Maria Bakalova didn’t take her audition for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm that seriously. She wasn’t even sure the opportunity was real and hadn’t heard much about Sacha Baron Cohen before. So she dashed off a quick self-tape on the night of her graduation from theater school in her native Bulgaria. A month later, she was in America, costarring with Cohen as Borat’s daughter, Tutar. Even before the film’s release, Bakalova made headlines for her now-infamous scene with Rudy Giuliani in a hotel room, but she quickly won critical acclaim afterward. She’s already been awarded accolades for best supporting actress by a number of critics groups and is nominated for a Golden Globe. For W’s annual Best Performances issue, Bakalova recounts arriving in Oklahoma City, studying up on Giuliani, and receiving the best advice from Cohen.
Was that your first time in America? Where did you go first?
And what did you think?
I arrived there and I was like, "Oh, so this is the American dream?" And they were like, "Not really." But I was like, Stay positive. Everything is beautiful. Everything is going to be great, even in Oklahoma City! And I was happy even there, I think.
So the famous scene with Rudy Giuliani—did you even know who Rudy Giuliani was before you started doing this?
Yeah, I did know who Rudy Giuliani was because of 9/11. But I'm not American; I'm not into the American political system. But as an actor, I knew that it was something important and that the whole production, the whole movie, had to have that scene. So I did my best to learn as much as possible about Rudy Giuliani, who he was, and to prepare myself to be his biggest fan!
And did you ever feel uncomfortable or afraid that something bad was going to happen? Not just with him but in general.
Every scene, I was feeling nervous because Sacha is really established playing Borat. He's been playing Borat since almost before I was born. And when I was right next to him, it was kind of okay because he was going to save the scene. But when I was alone, especially like with the conservative women's center, I was like, “Jesus Christ, how is it going to happen?” Or with my babysitter, or with that famous hotel scene. I was nervous every single time. But Sacha told me many times, “Use this, this is going to save you; just convert your nervousness into part of your performance.”
Do you have a favorite film? It doesn't have to be something very important. Like The Sound of Music or whatever.
I was strongly influenced by Danish cinema for maybe six years—Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme 95 movement. Films like Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, The Idiots, Dogville.