Exclusive: Maria Bello on Beautiful Boy

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Actress Maria Bello has earned a reputation as a go-to actress when a film needs a dramatic powerhouse to really give it weight, which is why she’s made such an impact with her roles in Wayne Kramer’s The Cooler, David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, Jason Reitman’s Thank You For Smoking and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, among others.

In Shawn Ku’s Beautiful Boy, she stars opposite Michael Sheen as the parents of a college student who shoots up his campus and then kills himself. Trying to come to terms with what happened, they start feeling guilty they must have been responsible for their son’s decision, and cracks start forming in their marriage. It’s an intense dramatic film about a tough subject that features some of the most emotionally-charged performances we’ve seen either from Bello or Sheen.

Those who haven’t seen Bello’s films will get a chance to see what she can do in the fall as she takes on her first ongoing role in a television series, starring in NBC’s “Prime Suspect,” a variation on the British show for which Helen Mirren won three BAFTAs and two Emmys playing Bello’s role.

Last week, ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Ms. Bello for an all-too-brief chat about the movie and her transition into television.

ComingSoon.net: This is really tough material filled with a lot of emotion, and you only had 18 days to make it, so what attracted you to the project?
Maria Bello:
It was so beautifully written on the page. I got it a year before I actually did it, and in my gut, I immediately knew I wanted to play this character and then when Michael Sheen signed up to do it, forget it. I think he’s such a genius, and I couldn’t wait to play with him. We basically had to pay to do this movie (snickers)… our cast, our crew, we basically did it for such a small budget in a few days in downtown L.A. and just had an incredible creative experience.

CS: This isn’t a movie about school shootings although that is an important element to it…
Bello:
I always say it’s really a love story about these two disparate people who go through this tragedy and start to be honest with themselves and each other again, and begin to be vulnerable and get some healing from it.

CS: Since a school shooting is the impetus for what happens between them, did you have any concerns about that aspect of it and how people might react to the movie knowing that?
Bello:
I found it fascinating. It’s the worst thing that parents could possibly go through. The littlest thing, if I raise my voice to my son, I blame myself and think he’ll be in therapy for 20 years. Can you imagine being a parent and going through the shock of your child being killed but also being a killer. A week before we started shooting, bizarrely enough, Susan Klebold (mother of one of the Columbine killers) came out with the first interview ever in “O Magazine” and spoke about the blame and the levels of grief and that’s when I really realized the script was very well-written, because it really mirrored what she explained.

CS: I was kind of curious about the timing of this, because I knew it was at Toronto last year, but in the way movies get made, you could have signed on years ago, and I didn’t know how fast it took to get the movie made.
Bello:
Yeah, independent films is a funny thing, when I’m trying to get money for it and blah blah blah. Usually, you get those scripts and then maybe a year or two later, it comes up, “Okay, we got the money, do you want to do it?”

CS: I don’t know if you saw Shawn’s short film before doing this but what were some of your concerns about working with a fairly new director tackling this sort of material, which is so driven by the actors’ performances and capturing the tough emotions?
Bello:
Funny enough, it turned out that Shawn Ku and I studied at the same teacher in New York. We didn’t know each other, we were years apart, so he really had an understanding of how to speak to me as an actor to get a performance out of me. I think he had such deep compassion, he is really versed in human nature and emotion, and I think he did an unbelievable job.

CS: I was surprised he was an actor because I’d never seen the movie he had acted in until doing research for this. Had you see that movie at Toronto, because I know you’ve been there a lot over the years.
Bello:
I haven’t, no.

CS: When you read a script like this, do you generally know what needs to be done or changed to make it possible for you to do it or do you just need to know you have the right guy directing and actor opposite you.
Bello:
I just get a feeling about someone. I’ve been in situations where a director shows up a certain way and then they turn out to be an idiot d*ck on the set. That happens very rarely, but it happens, but I usually have a gut feeling like I did about Shawn.

CS: When I spoke to Michael, I got the impression that shooting a movie like this in 18 days is really intense, but he said it was opposite, partially because Shawn wasn’t blocking shots and was shooting naturalistically. So was that more freeing for you as well?
Bello:
Yeah, a lot of times it was like doing a play. If you noticed that last scene in the hotel room. Except for one cutaway of me in the bathroom, it’s all one take for eight minutes, so we did that scene five different times and then they chose the take that they liked best. It was a lot of working out with the camera and where we would be, and it was so much fun to work that way. It was like doing a play.

CS: I was just reading that it took a long time to set that up with technical issues, so do you have any idea which take he ended up using? Did he ever tell you?
Bello:
No, it’s funny. After one take, I think that was the third take, we all went, “That’s the one,” and then we did a couple more, but we all knew that was the one.

CS: It’s interesting to me that Kyle (Gallner), who plays your son, is an important part of the movie, and he’s present, but did you or Michael even actually meet him or have a scene with him? Or was he always doing his stuff on his own?
Bello:
He did stuff on his own. We didn’t really get to know him, and I think that was part of Shawn’s process as well, which is they don’t know their son anymore, and the story wasn’t about him, which it could very easily be when you tell this sort of story about a shooting, It wasn’t about the shooting, it was about these people, this family.

CS: I don’t know if you’ve spoken to a lot of people after they’ve seen the movie–I assume you must have done Q&As after the Toronto screening–do you feel that people who see this movie take sides or place blame on the relationship falling apart? I know you can’t judge your own character while playing her, but how about in hindsight? Do you feel badly about what happened and how she reacted?
Bello:
No, I have such compassion for those poor parents who have to go through that. How can you not blame yourself, and at the same time, kids from the same family are so different, so how does one come out to be a killer and the other one turns out to be a PhD, which I’ve seen before. So I just have a lot of compassion for those parents, I can’t blame the parents.

CS: You just signed up to do “Prime Suspect” in the fall, so did appearing on “SVU” give you the bug to do more television? How did that come about?
Bello:
Oh my God, I have the most fun doing this show. I’m so excited that I get to play her, hopefully for years. She’s such a strong, iconic character and the show has a real sense of humor about it. Pete Berg is a pretty brilliant director, and Jeff made it fun. It’s really a collaborative and creative process and I can’t wait for it to come on the air and people get to see it.

CS: It seems like you’re the only woman in a big group of men from what I’ve seen. Is that the case or are there going to be more women we see later?
Bello:
No, it’s mostly about this woman being in a man’s world and having to deal with the sexism that goes along with that, which unfortunately is still true today. It was true 20 years ago and it’s still true today.

CS: By the way, I saw “Sun City Picture House” at Tribeca and I really enjoyed it.
Bello:
We’re so proud of it and glad it’s bringing some attention back to Haiti, a country that I live in part time and work in and love so, so much.

CS: Well, best of luck with the film on the festival circuit. I personally think it’s worthy of an Oscar nomination.
Bello:
Awww, thank you. That would be terrific for Haiti as well.

Beautiful Boy opens in New York and L.A. on Friday.