Maria Bakalova: "I had no idea that I could be funny"

by Gabriel Lerman November 21, 2020
Maria Bakalova

Felicity Kay

From the instant Borat Subsequent Moviefilm launched on Amazon at the end of October, Maria Bakalova was the girl of the moment. In a matter of days, she went from total unknown to the top of IMDB STARMeter, signed up with CAA, one of the largest agencies in Hollywood, and her character, Tutar, became a household name in popular culture among young fans. The native of Burgas, Bulgaria, studied drama theater in her hometown and last year graduated from Krastyo Sarafov National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts in Sofia. With a few big and small roles in Bulgarian films, including Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov's The Father, Maria answered a call for an open audition in London, not knowing that being chosen would change her life forever.

How surprised are you with the response that the film has had?

Well, first of all, I knew that it was going to be big from the first day. And I knew that the world was ready for the questions that this movie is asking. And especially the new generation is ready to stand up against misogyny and treating people equally, no matter the difference between us. What actually happily surprised me was that people felt the heart of the movie and the film not only made them laugh but also smile with tears in their eyes. And also, for me hopefully, it will make all of us think and make the world a better place and better people because that is maybe the biggest purpose behind the art in general. The artist helping by performing and using that to rise in the reality of the world while people are entertained by the movie. And for me probably it’s the most beautiful piece of art.

How did your life change, even after the trailer came out?

My parents, when they knew that I was shooting this movie, they knew it was something interesting, something confidential and I was super excited about it. Since the pandemic, I am wearing my face mask out in the open a lot more so people aren’t able to recognize me, and they probably wouldn’t have before the Coronavirus existed. But I received a lot of really, really great messages, from girls, from people all around the world of how inspired they are and how people are taking the messages from the movie, the female messages and from the movie in general. And it’s been great. I met people like my agents in CAA, which I am extremely happy with and it’s just been amazing. 

And when people do recognize you, how do they react?

I think there were a few people that mentioned Tutar, Tutar and I am like oh no!  (laughs) She is a real person now. It’s been absolutely really amazing, and it’s been good so far.

The tricky part in the Borat movie is being able to work side-by-side with him. How was the casting process to find out that you were the girl?

Exactly as you said. It was basically mostly improvising, because of the confidentiality, I never knew until I got the part. So, I was improvising when I was recording and when we were with people in England with Sacha. I am an actress and I have been studying acting for ten years since high school at performing arts schools. But we had to convince people that I am a real person, that I am not an actress. So that’s why we improvised staying in character as much as possible and being believable.

Did you know that you had this specific talent?

I knew that I would be able to improvise because I am trained as a theater actress, so theater is a performing art, and you don’t have a second take, you don’t have doubles.  So, you have to stay in the moment, and you have to react in the moment, and you have to be right now and even if you have made a mistake you have to make it work. So maybe that’s why I have been a little bit trained, but not on the ones I had before that, because most of them are dramatic movies like young women in difficult situations, teenage pregnancy, mental health challenges. And that was the first time and having the sense to work with Sacha has been amazing and crazy at the same time. 

Did you always have a funny side?

No. I had no idea that I could be funny. That was the first time I was doing comedy. I had been doing really dramatic things. I remember that someone told me in the theater: "don’t worry you are funny, your face is funny, your gifts are funny, your voice sounds funny, so it will work". So, I don’t know, maybe I am smiling too much and that is why. 

When you were doing these scenes with Sacha as Borat, did you know beforehand how it was going to go or did he surprise you?

I have to admit that with Sacha there’s always a surprise. (laughs) It is fascinating, and even if the scene is only between the two of us, he will put something in it just to make it perfect. To be honest, he might be the smartest person that I have ever met in my life.  So, he’s been challenging me and surprising me with different directions and different things, because you don’t know, especially when there are real people in the scene, how they are going to react to the things that we are saying and the things that we are doing. So, the surprise moment is always there.

Was he in character all the time?

I can’t say for sure, but how I saw it, he created this character a long time ago, so even when he’s Sacha, there is always going to be something that will remind me of Borat, maybe the eyebrows or something. I tried to stay in character through the whole process, I tried that too.

And how difficult is it?

It’s kind of a tricky situation because sometimes you start believing in things that your character believes in and sometimes that’s scary. (laughs) But that’s the only way you have to believe in the scene, and you have to believe in the script, and you have to believe that this is important, and this project is worth something for the world.

When Sacha talks as Borat, he mixes Hebrew with Russian. What was your made-up language?

As far as I know, he speaks Hebrew with a Russian accent and a few Polish words. I am speaking Bulgarian and sometimes I am trying to imitate his words. 

Sacha has said that smell is a really important part of creating this character, that Borat should smell really bad. And I assume that Tutar was the same. So how was it to add this sense into your interpretation?

Yeah, it’s completely true, before every scene we both were sprayed with some horrible smells. We were really stinky and most of the time he would smell like cheese and fish and I was sprayed with something that smelled like when you go to the restroom. (laughs) When we went into a room, people were like oh these two are stinky. (laughs) That was probably one of the worst parts. And we were driving back and forth to locations by car and then it was really bad.

Which was the hardest scene to do in this film for you?

Maybe the first scenes were the hardest ones because I wasn’t sure if this was the right version of Tutar. When I was alone it was really the second week I shot. But I have to confess that really, probably that scene was probably the hardest because even if Sacha was really close, I was in a room with a lawyer to the President. So, I had to be really convincing because I could ruin the whole movie. And what was interesting with this film was you had one shot. There won’t be a second take, everything is in the moment.

When you were with Rudy Guiliani, do you think he suspected that you were not a real journalist?

I don’t think he suspected anything. You can see in the movie it's a very serious interview, (laughs) and Rudy Guiliani left the room after Sacha appeared in his pink underwear. So, I don’t think he suspected it.

You said that the hardest part was the beginning because you were learning, and I guess that by the very end of the whole process, it had become part of your life.  But then suddenly it had to stop. How tough was it that you didn’t have that adrenaline every day?

The adrenaline is like magic. It’s like when you get something delicious and you want to keep eating and eating and eating. But yeah, we had to stop because the Coronavirus happened, and we had three months to rest. And then finally we were able to finish, even during the Coronavirus, which was crazy and even more exciting. But I was still doing interviews over Zoom and Tik Tok where it was like a grown-up version of Tutar where she ran away and found these people during the lockdown. So, I was still in character, trying to think like Tutar in a world that was literally crazy. (laughs)

You are 24 and you are lucky to be born in a generation of women that have full rights and that are seen mostly as equal to men all over the world. But the character you are playing, even if it’s a comedy, 200 years ago, that was almost the rule for women. So, does playing Tutar help you realize that you are lucky to be a young woman now?

I would say yes.  I think the problems still exist, unfortunately, no matter whether it’s the 21st Century and women should be, have to be equal. I can’t imagine a time when women should only have babies or be in the house making dinner and basically have no opportunity to grow or have a career. I am scared that girls like this are somewhere in the world and I think that’s one of the most important things behind this movie, that we are able to show people that that’s not right. 

Not too many Bulgarian actresses make it big in Hollywood. So how are people in your country reacting to your sudden fame?

I keep repeating that, but I am extremely grateful to Sacha and the whole team for picking me and believing in me, and that someone with an accent can lead a big Hollywood feature. The chance to show what we can do and work on such a multifaceted character like Tutar is incredible. I am humbled that I was given that chance and I dreamed about this international success when I was a little girl, but I have to confess that by last year, I was completely convinced that this is impossible to be where I am right now. And this was a little girl’s dream because where I am coming from, from my background, we never believe that we would be in projects like this. I remember when I was a little girl, maybe when I was 10 or 11 years old, I was drawing the Hollywood sign, and then I remembered that I stopped because I felt that I had to start to grow up and believe in real things. So, I stop believing in that dream. Because something like what has happened to me right now hasn’t ever happened before. And that is right now why I am in a position to show and represent my people on screen. It’s really amazing because so many Bulgarian little girls and boys, they see me and how inspired they are now and how their faith has never been bigger. And probably this is the biggest gift I would have ever received because making people believe in themselves and their dreams, it’s the biggest gift ever. There is a quote from Walt Disney that I memorized when I was a little girl, it’s that dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them. 

I am sure the doors are opening for you here, but if you had good scripts from Bulgaria, will you have room in your schedule for movies from your home country?

I will always have room for my home country. I wanted to move here because of the weather because it’s always comfortable. Bulgaria gets really cold during the Winter.  But probably one of my biggest purposes in my life is to put Bulgaria on the card and let people start seeing Bulgaria because it has a really ancient city and really interesting stories. I want people to go there, I want to represent Bulgaria. And yes of course I would make room to go work there again.