Sacha Baron Cohen may be the star of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” but it is Maria Bakalova who has emerged its hero.
In this raucous prank comedy, now streaming on Amazon, Bakalova plays Tutar Sagdiyev, the downtrodden 15-year-old daughter of the titular Kazakh journalist portrayed by Baron Cohen. Raised in a barn and miseducated by her oblivious father, Tutar contrives a way to accompany Borat on his latest journey to the United States, becoming both the bait and the co-conspirator in her father’s schemes to deliver her to Vice President Mike Pence.
Through numerous awkward encounters with unsuspecting marks — including a now-infamous interview with Rudolph W. Giuliani — Tutar discovers her self-worth while calling attention to the quiet (and sometimes not-so-quiet) misogyny around her.
It is a breakthrough performance for Bakalova, a 24-year-old Bulgarian actress whose previous film and television work (including the Italian TV crime drama “Gomorrah”) had yet to bring her the kind of acclaim that one gains for playing a naïve teen who is unaware that women can read, drive or masturbate.
As Bakalova explained in a Zoom conversation on Tuesday, she sees the “Borat” sequel as being fundamentally the story of Tutar’s education and liberation. “It’s a movie of how a girl can grow up and should grow up,” she said, speaking from Los Angeles, where she currently lives. “How people can treat you as not equal because you’re a woman and what kind of options you have.”
For Bakalova, a prominent role in a major American film is also a satisfying opportunity to honor her home country.
“Things like that are not happening to people like us, Bulgarians,” she said. “Most of the time, there is eventually a small, small extra part in a movie, two or three lines as like a prostitute or a Mafia guy. I will be really grateful to Sacha for giving this platform to an Eastern European, to play a strong and complicated character who’s not just one thing.”
Bakalova spoke further about the making of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” her work with Baron Cohen and her highly scrutinized scene with Giuliani. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
What was your upbringing in Bulgaria like? How did you get into performing?
I started singing at the age of 5 or 6 and then I started flute lessons. But at some point, I wanted to explore more. I wanted to escape from reality. Because in acting, you can become anybody. You can do everything. You can live on Mars. I was really obsessed with Scandinavian cinema and the Dogme 95 movement, and inspired by actresses like Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Natalie Portman — how strong they can be and the important stories they can tell.
Were you ever a prankster or practical joker?
Actually, no. I was a super-disciplined child. I was reading too many books. I was obsessed with Dostoyevsky, at like 15, 16. When the first “Borat” movie was released [in 2006], I was 10, so I never even watched it before they gave me the part. But even if I had, I for sure wouldn’t have understood it.
How did you come to be cast in the sequel?
I heard from a friend there was an open call for the lead role in a Hollywood movie. And I was like, that’s not possible. We are Bulgarians. Nobody can actually see us in lead roles. I sent out self-tapes, then they called me for a screen test in London. But the project was so confidential, I was like, is this actually a project? I was sure it was going to be a human trafficking situation. I had no idea I was going to meet Sacha — it was a surprise.
How did you prepare with him in London?
There were three days of screen tests. The first one, we had a small rehearsal; the second one, we started working with real people. They had to believe that we’re real people, that we are not actors, for this to work for the movie. We had to stay undercover.
So it’s you and Sacha playing Tutar and Borat together. Who were you acting opposite and how did you pick them?
It was at a house and there was a super-sweet, nice old couple from England. And we went at them in our crazy way. I’m not quite sure that I know how they actually did it. At the same time, let’s not break the idea of how the magic is happening. Sacha is the person who knows how this whole machine is running.
As you started making the film, how did Sacha describe the character of Tutar to you?
Sacha explained that Tutar should be as crazy as Borat, maybe even crazier. She should be completely disoriented — what is right, what is wrong — and through this journey, she should learn how to be a normal human. It’s a satirical movie, it’s over the top, but he got me thinking about me what it would be like, living this life, even if it’s fake. He’d be like, would you be happy if people treated you this way — if the whole purpose of your life was to get married and live in a cage?
And how her perspective would be warped by a sexist manual that misinforms her about her own body?
The manual is a metaphor for how society and the patriarchy are asking us to behave and what people are expecting. Should I be ashamed that I menstruate? Should I be ashamed that I have body hair? Should I be ashamed that I’m a woman? That’s what Tutar has believed from the beginning, and Sacha wanted to show that in 2020, this is a moment when people should start treating each other equally.
When we first meet Tutar, she is in an extremely degraded state. How did you approach those scenes?
It’s something like hypnosis. You’re just going for it. We actually decided that I would grow out my real body hair. L.A.’s hot almost all the time. Every time I’m supposed to wear a dress or a top, you were able to see my armpit hair and leg hair. It was kind of gross. My facial hair never grows. I tried my best. But my eyebrows are never growing out. The facial part is because of my makeup artist, Katy Fray, but everything else is completely natural. It was so interesting when I finally shaved — I was able to feel the wind on my arms and my legs.
Were there ever times when it was hard for you to stay in character?
When Sacha starts doing his thing, and you’re right next to him, he has this super serious face. I have to act like it’s the most normal thing ever. But he’s so funny. There were moments when the scene was extremely funny and you just can’t stop laughing. It’s bad, because people were able to realize that it’s a joke. He taught me a trick to cross my fingers, to put pressure on my fingers, to stop laughing.
Were there any marks that you sympathized with? Jeanise Jones, the woman hired as Tutar’s babysitter, was extremely kind to you — did you feel you were deceiving her?
We spent maybe five, six hours with Jeanise and she is the person you see onscreen. She is just incredible. She’s not an actress — she just wanted to help Tutar and for Tutar to appreciate herself, to follow her dreams and educate herself. We need people like Jeanise. She is an angel.
Were there ever times when you felt that you were in physical danger?
Sacha, he’s my nonbiological father and he will be like that forever. So I trusted him from the beginning and I knew he would never put me in a dangerous situation. At the same time, we had a security team that was able to save us in a moment. Maybe the scene when we were at the hotel and Rudy Giuliani called the police, I was kind of scared that something would happen. But fortunately, we escaped.
Did you know who Giuliani was before you recorded your interview with him?
I knew who he was, because 9/11 is something everybody should know. It’s one of the hardest moments in recent history. But I’m not American, I don’t get into American politics. I don’t think I’m that informed with the situation in America and its political system. Sacha has been living here for a long time. I trust him.
How did you and Sacha prepare to shoot that scene?
We’d been talking a lot about different scenarios. How should I act, this way or this way? What should I do? What is smarter? But in all of the scenarios, I was confident that Sacha will save me and he will save the scene, so it’s not going to be a disaster. He’s my guardian angel.
Were you still nervous about filming it?
Yeah. I was nervous. My heart was racing. But Sacha was like, you should be nervous in this situation. So use your nerves. Convert them and accept them and they’re going to help you through everything.
Giuliani has said that he was never inappropriate to you and that he was tucking in his shirt, but other viewers believe he was doing something illicit. What happened in that scene?
[Laughs] I saw everything that you saw. If you saw the movie, that’s our message. We want everybody to see the movie and judge for themselves.
But did you come to a conclusion yourself as to what he was doing?
I believe it’s my back [to the camera] there, we can see what he’s doing in the mirror.
What do you think was taking place? You’re the only other person who was in the room. Did you have any other indication as to what he was doing?
[Long pause] What do you think he was doing?
I can see how either interpretation could be correct. But I wasn’t there, and you were. Do you have an opinion either way?
Sacha jumped into the room quickly, because he’s been worried about me. So, if he were late, I don’t know how things were going to go. But he came just in time.
Did Giuliani think that Tutar was 15 years old when he agreed to do the interview?
I’m not the person who is actually booking these people, so when we get to the scene, I’m just doing the scene, without introducing myself. I’m not sure what he knows or does not know.
Giuliani has been widely mocked and criticized for being duped by you and the “Borat” filmmakers. Do you feel bad at all for that?
Movies like this are showing people’s true colors. It’s going to show Jeanise’s true colors. It’s going to show the real character of [Judith Dim Evans], the lady in the synagogue. It’s going to show Rudy’s real character. You’re responsible for your own decisions. So, no, I don’t feel bad.
What have you since learned about Americans, living among them after the film’s release?
I was extremely happy to see how happy people were over the weekend [following the presidential election]. Because in my country, there has been years and years, through different systems, when people haven’t had the right to vote. Now seeing that people are actually voting, and all over the streets people were celebrating and crying and dancing and singing. It was probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in my life. It was really inspiring, seeing that there is, for the first time in history, a woman as vice president. Like in the movie, women can do anything. And sometimes we can do it better.