Maria Bakalova is one of the most acclaimed breakout stars of the year for her audacious performance as Tutar in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” The Bulgarian actress has picked up the Best Supporting Actress awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Society of Film Critics and many more.
Bakalova recently spoke with Gold Derby editor Rob Licuria about how her life has changed since starring in “Borat Subseqent Moviefilm,” the lessons of the film and what it was like filming *that* scene with Rudy Giuliani. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the transcript below.
Gold Derby: Maria, I would never have imagined that the true hero of the “Borat” sequel is Tutar, his sheltered, devoted and ultimately brilliant daughter. I just loved her and I was following her and I wanted her to succeed and by the end, I was standing and clapping for her. Is that how you feel about her? Do you love her as well?
Maria Bakalova: I love Tutar as a character and Tutar actually taught me a lot [about] how to pursue my dreams, how to fulfill everything that I want to do. I mean, I’m coming from Bulgaria. I’m coming from a small country, Bulgaria, not even the capital of Bulgaria and I don’t have my parents and all of my relatives, they are not even in the industry, neither musicians nor artists at all. And I’ve been always like, “Is this ever going to happen? I mean, I’m coming from nowhere. Should I follow my dreams? Should I be that ambitious? Is it possible?” And same as Tutar. I had my godmother in Bulgaria that was pushing me harder, “You can do it. You can do it,” and I met my second godmother, probably my biggest one, Jeanise Jones, even today I keep thinking about her as a human being and yeah, I’m extremely happy with Tutar’s journey that we all experienced and I think it’s quite motivating [to] a lot of the girls all over the world how they can be everything.
GD: Yeah, I never thought of it that way because obviously back in Bulgaria, you’re a trained actor and you’ve been in other roles. I think you were in “Gomorrah,” the Italian show, which I love, by the way. That’s a whole other story. We’ll do another interview another time on that one. But your journey is so interesting because you have come out of a small Eastern European country and now you’re a big star in a big movie in Los Angeles. It must be surreal. I know it’s obvious to ask this question, but how actually has this movie changed your life? It’s like another planet.
MB: It is another planet. Probably the biggest achievement that I can say that I have in general is that I receive tons of messages from kids around the world that their hope has never been stronger in that they can be whatever they want to be. Because I think that even in the movie, there is a big message behind it that no matter our differences, no matter what we believe in, because an example of this is also Jim and Jerry, Sacha [Baron Cohen]’s friends, they believe that Hillary Clinton drinks blood from young people, but at the same time, they’re good people, and as a human being, this should not change our expectations, how we’re treating people. If you believe in something else, if you look different, if you’re sexually-oriented different, you can still be a good person and we should all support each other every step of the way and somehow maybe this is the biggest achievement in general, but also as my real personal life, I’m with the CAA now, and probably for me this is the most important thing and they’ve been taking care of me, like finding me other jobs, auditions, meetings and it’s big. It’s something that I’ve never thought was able to happen.
GD: It’s a fairy tale. That’s what it feels like. It really does. What you say about the people that you encounter in the U.S. is really interesting because some of those things are so uncomfortable. They’re embarrassing, they’re awkward, and they’re with everyday Americans and people that we know very well, which we’ll talk about later. You’ve answered this, but I’m curious to know more what you think, because they say and do some really horrible things and we don’t agree with them politically, and yet, there’s something about them all that were very humanized and I think that’s what this film does better than any other film, I think. It really opened my eyes to the other side. Do you agree that that’s a very difficult thing to get right, but your film seemed to really have done that quite successfully?
MB: I’m not completely sure that I understand the question. I believe that Sacha has been saying that the movie is quite political. Me as not American. I can’t say that I’m completely familiar with American policy, American politicians at all, because I’ve been living here for maybe max almost two years. So it’s ridiculous to say that I have a position completely. But yeah, I met a lot of people that, at the end of the day, we’re all humans. We’re all right, so I’m not sure how to answer that question.
GD: No, I think that’s actually exactly right. But I think what I’m trying to say is not very succinctly, I’m sorry, is these people are saying and doing horrible things, like they believe Hillary Clinton drinks whatever, but they were quite likable and normal people. You never see that. On TV, at the protests or whatever you think, “They’re all horrible.” But they’re actually not. They’re just different. And did that open your eyes?
MB: Yeah, for me as an audience, because I watched the movie, too, hundreds of times, and every single time I’m seeing good things in most of the people no matter the fact that the situations are exaggerated, everything is over the top. It’s too much. I mean, I’m speaking with this ridiculous voice that is still in my head. Like, I completely forget at some point that I’m speaking with falsetto for the last two years. And one day when I was with my friends, I was like (voices Tutar) and they were like, “Jesus Christ, what is happening with you? Why are you speaking like that?” Because I was keeping quiet about the project that I was working on. They were like, “Are we in a puppet theater chamber specialty?” Because I come from a completely dramatic background and yeah, it was different. But in the movie we’re showing, I believe we are showing that people can be good people no matter the fact of what they believe in, are they conservatives, are they liberals, they can be good people, and they are.
GD: But the flip side is this. You’re showing people at their most honest. They’re being filmed. A lot of them don’t know they’re being filmed and they’re saying and doing things and maybe people have an issue with that. You’ve kind of exposed someone without their consent. But my view is, if you’ve got nothing to hide, then you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Do you agree?
MB: Yeah, I completely agree that, first of all, I’m too honest as a human being, I think this is my problem. Recently a friend of mine, when we were hanging out, she told me, “Jesus Christ, I’ve never seen something like this. It’s like your brain has a mouth.” I was like, “I know! I know!” I mean, there is not even a single moment from me thinking about saying something. This is the only part. But at the same time, because of this movie and because I’ve seen it so many times, I was like, “So maybe we should think about what are we doing. What are our actions before we do something?” Because this can affect somebody and somebody’s attitude. So we should be more responsible of what we are doing, not so impulsive Me, too. That’s why I’m thinking about, “OK, what should I change now? What should I do now better and how to become a better person?”
GD: I agree. I have no filter. So I just say things and then I’m like, “Oh, sorry.” So we’re the same in that respect. So I get it and this film teaches you, “Well, maybe be careful what you say to certain people, you never know. You might offend them.” But anyway.
MB: Yeah, I mean, especially, as you said, if you have something to hide, maybe think carefully [about] what you’re doing before you do it.
GD: I wonder as well, both you and Sacha Baron Cohen, you have to stay in character for a really long time, I would imagine, when you’re setting the scene and it’s being shot in however secret way. I still don’t really understand how it’s done. But staying in character, is that exhausting? Was very difficult to do?
MB:] I think it’s quite confusing because I remember when we were talking recently with Sacha, and he was like, “At some point, I forget, am I Borat? Am I Sacha,” when he lived like five days in this house with these people in character. And I remember the director, Jason Woliner, who I completely love and appreciate — I am extremely thankful for everything that he did for me — he reminded me of the story of the babysitter Jeanise, because at some point there was a break and everybody left the house. All of the equipment, the camera department, the directors, the scriptwriters, Sacha, and we had to change location and they forgot about me. They basically left me there without this to be in the plan and I was still going, ‘Okay, I’m still Tutar,” and I’m still doing things and it is quite confusing because it’s like method acting. It’s going so much deep in your brain and you’re like, “Who am I?” It might be quite exhausting, especially mentally.
GD: Yeah. I don’t know how you do it, but I mean, thankfully you’ve got training because I would probably go mad. Speaking of Jeanise Jones, I really loved what she brought to the film. I felt a little bad for her, ‘cause she wasn’t in on the joke. But the film does not make it out to be a bad person. In fact, we all love her. Have you spoken to her since you shot the film?
MB: Yes, I called her for the first time because I was not so sure how to do it properly, because even in the scene, I was crying for real and I was that close to breaking my character because she was such an angel, really. I don’t even know what other word to use, because she’s the perfect example of an angel, and when I talked with her, I was thinking that it should be kind of special. So I decided because it was my first Thanksgiving that I was celebrating here this year and I called her, I was like, “I just want to thank you for everything that you did for me and even for me as Maria and showing me how we should all treat each other better. We should all support each other,” because you have no idea, I kept repeating the same stupid question over and over again, and she would keep politely listening to me and trying to educate me what is right, what is wrong, how I should be strong, how I should appreciate what I am and how I should not dedicate my life to please other people except me, especially for things like how you look like. It’s ridiculous, right? We are all wearing this makeup and clothes but even if you’re doing it, it should be more for your confidence and for your well-being rather than to just fit in some stereotype of something. So when I called her on Thanksgiving, she was the same angel that we all saw in the movie and I’ve been texting with her recently more because I want to keep this relationship going somehow. COVID is not helping with it because she’s in another state. So I would love to travel and see her and hug her and kiss her, but I can’t because it’s COVID and it’s not responsible.
GD: So you have to wait, but it makes me really happy that you guys have reconnected and obviously she seems receptive to you as well, which is a really lovely story. That’s great.
MB: I felt guilty that I wasn’t able to be completely honest with her, no matter the fact that I was believing that I’m living Tutar’s life, but I was worried that she’d been still worrying about this person, this Tutar, until the day we released the movie and she found out that this girl is just a character and that made my heart melt, that she’s been still remembering me and worried about me and it’s been just beautiful and touching and everything.
GD: It really is. It’s the highlight of the film. There’s a lot of controversy, which we’ll talk about now, but the Jeanise Jones stuff really surprised me. I didn’t see it coming and that’s what I think elevates this film to more than just a prank funny comedy. It’s actually really an interesting kind of portrait of America and it says a lot of really horrible things, but it does a lot of really beautiful things, too. Anyway, we’ll run out of time if I just keep blabbering. But I did want to talk about the Giuliani scene. I know everybody wants to talk about Giuliani with you. I could not believe what I was seeing with my own eyes, how you were able to remain in character. You had this man who is very well-known and got him in a hotel room, and then obviously we see what we see. It’s exploded across the world in terms of the story and you’re right at the center of it. How does that feel to be a part of this thing that people will talk about for years to come?
MB: I knew that this is an important scene for the movie and first of all, as an actress, I had to do it. Maybe what kind of relaxed me was that I’m not at all American and I wasn’t that scared and because Sacha and the team also made me feel that I’m safe in any kind of way, because we did everything completely legally. Everything was absolutely legal in every scene that we did and also, Sacha not only is a producer, actor and creator of this movie, as a human being, he’s been always like a father to me, fighting and protecting me. So I was quite worried because I was alone in the scene. I’m worried in every scene that I’m alone, but especially with this one. I remember that I was learning his full biography the night before with Nicole, Sacha’s personal assistant. I was falling asleep as she was reading me facts and facts and facts. So I was kind of prepared and also, Sacha was in the closet, so he was able to come and save me from everything. So it was an interesting situation. But again, I’m not American. I’m not into American politics, so maybe that’s how.
GD: It probably helped. But yeah, when he stormed into the room and screamed that Tutar was too old for him, I mean, I just laughed so hard and to see you guys running on the street with his ridiculous underwear, it was a good moment. One of the greatest moments of the whole year. I also really enjoyed two other scenes, three, actually. The pro-life clinic where Tutar has a baby inside of her was just gold. How do you keep a straight face? That is just ridiculous. It’s so funny.
MB: It was really funny because Sacha is also super convincing right next to me. And he’s like, “Yeah, can you take it out now, please?” I was quite shocked when I found out that right next to medical centers here in America, there are these places called pregnancy crisis centers where people are actually trying to make you keep the baby, no matter if you wanted it. I mean, if I was raped, should I give birth? I don’t know. It’s a difficult situation and for me as a person, I need to have a choice in everything that I’m doing. It’s an important scene. But at the same time, it was funny that it had to be serious because, behind the joke, there is another big question, not even a message. It’s a question. “Is this right or is this wrong to take the choice from people?” It should not be right, for me. I don’t know.
GD: Yeah, that’s what I mean. It’s profoundly interesting in the issues that it’s raising, but it does it in such a funny way that there’s nothing else quite like it. On the other hand, you’ve got the fake menstrual blood at this cotillion ball, which was so ridiculously funny, the look on their faces. And you just went there. The dancing, the lifting up the skirt. I think for that, they should hand you an Oscar. Talk to me about that scene because it was so funny. It’s so ridiculous but so funny.
MB: That scene, for me, also is probably the most important scene. And maybe that’s why I’m a little bit sad that COVID didn’t help for people watching this movie together because that kind of humor is also contagious. I imagine if there more than three or four people is what is acceptable, if it was like hundreds of people around, there was going to be a big laugh, people rolling on the floor. Yes, it is funny. And at the beginning, most of the people are actually really supportive no matter this kind of music and they’re clapping and it’s sweet and it’s cute because I’m coming from this weird country and I’m with my father, they’re laughing and smiling and at the same time, you’re showing this huge amount of blood, and I remember when we finished the dance, the whole floor was full of blood and I was even able to slip on the floor because it was so wet and it was kind of gross. But it wasn’t real blood.
GD: No, no, but yeah, I watched it with a bunch of people and we were screaming. It was just the best. I think we just needed this film to come out. We’ve gone through so much this year as a world, and to see that this film made us all laugh so much — but what I’ll take most away, my final question, is the ending. I did not see it coming with Tutar and Borat. She’s now an acclaimed Kazakh journalist and they’re covering the parade and to have those Americans now being laughed at, the tables were turned and I just found that so profound. I did not see it coming. What did you think of the ending?
MB: The running from the Yankees! In the original movie, it’s running from the Jews. So now Borat realizes that this is not the problem anymore because he’s been to America again and probably Sacha knows better because he’s the creator of this, but because of this journey, they learn that it doesn’t matter. I don’t know if I’m right, but it doesn’t matter that America is so much bigger than their country. There are still issues that are even worse than in some smaller countries and we should do our best to keep things going better somehow and should be responsible about COVID. I mean, here comes Miss America and she has a gun. I’m sorry, but it’s horrible.
GD: Yeah, it’s very cutting and incisive. I just think it was perfect. I’ll congratulate Sacha Baron Cohen if I ever speak to him. But in the meantime, Maria, thank you so much for your time and thanks so much for making us laugh. You really made me laugh more than anybody else this year.
MB: You have no idea how much I appreciate what you’re saying right now, because my background is really dramatic parts, like teenage pregnancy, teenager with disabilities, with mental illness, with suicidal thoughts, with transgressive affair with her father and those kinds of things, and being able to be a part of a comedy and playing a comedic part, this is my comedic debut, now I’m even more interested and I want to dig deep inside this comedy space. So, thank you so much.
Edited to add: Although mentioned in the video, Bakalova did not appear in the Italian series “Gomorrah” as indicated by IMDB.