice for best supporting actress. “I was just enjoying the fact that they were saying my name right next to Olivia Colman and Glenn Close’s, and I was so happy,” she recalls. When her name was read out as the winner, she “didn’t realise it at the beginning at all – I wasn’t prepared.”

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Maria Bakalova and Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Photograph: Courtesy of Amazon Studios/AP

Bakalova has had to learn to be adaptable. The Covid-19 pandemic hit while they were still shooting Borat: production was paused and it looked like everything might have to grind to a halt. But after working with public health experts they decided to go ahead, providing PPE and constant testing for cast and crew. (The experience will serve her well in upcoming Judd Apatow comedy The Bubble, about a film production during the pandemic.)

Given the events of last year, says Bakalova, comedy is more vital than ever. “People have been struggling and we need things that will make us laugh – it’s important.” Beneath the slapstick humour, Borat also addresses issues of immigration, racism and corruption; and in the tender scenes with babysitter Jeanise Jones, the film looks at what it means to be a woman in 2021. “It’s the new world, or it should be,” says Bakalova. “But in a lot of places, the patriarchy still exists, misogyny still exists. We’re not treating each other equally, which for me is not right.”

Bakalova made headlines last year for a scene in the movie in which she posed as a journalist to interview former New York mayor turned Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Giuliani appeared to behave inappropriately towards her. “I had to be as convincing as I could and not ruin the scene, not ruin the movie – my heart was racing like crazy.” Fortunately, Baron Cohen, in character as Borat, came in at just the right moment and put an end to the interview. “We had to run away from the police immediately. It was nerve-racking.”

As the first Bulgarian actress to be nominated for an Academy Award, she hopes her success will open doors for others. “I dedicate every single award to all the eastern European actors who can recognise themselves in me, because we’re from this region that hasn’t been recognised much in western cinema. That’s what I’m fighting for.”

Bakalova is not sure yet whether she’ll be able to attend the Oscars in person or not; if she does, she hopes to take her mum as her guest. “Oh my god, these people have been my idols since I was a little girl,” she says. “Being able to be in the same place as them is going to be – I guess the next best day of my life.”

The Golden Globe nominees for best comedy or musical actress during the virtual ceremony in February
The Golden Globe nominees for best comedy or musical actress during the virtual ceremony in February, clockwise from top left: Maria Bakalova, Kate Hudson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Rosamund Pike, and Anya Taylor-Joy. Photograph: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

Best award you’ve ever won?
For sure the biggest one is Critics’ Choice, but all of these awards have been everything to me.

Favourite awards ceremony anecdote?
Probably all the ceremonies we did virtually have been kind of funny. But hopefully it’s still to come – probably in April!

What do you look for in an awards outfit?
I’m delegating that to my stylist and friend Jessica Paster. I completely trust her.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is available on Amazon Prime

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