Looking over Maria Bello’s filmography, it’s easy to assume that she just likes playing emotionally pained characters: While her breakthrough (after a few years in scattered TV roles) came in the short-lived action TV series Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and she’s touched on camp (as the bar owner in Coyote Ugly), comedy (as Kevin James’ wife in Grown Ups), and straight-up action (in Payback and The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor), her best-known roles have tended to come in painful dramas. Most notably, she played Viggo Mortensen’s put-upon wife in A History Of Violence; a miserable, uptight dog breeder in The Jane Austen Book Club; a hard-luck Vegas waitress in The Cooler; a self-absorbed, abusive mother in Towelhead, an ex-junkie in Permanent Midnight, and so forth. And to this day, she may be best known for her extended role as an emergency pediatrician on ER. Bello’s latest role may top all the others for emotional rawness, though: She and Michael Sheen co-star in Shawn Ku’s Beautiful Boy as parents already on the brink of divorce when their college-freshman son murders 21 classmates, then kills himself. Together, they navigate grief, anger, confusion, and a great deal of screaming. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Bello about getting into and out of her role, why she likes to work organically, and whether sex scenes or fight scenes are harder.
The A.V. Club: What was preparation for Beautiful Boy like for you? Do you do research or rehearsal before playing a role?
Maria Bello: No, I don’t like to rehearse. Michael, Shawn, and I met and talked about the script and how we saw it and the levels of emotion and what we wanted to do, but we never actually rehearsed. I did read a book on the seven levels of grief, because what I realized is, usually, after the death of a child, you have years of going through the grief process, but I had to portray it within two weeks to show all those different levels. I studied that a bit and was aware of it so I wasn’t doing the same thing in every scene.
AVC: Have you always felt that way about rehearsal, or did you come to that preference over time?
MB: No, always. I never liked the whole idea of [creating your own] background, if it’s not pertinent—you know, where the character lived as a child, and who I was and how I was. That never helped me in any way, so I don’t even do that.
AVC: In this case, would it help to have some justification, thoughts on where the marriage went wrong, or what the character was like as a person before the events of the film?
MB: Yeah, we actually talked about that in terms of our relationship with each other, our relationship with the son, what our relationship could’ve been. But in terms of sort of a personal backstory for the character, what happened to her as a kid… blah blah blah. I don’t understand the point of making all of that up.
AVC: Has there ever been a role where you felt you really needed the research, or where either the other cast members or the directors insisted on a lot of rehearsal?
MB: No, not really, to be honest. I’ve mostly done films where it doesn’t sorta work like that.
AVC: Well, how does it work?
MB: What I’m saying is there’s usually not a lot of rehearsal when you do films.
AVC: So how much of the execution of a role like this comes from your thoughts going in vs. what the director tells you on set, or the spontaneous experience of playing it out with other people?
MB: Well, it depends on the script. This one was so beautifully written and had so many different emotional levels and a real sense of humanity about it, and Shawn Ku really understood all of that. And then it turns out Shawn and I discovered that we had studied with the same acting teacher in New York at different times. So he spoke my language. It was so wonderful to be directed by him, because he knew how to talk to me. To help me to understand different things and different levels he wanted me to go to.
AVC: What kind of feedback did you get from him?
MB: There’s a part in the movie where I go to the door and I open the door, and I find out my son is dead, and he was a killer. And we had this exercise in our class called “Knock At The Door.” And it was a very similar situation. You’re a blank board, you have nothing going on, you knock at the door, someone opens it, and then you see what happens. That person can be crying their eyes out, they could grab you and kiss you, and then you just improv from there, you see what I mean? So he would prepare me for… We did it four different ways. He would say, “Knock at the door. This time, you have an inkling that maybe something happened… And then there’s a knock at the door. And this time, you have no idea what happened. You think it’s your neighbor… And then there’s a knock at the door.” You see what I mean?
AVC: Do you prefer a lot of takes for that reason? So you can explore different possibilities?
MB: Yeah, it depends what the scene is, but I feel like Shawn and Michael and I had such a good collaboration that we were all pretty assured when we got it right.
AVC: Was it important to you to get to know Michael beforehand so you could play a couple who had known each other so well for so long?
MB: Yeah, we got real lucky from the minute we met. We just had a connection. And we just became fast friends and really trusted each other as actors. We work in a very similar way, and just had fun together. We were playful and childlike and curious. It was a wonderful creative exercise. People tend to think when you’re on dramatic films like that, that it’s all so heavy, but it’s really not when you’re working with great actors.
AVC: What was the mood like during filming?
MB: [Laughs.] I definitely step out of it when I’m done. I mean, like, between scenes and setups and stuff, I don’t sit in that space.
AVC: Are you aggressive about walking away from the character between takes to shake off the tension? Was it the kind of thing where you might make a joke to escape the mood?
MB: Yeah, no… I don’t know how I do it. Maybe it was different when I was younger. I feel like, in a way, after doing it for so many years, you learn a certain concentration and how to turn it on and off. And to consider it play, as opposed to this deep, emotional thing.
AVC: How do you know when a role is working? Do you have to see yourself onscreen afterwards? Do you get that as feedback from other people?
MB: Oh, no. I know when it’s working organically from how I feel about it. But it’s not like I prepare anymore, or have to think about my son being dead to get emotional. If you’re working with a good actor and you’re reacting off of them and you have a good script, it just comes organically. It’s just stored in your body. So that emotion will just be brought out of you, as opposed to trying to force it. I guess there’s no easy way to explain it. I think a lot of people become actors because they have a great reservoir and repertoire of many different emotions they felt over their lives. It’s like having a toolbox, and you go down into the toolbox and choose one or two of those that you need for a particular scenario, or something that comes up in a line. I’m sorry I can’t explain it more fully, but it’s really difficult to explain.
AVC: So it’s all instinctive and in the moment for you?
MB: Yes. I don’t really have a method or a technical process. I studied [Sanford] Meisner, and that’s the thing that really works for me. That sort of instinctual, in the moment, what the other actors do, working off them and letting the story unfold, as opposed to having an idea of what the story should be.
AVC: You’ve gotten to do a little action, and recently you’ve gotten to do comedy, but most of your roles tend to be in dramas. Do you have a strong preference for dramatic roles?
MB: No, not really a preference. I just have a gut feeling about something, if I really want to do it, if I’m excited about it, if I want to explore it. And that goes across all different sorts of genres. You know, now I’m doing Prime Suspect, which I’m really excited about. And that’s like an in-between. It’s a drama, but there’s some humor to it, and I like that I’ll get to do all of that.
AVC: Do you have any favorite roles that particularly stand out?
MB: Roles that I’ve done? Probably my favorite role was in The Cooler playing with Bill Macy.
AVC: That was a particularly graphic one. You’ve played a lot of roles featuring sex or onscreen nudity, and you get asked about it a lot, and you’re always frank and casual. Why do you think it’s such a focus in your interviews?
MB: I don’t know. People are kinda still a bit puritanical, perhaps. People don’t expect a woman to feel so open, in a way, about her sexuality onscreen, and they probably find it fascinating. I think more actors are doing it and being open to that and not being afraid of it, so it’s becoming less of a thing.
AVC: Do you think your comfort with the topic is ever a factor in people casting you for roles that involve sexuality?
MB: I don’t think so. Yeah, I’m not sure. I don’t think so.
AVC: Which is harder for you? Playing something like a sex scene that’s joyful, or playing something like the arguments in Beautiful Boy, which are a lot more painful and angry?
MB: You know, they’re both fun. It depends what day it is and what actors you’re playing with, but I like to just go to all those different sorts of places.