"It Was the Wild West": 'THR Presents' Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova and Jason Woliner on Making 'Borat Subsequent Moviefilm'

"It was Donald Trump, really," said the Borat Subsequent Moviefilm writer-actor Sacha Baron Cohen when I asked him — during a recording of a THR Presents Q&A, powered by Vision Media, which also featured the film's director Jason Woliner and breakout supporting actress Maria Bakalova — why he un-retired his Borat character for the film. "I had a lot of anger when Trump was elected. I didn't know how to express that. And I went back and did the thing that I could do, which was to go undercover."

Cohen first tried to undermine Trump ahead of the 2018 midterm elections when he played several new characters in Showtime's Who Is America?, but, he says, "It wasn't impactful enough; it didn't really make a change." Around the same time he had reprised the character of Borat on an episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, whereupon, he says, "I suddenly realized, 'Oh my God, Borat with Trump supporters really works!' Because Borat's like a more extreme version of Trump — he's 20 percent more into caging children, he's 20 percent more misogynistic, he's 20 percent more appreciative of the work of white supremacists, and he's probably on par with Trump in terms of paying women for sex — allegedly."

So, even though the character of Borat is instantly recognizable and social media — which didn't exist in the same way back in 2005, when the original Borat was released — would make it much harder for him to keep the project secret ahead of its release, he decided to take a chance and started on the script the next day. "There was this imperative to do something prior to the election that we felt could be our form of peaceful protest."

Cohen also set about assembling his team of collaborators, starting with Woliner, whom he had unsuccessfully lobbied to direct Who Is America?. "Jason is the director that everyone's been trying to make a movie with or work with," Cohen says. "Everything he's done has been incredible." Woliner recounts, "I got a script. It was all code words — never was the word 'Borat' or 'Kazakhstan' mentioned — but I figured out pretty quickly what it was, and I loved the script. The idea was so terrifying and exciting of doing a follow-up to what I think is the funniest movie ever."

Bakalova, meanwhile, was about to graduate from theater school in Bulgaria when she heard about "an audition for a Bulgarian actress to be a big part of a big-budget Hollywood movie." She says with a chuckle, "I was like, 'These people are crazy. This is not real.'" Why? Because, as she puts it, "There has never been a platform for an Eastern European to play a multilayered character, even just 'the good guy' in the movie. Always we are portrayed as villains like a prostitute or a mob guy or a hooker or something like that. And most of the time we are not even Eastern Europeans, we are Russians, if we have a part. So I wasn't sure that it was a real project." In fact, it even occurred to her that it might be a human-trafficking scam!

Still, because many of her classmates had already submitted self-taped auditions, she decided to do the same — and a few hours later, the film's casting director called her and told her they wanted to see more. "That was the beginning of everything amazing in my life," she says. "I'm always going to be grateful to Sacha and to Jason."

Woliner says that in casting the part that Bakalova ended up playing, Borat's daughter, Tutar, "We watched hundreds of audition tapes. We had a feeling we would want someone from Eastern Europe, but we did also audition great actors in L.A." A follow-up audition with Bakalova in which she played opposite Cohen "brought both of us [Woliner and Cohen] near to tears," Woliner continues. "We just knew we had found a really magical person." Adds Cohen, "I really think there is no one else in the world who could have played it."

With Bakalova officially cast and sworn to secrecy — "I was keeping it a secret from my parents," she emphasizes, even though "my mom was Facetiming me probably 25 times a day" — the small cast and crew went to work. There was always an inherent safety risk in making a movie that was setting up Trump supporters, but things were made even more dangerous by the breakout of the pandemic just before production got underway. Eventually, in consultation with medical experts, Woliner and Cohen decided to move forward, but, Cohen says, "The making of this movie is a testament to the bravery of everyone involved." Adds Woliner, who directed via Facetime from quarantine one day after coming into close contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19, "It was the Wild West."

Cohen, as the most recognizable face involved with the production, was most at risk of bodily harm. "This was the first time in my career that I'd been advised to wear a bullet-proof vest," he acknowledges. "I did that for two different scenes. One of them was that rally." He is referring to a gun rally at which he ropes a bunch of MAGA supporters into joining him in singing the "Wuhan Flu Song," which he had written while spending several days in the home of two unsuspecting Trump supporters.

"I was staying in-character, in some kind of weird Daniel Day-Lewis moment, for five days," he says of being embedded with them. " The longest I'd stayed in-character beforehand was about seven or eight hours during a hunting scene with Bruno in that movie. And so that was just terrifying to me." He adds, "It was the most challenging thing I've ever had to do, really."

Then, when he finally got to the rally, he performed the song, only to have his identity outed, which sent many in the crowd into a rage. "We were surrounded by an angry mob, and at one point they pulled open the door and tried to drag me out," he recalls, noting that the rally's attendees included people from some of the same groups that later stormed the U.S. Capitol. After narrowly escaping that immediate danger, he went into hiding. "I was moving from safe house to safe house for the next few days," he says, adding with a laugh, "I ended up sharing an apartment with an 80-year-old man."

Bakalova took her own risks, some of which are evident in the final cut, and others of which are not. The film shows that the actress was able to infiltrate the White House with the unwitting help of OAN correspondent Chanel Rion; it does not, however, show that she nearly had a direct interaction with Trump. "We came very, very close to Maria asking a question and Facetiming with her 'dad,' who was me, and it was me on the toilet from Kazakhstan," Cohen reveals. "But just as she was walking into the room where the press briefing was going to be given by Trump, somebody from a liberal news outlet blocked her from coming in."

She was more successful, of course, with Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. In the most viral moment from the film, Bakalova conducts a mutually flirtatious interview in a hotel suite with Giuliani — who Cohen says refused to take a COVID test ahead of time — which ends in an adjoining bedroom that was being recorded with a secret camera, whereupon Giuliani infamously lays down on the bed and puts his hands down his pants. Giuliani has claimed he was removing his microphone.

Bakalova demurs when asked if she believes Giuliani. Cohen, for his part, says, "I think you can make up your own mind about Rudy Giuliani. Bear in mind, this is a man who, since the election, has been spreading the theory that Trump won the election, so I don't think that he's proven himself as the most reliable arbiter of what is fact. I mean, it does make you wonder, though: What has he tried to other female journalists? Why is he in a bedroom? Why is he lying down? Why has he got his hand down his trousers? Why is he touching Maria? Why is he drinking alcohol with her in an interview?"

Did the ensuing media attention about Giuliani help to swing the election against Trump? No one can say for sure. But, volunteers Cohen, "The timing kind of was perfect because Rudy was the key player at that point. And just as he was delivering his [Hunter Biden] hard drive, supposedly with the details of 'the Biden crime family,' the biggest image being spread around the world was him with his hand down his underpants while lying on a bed. And that further undermined his credibility while he was pushing Trump's 'Big Lie' of a stolen election."

Trump, of course, lost the election, whether he admits it or not. The film has gone on to widespread acclaim and viewership on Amazon. And Bakalova has experienced something of a Cinderella story, winning raves for her performance — and the best supporting actress New York Film Critics Circle Award, along with nominations for corresponding Golden Globe, SAG and Critics Choice honors. "My life for the last year and a half has been changed upside-down in a beautiful way because of these two people," she says of Cohen and Woliner. "Everything is incredible and I'm forever grateful."

THR Presents film screenings are powered by Vision Media; additional Q&As and other supplementary content can be viewed in THR’s new public hub at THRPresents.HollywoodReporter.com.