Bulgaria, a small Eastern European country of 7 million, is having a moment. For only the second time, Bulgarian is a main spoken language in a big Hollywood film. Joining 2004’s The Terminal is Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, with Bulgarian the language spoken by Borat’s daughter Tutar, played by Maria Bakalova in one of the breakout performances of 2020. The comedy has catapulted the unknown Bulgarian actress into global superstardom and major awards contention, with a slew of year-end awards to her name already.
Bakalova, 24, also has a small part in the Bulgarian Oscar entry The Father, giving a visibility boost to the Karlovy Vary-winning title. What’s more, The Father and its directors contributed to Bakalova’s big break in Borat 2.
In a Zoom chat conducted in their native tongue, Bakalova (whose last name is pronounced bah-KAH-loh-vah) shares her Cinderella story with fellow Bulgarian expat, Deadline’s Co-Editor-in-Chief, Nellie Andreeva, as well as the best, hardest and scariest moments from her work on Borat.
“I want more.”
That was the theme of Maria Bakalova’s monologue in her 2019 graduate performance showcase at the Bulgarian National Academy for Theater and Film Arts. Just weeks later, she would self-tape an audition for a mystery casting call that would change her life.
Growing up in the town of Burgas on the Black Sea, Bakalova’s first love was music, and she took singing and flute lessons. By the time she was around 12 or 13, that was no longer enough, and she expanded into acting.
At the performing arts high school in her hometown, where she was a straight-A student majoring in acting and minoring in flute, she started doodling the Hollywood sign on her desk, and jotted down thoughts about moving to L.A. in her notebooks.
“I started dreaming that I was arriving in Los Angeles, rolling my suitcase down those iconic palm tree-lined streets, with the Hollywood sign in the background, and I was telling myself, ‘I’m going to be a great movie star someday,’ ” recalls Bakalova, quoting Marilyn Monroe.
But as she entered her late teens, reality set in. “I told myself, these are just childhood dreams. There haven’t been any big Hollywood stars from Eastern Europe.” She tore the pages with her Hollywood plans out of her notebook and erased the drawings from her desk. She shifted focus to European cinema, where a successful career seemed more attainable, studied the works of top filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Emir Kusturica and Andrey Zvyagintsev and became a big fan of Danish films.
While the big screen had always been Bakalova’s goal, acting training in Bulgaria is traditionally geared heavily towards theater. A lot of what she did learn about movie acting, and which helped her give the performance in Borat, she owes to The Father’s directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov, two of the top Bulgarian filmmakers of the past decade. They taught the only film acting class at the Academy, and Bakalova loved it so much she volunteered to help Grozeva and Valchanov with scheduling and other tasks so that she could attend each week, not only when it was her turn to perform. She even traveled with them to the set of a film the pair were directing and rendered PA services for free just so she could watch and learn.
So, when one of the directors called her in her third year at the Academy to invite her to audition for a very small part in their new movie The Father, about a grieving patriarch reconnecting with his son after the sudden death of his wife, Bakalova was ecstatic. She landed the part and filmed her brief scene as the wife in a flashback as a young TV actress.
Bakalova wants people to watch The Father, she says, “Because it tackles a global problem; the problem of communication in the age of mobile devices that have become handy during the Covid quarantine, but that have also destroyed our ability to have a real conversation.” (You can watch a trailer at the bottom of the story featuring Bakalova at the very end.)
The Father has won a number of national and international awards, including the Crystal Globe at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. Nancy Bishop, the casting director for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, saw the movie and noticed Bakalova. As she sought a performer to play Borat’s daughter Tutar, she had already reached out to Shadow and Bone star Julian Kostov, a Bulgarian actor who has achieved success in the UK and the U.S., and had asked him to assist in finding young Bulgarian actresses to audition. Bakalova didn’t know Kostov then, but they became friends and are now producing partners.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm was, at that time, a project shrouded in secrecy. The casting call for the mysterious comedy movie was the talk of the party at the graduation bash for the Class of 2019 at the Bulgarian Academy. Virtually all the girls in Bakalova’s class had sent in audition tapes—along with the required NDAs—and were awaiting a response. But not Bakalova. She was skeptical about the project, and suspected something nefarious, like human trafficking.
Mostly out of peer pressure—“Well, I’m not going to be the only one who didn’t audition”—Bakalova recorded herself when she got home from the party at around 5 a.m.. On call for a movie shoot later that morning, she had time to do only two takes.
It was a challenge for her to overcome her fear of speaking in English, and the feelings of insecurity about her Bulgarian accent — something at the time she considered an insurmountable obstacle to a Hollywood acting career. She would stay up all night watching the Oscars live every year, telling herself, “God, why wasn’t I born in an English-speaking country so I could have a shot at being there?”
She has since accepted speaking with an accent. “It’s part of who you are,” she says now. “Part of your ethnic background, and not something to be ashamed of.”
A year later, and Bakalova marked the anniversary of her audition with an Instagram post from the house in Los Angeles where she was quarantining while filming Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Just as she’d dreamed, it had a view of the Hollywood sign. In a post written in Bulgarian, Bakalova chronicled her journey from making the tape as a joke, through the “scary” trip to London for the in-person audition, to working on what she called, “The greatest and funniest movie. EVER.” She included a video (with no sound) of that fateful first audition. You can watch it below.
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What made her trip to London scary were her lingering fears about trafficking. Because there was such deep secrecy surrounding the movie, she was so afraid she could be raped, killed or have her organs harvested that she concocted a plan, asking Kostov to wait outside when she walked into the first audition with Sacha Baron Cohen and his team, telling Kostov that she would be recording the encounter on her phone and, if things got hairy, she would slide it under the door for him to use it as evidence.
“I was ready to do anything. Even now I am ready to do anything, and maybe that comes out of my desire to be an actress. There were many risky moments during production, but we are actors, and art is above all.” Maria Bakalova
Of course, none of that happened, and she aced her first—and subsequent—in-person auditions, in which she was asked to improvise discovering all sorts of modern civilization amenities; seeing an AC unit, a door, a ceiling for the first time; trying to use a sink as a toilet; splashing her face with water from the toilet; eating fish from an aquarium.
There was one serendipitous moment from the first meeting. Bakalova, who had not seen the original Borat movie, was asked to act out having “a string in her brain that strains and pops,” a line Baron Cohen’s Borat uses in the movie’s babysitter scene. She belted out the song “Ederlezi” to everyone’s surprise; she had no idea the popular Balkan Romani folk song had served as the love theme in the first movie.
While she admits that she did a “a lot of crazy things” during the auditions and in the movie, she says, “I was ready to do anything. Even now I am ready to do anything, and maybe that comes out of my desire to be an actress. There were many risky moments during production, but we are actors, and art is above all.”
Those risky moments included filming at the pro-gun March for Our Rights, where Baron Cohen was chased off the stage after leading attendees in a racist sing-along. Bakalova was at the rally as a TV news reporter interviewing participants, and Baron Cohen’s lyrics actually referenced her and pinpointed her location in the crowd.
“It was pretty scary,” Bakalova says of their swift getaway in the news van.
She admits, too, to feeling pressure heading into the interview with Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, recognizing the importance of the scene for the movie, which had a limited time to shoot a finale because Baron Cohen was determined to release the movie on October 23, before the U.S. residential election in November.
Her preparation including researching, in great detail, Giuliani’s career, but it also involved coming up with plans for what to do if Baron Cohen couldn’t emerge from his hiding place in the closet; she studied exit routes and memorized the locations of the production’s security guards.
Acting out outrageous stunts in unpredictable situations with unsuspecting regular people was not easy; Bakalova recalled a panic attack she had before her first big solo scene without Baron Cohen by her side when she, as Tutar, had to give a speech about masturbation at the Hillsborough Republican Women’s Club Meeting.
Also challenging were her multi-language dialogues with Baron Cohen. In the movie, Bakalova speaks in her native Bulgarian, while he speaks Hebrew and a little bit of Polish. Neither of them understood a word the other was saying. And yet they had meaningful conversations not only when alone but also in front of other people. (The vast majority of the lines made it to the English subtitles intact, with just a few changed in post-production as the script kept evolving throughout the shoot.)
The key was having plenty of rehearsals in English, so when they did a scene, she says, “You know what the conversation is about; I don’t understand what he is saying but I have the script playing in my head.”
It was a line by Bakalova—“Glytnah bebeto” (“I swallowed the baby”)—that became emblematic of the movie and memorized by fans across the globe. In addition to being part of a funny gag, Bakalova attributes the catchphrase’s popularity to what happens after Tutar swallows the plastic baby, “the very important issue about a woman’s right to choose.”
That scene was part of the film’s female empowerment storyline, and its surprisingly emotional punch that was delivered by Bakalova, showing the range of her acting abilities, as well as unsuspecting contributors like holocaust survivor Judith Dim Evans, whose line “Let’s make love, not war” sums up the message of the entire film, Bakalova says, and her “guardian angel” babysitter Janice Jones whose “You are beautiful” monologue played a pivotal role in Tutar’s awakening. These are two of Bakalova’s favorite moments in the movie.
Working with CAA, Bakalova, whose Bulgarian movie roles are largely dramatic, is now plotting her Borat follow-up. Her “Danish dream” is still very much alive, so she could head to the land of Hamlet next.
She also has been raking in major awards for Borat, making a potential Academy Award nomination not so out of reach.
While she says she would feel extremely lucky to fulfill her childhood dream of attending the Oscars, “that’s not something where I would feel like I’ve made it,” Bakalova says. “It would rather represent me starting to take the first step toward building a career, and it would restore my own belief that anything is possible.”
Bakalova’s Borat‘s success already has done that for others. As Bakalova is adjusting to the limelight, the biggest gift for her has been opening the door for underrepresented Eastern European actors in Hollywood, she says.
“That has been the most gratifying thing, giving people hope that it is possible. That if you give it your all, it could happen to you. Why not?”