SHAWN KU, the director of “Beautiful Boy,” recalls the moment he finally understood Maria Bello. It was the last day of shooting. Ms. Bello, playing a mother whose son goes on a killing spree at school, was supposed to walk into a bathroom, stand by the sink for about three seconds and reenter the bedroom.
Mr. Ku said he thought his instructions were simple enough, but Ms. Bello had questions. “She was all over me: ‘What am I doing at that sink? What am I thinking?’ ” Mr. Ku said. “And I answered things like: ‘You’re rudderless. You’re feeling the emotional weight.’ ” Ms. Bello stared at him (for about three seconds) and started to laugh. “You know what answer you should have given me?” she said. “Just shut up, Maria, and stand there.”
That’s Ms. Bello: aggressive one moment, easygoing the next — blunt, funny, curious, sharp. She’s also a little rowdy. At Christmas a few years ago she took her dad drinking; after downing shots of Jack Daniel’s they made an impromptu father-daughter trip to a tattoo parlor. “Maria seems like a broad, and she is, but there is a flip side that is generous and incredibly sweet,” Mr. Ku said.
Ms. Bello grew up in a blue-collar Philadelphia suburb, worked in a pizzeria called the Charcoal Pit as a teenager and said she dreamed of becoming a lawyer focusing on international women’s rights. Instead, at 44, she is one of Hollywood’s favorite raspy-voiced tough ladies, the kind of actress who has a knack for bringing damaged, world-weary women to life.
She has played a range of roles: a pediatrician on “ER,” a machine-gun-toting Egyptologist in “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” a dog breeder in “The Jane Austen Book Club,” a rowdy bar owner in “Coyote Ugly.” But Ms. Bello shines in difficult dramas. Critics were impressed with her unraveling small-town wife in “A History of Violence,” David Cronenberg’s 2005 thriller about a mob assassin in hiding. Kenneth Turan, writing in The Los Angeles Times, described her performance as providing “a level of emotional belief that is the film’s secret weapon.” She received equally strong notices for her sexually confident casino waitress in “The Cooler” (2003), about a gambler (William H. Macy) who is paid to lose.
“She turns herself inside out but never to the point that it’s hard to watch,” Mr. Macy said in a telephone interview. “She retains some humanity, keeps a little sparkle in her eye. That’s incredibly compelling — and incredibly difficult.”
“Beautiful Boy,” made for about $1 million and set for release on June 3 in New York and Los Angeles, finds Ms. Bello in another well of despair. Bill and Kate Carroll, a middle-class couple with a strained relationship, sort through a jumble of emotions — grief, guilt, rage, blame — after their 18-year-old son’s shooting rampage and suicide. Along the way Kate (Ms. Bello) and Bill (Michael Sheen) confront the end — or is it a new beginning? — of their marriage.
“Happy is boring,” Ms. Bello said recently over breakfast at a cafe near her home in the arty Venice section of Los Angeles. She took a slow drag from a cigarette — yes, she’s been trying to quit, having most recently tried hypnosis — and flashed a mischievous smile.
She meant, of course, that complicated, broken characters intrigue her. In real life? She’ll take happy and, she says, has been getting it. Contentedly single, Ms. Bello lives a busy existence with her son, Jackson, who is finishing up the fourth grade. She also spends time pursuing philanthropic goals, working with a number of women’s charities in Haiti, where she helped found a clinic, and various parts of Africa, particularly Darfur.
And she has been experiencing a career surge. While most actresses complain that roles dry up as they age, Ms. Bello said her acting options “just keep getting better and better.” She has a supporting role in “Abduction,” a thriller starring Taylor Lautner scheduled for September release. Her coming indie films include “Jacked,” in which she stars as a single mom taken hostage by a bank robber, and “St. Vincent,” about a mob killer (Pierce Brosnan) who goes undercover as a priest to hunt a victim.
Ms. Bello is also returning to television, this time as the lead in one of the most high-profile pilots of the year: NBC’s remake of “Prime Suspect,” the esteemed British series about an ambitious, abrasive police detective. It’s a juicy role that helped make Helen Mirren a global star in the early 1990s. NBC will decide this month whether to move forward with a full-blown series.
“At first I didn’t know if I wanted to do TV again,” Ms. Bello said. “I can get bored quickly. But, come on, this is the role of a lifetime.”
As a child growing up in Norristown, Pa., the daughter of a nurse and a construction worker, Ms. Bello never saw acting as a potential career. But she was ambitious: “I remember listening to ‘Maniac’ and running around and thinking I’m going to be somebody someday,” she said. It wasn’t until her senior year at Villanova University, where she majored in peace and justice education, that Ms. Bello started performing. She took an acting class as an elective and realized she was pretty good at it.
“I was really conflicted,” she said. “I had always planned to help the world. Instead, I was going to become an actress? That seemed like such a selfish thing to do.” She said she sought advice from a priest. “He told me that you serve the world most by doing the thing you love most,” she said. (The advice meant so much to her that she named her son after the priest.)
Ms. Bello graduated and, with $300 in her pocket and two garbage bags filled with clothes, moved to Manhattan, where she had roles in a hodgepodge of Off Broadway plays. Amstel Light cast her as a beer babe in a national commercial. But it took her a decade of bartending and nonstop auditioning to get her real break: “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” a 1996 television crime drama about two secret agents forced to work as a team while posing as a married couple. CBS canceled the show after a few weeks, but casting agents noticed her and came calling. Her next stop was “ER.”
Mr. Macy, whose own stint on “ER” briefly overlapped with Ms. Bello’s, said he didn’t get to know her until a week before filming began on “The Cooler” and they met in a cafe to discuss several intense sex scenes they would have to perform together.
“The reason those scenes came out so well started with Maria,” Mr. Macy said. “I was freaked out about them, but she said: ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. I’m an old hippie. I take my clothes off at the drop of a hat.’
“We brought our acting coaches. Mine was named Jim Beam, and she had a guy named Johnny Walker. Before long it was like, ‘Let’s do the whole movie naked!’ ”
It was Ms. Bello’s idea, according to Mr. Macy, to set up a Polaroid camera at a cast and crew party and ask everyone to take one picture of their naked behinds and another of their faces; the photos were then shuffled and everyone played a game of matching them back up. “She has a wicked sense of humor,” Mr. Macy said. “The crew had been watching us in the buff the whole time, so she decided turnaround was only fair.”
“Beautiful Boy” isn’t particularly steamy, but Ms. Bello does have a track record of picking films that involve sex. “A History of Violence” required her to film an animalistic love scene on a staircase with Viggo Mortensen, who played her husband. “I was black and blue and purple for weeks after that,” she said. “Viggo was a mess too. But it was worth it. That scene serves the story in a really important way. It exposes the power struggle in relationships.”
Ms. Bello then lit another cigarette and made an abrupt turn from confidently discussing her craft to displaying her vulnerability. “Am I talking too much?” she asked. “Because if I am, just tell me to shut up.”