Not many actors get to experience the type of rocket ride that Maria Bakalova did with 2020’s Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. She wasn’t merely catapulted to celebrity by way of her role as Tutar Sagdiyev, the teenage daughter of Sacha Baron Cohen’s bumbling and perpetually offensive Kazakh journalist. She was at the very center of the mockumentary’s most jaw-dropping, talked-about scene, which ends with Rudy Giuliani lying horizontally on a bed. Bakalova would go on to receive Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Screen Actors Guild nominations for her work, and soon found herself working with director Judd Apatow (on The Bubble) and taking meetings with Hollywood heavy hitters.
Her newest film, Bodies Bodies Bodies, is a darkly comedic psychological horror movie directed by Halina Reijn. Bakalova portrays Bee, a young, working-class college student who accompanies her new girlfriend Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) to a “hurricane party” with the latter’s childhood friends at a remote mansion. When a murder-in-the-dark party game turns deadly real, Bee finds herself pushed to extremes, and uncertain of whom to trust.
The AV Club recently spoke with the 26-year-old Bakalova about her Bodies work, her Borat audition experience, social media, joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and more. The conversation is excerpted below.
The AV Club: Bodies Bodies Bodies is a horror film and a whodunnit, but it’s also sprinkled with generational social commentary. How did it read on the page, and did a movie like this check a professional box for you?
Maria Bakalova: I think we kind of elevated an already incredibly written script, because I was always expecting it to be a great production. I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed by the material A24 is putting out there. It’s so contemporary and relatable and interesting and at the same time high-quality—an elevated mixture of genres. So I was prepared that it was going to be good. But having Halina on board, having [cinematographer] Jasper Wolf on board too, these are two people who made our movie magic even bigger and higher. Plus the incredible cast with so many dedicated, talented people—smart and ready to stay out there covered in blood and mud, with huge rain machines blowing towards our faces for eight hours. Seeing it on the screen, I’m like, “Whoa, I’m so lucky,” and it’s beautiful. It speaks to my generation but at the same time I feel like it’s a universal experience because people who are way older or even younger can relate to the movie, because it’s about the time and real world that we live in.
AVC: Your character is an outsider to a lot of the other characters in the film, who could be described as “frenemies.” How does that type of toxic relationship depicted in the film intersect with internet culture and social media?
MB: That’s a very interesting question. They are kind of like “frenemies.” They call each other friends based on shared memories and some previous experiences that might have been created just by their parents, who decided to bring these people together because their families have been friends. We don’t know anything about that. But they have come to spend a lot of time together. If these people meet each other today [for the first time] I’m not sure they would actually be friends. But when you get into this path of toxic relationships, that can get even more toxic because they’re all built on a lie and secrets and not communicating at all, mostly just looking at your phone and the internet and social media—which is nothing bad [in itself], because if you use it properly it can be very beneficial to a bigger audience, for a greater message to the universe that we live in. But somehow we tend to compare ourselves to the images we see out there and we just happen to use language that we sometimes don’t know the meaning of.
So it’s interesting—how do you get back to real communication that supposedly has to exist, but we’re lacking in, because of the tools that we’ve been given. It’s definitely something that might have been influenced by social media, technology, all of this new world that we live in. But at the end of the day, I feel like we can only do so much based on our decisions. Again, if you use [social media] properly, if you use it in a way that can help somebody, dive into it, there’s nothing wrong with it.
AVC: The film hints at Bee’s class standing in relation to other characters. Did you build out a big backstory for Bee?
MB: Yes, I did a backstory for her. Usually when I start working on something I create biographies of the characters that I’m working on. It’s actually still somewhere on my computer and I’ll be excited to go back and read it one day because I think I wrote it in one night, when I was in England shooting The Bubble. That was the time when we were like, “Okay, the movie will happen probably,” so I knew I had to get to work. And then I started talking with Halina. We started discussing where Bee is coming from, why is she behaving this way, why is she keeping a secret because she actually seems like a really nice person. So why does she need to lie? And maybe it’s all driven by the fear—will she be rejected if she doesn’t fit the expectation of somebody? She is prioritizing taking care of her mom and family instead of herself as a person, and how do you cope with the fear of loss? Because she might lose her mother if she doesn’t take care of her, but this way she’s losing herself.
AVC: Borat obviously changed the trajectory of your career. What was the process of submitting that first audition tape yourself, and receiving word that you’d booked that job?
MB: [smiles, laughs] This will never get old for me, because I remember that morning so vividly. It was after my graduation and it was very much before sunrise. It was still dark outside. And I did it mostly to keep myself awake! The second plan was to get in touch with the person who would share this [Julian Kostov], because he was a great actor from my country who happened to live in England and tried to be an advocate for representation on screen. So I was thinking in my head, “Well, he’s in England, maybe he can somehow get me invited to a premiere of an Andrea Arnold movie, and some day we might create a coproduction between England and Bulgaria, and then we’ll do something in Italy and Bulgaria!” But in reality I didn’t believe it was a real audition. I was just trying to stay awake, because it was between 5 and 7 o’clock in the morning. I had a pick-up call at 7 o’clock, and I had graduated the National Academy (the night before), and had been out celebrating with my teachers and my class, and so this was a way to get in touch with this another person who is out there (in the world), dedicated to the craft. And then it just happened. And I was like, “What, it’s actually real?!” Because things like that usually don’t happen to people like us, people from Eastern Europe, people with accents, people with different backgrounds.
AVC: The actual experience of shooting Borat obviously leaned heavily into improvisational comedy. How comfortable were you with that given your theatrical background, your professional training?
MB: I had never done improv before, but I did acquire the ability of being in the moment, and not having the privilege of a second take—because these are real people, and you just have to go for it, now or never. I think being theatrically trained for 10 years helped me a lot because when you’re on stage you don’t have a second take. If you slip on the stage you just have to stand back up and keep going. If you miss a line, you have to create something. But professionally I had never done anything that is out there and improvising, and I learned a lot just by watching Sacha, who’s a mastermind and phenomenal and genius. All of the superlatives are not enough to describe how great he is. So it was a master class and I enjoyed it very much. It was scary, but adrenalizing in a way, because with every scene I was like, “I want to do it again!” And then I have to run and escape because it might be really scary in a different way.
AVC: A lot of people regard Hollywood movies as the big leagues, because of the budget and the reach of the films. But what do you see and want five, 10, 15 years out of your career? Is this the sandbox you predominantly want to play in, or do you envision doing more films in Europe, and even Bulgaria?
MB: I dream about a variety of films that will be very small micro-budget films that will be a European one, Japanese one, New Zealand one or American ones, or like big huge movies. I’ve been a fan of Marvel since I was 15, and having a chance to see this huge machine and literally a different universe has been phenomenal. I think it’s important for us for our mental health in life to have variety. And of course I think most of us actors dream of longevity, because that’s what keeps you going. So you try to do different people, different characters, and go to all of them with respect, because it’s so much more that you can experience just by living your life. So enjoy it completely and keep being dedicated and work hard. I personally dream of jumping from a comedic character to someone very quiet and private, similar from Tutar to Bee, then maybe from Bee to somebody hilarious or somebody who might be so scary or, like, physically trained perfectly. I just like to try to fill the shoes of somebody that I never met before, and get to know these people.
AVC: You mentioned Marvel. What has that experience of working with James Gunn and the Guardians folks been like?
MB: It’s been just incredible, and I feel like the luckiest person to be on that set and meet those people because not only are they great actors, not only are they giving it their all, using their imagination all the time—because you really have to imagine, which brings you back to the very beginning of acting—but on top of everything they are incredibly good people, beautiful human beings. You can see it on screen because they pour their hearts into movies for the fans. So it’s been incredible. James Gunn is one of my favorite people. I want to work with him for the rest of my life.