Here is Maria Bello at age 39. Critics respect her. Movie connoisseurs, the type happy to deem themselves tastemakers, profess to adore her. She has played a hooker, a barkeep and a karaoke con artist and seems to be edging her way to the precipice of some greatness. She has two Golden Globe nominations in her pocket, but even in this culture of celebrity worship, she is no household name. She is months away from the age at which there are no good roles for women in Hollywood.
She thinks you can take that last line and shove it up ... Oh, never mind, you catch her drift. Bello, brassy in the best sense of the word, has no intentions of falling into the cliches life offers. Not now, a decade into her career, when interesting scripts are still rolling in and her name appears in the leading credits of “World Trade Center,” Oliver Stone's rendering of the events of 9/11 through the eyes of two Port Authority officers trapped in the rubble of the fallen buildings.
“I feel like the roles I'm doing are just getting better and better,” says Bello, who spiraled through turns as a doctor on TV's “ER” and a mother hen/beer mistress in “Coyote Ugly” (2000) before landing roles of more critical note, like that of William H. Macy's love interest in the 2003 Las Vegas drama “The Cooler” and a crisis-stricken wife in last year's “A History of Violence.”
In “World Trade Center,” Bello plays the most normal role of her life and maybe also the most extraordinary. In a tale constructed around true events and real people, she is the nurturing suburban mom whose officer husband, played by Nicolas Cage, led a rescue team into one of the twin towers just as it crumbled to a pile of smoldering debris.
It's amazing the degree to which Bello's face seems transformed for each woman she portrays. Hard and angular for the lawyer wife in “Violence,” she is all soft, youthful curves as a singing punkster in “Duets” (2000). A fuller cheek in this movie, paired with a turquoise polo shirt, and she seems to have walked off the set of a Kool-Aid commercial.
“My other roles ... were always, I think, full women. But this role, she's gentler than any other character I've played. She's more motherly,” Bello says in a phone interview from a New York hotel hours before the movie's premiere.
She recalls crying the whole way through the script and leaping into Stone's arms when he gave her the part on their first meeting. “Your career is your choices,” she says. “And I'm getting fantastic roles. I'm very, very lucky.”
She grew up in suburban Philadelphia in a working-class, Polish Italian household, spent years in Catholic education and went to Villanova University to study political science. An acting class her junior year threw her legal ambitions out the window, so after college she moved to New York and worked a series of crummy jobs trying to make it as an actor.
Her first real role, she says, came at 28. And that delay might have been for the best.
“I think if I had had success when I was younger, I'd probably be a bit [expletive] up — I mean, I didn't know who I was at that point,” she says with a long, breathy exhale. “I've sort of fallen into myself and fallen into my womanhood and my life as a piece of art, as opposed to just wanting to get to the next thing, just wanting to be validated. I don't have those feelings anymore.”
That's a philosophic statement from a woman prone to philosophic statements. In conversation, Bello seems as learned and soulful as she is sexy and rebellious on screen. Her aspirations, she says, have been guided by a passage from Isak Dinesen's “Out of Africa,” in which a gazelle that had run away returns to its owner matured, dignified and fully “in possession” of herself.
“I think I've led my life trying to capture that — to become more genuine, to become more authentic,” says Bello, who tattooed the Celtic symbol for the word “possession” on her hip as an ever-present reminder of that ambition.
Between movies, Bello has set about documenting her own passages, with a semi-fictional novel about love and madness in Hollywood that she expects to complete by September. The actress is split from her own longtime love, Dan McDermott, but the two share custody of their 5-year-old son, Jackson. (Her next movie, “Flicka,” based on a popular children's novel and earlier film, will be the first her son is allowed to see.)
The experience of motherhood, she says, brought focus to her life and gave her the perspective to imagine the terror experienced by Donna McLoughlin, the woman on whom her “World Trade Center” character is based.
The two women met at a barbeque the McLoughlins held for the cast a few weeks before filming began and bonded doing dishes and sharing stories about their lives. Bello describes McLoughlin as a woman who is “silently strong,” and she played her throughout the movie with a relative calm that forms a striking contrast to the frantic events unfolding in every other scene.
“I really started to get her essence,” Bello says of McLoughlin. “And, in the end, I was so in awe of her, that I just hope I paid her the homage and respect she deserved.”