Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
for Radio Free Entertainment
September 22, 2005
Set against the rural backdrop of a small American town, director David Cronenberg's A History of Violence is a compelling character drama that examines themes of identity, human behavior, family, and past sins.
When nice guy Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) uses violent and deadly force to thwart a disastrous situation at his diner, he is celebrated by the national media, quickly attracting the attention of a dangerous mobster (Ed Harris) who is convinced they know each other. The intimidating criminal soon pays the local hero a visit, resurrecting all manner of shady elements from a past Tom has kept long buried, even from his wife of twenty years (Maria Bello) and their two children.
In this interview, Maria Bello talks about her exploits as an actress, aspiring writer, avid reader, dedicated mom, and on-set caterer.
MEDIA: How did you like working with David?
MARIA: Incredible experience. He's the greatest director I've ever worked with, I can say that. Certainly the most experienced director I've ever worked with. And he directs like a good father. He has a very firm, guiding hand, a great vision, yet he lets his children go and play and explore and become, but always reins you in at the exact moment to make you feel safe. He's a phenomenal director.
Were you nervous or apprehensive about the film's sex scenes?
I made a policy of not separating my character's sexuality from what they eat for breakfast. I don't see a difference in one scene to another. If it is emotionally raw, or sexual, or familial, or whatever it is, I think it's the same. And I certainly don't want to promote the movement that sexuality is something to be held aloft, like it's some special f*cking thing, when it's not, really.
Did you actually get bruises while shooting?
What you saw in the movie was three weeks later. That's what my back was like. I was covered from head to toe in bruises, [Viggo's] elbow was out to here, the inside of his mouth was bit. [laughs] We were just a wreck! David said we needed padding, but we couldn't figure out how to get the padding on. It was pretty funny. It wasn't funny at the time. Shooting that for a day and a half was very painful. [laughs]
Did you, Viggo, and David discuss those scenes at great length before they were shot?
The thing is, we are such talkers, the three of us. We're such processors. All we did was yak. But this scene we never talked about. And I would say to David and Viggo for weeks, "We gotta talk about that scene, what are we doing, how are we doing it?" And finally the day before, David said, "You know what, Maria, you're not in control of this one." Because the scene was about me losing control, and I've tended to be a very controlling person in my life. Less so since I've had a child, but definitely controlling. And I just want to know how things are going to go. And the truth was, for this character, it's about her not being in control for the first time in her life, and completely surrendering to a desire that was bigger than herself.
What scene were you particularly excited to see on the big screen?
The one scene that didn't make it into the movie. After I pick [Viggo's character] up at the diner, we go to this swimming hole. And it was such a beautiful set--it was the middle of October, and this river in Toronto with moss-covered rocks and a waterfall. It was so beautiful it was crazy. It was so cold, I thought we were going to die. Literally by the end of the night, I was crying, saying, "I can't go in there again!" And we have stuntmen on the side shooting hot hoses at us. And the pain that we went through that night, I couldn't wait to see it in the movie. And that it's cut out is just appalling to me. [laughs] All that pain for nothing!
How do you think you would react if given a bombshell of a revelation about someone, like your character receives?
I think I'm pretty much a person who knows that I'm capable of anything and have many different facets to me. And I'm sort of open to looking at all of those things, and so I don't think anything would really shock me.
Can you personally relate to Viggo's character?
Yeah, definitely in a way. Especially when I was a younger woman, I was so much angrier than I am now, and I've had those moments of rage and violence where I've acted out. So I know that sort of space. And now I don't really act from that place so much, and I've seen in my own life how people can change.
One of the themes in this movie is the consequence of celebrity. Do you feel your life is much different now that you are recognized as a public figure?
No, because honestly, I'm not really so recognized. I think I have a very simple life. I'm not in tabloids and stuff. It's not my trajectory, it's not my wish, it's not my desire, so I feel like I have a really simple life. So I haven't changed so much. [jokes] I have a nicer house.
Do you have any desire to go back to television?
You know, I don't, in terms of doing a series. What I learnt in my experience on a series is that I'm not the sort of person who can do the same thing day after day. I need to change. I'm terribly moody. I need to do different characters and travel about and meet different people. As soon as I feel stuck in something, I'm miserable and depressed.
Did you feel stuck on ER?
I feel stuck when I have to do anything day to day for an extended period of time.
Do you still watch the show?
I never watch TV. I don't watch movies either.
Not even your own?
I mean, when I have to for a premiere and stuff. But I'm so lame when it comes to film. And my friend Heidi, who's my publicist, knows every film that's ever been made. And she talks about films and I'm like, [comically] "I don't know!" I'm a reader. I've read kind of everything, and I continue to. That's my love.
Do you have an interest in writing?
I do, and I do write. I don't know when I will have the courage to show it to the world, but I do write.
What sort of writing do you do?
I've been working on a novel for years, and I've written a couple of screenplays. I'm always in process with it. I don't know if it's anything that I'll ever show anyone.
Would you ever want to direct a screenplay you have written?
Yeah, I thought about it. And then when I was attempting to kind of get it together last year and maybe direct this movie I had written, David was the first person I went to who gave me advice and told me what I needed to do. He'd certainly be a good mentor for me in that regard.
What are some good books you've read recently?
I've just read The Historian, which was really great. I've read The Zahir, Paulo Coelho's new book. And I just got a great Edna O'Brien book, an old one called August is a Wicked Month.
What was your experience of working with Viggo like?
He's such a beautiful person, you know? I thought he was going to be an intense guy, but he's actually terribly light and joyful and funny. Really funny. He made me laugh all the time. We still have our inside jokes that we share. He's a different sort of person. He truly lives his life as an artist. You can't separate Viggo from his art. He just is his work. Everything that he does is art.
Can you share one of those inside jokes?
Nope, sorry! [laughs]
What was it like working with Ed Harris in a film in which he's playing a villain? Was he always in character, or did he snap in and out of it between takes?
No. When he's in character, he's in character. I'm such a child in so many ways. I'm on a set and sometimes I'm really present and sometimes I'm not. [laughs] [It's like] I have ADD. And he called me on it a couple of times. It was really good for me. He really set me straight.
Is shooting in Toronto a special experience for you?
It is. Yeah. I feel very at home in Toronto. I've done a lot of movies there, and I just like it. It's such an easy town. It has everything a big city has to offer, but the people are so easy and gentle and down-to-earth.
Did you see a lot of films at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month?
You know, I didn't. I saw Thank You for Smoking, the other movie I was in, and I saw this one. But when we're there, we're working the whole time. But everyone I knew...it was like a college reunion. Everyone was out till four in the morning, and I was home by ten. [laughs] I'm boring like that. I'm not quite the late-night person.
What do you miss most when filming away from Los Angeles?
My son, because his dad lives here as well, but we don't live together. So he can't be with me all the time. And I really miss him when he's not here.
Is there something you always take with you when you're on the road?
No. [jokes] It used to be my blanky, but now I don't have anything like that.
Do you separate your offscreen persona from your work?
I don't really separate myself from my work. I couldn't live without doing what I do. You know, I would love to be the person that sits here and says, [mimics] "Oh, it's just a job and my family comes first," but it's bullsh*t, really. I mean, I need to do what I do. I define myself by the truth of who I am in the world, and helping to tell people stories.
What did you take from the experience of making this movie?
Well, I'm still taking away from it, really. The day after I ended this film, I shaved off all my hair and was basically on my back for six months. I felt so emotionally and spiritually drained and confused--and questioning so many things about myself in my life and who I am in the world, as opposed to who I really am. And I'm continuing to ask myself those questions. So that can only be a good thing, I think.
How did everyone prepare for the family aspect of the movie?
We all spent a lot of time together. But not just our little family, but all of us. David built a family. For the last 25 years, he's been working with the same crew. So the makeup, the hair people, the first ADs...every Sunday they'd be over at my apartment. And I got obsessed with cooking on Sundays. I'd visualize recipes. I'd think, "I feel like cilantro with sausage and white beans!" So my driver would pick me up at the airport, we'd go right to the grocery store. I'd get my stuff and I'd cook these big vats of stew or sauce or cassoulets, and I'd bring them to set the next day for everyone, or they'd come over to my apartment and eat. But it was really quite familial in that way.
The movie's closing moment with Viggo and the kids (Ashton Holmes and Heidi Hayes) is rather poignant. How did you approach it?
Well, we had filmed for three months. We shot that scene in the last week. And when we talked about what we were going to do, David said, "You guys have inhabited these characters for three months. You'll figure it out when [Viggo's character] walks in the door. See how you feel." And we did. And I remember we were really concentrated, Heidi and Ashton and I sitting there, and we heard the door slam, and I was looking down. I saw Viggo's boot and looked at Ashton, and we were just both welled up immediately. It was so emotional, because we had built this very familial thing, the four of us. And just to see that sort of coming apart, in real life as well as in our pretend life, was really emotional. And we didn't know what I was going to do. And we just sort of figured it out in the moments of that day, and I think what you're left with is kind of obscure but hopeful.