There are moments in the movie Downloading Nancy, the film that sharply divided audiences at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, that few Hollywood actors would venture into, such as scenes of extreme sexual violence and intense emotional and physical pain. But then Maria Bello is no ordinary Hollywood actress.
On the day of her departure from Park City, which played host to three of her films, we are in a corner of a popular local restaurant in which the beautiful actress says that taking on a risky venture such as Downloading Nancy was, as with many of her films, based on a gut reaction to the material. “I read the script, I was incredibly moved by it, and just knew that I was ready to take on this character,” Bello explains. “I think that we’re all filled with deep wounds, but some of us are more aware of them than others. I loved how passionate the director was about the story, and how it was an extreme version of a malaise that so many people feel. so I wanted to portray that.”
Bello’s Nancy is unlike any cinematic creation seen in the Indie world and especially Hollywood’s mainstream. Darkly and desperately unhappy, trapped in a marriage to a man she despises and who is unaware of her misery, Nancy seeks refuge on the Internet where she meets a man who agrees to permanently put her out of her misery. Bello says that preparing to play a character that has reached the depths of despair is a combination of “life, longing, loss and love. I also think it’s experience, growing consciousness and it is going deep and feeling deep, and experiencing life and experiencing yourself.”
Asked how she leaves a character such as this behind her at the end of the day, the simple answer is, you don’t. “I always think all my characters live in me llittle pockets, little people living in my soul whom I call up and they exorcise themselves. I remember when I was a struggling actor in New York City, and this man came up to me as I was catering a party. He said, ‘I’d like to paint you,’ and I was a real badass, kind of wild chick then. I said, ‘Why, you want to paint me naked or something?’ And he said, ‘No I’ve never seen someone so on the verge of insanity, ‘ because I was a very sad, sad person at that time, so I ended up going through this man’s studio for three months, sitting in this one position for four hours a day and he would paint me.”
Bello recalls that difficult period of her life with deep sadness, but she kept the painting, which still hangs at her home. “I swear, it was like every brush stroke took some of my depression and put it on the canvas. It was as if he took my shadow in his art. I love that idea of art being a healing process, and in three months my life changed.” Bello moved to Los Angeles and end up getting a job in her first week. “I got happier. So art transforms a life. I feel that’s why I’m an artist.”
Firstly establishing herself as one of the initial stars of the hit TV series E.R in 1998, Bello easily segued into diverse, mostly Indie film roles, from Coyote Ugly and Assault on Precinct 13, to Autofocus, The Cooler, Silver City and A History of Violence. Bello is unconcerned at the controversy and risk taken on Downloading Nancy. “It was such a joy to collaborate with these artists and I think that’s what Sundance is about, collaborating with that process, as opposed to celebrating the results. Yet with a film like this, that you say is so risky, people are going to love it or hate it and I can’t say that there’s not any fear in me, because I’m so raw up there, and so vulnerable. It’s a bit scary, but I’m really trying to breathe and just be proud of what we did, and not worry about the results, but it definitely takes some work to get there and I’m not there yet.”
This is quite the year for Bello who was also at Sundance with Yellow Handkerchief and Towelhead, yet those shocked at her Indie work will be surprised that she is also co-starring in this summer’s big-budget sequel, The Mummy 3, which seems out of sync with the actress’s usual body of work. Her reason for taking on such mainstreams project? “So I could be Indiana Jones. Seriously, since I was a little kid, I read romance novels and there were always these strong, swashbuckling women heroines.”
Bello says it was that fantasy life that led to her love of and need for acting. “I never started out to try to be this dramatic actress, but it’s just sort of where my life and career have taken me, so when The Mummy 3 came to me, I was so excited.” Bello concedes she was nonetheless surprised when the film came to her “even though I’d been putting it out there for years.” Bello takes up the role of Brenda’s Fraser’s wife, played in the first two films by Rachel Weisz.
She says “The director, Rob Cohen, created this whole new character. I mean, it is the wife of Brendan Fraser that Rachel played, but there’s this twist to it, so you get that she was a different character from me, so if Rachel was Audrey Hepburn in it, I’m KATHERINE Hepburn. Here she’s tougher, intellectual, and sassy, so it was really fun. I got to train in Japanese sword fighting, got to shoot Winchesters and pistols, to work on ropes hanging off of chandeliers, work in China for two months, and bring my son. It was an amazing experience.” Asked if she also takes on a big Hollywood movie for pragmatically financial reasons, the actress laughs slightly. “I have a son who’s in school, I have a mortgage, and a house, but I really try to trust and believe that I’m going to be fine in all of that, and I just have to do what I’m passionate about and what I love.”
A decade after her breakthrough appearance in E.R and recognized as one of America’s most accomplished actors, Bello says that she is not surprised that she has attained her current level of success. “I really believe in creating your life. I mean, there are so many new books these days about metaphysics that have been around for thousands of years, from the Tao De Ching, which is this idea that by being grateful, embracing your life, by visualizing what it’s going to be, and by having a real desire and belief in that, that you can create this ‘positivity’ in your life. I really believe that and even if bad things happen, which they do to all of us, I’m learning, as life goes on, to look at it in a new way, and find the grace in that.”