When Maria Bakalova found herself 6,715 miles from her hometown of Burgas, Bulgaria, at the 93rd Oscars, the surreal part wasn't that she was there. It was whom she was sitting with during the ceremony. "My table was the same table that Thomas Vinterberg was sitting at," she says now, grinning into her computer camera as if still in disbelief.
Bakalova was attending as a first-time Oscar nominee for her supporting performance in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, in which she plays Borat's semi-feral 15-year-old daughter, Tutar. (Bakalova is the first Bulgarian actor to be nominated for an Oscar.) The Danish filmmaker was a fellow first-time nominee for directing Another Round, the actress' favorite movie of 2020.
"I became a cinema actress, honestly, because I saw The Hunt with Mads Mikkelsen and I was like, 'My god, that's the movies that I'm dying for,'" Bakalova tells A.frame. "I think I got shy as well, because I'm so starstruck by the work he's put out there. His work that he's put in Dogme 95, the movement, and everything he's done — he's been my biggest inspiration."
Having theatrically trained at the Krastyo Sarafov National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts, she had imagined herself acting in the types of films Vinterberg and Lars von Trier set forth in their dogma — austere dramas without special gimmicks or effects. Then she answered an open call for a lead role in a Hollywood film and, faster than you can say my wife!, became a movie star.
Before Borat, Bakalova had never made a film outside of Bulgaria. Suddenly, there were people wanting to set up meetings, auditions to take, and scripts to read. ("Which I appreciate a lot, because I'm kind of a nerdy person and I like to read," she says with a smirk). She did a pandemic parody with Judd Apatow, The Bubble, and now stars in the A24 satirical slasher, Bodies Bodies Bodies.
"I quit the idea of, 'I want to work only and especially in this type of genre,' because I'd never got to work on comedies before Borat," Bakalova says. "I wanted to keep exploring the things that I've never thought I can explore before and to challenge myself. Of course, I'm dreaming about longevity, and I think that's achievable only through the diversity of work that you can put out there. So, the more difficult the role, the more different than me the role, the more interesting it will be."
In Bodies Bodies Bodies, she plays Bee, who is invited by her new girlfriend, Sophie (Amandla Stenberg), to crash a reunion weekend with Sophie's friends. Director Halina Reijn sought out Bakalova for the part after seeing her in Borat. ("I was like, 'Who is this force of nature?!'" recalls the filmmaker.) Bakalova was already a fan of Reijn's previous film, the arthouse prison drama Instinct.
"It's such an important role, because especially in this day and age, who is the outsider? Like, what does that stand for?" Reijn, who is Dutch, muses. "I literally left my whole life behind to work on this film. I flew here during COVID. I felt like an alien and an outsider. I was so homesick, so lonely, and then what was so great with Maria was casting her was an expression of the feeling. Because she's the same. She's been here longer and she's very successful, but us coming from Europe and leaving everything behind — I felt it would be great for her to be that outsider."
Bodies Bodies Bodies begins like a Gen Z character study, as Bee attempts to navigate Sophie's ultra-privileged, extremely online, arrogantly nihilistic friend group (played by Rachel Sennott, Chase Sui Wonders and Myha'la Herrold). Yet no matter how many shots she takes or TikTok trends she participates in, she keeps finding herself on the outside of the clique.
Then a drunken party game (the titular "Bodies Bodies Bodies") ends with someone dead. And as the bodies continue to pile up, the friends turn on one another, and then they turn on Bee. Although the flick could hardly be described as austere, with its McMansion setting and hyperpop soundtrack, there is a sort of Dogme-ness in its focus on forcing the truth out of the characters.
"I was very interested to see whether I can be this person who is the complete opposite of me and all the characters that I've done," Bakalova explains. "Because no matter whether they've been dramatic like my character in Women Do Cry, or hilarious like Tutar in Borat, they have been outspoken, and big in their gestures, their facial expressions, their feelings, their voices. Bee was like this private person hiding so many things, so introverted, so shy, so mysterious. I was like, 'Hmm, that's going to be a challenge…'"
Lee Pace, who co-stars as Sennott's character's plus-one, singles out Bakalova's performance in his praise of the film. "When I watch the movie, I see such an interesting, subtle, introspective, like, receiving of all of this overwhelming information, and the way she lets the audience in — in such a subtle way — I find very effective," he says. "What a smart choice in a movie like this."
For her next role, Bakalova will reinvent herself all over again: In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, she plays Cosmo the telepathic space dog, a character based on the real Soviet canine cosmonaut Laika. Director James Gunn announced her casting during last month's San Diego Comic-Con, with Bakalova now gushing, "Marvel has been a dream of my life for such a long time."
"I'm excited for Cosmo. I love her," she says, unable to contain her glee. "I became a fan of the Marvel universe because of Guardians of the Galaxy. At the end of the day, one of the most important things to do is make people feel something. And Guardians makes people feel something."
The MCU is a long way from Dancer in the Dark, but Bakalova has also come further than she could have ever dreamed for herself. Anyway, acting is acting, and she remains committed as ever to her craft: When given the opportunity to voice the character or don a mo-cap suit to preform Cosmo on set, Bakalova chose the latter.
"I have to say that I had the best time of my life working on that movie, on Guardians of the Galaxy. It reminds you that you have to use this imagination, because we tend to forget about us being kids and dreaming about, 'Today I'm going to be an astronaut. Tomorrow I'm going to be the sun' — things that are far from reality," she says. "I think that's pretty much movie magic."