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When Borat Sagdiyev returned to the screen 14 years after the Oscar-nominated Borat, creator and star Sacha Baron Cohen was eager to examine Trumpism in America in the months leading up to the 2020 election. Along for the ride was Tutar, Borat’s teenage daughter, played by 24-year-old Bulgarian newcomer Maria Bakalova, whom Borat planned to give as a present to Vice President Mike Pence. Here, the actors reminisce about the film’s wild mid-pandemic production and how Baron Cohen prepared his young co-star for Borat’s shocking and hilarious antics.
Sacha, what were some of the tips you gave Maria on how to be convincing around the people you were filming?
SACHA BARON COHEN Are you asking me to reveal my secrets? (Laughs.) Maria would get, if I can say this, very nervous before shooting. And my advice was always: Use that energy, the fear and the adrenaline.
Maria, was there a scene in the film you were most nervous about?
MARIA BAKALOVA I was most nervous when I was [speaking at] the conservative women’s center. I was alone in a group of women. Originally — Sacha, please correct me if I’m wrong — he was to be with me.
BARON COHEN Just before shooting, a producer recognized one of the women from [the first] Borat — it was the woman at the yard sale. I mean, the likelihood of that is unbelievably small. And I had to tell Maria, “Slight change of plan: You’re doing the scene alone.”
BAKALOVA That was one of the first weeks of shooting. I was like, “What should I do?” They did my makeup, I cried, they fixed my makeup, I cried. I called Sacha on FaceTime, and that was the first time he told me: “Use that fear.” And I listened to him because he is genius.
Maria, how familiar were you with American politics before making the film?
BAKALOVA I can say I was familiar with the president, and who Rudy Giuliani used to be. I cannot say that I’ve been familiar with American politics at all. I came here because of this movie. I think I love America right now — or at least, I love L.A.
BARON COHEN Think about her story. She came to America, and then the coronavirus was here. In America. I mean, we really should have made the documentary about Maria coming from a small Bulgarian town, living in this tiny apartment, coming into the action itself. It’s an American immigrant story.
The Rudy Giuliani sequence is probably the most talked about, but some of those moments — like the anti-lockdown rally in Washington — also seemed pretty tense and unsettling.
BAKALOVA It’s kind of scary that you’re surrounded by people and guns. It’s like, what is happening? I was on the “right side” — pretending to be a [hard-right journalist] with blond hair and red lipstick. I was kind of saved there. When I saw [the film], and realized where we had been — it’s beyond everything that I’ve seen in my entire life. And Sacha, as a producer and the creator of Borat … I don’t know how you did it. It’s unbelievable. It’s brilliant. And I admire your work so much.
BARON COHEN We’re not method actors, but I did feel paternal. As a producer, you have to make sure that your actors are completely safe. I wanted Maria to be able to give a brilliant performance while feeling she was confident not to feel too much pressure.
Sacha, you also have The Trial of the Chicago 7 in contention this year. These are two political films about very different eras. What do you find they share in common?
Borat is an absurdist comedy and Chicago 7 really happened, but there’s a common message — when leaders lie, people die. The Chicago 7 were protesting the lies of the Vietnam War. Borat exposes Trump’s lies and conspiracies, including about coronavirus, which has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. And the whole world just saw how Trump’s big lie about the election incited a riot that killed five people. Democracies only work if we have a shared set of facts — a shared reality.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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