In real life, she’s been a bartender, a dog walker and a house cleaner. On screen, she’s been a mummy hunter, a cocktail waitress, a beleaguered spouse, and the sultry owner of the famed (and infamous) Coyote Ugly Saloon. Most recently, she’s seen raising hell as tough-as-nails New York City homicide detective Jane Timoney on NBC’s Prime Suspect.
Away from the cameras, Maria Bello is an active philanthropist, a women’s rights advocate, a doting mother and an avid adherent to a Muay Thai kickboxing regimen that makes her as fearsome as a few of the characters she’s played. The Venice, Calif., home she shares with her 10-year-old son, Jackson, is a far cry from the working-class Montgomery County neighborhood where she was raised. In the Bellos’ close-knit Catholic family of six, her father, Joe, worked construction and his wife, Kathy, was a teacher, a nurse and a cancer survivor. Mom even volunteered to help victims of the 9/11 tragedy when she and her daughter found themselves in New York City on that fateful day.
It’s nice to know that Hollywood hasn’t numbed Bello’s cravings for a good hoagie or cheesesteak. And her love for the Eagles is unconditional. For that last indiscretion, we’ll cut her some slack. She’s earned it.
MLT: Tell us about your childhood.
MB: I grew up in Norristown and went to St. Teresa of Avila for grade school, Archbishop John Carroll for high school [where she was a varsity cheerleader], and Villanova University for college. I used to love when Eagles season came around—we’re pretty ardent fans in my family. My mom always brought family members and friends around the table for dinner. Having that passion and love for family kept us all connected.
MLT: Was acting a dream from the beginning?
MB: I always thought about being in the service field somehow, because I was very adventurous and wanted to travel. I saw Out of Africa when I was a kid and loved the role of the woman adventurer, so I love getting to play one in movies and on TV. I’ve taken my own adventures as well, like a trip to Kenya where I brought my son.
MLT: How did that lead to your current line of work?
MB: I went to Villanova with plans to go to law school afterward. During my junior year, I took an acting class. I had to do a monologue, so I picked this song by Bob Dylan about a homeless man who experiences social injustice, and I began to realize the transformative power of art. I could choose my potential; I could use my celebrity to be an influencer; and I could choose art to tell stories that would move people to think.
MLT: Prime Suspect is out there, as are the films Abduction, Carjacked and Beautiful Boy. All of the projects feature characters with intense emotional and personal strain. How did you manage all of the time and intensity that was required?
MB: Beautiful Boy was shot in downtown Los Angeles in two weeks, and my part in Carjacked was another two weeks. But certainly the time spent on the show is a lot; sometimes we’re working 12- or 13-hour days. But I’m a working parent just like everyone else. I have a son, so I figure it out. I also like helping others, and I’m just a really curious person, so to be a part of the [Clinton Global Initiative’s] Presidential Advisory Council in Haiti is pretty awesome, too.
MLT: Do you draw on personal experiences to tap into the emotional components of your roles, or do you have to set boundaries to maintain your sanity?
MB: After years of acting, I have a toolbox filled with things to help me out with different aspects of a character. I’m lucky to have worked with great actors, and the emotion and feelings come out naturally after 44 years of living and experiencing a lot of things in life.
MLT: Has there been a role that’s been more personal than others?
MB: I think they’ve all fit me in a certain way, depending on the different people and the different times I’ve had in my life. Right now, [Prime Suspect’s] Jane Timoney is so exciting for me. She’s incredibly self-possessed, honest to a fault, quirky and really herself. All of these things are where I’m at in my own life right now.
MLT: How’s the new show doing?
MB: Our ratings haven’t been as strong as we were hoping for, but the response from individuals has been really positive. Critics seem to enjoy it, and I can’t tell you how many women approach me about how they’re inspired by seeing such a bad-ass female on TV. Men, too. [Note: NBC has since closed down production of Prime Suspect, and it’s likely to be canceled.]
MLT: What’s coming up for you?
MB: My two passions are my son, Jackson, and my work in Haiti. Jackson is taking exams right now to get into middle school, which is a huge challenge. In addition to filming, I spend most of my remaining time running We Advance, the nongovernmental organization I started based in Port-au-Prince’s Cité Soleil, the poorest slum in the Western Hemisphere.
MLT: Some celebrities merely show up for charity events. It seems you’ve made advocacy a second career.
MB: I’ve always had a strong commitment to human rights. In college, before I ever thought of becoming an actress, I was studying to be a human-rights attorney. I worked at the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia. In fact, my old boss from Women’s Law Project recently sent me my initial job application, where I wrote that equality and dignity for people are integral to a just society. I still believe that.
MLT: Why did you decide to found your own organization?
MB: I started working in Haiti with the organization Artists for Peace and Justice some years ago—and also with female political leaders in Haiti. After the earthquake, I started We Advance, working from the bottom up—the poorest of the poor—to empower women to empower a nation.
MLT: How were your efforts affected by the earthquake?
MB: Soon after the earthquake, I witnessed my Haitian friends doing so much with no funding just because they felt responsible for their community. On the other side, I saw some big international organizations with tons of money that weren’t doing anything practical on the ground because of bureaucracy and insurance issues. A few weeks after the earthquake, in a displaced-persons camp, a few women came to us and said, “Can you do anything to help?” We helped them start a clinic. The Haitian people know what they need. We just help get it done.
MLT: What were your visits like?
MB: The first moment I set foot in Haiti, I knew I was home. There’s an energy, a life force, a joy and a passion embodied in the Haitian people like I’ve rarely seen. Everything I’d heard about Haiti was turned on its head. Instead of seeing a dangerous country in poverty, what I witnessed—and witnessed every day—was kindness in the people, the beauty of landscape, and the depth of culture and spirituality.
MLT: Do you ever make it back home?
MB: My folks, my brothers [Joe and Chris], my sister [Lisa] and I were just together in L.A. The entire family—with all of our children—goes to Disneyland for Thanksgiving. They give me a lot of laughs and a lot of love. My Philadelphia roots define who I am.
MLT: Is there anything else you miss about home?
MB: A good hoagie, a good cheesesteak, and my mother’s meatballs and sauce.
MLT: What other types of charitable work do you do?
MB: I’ve worked a lot in Africa with Save Darfur, Shine on Sierra Leone and others. I’m always an advocate for female empowerment and ending gender-based violence.
MLT: What was shooting Prime Suspect like?
MB: Going to work every day is such a fun and creative experience. We have an incredible writing staff, led by executive producer Alex Cunningham, that gives us such dynamic characters to play with.
MLT: Are there any roles you’re dying to take on?
MB: It’s always been my dream to do a romantic comedy.
MLT: Which is more of a challenge: TV or film?
MB: What really makes something difficult is bad writing or a bad role, where it’s hard to make something of it. I’m fortunate that I’ve had a lot of great parts throughout my career.
» More Interviews With Local Leaders and Celebrities
» Remembering Haiti Two Years After the Earthquake
» Hope for Haiti Two Years After the Earthquake