Actress' next step is already booked

Maria Bello puts a lot of thought into her roles, whatever they happen to be

January 06, 2004|By Steven Rea | Steven Rea,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Maria Bello is on the headset in her car, having just deposited her toddler at preschool in Los Angeles. She's getting coffee, en route to a studio to do looping for a thriller she made this summer with Johnny Depp.

"Sorry, I'm late," she says. "I had to drop my boy off, and there were tears and `Mommy, please don't go!' He's 2 1/2 . He just started going to school in September, three mornings a week. In the job I have, if you do it right, you can have a lot of time to spend with your kids as they're growing up."

The job Bello has - acting - has been going especially right lately. The Cooler, a deft little piece about a born loser (William H. Macy) and a cocktail waitress who fall for each other, has been winning rave reviews - landing Bello a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actress. The Wayne Kramer-directed pic, with Alec Baldwin as a bad, bristling Vegas casino manager, is scheduled to open in Baltimore on Friday.

Over the summer, Bello was in Montreal making Secret Window with Depp, Charles S. Dutton, Timothy Hutton and John Turturro. An adaptation of a Stephen King novella, the pic's being directed by David Keopp (Stir of Echoes). Then it was on to Denver for Silver City, a "political Western" from the prolific indie dude John Sayles. Chris Cooper, Richard Dreyfuss, Danny Huston, Mary Kay Place and Billy Zane also star.

But back to The Cooler. While it's set in Las Vegas, the R-rated character piece was actually shot in Reno, where a shuttered casino hotel served as the fictional Shangri-La - an old-style gambling den where Macy's Bernie Lootz works as a bad luck charm, cooling the hot streaks off winning bettors. Bello is Natalie, a casino worker who unexpectedly falls for Bernie. The film, which premiered at the Hamptons International Film Festival in October ("a dozen of my relatives drove up in a minivan from Philly," Bello says), has garnered attention for its frank (and funny) sex scenes, and the nudity of its two stars.

"Bill Macy and I just really hit it off from the first minute we met," reports the actress. "The guy has such a sense of humor. ... We have kids the same age, we just really bonded. And we really loved these characters, so he and I would work 14-, 16-hour days and then stay up all night - after putting the kids to bed, of course - rehearsing things for the next day and thinking out things we could do."

That's where one particular scene - in which Bernie and Natalie exact revenge on a noisy couple on the other side of his bedroom wall - was hashed out.

"It was the night before we shot that scene, and Bill and I and our friend Leigh Kilton Smith, who is my dear friend and acting coach from L.A., were talking about the scene and what happens when two people really connect, sexually. When they fall in love, what does it look like? And we said, surrender, vulnerability, showing each other's pain. But then we said laughter, there's laughter, too. And how does one show laughter?

"Literally at the same moment, Bill and I pointed at the bedboard and went, `Oh my god! Oh my god!'" She said they both jumped on the bed and started whacking their hands against the bedboard.

"We went to our director the next day and told him that we came up with something. `You've got to see this! We feel like this is how the scene should end.'"

Bello, 36, lives in Los Angeles with her young son and "her man" - Dan McDermott. "He's a screenwriter. He used to run DreamWorks Television. And for years and years, he was writing and could never sell a script. Then, two years ago, he sold a script to Fox for a big fat deal, and now he has three movies at three different studios and two pilots at different studios.

"He's just doing great and living his dream. And we're living our dream as a family."

After a busy couple of years, Bello, right now, doesn't have a job lined up. At least, not a film job.

"I've been working on a novel for the last five years, but I'm feeling at this point in my life that this is my finishing point, that I'm ready to put it out in the world," she says.

"Writing is quite different from acting. You reveal yourself in so many deeper and intricate ways than you do acting. But I'm up for that challenge right now. ... I think I'm an actor who's an undercover writer, really. I have always had too much fear to let that side of myself out. Until now."

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