A Very Serious Woman

Maria Bakalova never dreamed of doing comedy. But upstaging Borat has a way of changing your life.

Photo: Tania Franco Klein
Photo: Tania Franco Klein

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Maria Bakalova is not concerned about getting hurt. There’s even a kind of twisted pleasure, she says, in knowing you can endure it. Grinning into her computer camera, the 26-year-old shows me her bruises, remnants of a movie she just shot in her home country of Bulgaria: bluish-green welts covering both elbows, a few scratches still red and inflamed on the back of her hand. She is more concerned about hurting someone else, as when she was shooting the A24 horror comedy Bodies Bodies Bodies. In one scene from the film, which is out this week, a group of longtime friends and their new partners sit cross-legged on the floor to enact an icebreaking, boundary-crossing ritual: One by one, they turn to their right and slap the shit out of their neighbor — who then turns to their right and slaps the shit out of the next person.

“I was so freaking conscious when I hit somebody because I don’t really know my strength,” says Bakalova, who plays newcomer Bee. She tried to get away with the lightest possible love tap, but the script required her to make contact. “And I think one of the times my hand was just too heavy, honestly.” Smack! went her palm across Pete Davidson’s face.

Bakalova’s entrance into Hollywood was similarly intense: She co-starred in the sequel to a genre-defining satire and made real-life international news as the center of a Trumpworld imbroglio. In Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020), she played Tutar, Borat’s semi-feral 15-year-old 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 time masturbating. And most notoriously, she interviewed — and, as some kind of right-wing sexual sacrifice, offered herself to — Rudy Giuliani. The camera caught Trump’s lawyer grinning and patting Bakalova on her lower back, lying down on the bed, and fussing with the waist of his pants before Baron Cohen ran in to interrupt.

Bakalova and Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

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

“I’ve always been extremely shy,” she says. “So when I was in school, everybody was second-guessing me, third-guessing me, fourth-guessing me: ‘She’s not able to communicate with people. What is she going to do there?’ But in my weird mind, I was like, Well, it’s not going to be me. It’s going to be somebody else — somebody with different dreams, with different hopes, with different problems as well.

Bakalova now lives in L.A. and has spent the past three years working on comedies, from Borat to the Judd Apatow Netflix movie The Bubble to Bodies Bodies Bodies. She speaks fast, filling up silences with her vivid descriptions. Everything is “so freaking” this or “so freaking” that.

“Am I funny?” Bakalova asks herself aloud. She decides she’s not. “I think I’m just awkward and weird.”

In Bodies, her character is the plus-one of her new girlfriend, Sophie (Amandla Stenberg), who invites her along for a debaucherous reunion weekend at a mansion in upstate New York. A hurricane strikes, and the group decides to play a casual game of whodunit that quickly turns deadly. It’s Clue with a new Charli XCX song 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 problems — they’re all sarcasm, tattoos, buzzwords, crop tops, and eye rolls. Sophie is the kind of ringleader who never responds in the group chat, and Bakalova’s Bee is trying desperately to be cool and fit in. Unlike in Borat, Bakalova doesn’t drive the film’s jokes; if her character is funny, it’s by accident. When Sophie introduces her to the group, Bee gives these wealthy friends a foil-wrapped loaf of homemade zucchini bread. They receive it as awkwardly as she presents it.

Bodies’ director, Halina Reijn, says she sought out Bakalova for the part after seeing her in Borat. She wanted someone who could pull off the character’s clumsy humor, and as a former actress herself, she liked that Bakalova had theater training. “To me, the film is really about the primal need to belong, and we were looking for somebody who would represent the outsider,” says Reijn. “Everybody wants to be funny because that’s very direct and you get gratification immediately. But a role like Bee is more about building — she’s watching, and she’s the one we go on the journey with.”

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

Bakalova grew up in Burgas, Bulgaria, where she was an accomplished young singer. By 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 acting teacher came to work at her school. Bakalova thought he looked like a movie star in his long black coat, beret, and dark glasses; he was so glamorous she immediately wanted to study with him. When the acting classes were canceled — not enough students had enrolled — Bakalova’s mother wrote a letter to the government insisting it 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 the courses.

But she had no idea how to break into film. She watched American movies and dreamed about making them. She learned about Danish cinema and became obsessed. She doodled Marilyn Monroe quotes on her desk. “I started paying attention to some of the credits at the end of the movies, and there were not a lot of Eastern European names like mine, with -ova or -ava at the end,” she says. “So I was like, Huh, so that’s never going to happen.” Then, when she was 22 and had just finished her drama degree at the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts in Sofia, she was cast in Borat.

“My first impression of Maria was that she was deeply thoughtful, quite introverted, sweet, and very mysterious,” says Stenberg, who met her for the first time when they started shooting Bodies. “And then, as I got to know her better, I realized that she was basically an anarchist. She’s just this punk actress in a Louis Vuitton bomber jacket.” Stenberg, who’s queer, says they liked that Bakalova deferred to them when it came to playing their coupling: What were Stenberg’s experiences with relationships? What should the power dynamic be? “I really appreciated that she was so willing to carry my perspective,” Stenberg says. (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 flail in her tense, self-conscious way. She thinks of Bee as a first-generation immigrant “still 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 quiet, waiting for a lull in conversation before she can break in. If she makes a joke, it’s mangled by her own tepid delivery. “Maybe, like each of us, she’s going to try to be funny to break the ice. But she’s going to fail because she is not a funny person, and her humor probably is not going to land properly in this country because she is foreign,” says Bakalova. “Even when I’m trying to make jokes, I think people laugh mostly because of my accent or because of my facial expressions, not because of the jokes I’m making.”

Bakalova never had much opportunity to study English in school. When she was working on Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, 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 that Hollywood usually sidelines actors with accents, relegating them to small or stereotypical roles. She wants to change that. While she is joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a part in James Gunn’s third Guardians of the Galaxy movie — she’ll play the telepathic canine Cosmo the Spacedog, based on real-life Soviet space dog Laika — she has also started her own production company and wants to use it to help more Eastern Europeans work in film. “There are a lot of characters representing Eastern European culture or Russian culture in American movies, but those auditions don’t even get to people from that region of the world,” she says. “It’s usually going to some huge, big star or somebody that has absolutely zero knowledge of the culture.”

When Bakalova was in school, she wasn’t aiming for Marvel. She dreamed of acting in the kinds of films Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg made as part of Dogme 95 — lean, morally ambiguous character studies without special sets or effects. She hoped to move to Denmark and find work there and even started learning Danish. But then she was cast in Borat.

​“I spent a solid year working on a political satire. So by the time the movie was released, I was soaked in this comedy world where I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing,” she says. “It’s been an unusual turn from wanting to be in Dancer in the Dark to Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, but who knows? They’re both kind of extreme in one way or another.”

Maria Bakalova Never Dreamed of Doing Comedy