Maria Bakalova, who plays Borat’s daughter in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm and is up for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the role, is an award-winning 24-year-old Bulgarian whose Instagram account shares everything from photos with her dog to poolside swimsuit pictures to messages of support for Black Lives Matter. “You picked the wrong generation to fuck with,” says one of the images.
The people she encountered making Borat Subsequent Moviefilm might agree.
In the film, Borat’s daughter, Tutar, aka Sandra Jessica Parker, travels from Kazakhstan with Borat to the United States to help him bribe the Trump Administration. Sacha Baron Cohen, returning as Borat, is on familiar ground tricking real Americans who have no idea he is playing a preposterous character. But Bakalova matches him scene-for-scene, and has gained the most attention for two standout Borat Subsequent Moviefilm moments: A prank on a South Carolina anti-abortion clinic, and an awkward hotel rendezvous with Rudy Giuliani.
Though she was little known in the U.S. prior to the film, she grew up knowing she wanted to act.
“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,” she told The New York Times. “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.”
She was not a prankster, she added: “I was a super-disciplined child. I was reading too many books.”
Bakalova said in a Good Morning America interview that she scored the role of Borat’s daughter after self-taping her first audition, then continuing through further rounds. From the start, she said, Cohen wanted to see how well she could interact with unsuspecting people who thought her and Cohen’s characters were real.
“We started with self-tape. It was an open call. I sent another one and then I went to London, England a few times and we even started with real people in the first audition. It was crazy,” Bakalova said. “The most important part was that people would believe in me — that I’m real.”
Cohen said the Borat team interviewed 600 women from all over the world to fill the role, and that Bakalova had barely left Bulgaria before traveling with him to the United States to interact with unsuspecting Americans.
“She’s hilarious, she’s one of the most courageous actors in history. If she doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar, that’s a travesty,” he told GMA. “And she has the capacity to deliver a scene and make you cry, which is what finally got her the part.”
Cohen has happily shared the spotlight before — he was joined in the first Borat by the naysaying producer Azamat (Ken Davitian, who later became a Los Angeles restaurateur) and in Bruno by his assistant’s assistant, Lutz Schulz (Swedish actor Gustaf Hammarsten).
But neither men drew as much attention as Bakalova. In keeping with Cohen’s modus operandi, she was largely unknown in the United States prior to her work in the Borat sequel. Their comedic objective was to behave so guilelessly that Americans let down their guard enough to reveal their own worst selves. (Though a few people, notably nanny Jeanise Jones, shine.)
Bakalova had a respectable list of acting credits pre-Borat, including filmmaker Val Todorov’s Trangression, in which an 18-year-old is convinced to disclose a wild sexual experience with an older rocker. She won best actress at Toronto’s AltFF Alternative Film Festival for the role.
“Maria Bakalova’s role as Yana in the 2018 Bulgarian film Transgression was memorable to me personally as she brought passion and displayed mastery over a broad range of emotions,” festival director Jenell Diegor, one of the judges, told MovieMaker. “We are very happy that more people will now get a chance to see her perform in the new Borat film!”
Todorov told MovieMaker that he has changed the tagline of Transgression (available here) to note that Bakalova is now starring in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
“I discovered Maria in 2016 when we auditioned for the lead in the movie,” he said in an email. “From the first moment she struck me as fearless, talented and very versatile. This was her film debut and her only leading role. Like in Borat, we did a mixture of scripted scenes with improvised ones often in an environment with people who didn’t even know we were shooting a movie.”
One conceit of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is that the imbecilic journalist is now so famous from the original 2006 film Borat that he needs to wear disguises.
At one point, Borat, bearded and in denim, feeds his daughter a cupcake with a baby figurine on top. She accidentally swallows the plastic baby, and they seek out medical help.
Instead, they find the Carolina Women’s Health Center, where Bakalova/Sandra Jessica Parker/Tutar informs a pastor, “I have a baby inside me and I want to take it out of me.”
He tries to talk her out of an abortion, even when Borat, her supposed father, confesses that he is the one “who put the baby in her.”
The attention that scene received, when a clip was first released, was quickly dwarfed by the attention given to another scene — one which Giuliani has already sought to downplay.
In the Giuliani scene, Bakalova impersonates a fawning journalist who invites Giuliani to her hotel room. There, as described by The Guardian, “Giuliani, 76, can be seen lying back on the bed, fiddling with his untucked shirt and reaching into his trousers. They are then interrupted by Borat, who runs in and says: ‘She’s 15. She’s too old for you.’”
Bakalova said in her Good Morning America interview that she never felt unsafe with Giuliani — because Cohen was hiding nearby.
“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,” she told The Times. 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.”
The former Trump attorney and Republican presidential candidate denied any improper conduct with Borat’s daughter.
“The Borat video is a complete fabrication. I was tucking in my shirt after taking off the recording equipment. At no time before, during, or after the interview was I ever inappropriate. If Sacha Baron Cohen implies otherwise he is a stone-cold liar,” he tweeted Wednesday as the story took hold, even at one point taking up the most prominent position on The Drudge Report.
Giuliani’s poor vetting skills came back to bite him after the Nov. 3 election, when the first witness he produced to claim Pennslyvania election fraud turned out to be a convicted sex offender.
Though Bakalova is nominated for Best Supporting Actress, the favorite for the Oscar is Minari‘s Yuh-Jung Youn, who has won many of the awards seen as Oscar predictors, including the BAFTA, Indie Spirit, and Screen Actors Guild Awards for her magnificent turn as a South Korean grandmother who brings levity and wisdom to her family’s daring venture in Arkansas.
But Borat — and the Oscar nomination — have already opened many doors to Bakalova, whose upcoming film roles include the Judd Apatow pandemic comedy The Bubble and the upcoming horror film Bodies, Bodies Bodies.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, starring Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat Sagdiyev and Maria Bakalova as Sandra Jessica Parker Sagdiyev, is now streaming on Amazon Prime. This story was originally published Oct. 22, and has been updated since with details about the Oscars, airing at 5 PT/8 ET tonight on ABC.