Once on the golden isle, Bello tended bar, walked dogs, took classes—the stations of the cross for beginning actresses. At the same time, she was searching, and in the most disciplined way. “When I wasn’t working, I was studying [spirituality]: goddess, Native American, Buddhism,” she says. But when I ask where she found her wisest teacher, her formal reading falls away.
“My mother. All my searching came back to her.” Mom’s wisdom: “‘To thine own self be true’—and do laugh.” Her mother gave her other invaluable and extremely practical advice: “She always said, ‘When you’re at the edge of a cliff, choose the jump.’ So I tell myself: Be afraid and do it anyway. I’ve always chosen the jump.” Bello chose “the jump” in Los Angeles, when she and screenwriter Dan McDermott decided to have a child without benefit of clergy. And she regularly flirts with danger when she tells producers and interviewers that, as a lifelong reader, she rarely goes to the movies or watches television.
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“Because I’m an actress, people ask, ‘Don’t you love film?’ And I reply: ‘No, I’ve always wanted to be a character in a book.’ And by that, I mean a character in the romances and swashbuckler adventures I devoured as a kid. The character I’d most like to be is...Indiana Jones.”
And then there is the “jump” that all artists, writers, actors, and musicians take, which is to reject the life of company-supported health plans and 401(k)s and bet everything on yourself. My life is like that, and I find it terrifying. So I ask Bello, “Don’t you ever have that 3 am moment, when you think: ‘I am alone,’ and ‘spinster’ might just not be a joke?”
“We all have that moment,” Bello says. “Fortunately, I have an amazing Jungian analyst—and prayer. The truth is that every relationship ends, everyone will die. I accept that, but sometimes it’s hard, and I find myself digging my nails into any security blanket that’s handy—my boyfriend, whatever. And then I realize, of course this will change, and the less I hold on, the better.”
“Considering the Jane Austen movie,” I point out, “I really thought you’d say: ‘Thank goodness for my indispensable network of girlfriends.’”
“I do have that. Especially my best friend, my ‘everything’ person. She makes me see things differently. We’ve been passing a 25-pound barbell between us for 12 years.”
“Any male friends?” I ask, half-expecting to hear that “friendship” with men is at best a fond fantasy.
“As for my best guy friend,” Bello says, “he’s a 77-year-old mover-shaker producer-artist. We tell each other: ‘Thank God there’s someone I can share my pain with.’”
Okay, she’s got perspective on men. I think of Maria Bello’s good looks—she’s at least the young Faye Dunaway— and of all the guys who surely hit on her years ago when she was tending bar in New York. To say nothing of the interest she generates now among men who can’t quite recall the last book they’ve read. “Is there,” I ask, “a burden of beauty?”
“Absolutely not—as long as we’re talking about internal beauty,” Bello says. “There are a lot of people who shine and glow wherever they go because of their internal beauty. And on days when internal and external come together, that’s terrific. People look at Jackson and say, ‘Oh, your son is beautiful.’ I reply: ‘Yes...inside and out.’ I want him to know they’re both important.”
I can see why Bello was the first actress cast for The Jane Austen Book Club—she’s so genuinely strong, she would have no problem portraying her character’s self-sufficiency. And then setting it aside again. This is a comedy, after all, and comedies end in union—if Bello’s character, Jocelyn, is alone at the end of the movie, she didn’t come to properly understand her Jane Austen. “WHAT WOULD JANE SAY?” a traffic signal flashes, in one of the film’s more inspired images. Well, when it comes to love and romance, Jane would say, “GO FOR IT.”
Jane Austen would also say it’s okay for a woman to be the smartest person in the room. Indeed, were she alive now, she would almost surely endorse a woman’s right, on a random Tuesday night, to go home with a man she has no intention of marrying. And, after all that, she’d see no reason why a smart, experienced woman couldn’t find enduring love.
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“Jane Austen was a woman breaking the mold in a puritanical society,” Bello tells me. Takes one to know one.