She often appears on multiplex screens au naturel (Permanent Midnight, The Cooler, A History of Violence) and talks frankly about sexuality whenever asked (check out her defense of, er, private body hair in this year’s movie-ratings documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated). So it makes total sense that Maria Bello’s latest release is the family film Flicka. Wait — what? That’s right: The same actress who got down and dirty with Viggo Mortensen on a staircase in A History of Violence is now playing a compassionate rancher mom in an update of the classic kid-and-horse tale. ”I knew that she had an edge, I knew that she’s nobody’s fool,” says the movie’s director, Michael Mayer, addressing our confusion. ”And to me, that was really exciting. I loved the idea of having a woman of substance play the part, because those ranchers’ wives, you’ve got to have a real backbone to live that life, it’s a hard life.” Bello, too, had her own reasons to take on the role. The intellectual and introspective 39-year-old actress told us about those and more over a lunch of soup and salad in a hip L.A. café.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you do this movie?
MARIA BELLO: I had this ungodly fear of horses. I always loved them but I was afraid of them. Every time I got on one I felt out of control, I couldn’t figure out why. So they said if I did this movie they were going to send me to cowboy camp. It was every day, sitting on a horse for three hours a day, learning how to ride…. And I realized that being on a horse there’s this fine line between surrender and control. Just like in real life, I think. A horse is a great teacher in that regard. And the more I sort of surrendered and gave into it but still kept tight on the reins, I was able to do it. It was a life-changing experience for me, being on a horse.
Did you use the same horse the whole time?
Yeah, I did. Her name is Belle. She’s a painted mare with blue eyes. So beautiful. That’s the horse I ride in the movie.? I still ride, here now in L.A., and also when I go on location. My last job was in Vancouver, so I rode a horse a bunch of times there. And I went to the Deauville Film Festival [to support World Trade Center, in which she plays the wife of one of the Port Authority cops trapped on 9/11], and they said there was riding there, so I said ”Let’s go horseback riding for a day!”
Country star Tim McGraw plays your husband in Flicka. He’s only acted in one other major movie, Friday Night Lights, so how was it working with him here?
He was really open and excited about the process of learning about a different sort of artistic expression than what he’s used to. So I liked working with him. Because he performs, that’s what he does for a living, he performs on stage. And I didn’t even know! [Smiles sheepishly]
You didn’t know he was a singer?
Had you heard of him before?
I had never heard of him. Didn’t know who he was. I thought he was an actor. And then it turned out that he’s a big country music singer. And now I know his music, every time I hear his music on the radio, I’m like, Oh my God! Tim McGraw! I think he’s a fantastic musician and singer.
All of this comes as a surprise given your track record of doing much more mature films.
It feels nice to break out.
Were you specifically looking to do that?
I wasn’t looking for a family film, per se, I was looking to do something I’d never done before.? I’d never done a movie like this. I thought with the horseback riding it would be a challenge for me, and that I would enjoy the process of making the movie. Not because of the intensity or the anxiety that it provokes in me, or the deep, dark places that I have to go to, but because it’s a lovely, beautiful environment, and I get to be free and outside. It was really different for me in that regard.
Are you looking to surprise people in general?
I really don’t care what other people feel. I’ve always been that girl.? I never set out to say, like, ”Oh, I want people to see me like this.” I don’t really know how people see me. And everyone sees me in a different way. And everyone’s going to have their own judgments about me and I can’t really control it. But what I can do is control the work that I do and the things that move me somehow.
You’ve gotten a lot of attention recently, first with The Cooler and then with A History of Violence. How has that changed things for you?
It’s changed things to the extent that I have the opportunities to do more and more of the work that I love. Because people see me more. Like Oliver Stone saw The Cooler and thought of me for World Trade Center. So it’s like that. The more you get your work out there, the more that you’re known, the more people see your work, and if I’m right for a project, I just do it.
Are there still parts from when you were younger that you didn’t get that you still think about?
No, I don’t have any regrets in that regard.? There’s no place else I’d rather be than where I am in my career. I feel so lucky that as I get older the roles that come to me just get better and better, and it’s so rare.