The upside-down nightmare that has been the pandemic shut-down year of 2020 has so disrupted the entertainment world (among all the worlds it’s disrupted) that this year’s Oscar race leaves plenty of room for some dark horses. Like, for example, an unknown neophyte Bulgarian drama school grad whose gift for fearless improvisation has managed to steal the much-anticipated spotlight from one of the world’s most legendary comedians. Maria Bakalova’s brash, unexpectedly layered turn as Tutar, the underage, previously unknown daughter of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat Sagdiyev, has, indeed, garnered credible Academy Award buzz (from industry pros and unwitting co-stars alike), both since Bakalova impossibly made the dangerously uninhibited Tutar into a stealthily touching commentary on misogyny and female empowerment, and because the movie landscape of this theater-free 2020 is so similarly without recognizable boundaries.
Appearing, as Late Late Show host James Coren proudly proclaimed, on her first-ever late-night talk show as herself (she’d previously messed up Jimmy Kimmel’s evening as Tutar), the now 24-year-old Bakalova seemed—as does her chameleonic co-star Cohen—improbably normal. Telling Corden that she’d recorded her initial Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan audition on her cell phone after partying all night following her acting school graduation, Bakalova confessed that she had her misgivings. Not about unexpected stardom, so much as that maybe the super-secret audition process was part of something “sketchy,” speculating that “they’re gonna try to do, like, human trafficking on me.” (Bakalova—who’d appeared in a few Buglarian feature dramas before Cohen and director Jason Woliner came calling—isn’t just being paranoid about the subject, either.)
Still, the multiple return auditions turned out to be legit, with Bakalova eventually embarking on her first trip to England to match improv skills with the infamously adept and intrepid Cohen. Not that her mom was thrilled, as Bakalova told Corden how her understandably worried mother cried inconsolably at her leaving, sure that, as the actress said, “I’m never going to see you again.” (Human trafficking or not, booking a major role in what’s turned out to be a blockbuster movie is going to make any mom imagine the worst.) Even after all of Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm’s success, and Bakalova’s attendant, career-rocketing critical praise, mom’s still not especially thrilled, said Bakalova. “She was so sad,” the actress confessed to Corden about her mother’s state after seeing exactly how far Bakalova was willing to go on film for her art, “She was crying for, maybe, two hours.” Bakalova did say that her loyal mother did watch the movie twice, whether from maternal pride or being “kind of a masochist,” no one can say.