Maria Bakalova on Borat, Bodies Bodies and the MCU

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Photo: Tania Franco Klein

Maria Bakalova is not concerned to get hurt. There’s even a kind of twisted pleasure, she says, in knowing that you can take it. Smiling into her computer camera, the 26-year-old shows me her bruises, remnants of a movie she just shot in her native Bulgaria: blue-green marks covering both elbows, a few scratches still red and inflamed on the back of his hand. She’s more concerned about hurting someone else, like when she was filming horror comedy A24 Body Body Body. In a scene from the film, out this week, a group of longtime friends and their new partners sit cross-legged on the floor to enact a ritual of ice-breaking and crossing boundaries: one by one , they turn to their right and slap each other. their neighbor’s shit – who then turns to their right and slaps the next person’s shit.

“I was so aware when I hit someone because I don’t really know my strength,” said Bakalova, who plays newcomer Bee. She tried to get away with the lightest love tap possible, but the script required her to make contact. “And I think one of the times my hand was just too heavy, honestly.” Slap! ran his palm over Pete Davidson’s face.

Bakalova’s entry into Hollywood was equally intense: she co-starred in the sequel to a genre-defining satire and made real-world international news as the center of a Trumpworld imbroglio. At Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat Next Movie (2020), she played Tutar, Borat’s 15-year-old half-wild daughter, and confronted unsuspecting Americans with her pranks. Bakalova swallowed a baby-shaped cupcake topper, then told an anti-abortion pastor, “I have a baby inside me, and I want to take it out of me.” She gave an impassioned speech to a room full of frowning conservative women about her first masturbation. And most notoriously, she interviewed – and, as a kind of right-wing sexual sacrifice, offered herself to – Rudy Giuliani. The camera caught Trump’s lawyer smiling and patting Bakalova on her lower back, lying on the bed and fidgeting with the waistline of his pants before Baron Cohen rushed in to interrupt him .

Bakalova and Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat next movie.
Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

When Bakalova sent her audition tape to the Borat open call, she had never made a film in English; she says she half expected a drug test in London to be ‘a human trafficking situation’. Instead, she became Baron Cohen’s foil, co-conspirator and surprise supplanter. If improvisation is about saying “Yes, and”, Bakalova made it clear that, yes, Baron Cohen was up to his old tricks and that she had turned her film into a coming-of-age film for a teenage girl. She was nominated for an Oscar for the role, becoming the first Bulgarian actor to achieve this recognition.

“I’ve always been extremely shy,” she says. “So when I was in school, everyone was guessing me, guessing me in ninth grade, guessing me in ninth grade: ‘She’s not able to communicate with people. What’s she going to do? do there? But in my weird mind, I was like, Well, it won’t be me. It will be someone else – someone with different dreams, with different hopes, with different problems as well.

Bakalova now lives in LA and has spent the past three years working on comedies, from Borat to the Judd Apatow Netflix movie The bubble at Body Body Body. She speaks fast, filling in the silences with her vivid descriptions. Everything is “so creepy” this or “so creepy” that.

“Am I funny?” Bakalova wonders aloud. She decides she isn’t. “I think I’m just clumsy and weird.”

In Body, his character is the plus-one of his new girlfriend, Sophie (Amandla Stenberg), who invites him for a weekend of debauched reunion at an upstate New York mansion. A hurricane hits and the group decides to play a casual thriller game that quickly turns deadly. This is Index featuring a new song by Charli XCX and a TikTok dance break. The other women, played by Rachel Sennott, Chase Sui Wonders and Myha’la Herrold, have rich parents and rich girl issues – it’s all sarcasm, tattoos, buzzwords, crop tops and eyes rolls. Sophie is the kind of leader who never answers in group chat, and Bakalova’s bee is desperately trying to be cool and fit in. Borat, Bakalova doesn’t drive the movie’s jokes; if his character is funny, it’s by accident. When Sophie introduces her to the group, Bee gives these wealthy friends homemade zucchini bread wrapped in foil. They receive it as awkwardly as she presents it.

Body‘, Halina Reijn, says she sought out Bakalova for the role after seeing her in Borate. She wanted someone who could pull off the character’s goofy humor, and as a former actress herself, she liked that Bakalova had a theatrical background. “For me, the film is really about the primal need to belong, and we were looking for someone who would represent the outsider,” says Reijn. “Everyone wants to be funny because it’s very direct and you get immediate gratification. But a role like Bee is more about building – she’s watching and that’s who we go on the journey with.

Amandla Stenberg and Bakalova in Body Body Body.
Photo: Eric Chakeen/A24/Eric Chakeen

Bakalova grew up in Burgas, Bulgaria, where she was an accomplished young singer. In high school, she wanted to try something new. “I was a drama queen: Life is so difficult! Everything is so bad! I’m depressed about everything! And I wanted to escape,” she says. During a period when she was on vocal rest, an older drama teacher came to work at her school. Bakalova thought he looked like a movie star with his long black coat, beret and dark glasses; he was so glamorous that she immediately wanted to study with him. When acting classes were canceled – there were not enough students enrolled – Bakalova’s mother wrote a letter to the government urging him to start the program again and listing her teenage daughter’s accomplishments as a singer. It worked, and Bakalova became one of only three people to sign up for classes.

But she had no idea how to break into the cinema. She watched American films and dreamed of making them. She learned about Danish cinema and became obsessed with it. She scribbled quotes from Marilyn Monroe on her desk. “I started paying attention to certain credits at the end of movies, and there weren’t a lot of Eastern European names like mine, with -ova Where -ava at the end,” she said. “So I was like, Uh, so that’s never gonna happen.“Then, when she was 22 and had just completed her drama degree at the National Academy of Theater and Film Arts in Sofia, she was chosen to Borate.

“My first impression of Maria was that she was deeply thoughtful, rather introverted, gentle and very mysterious,” says Stenberg, who first met her when they started filming. Body. “And then, as I got to know her better, I realized she was basically an anarchist. She’s just this punk actress in a Louis Vuitton bomber jacket. Stenberg, who is queer, says that they liked that Bakalova deferred to them when it came to playing their couple: What were Stenberg’s experiences with relationships? What should the power dynamics be? “I really appreciated that she was so willing to put my point across,” Stenberg said. (I ask Bakalova if she’s in a relationship herself. “Only with my computer and my phone,” she says.)

The challenge for Bakalova was to let her character crumble in her tense, self-aware way. She views Bee as a first-generation immigrant “always trying to feel the ground”, and while she doesn’t relate to Bee’s personality, she does relate to that experience. The character is often silent, waiting for a lull in the conversation before they can introduce themselves. If she cracks a joke, she’s mauled by her own lukewarm delivery. “Maybe, like all of us, she’ll try to be funny to break the ice. But she’ll fail because she’s not a funny person, and her humor probably won’t land properly in this. country because she’s a foreigner,” Bakalova says. “Even when I try to crack jokes, I think people mostly laugh because of my accent or because of my facial expressions, not because of the jokes I do.”

Bakalova never had much opportunity to study English at school. When she was working on Borat Next Movie, just a few years ago, she was still so insecure about her language skills that she was afraid to ask what time it was. Bakalova says Hollywood typically brushes off actors with accents, relegating them to petty or stereotypical roles. She wants to change that. As she joins the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a role in James Gunn’s third guardians of the galaxy film – she will play telepathic dog Cosmo the Spacedog, based on real Soviet space dog Laika – she has also started her own production company and wants to use it to help more Eastern Europeans get into film work. “There are a lot of characters representing Eastern European culture or Russian culture in American movies, but those auditions don’t even reach people from that part of the world,” she says. “It usually goes to a huge, big star or someone who has absolutely no knowledge of the culture.”

When Bakalova was in school, she wasn’t aiming for Marvel. She dreamed of starring in the kinds of movies that Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg made as part of Dogma 95 — lean, morally ambiguous character studies with no sets or special effects. She hoped to move to Denmark and find work there and even started to learn Danish. But then she was thrown in Borate.

“I had a solid year working on a political satire. So by the time the movie came out, I was soaked in this world of comedy where I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing,” she said. “It was an unusual turn to want to be in A dancer in the night at Borat Next Movie, but who knows? They are both extreme in one way or another.

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