Maria Bello is one gorgeous force to be reckoned with. Katrina Onstad talks to the actor about her life onscreen and off
Can an actress be a star without first being a starlet? Or is such a thing categorically impossible, like being a full-grown, graceful horse without first wobbling cluelessly through foal-hood? At 38, Maria Bello, whose slow build toward stardom is about complete, has skipped the requisite Hollywood girlie phase—no bikinis at the MTV Movie Awards, no public groping of blingy professional athletes—and we are thankful for this. She is a woman who acts, and not just as a babe in a Maxim spread. Despite blond hair and apple cheeks that pop when she grins, Bello is not cute. She was never cute, even in the cute Coyote Ugly, where she played not just the sexy owner of the titular bar but the mature sexy owner of the titular bar.
Instead of cute, Bello is striking, a little dangerous and very talented—earning a Golden Globe nomination for her role in 2003’s The Cooler as a working-class Vegas cocktail waitress. Last fall, in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, Bello won career-transforming critical raves (and her second Golden Globe nomination) playing opposite Viggo Mortensen as a wife/mother/lawyer fighting fiercely to protect her family—or the fantasy of her family—from a sudden blast of hyper-violence.
“This particular film [A History of Violence] was the most creatively fulfilling and the most challenging at the same time,” says Bello over the phone from LAX in her scratchy we’re-intimates-now-sweetie voice. “It literally took me six months to recover. I got home, I got all my hair shaved off and I didn’t leave my room for a month.”
Not long before shooting the film, Bello had been through a breakup with her boyfriend of seven years (a screenwriter and former television executive) and she found herself a single mom raising their four-year-old son, Jackson. A History of Violence, with its themes of shattered families and baby-cub kids under siege, hit home. “It brought up a lot of questions in me about my own desires and longings,” she says. “Every time I go to that edge and jump off into the unknown spaces in myself, I come to a richer understanding of my place in the world.”
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Bello casually peppers her conversation with these kinds of frank observations about her inner life, as if she is in constant dialogue with herself. When the conversation turns from the search for truth to fashion, she is equally invested: “As artsy-fartsy as I sound, I’m so into fashion. It’s an art; I can show on the outside who I am on the inside.”
Coming of age in the ’80s, Bello admits to some painful choices—pink high-heels and white ankle socks to the prom and a brief penchant for black rubber arm bracelets—though mostly she sported a Pretty in Pink mixed-up vintage look.
For red-carpet walks, Bello trades in her flats for heels and dresses by Louis Verdad and Chanel, often standing out by placing a single flower in her hair: “It helps me get more present in the moment. I smell it and go, ‘Oh, here I am.’ ”
While her scrubbed beauty has become a fixture on the fashion pages, there is something almost invisible about Bello onscreen; she is a shape-shifter. For July’s My Friend Flicka, a remake of the family movie, she looks muscular, taut and sunny. But now she is gaining 20 pounds for her role as the wife of a Port Authority worker, played by Nicolas Cage, in the much-anticipated Oliver Stone film about 9/11.
“My weight really dictates how I stand in a character,” she says. “[This character is] the mother of four children—so compassionate and kind and soft. And I find that when I’m on the thinner side, I feel a little tough.” Regardless of the part, most actresses’ bodies remain the unattainable size 0, but Bello will have none of it.
“I’m not interested in living up to some ideal,” she says, “or seeing movies with these sort of perfect, model-y people in them. I don’t come from that sort of place. All the women I know are extraordinary women, but they look quite regular.” And Bello doesn’t shy away from controversy, either: next month she plays a supporting role in Thank You for Smoking, a film that examines the machinery of the tobacco industry.
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Bello grew up in a tightly knit Polish– Italian family living just outside Philadelphia. She has called her mother—a cancer survivor—her “hero,” and she’s so tight with her dad that, in 2004, after some Jack Daniel’s and Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, they got tattoos together (hers a Celtic symbol; his an eagle, for the Philadelphia Eagles).
In her early years, she studied political science at Villanova University in Villanova, Pa., and imagined a career in human rights, but then, on a whim in her final year, she took an acting class and realized her true calling. Within months, with $300 in her pocket, she packed her clothes into garbage bags and had a friend drive her to New York City on New Year’s Day.
Soon after getting a few acting gigs, Bello cofounded a charitable organization called The DreamYard Project in Harlem, getting kids to write and talk about their lives, and all the while she was auditioning. It’s those seven years in New York that separate Bello from the starlets: years of the dirt and disappointment and joy of real life, the stuff of becoming a woman; a time living outside the spotlight before, at last, this moment in it.
Before stepping onto the plane to New York, where makeup and hair tests for the Oliver Stone project await, Bello tells a story about a turning point in her life, a story, appropriately, about faith and fashion. “I was in New York. I’d been there maybe two years and, one day, I went to a casting director and she called my agent and said, ‘She’s horrible. She shouldn’t be acting.’ And then my agent fired me that same day. I remember crying and running down 23rd Street and, all of a sudden, I saw something on the sidewalk and it was a cheesy gold pump. And in the middle of 23rd Street, I took off my army boot and put the pump on—and it fit! I felt like Cinderella in that moment. I felt like God was speaking to me, [saying]: ‘You know what? You’re OK.’ And from that moment on I was, like, ‘Yes, I can do this.’ ”
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