If the past year has turned Maria Bakalova into an unlikely breakout star, after a buzzy performance in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” plucked the Bulgarian actress from obscurity and landed her in the heat of an Oscar race, the 24-year-old hasn’t quite had time to process her overnight success.
“As long as I’m working on something, it doesn’t feel different,” she tells Variety. “Maybe the responsibility I have right now is a little bit bigger, because more people know about my existence.”
Bakalova might soon be impossible to miss, with a leading role in Judd Apatow’s upcoming comedy “The Bubble” for Netflix and a star turn in “Bodies, Bodies, Bodies,” an A24 slasher film that just wrapped shooting in New York.
But first comes the red carpet in Cannes, where she co-stars in the female-led drama “Women Do Cry,” from directing duo Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova. “It’s really thrilling that our Bulgarian movie … is selected for Cannes,” she says. “Everybody is excited. The whole country of Bulgaria is extremely excited to see it.”
Bakalova was born in the Black Sea resort town of Bulgas and studied acting at the National Academy in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. In her final year, she attended an open-call audition for an Eastern European actress to star in a mysterious Hollywood film. She boarded a flight to London the morning after her graduation party to audition in person; when she walked into the room, she was met by Sacha Baron Cohen.
Bakalova’s performance in “Borat 2” as Tutar, the teenage daughter of Baron Cohen’s title character, wooed critics with its depth and comedic range (along with the Oscar nod, the actress swooped a Critics’ Choice Award), while making headlines for her infamous hotel room scene with Rudy Giuliani. Throughout this whirlwind year, she says, Baron Cohen has been there “as a mentor, as an idol, as a guardian angel that’s been guiding me every step of the way.”
“Women Do Cry,” which premieres in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section, showcases a very different side of the young star’s acting talents. Filmed before the pandemic and based on real-life events, it centers on a family of women united by a shared trauma who come together to confront the family patriarch’s troubling past.
“This is a project that I’ve been extremely passionate about, because we gave a lot,” says Bakalova. “Everyone involved in this project opened themselves in a way to explore the characters, the story, the message.” She adds: “The world needs to see this movie.”
Bakalova says she’s conscious of the platform afforded her to speak about the issues she cares about, from women’s rights to opportunities for Eastern European actors and filmmakers in Hollywood, describing the sudden success that’s brought her here as “like a dream come true.”
“I’m trying to be grounded and stick to my craft and just keep working, just keep working, just keep working,” she says. “Because there are so many stories that you want to share. There are so many messages that you want to share with the world.”