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Spotlight: Maria Bello

The Golden Globe nominated actress talks about motherhood and ”Flicka”

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Two years ago around Christmas, Maria Bello and her father went to a tattoo parlor near where she grew up in a Philadelphia suburb. Dad got an Eagles team logo inked on his arm; his daughter opted for a Celtic character on her hip. The symbol’s translation: ”possession.”

But make no mistake — this outspoken actress is nobody’s property. Nor is the 39-year-old interested in a traditional life. ”I’ve never wanted to get married, and I’ve been with great men,” Bello says frankly. ”My need for newness and passion and adventure” — like volunteering for Save the Children in Nicaragua, Albania, and Bhutan — ”is much greater than my need for any idea of security.”

Bello’s self-possession certainly comes across in her uninhibited performances. Two have earned her Golden Globe nods: her raw portrayal of middle-aged passion opposite William H. Macy in 2003’s The Cooler and her memorable appearance (and, of course, that animalistic sex scene on a staircase) with Viggo Mortensen in 2005’s A History of Violence.

The thinking man’s bombshell, Bello has become known for the tough broads she’s played on screen as well as the tough talk she’s delivered in interviews. In the recent documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, she declared, ”In this country we’ve kind of desexualized sex…because we’re so afraid of it.”

But the actress sees herself first and foremost as a busy single mom. While sipping French onion soup in a Venice, Calif., bistro, Bello refers to no one more often than her son, Jackson, 5, who’s at home sick from kindergarten watching Jimmy Neutron. ”He didn’t want me to leave,” she says, sticking out her bottom lip like a pouting child. Bello has split with Jackson’s dad, Angela’s Eyes writer Dan McDermott, after seven years (the two share custody), and her son is the No. 1 male in her life right now. ”I’m always towing my boy around on the wagon in the neighborhood,” she says. ”Everyone knows me and him.”

Perhaps their close bond is why, this time out, Bello isn’t pushing the limits of convention or mainstream cinema. Her latest role is in the family film Flicka, an update of the classic kid-and-horse tale My Friend Flicka. Opposite Tim McGraw (Friday Night Lights), she plays a caring mom to Alison Lohman’s rebellious teen. Says Bello, plainly: ”I never did a movie where I basically play myself.”

Not that motherhood has made her a softie. ”I always found Maria to be remarkably honest and up-front,” says Flicka director Michael Mayer. ”She will tell you what she’s thinking, even if it isn’t the popular idea.”

Earlier this year, Bello shone in more grown-up fare. She was a callous lobbyist in Thank You for Smoking and the iron-willed wife of a missing 9/11 cop in World Trade Center. Both contrast with her role in the PG-rated Flicka, yet there’s one commonality: ”I think everything I do is informed by becoming a mother” — even A History of Violence, in which she constantly tried to protect her kids from a vengeful mobster. ”I don’t think a lot of the mother roles I’ve done I could have done before I had Jack. I didn’t know what it was to love something so much, to have so much compassion.”

That familial instinct runs deep. Bello grew up in a family with three siblings — Dad was a construction worker and Mom was a nurse — to whom she remains close. She attended Catholic school straight through to Villanova University, where she studied political science, but an acting class turned her on to show business.

Bello was 28 before she got her first big role, on the short-lived 1996 TV series Mr. & Mrs. Smith (a forerunner to the 2005 Brangelina movie). She spent a year as pediatrician Anna Del Amico on ER before entering multiplexes with 1998’s Permanent Midnight, 1999’s Payback, and 2000’s Coyote Ugly. But it wasn’t until The Cooler that she broke through as a bona fide star. One perk: She can now skip the mass casting calls she once dreaded. “I don’t want to tap-dance for anyone. It wasn’t till the last couple years when I could say, finally, ‘No, I’m not doing it anymore.'”

And her upcoming slate is packed. There’s the kidnapping thriller Butterfly on a Wheel with Pierce Brosnan, a coming-of-age drama from Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball, and the romantic comedy The Jane Austen Book Club, costarring Jimmy Smits. In other words, more films young Jack won’t get to see for quite a while.

“I told him when he’s 16 he can watch my movies,” Bello says. Except, of course, for Flicka. “We went to the movie theater a couple of weeks ago, and there was a preview of Flicka, and Jack stood up and went, ‘That’s my mommy!'”

Maria Bello’s Must List
Bionics, Buddha, Bravo, and Brits give the actress her biggest kicks.

‘The Singularity Is Near,’ Ray Kurzweil 2005
“The way science is moving,” Bello reports, “we’ll be able to keep our souls alive for hundreds of years inside a bionic body.”

XM Satellite Radio
“I just got it. I’m loving it. I love the Starbucks channel, Hear Music. And I love Oprah Winfrey — that’s why I got it. She has her own channel.”

‘Project Runway’
“I can’t wait to see who wins!” she says, giddily, a few days before the season finale. “It’s the only TV show I watch.”

‘When Things Fall Apart,’ Pema Chödrön 1997
The spiritual guide is a big part of Bello’s current study of Buddhism: “I’m really enjoying that.”

Helen Mirren
The Queen is going to be the next movie I see. Helen Mirren is incredible…. She’s her own woman.”