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Maria Bakalova: ‘I don’t know if Rudy Giuliani would even see Bodies Bodies Bodies…’

The Oscar-nominated star of ‘Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm’ has followed up that notorious hotel room moment by tangling with Pete Davidson in a mansion full of horrors in the slasher movie ‘Bodies Bodies Bodies’. She speaks to Adam White about ambition, insecurity and on-screen fearlessness

Wednesday 14 September 2022 06:30 BST
‘At some point of our lives, we all feel like we don’t fit in the circle, even if we want to belong somewhere and be appreciated’
‘At some point of our lives, we all feel like we don’t fit in the circle, even if we want to belong somewhere and be appreciated’ (Getty for IMDb)

Maria Bakalova will go down in history as the only actor to receive an Oscar nomination for playing a feral, monkey-eating Kazakh who discovers feminism via a rendezvous with Rudy Giuliani. Unless, of course, Meryl Streep decides to get really ballsy in her twilight years. Until then, though, Bakalova stands alone. It was that encounter with Giuliani – a skin-crawling display in which he touches her waist and her arms and rummages around his lap – in Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2020 sequel Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm that anointed Bakalova as one of the bravest actors in Hollywood.

Playing Borat’s industrious 15-year-old daughter Tutar, the Bulgarian actor is alone with Giuliani – the former mayor of New York and one of Donald Trump’s top aides – in his hotel room, made up in Republican anchorwoman cosplay and interviewing him for a right-wing TV network. Tutar flatters him. Giuliani grins. Tutar gives him a Kazakh picture book of a girl being swallowed whole by her vagina. They retire to the bedroom – rigged with hidden cameras – where Giuliani asks for her phone number and lies back on his bed, ambiguously tucking his shirt into his trousers. Cohen’s Borat bursts in to save the day. “She’s 15,” he shouts. “She is too old for you!” To this day, Giuliani swears he did nothing untoward.

“I don’t know anything about that person except that meeting we had in that room,” Bakalova tells me over Zoom from New York, wincing a little at the memory. “And everybody can see it!” The scene stole the movie, understandably. But the entirety of Bakalova’s performance earned her that Oscar nod. Transforming Tutar from a clueless, cage-dwelling teenager into a crusading journalist, she imbues her with an unwavering vulnerability that slowly morphs into steely strength. Look beyond all the Trump-baiting and what you get is a heartwarming feminist parable. With Holocaust jokes.

We’re here to talk about the 26-year-old’s most high-profile follow-up to Borat, a withering slasher satire called Bodies Bodies Bodies. It’s what would happen if the worst twentysomethings you encounter on Twitter had a party and started being murdered left, right and centre. TikToks are filmed. Podcasts are threatened. Pete Davidson boasts of his sexual superpowers. What on earth would Giuliani think of it?

“I don’t know if he’d even see the movie,” Bakalova laughs. “As much as it’s a timeless story about human behaviour, it’s pretty much capturing generations like mine and a little bit older than mine. Not that much of my mom’s generation or her mom’s generation.” I think, in the politest way possible, she’s calling Giuliani old as dirt.

Bakalova is sunny, expressive, buoyant. A Zoom window seems too small for her. “I am sending you all the brightest energy!” she beams. “New York is rainy and beautiful, but it gives me this nostalgic feeling that I haven’t been in England for a while!” Later, while recalling a scene in Bodies Bodies Bodies in which her character is pelted with rain and hail, she practically acts it out for me. “You should have heard the noise! It was like whoooosh, shoooosh – it was like a war!”

I might be fearless today and tomorrow I might be crying

Bakalova is the closest thing Bodies Bodies Bodies has to a hero. She plays Bee, a timid foreigner accompanying her new girlfriend (Amandla Stenberg’s shifty Sophie) to a party of her rich pals. Bee’s gift of zucchini bread goes down like a cup of cold sick, and she’s frequently out of her depth when it comes to conversation and the gang’s mutual self-loathing. She is an earnest compliment to their bitter disdain. Joy to their nihilism. Facebook to their BeReal.

It comes as a relief when the group begins dropping like flies – if only to break up the pass-agg tension bouncing off the walls. In a crowded, brilliant ensemble – which includes Davidson, Shiva Baby’s Rachel Sennott, Industry’s Myha’la Herrold and professional tall person Lee Pace – Bakalova shines. You feel personally affronted when she’s thrown out of the house after being suspected of being the killer.

“I had deep empathy for her,” she says. “At some point of our lives, we all feel like we don’t fit in the circle, even if we want to belong somewhere and be appreciated. I can relate to that. I think her problem, though, is that she tries to be somebody she’s not. She’s keeping all the secrets, which she shouldn’t, because secrets get you nowhere.”

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Lambs to the slaughter: Bakalova and Amandla Stenberg in ‘Bodies Bodies Bodies’ (Gwen Capistran/A24)

Since starting work in English language film, Bakalova has played this kind of role a lot: the outsider looking in slightly overwhelmed. “It’s like my movie posters have come to life,” her character said in Judd Apatow’s Covid comedy The Bubble, where she played a concierge at a hotel hosting a parade of A-listers. Even in next year’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3, she sticks out amid a crew of racoons and trees: she voices a Soviet dog sent into space. “Sometimes I feel able to speak out loud and be talking and talking and talking,” she says. “But then there are times where I’m like, ‘Oh gosh, there are so many more experienced people around me.’ So I sit down and shut myself up.”

There must be a degree of fearlessness to her, I say. Anyone happy to flash their blood-stained underwear to onlookers at a society ball – in Borat, obviously – must surely be brave? “I’m scared of a lot of things,” she says. “But when it comes to a character, that’s my way of escaping reality. That’s a reason why I became an actress. If I put a mask of this character on, maybe I’m not going to be as scared. Maybe I’m not going to be as shy.” She says she’s a mix of different characteristics. “I might be fearless today and tomorrow I might be crying. The next I might be laughing at something that is so freaking stupid.”

Bakalova and Sacha Baron Cohen in ‘Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm’ (Prime Video)

Despite the “star is born” narrative that surrounded her Borat buzz, Bakalova was no deer-caught-in-the-headlights ingenue when she was cast in the film. She had a few Bulgarian film credits to her name and was just about to graduate from the country’s National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts. Spurred on by her love of Danish filmmakers such as Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt, Another Round) and Lars von Trier, she also had a firm plan to make it as an actor. “In my head I was like, ‘Once I graduate, I’m going straight to Denmark – I don’t know what I’m going to do or how I’m going to learn this language, but I’m going to do it.” She sensed that she’d have to work in European co-productions to make a name for herself, and hoped that diving into the Danish film industry would lead her to other European filmmakers, followed by America. She calls out a number of her heroes: “Susanna Bier. Pedro Almodovar. Oh my goodness, Paolo Sorrentino. Andrea Arnold – American Honey was one of my favourite movies back in the day.”

That was the idea, anyway. Instead of heavy European dramas, though, she’s found an unexpected home in American comedy. “I was never able to dream of things like working on Borat,” she says, “That is Hollywood, it’s too far away, it’s impossible.” It was while on the set of The Bubble that she found out she’d been nominated for the best supporting actress Oscar. “When you’re on the [awards] circuit, people keep talking and talking about ‘today, they’re announcing the nominees’, so subconsciously you have this thought in your head,” she remembers. “But it was honestly one of the most precious moments in my life. And it’s documented!”

The clip of Judd Apatow breaking the news to her of that Oscar nod is online, where it’s been viewed nearly 100,000 times. Bakalova certainly has a knack for going viral. Thankfully, this time was a lot less gropey.

‘Bodies Bodies Bodies’ is in cinemas now

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