The incredible story of how Oscar nominee Maria Bakalova landed the role of Borat
Maria Bakalova — the first Bulgarian to be nominated for an Academy Award for her supporting role in “Borat: The Subsequent Moviefilm” — stole the show from the start during her audition for star Sacha Baron Cohen.
Bakalova was flown to London from her hometown of Burgas in June 2019 to audition for the role of Tutar Sagdiyev, Baron Cohen’s character’s daughter.
The experiment was veiled in secrecy, as four Eastern European hopefuls were put to the test on real subjects who were unaware of what was happening (much as would later happen in the film).
“We rented a large house for the day, this grand house near Parliament in Westminster, and these four actors improvised questions to gauge their ability to act with real people without being spooked,” Andrew Newman, CEO of Baron Cohen’s UK production company, explained to The Post.
“We had [the actors] engage with this family, who believed they were auditioning for a television show about out-of-place Eastern Europeans living in the United Kingdom. And Maria was a genius.
“The owners of the house had a dog cage, and she entered it and began drinking from the water bowl. This British family was probably saying to themselves, ‘What the heck is this?!'” he said. “I said, ‘She’s got steel balls’… she was simply outstanding and possessed an incredible amount of bravery. She was unfazed by anything.”
Due to the film’s secrecy, Bakalova, now 24, was suspicious of ulterior motives during her initial meeting prior to moving to the home.
“Maria was initially terrified that this was all sex trafficking,” Newman recalled, noting that Bakalova was unaware of the film or her meeting with Baron Cohen.
Indeed, the actress was so concerned about her first meeting that she asked her friend and manager Julian Kostov to wait outside. She intended to record the audition and, if things were untenable, hand the phone to Kostov for proof.
Rumyana, her own mother, was also concerned.
“It was just not credible that it was a genuine casting,” she told The Post. “It’s commendable that Maria trusted her instincts, took calculated risks, and threw herself into this adventure, because as a mother, I was fearful that… she would be duped or harmed. I confess that I attempted to divert her.”
Rather than that, she met with Baron Cohen. Dan Swimer, the comedian’s longtime collaborator, said Bakalova was a dream come true for both of them.
“We wondered if we’d set ourselves an impossible task — to find an extraordinary young female actor who fluently speaks an eastern European language, can hold her own comedically alongside one of the greatest comic actors of all time, is bold, realistic, capable of improvising, and is totally unknown to our audience!” The Post was informed by the swimmer.
However, he and Baron Cohen realized they had found their woman when Bakalova read the scene in which Tutar informs her father, Borat, that she is leaving.
“Her performance was hysterical, moving, and authentic. It was felt by everyone in the building. “There were shivers and maybe a few tears,” Swimer said. “And then she left home, grew her hair out, and joined us on the road for a year!” She’s insane and funny, but she’s also an accomplished and highly trained actress who didn’t want someone to hold her hand through it.”
“What this British family was unaware of,” Newman said of the unwitting audition participants, “was that they had contributed to the production of a well-deserved Oscar nominee.”
Hollywood was a world away when she was growing up in the small Black Sea coastal town of Burgas with her mother Rumyana and father Valcho.
She attended the Bulgarian National Academy for Theater and Film Arts, where she studied acting and flute. “I began dreaming that I was arriving in Los Angeles, rolling my suitcase down those famous palm tree-lined streets with the Hollywood sign in the background, and telling myself, ‘Someday, I’m going to be a great movie star,'” Bakalova told Deadline.
“As a girl, she… painted palm trees and the Hollywood sign on the street,” her mother told The Post. “All of her notebooks and blouses bore this inscription!”
However, “I reminded myself that these are merely childhood fantasies.” There have been no notable Eastern European actors in Hollywood.”
However, Bakalova’s small role in the Bulgarian film “The Father” caught the attention of casting director Nancy Bishop, who invited her to submit an audition tape for what would become the “Borat” sequel.
Bakalova self-taped her try-out just weeks after her 2019 graduation performance showcase — at 5 a.m., after returning home from a party.
“While everyone in Los Angeles thought Maria was amazing, she turned out to be much better than anyone could have imagined,” Newman said.
After she was cast in “Borat,” Bakalova was whisked away on a filming trip through the United States. Borat and 15-year-old Tutar take a circuitous path from Texas to Washington, DC, with the aim of introducing Tutar to Vice President Mike Pence for marriage.
The actors encountered perilous real-world scenarios along the way, including at the pro-gun March for Our Rights in Olympia, Wash., where Baron Cohen was chased off the stage while dressed in character. Bakalova, posing as a reporter, was also present at the protest.
She also infiltrated the White House while dressed as President Trump, conversing with Donald Trump Jr. and getting within feet of him.
And, as Page Six first mentioned, Bakalova ended up alone in a New York City hotel room with Rudy Giuliani, who seemed to put his hands down his pants in a moment that broke the Internet.
However, her mother took comfort in the fact that Bakalova was with Baron Cohen.
“Sacha is wonderful,” Rumyana exclaimed. ” Throughout the making of this film, through all the lockdowns and pandemics, and throughout this [period] in which I was unable to be with her, he… reassured me. She put her confidence in him and the entire marvellous ‘Borat’ team.”
Jeanise Jones, a 62-year-old grandmother from Oklahoma, was one of the people duped into appearing in the film — hired as a “babysitter” for Bakalova’s character and inadvertently serving as the film’s moral compass, advising the innocently offensive Tutar to confront her father.
“[Bakalova] was an extremely pleasant and sweet young lady. Jones told The Post, “She duped me.” “She was excellent in that role.”
Jones, who producers discovered through her church, had no idea what the film was about until her cousin told her that she had become an online sensation.
“After it came out, Maria called me and we talked for a long time,” Jones remembered. “She said that she desired to inform me [during filming], but the information was classified.”
Jones and Bakalova traveled to Bricktown, Oklahoma, for an unscripted scene in which Bakalova created havoc by calling out to a group of guys sitting outside a pub, “Do you want me… do you want me?” Why don’t you want me?” she asked before being asked to leave by a bartender who mistook her for a prostitute.
“All I know is that they believed we were up to something shady and were unappreciative,” Jones said. “They perceived us as soliciting.”
Bakalova now refers to Jones as her “godmother” and hopes to visit her as soon as possible, Jones said, adding: “I know she wants to see me, and I certainly want to see her.” Jones added: “I know it’s not easy for people from Maria’s country to make it big, which is why I’m so happy for her.”
Bakalova quickly earned the respect of critics and the attention of Hollywood. She earned the Critics’ Choice Movie Award for Best Supporting Actress and Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, and BAFTA nominations.
She has since signed with CAA, the talent agency that represents everyone from Tom Cruise to Tom Hanks to Baron Cohen, and recently wrapped production on “The Bubble,” a new film directed by Judd Apatow. She was in London last month, filming a scene opposite Pedro Pascal, when she learned she had earned her first Academy Award nomination.
“We were in the midst of a take,” she explained to Variety of the moment Apatow paused the cameras to inform her of her nomination. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, did I do anything incorrectly?'”
(Bakalova may have landed another perk via CAA: the Daily Mail published photos of her cozied up to Cade Hudson, a CAA agent, on Miami Beach in December.)
Bakalova had hoped her mother would be able to attend the awards, which will be broadcast live from Los Angeles’ Union Station on Sunday. However, Rumyana said that she was unable to obtain a visa.
Rather than that, she said, “her father and I will cheer her on and watch her on television.” I’m proud of my little girl for blending in and competing with proven, well-known actresses. She is already a winner with all of these nominations!”
Additionally, Bakalova was recently cast in another significant role, in the slasher film “Bodies, Bodies, Bodies.”
Bonnie Timmermann, a casting director and producer who has worked with Meryl Streep and Scarlett Johansson, told The Post that Bakalova should have a bright future ahead of her — and would avoid being typecast as a result of the “Borat” sequel.
“Her portrayal of Borat was quite clever and quite courageous,” Timmermann said. “If she surrounds herself with intelligent people who offer her content that showcases her talent rather than offering her the same roles over and over, I believe she will do very well.” Now based in Los Angeles, Bakalova is living out her childhood dreams. However, she told Deadline that the most significant improvement is her new opportunity to provide opportunities for other underrepresented Eastern European actors. “It has been the most rewarding aspect, instilling confidence in people that it is possible. That if you give it your all, it is possible that it will happen to you. “How come not?”