Maria Bello Talks Beautiful Boy

The actress plays a grieving mother whose son has committed a horrific school shooting in this new drama from Shawn Ku

Shawn Ku directs Michael Sheen and Maria Bello in the powerful new drama Beautiful Boy, which looks at the aftermath of a school shooting. Sheen and Bello play a drifting married couple who find their world shattered when their only child murders a number of his classmates before taking his own life. Through this tragedy, the estranged husband and wife learn to come to terms with their grief and each other.

We recently caught up with actress Maria Bello to chat with her about this thought provoking and challenging new film. Here is our conversation.

This is the type of drama that automatically opens up a dialogue between anyone who has just seen it. And there are no clear-cut answers to what we are experiencing on screen...

Maria Bello: The script was so well written. I had read it a year before I did it. I just knew that I had to do this. It is so emotionally complicated. There are no clear answers, or reasons. The idea that we could tell this story...Its not about the shooting, it's a love story about these two people, who are so desperate, and they have to come together because of this tragedy.

That's an interesting way to look at this; as a love story. When the movie begins, these two people are so far apart, yet by the end, they are drawn incredibly close together...

Maria Bello: I think, in a lot of long term relationships, people will lie to each other to feel safe and secure. When it is really a big farce. We are never safe and secure. Do we ever really know who someone else is? They started lying to each other, and they got to that comfortable place. And this made them be honest. They had to once again trust themselves in light of this horrible tragedy.

Have you actually sat down and watched the movie?

Maria Bello: Oh, yeah. I saw it in Toronto for the first time.

You might think this is a question better suited for the director. But I want to get your take on it. There isn't a score. During some of the most emotional scenes, we are not given musical cues on how to think or react to what we are seeing on screen. In having seen the film yourself, why do you feel that was important in the way that Shawn Ku is telling his story for an audience?

Maria Bello: I think the way that Shawn Ku shot it, he understood the level of emotion so clearly. He wanted us to feel for ourselves. It says so much about him as a filmmaker, that he didn't feel he needed to use that music to make us feel things.

During some of the more emotional scenes, how much space did Shawn and the crew give you as an actor?

Maria Bello: For instance, the scene in the hotel room, there is only one cut away. We filmed that like a play. There were only six people in that room, following us around. We did five different takes, and he chose one. What an amazing way to work. It was just like doing a scene in a play. Listen, we shot this movie for no money. We basically had to pay to do it. (Laughs) It was twelve days in Downtown Los Angeles. We all did it because we loved it. It was an incredible creative process.

You've been on some huge Jerry Bruckheimer-type movies, where you are surrounded by 1500 people shooting a single shot that last six seconds on screen, then here you have six people surrounding you, doing one shot that last five minutes. Is it more rewarding for you to work with such a small crew? Do you feel like you get a better performance from yourself?

Maria Bello: I just put all of that out of my head. I learned a long time ago as an actor that the most important thing is being able to concentrate. Because I have practiced it for many years, I have found that my concentration is pretty good. I never know where the camera is, or who is behind the camera. It doesn't bother me so much. It all depends on the project. I like to work hard and fast. I don't like doing three or four month movies. I don't like sitting in the trailer most of the day, and then shooting two or three scenes, from one page of the script. I like shooting fast and furious. I like it to be emotional. I am shooting this new TV show, Prime Suspect. I like the way we shoot it. That is the way it was shot. That is how Peter Berg does things, and it is really thrilling to me. It keeps me interested.

One of the most interesting scenes in the entire film is this scene where you go to the door, and find out for the first time that your son has been involved in this school shooting. There are a number of ways you could have shot that. There are a number of emotions you could have played through in that one instance. How did you find that perfect nuance in the moment?

Maria Bello: I am so glad you said that, and that you recognize that. I could not plan what that was going to be. Shawn and I, surprisingly, had the same acting teacher years ago in New York City. We would do this acting exercise called 'A Knock at the Door'. You knock at the door. You are a blank blackboard. You don't know what is going to happen. The door opens. There could be someone grieving on the floor. Someone could grab you and kiss you. You go from that point. You are surprised. I really worked from that. I did the scene four different ways. I prepared for it emotionally, one time. I knew something had happened. I had an inkling. I knew he was dead. And I went to the door. I did it another time, and I had no idea. Another time I did it so that I saw the man's shadow, then I knew. There were may different ways to play it. But I couldn't really do it until I put myself in it. I couldn't plan for it.

After you do it four times, is there ever a question, 'Did I do it right?'

Maria Bello: Like I said, I did it quite a few different ways. I trust my director so much. And the editor picked a take that would work for the rest of the movie. I was pleased with the take they chose.

Its one of those moments where you watch it, and you can't help but ask yourself, 'How would I react in this situation?' I don't think you ever know until it happens.

Maria Bello: Exactly. Especially if you are a parent. Oh my God. I think this would be ever parent's nightmare.

At the end of the movie, and at the end of the day, do you think you've found those answers within yourself? How you would react to this type of news? Or do you still question certain aspects of the movie within yourself?

Maria Bello: I studied the levels of grief before I did the movie. Usually, it takes one years to go through the levels of grief when one loses a child. We had to cram it all into two weeks. She goes through this whole process in a very short period. She goes through the grieving, the denial, the sadness, the anger. Michael Sheen and I really worked so that we weren't on the same level of grief in the same scene. So that when I was angry, he was vulnerable. So that when I was in denial, he was more bargaining.

That had to be quite emotionally wrecking on your whole body.

Maria Bello: It was. Even as much as I say that I am not a method actor, and we laughed a lot on the set...And Michael and I had so much fun creating...I definitely brought it home with me. I definitely had to go through really deep, emotional painful states for this movie. Which can be thrilling, but exhausting at the same time.

Your scenes with the child in question are also quite unique. We only ever see you on the phone with him. There is a love there. But there is also this vast distance between him and his two parents that couldn't have been shown any other way. Did you have any interaction with Kyle Gallner, the actor playing your son?

Maria Bello: No. Not really. Because it's just as you said. We realized that these two people hadn't known each other for years, really. That he was quiet and detached. She couldn't be honest with herself in this relationship, and get to know him. She doesn't get to know anybody, because she is not honest with herself.

With his few short scenes, it feels as though the director really puts that character in a box. He is removed from everything else in the movie. We see him in one square framed shot for a couple of minutes. Which plays on our assumptions of who he is and why he did this. We know as much about his actions as the parents do...

Maria Bello: Exactly. It leaves the audience guessing what we are left guessing as parents. Who's to blame? Was he just like that? Was it when he was born? Did we do something wrong? The way Shawn Ku shows that helps the audience go on that journey with us.

Even in that opening scene, where we see the son as a very young child. He almost has this Damien look in his eyes. He is a blank slate.

Maria Bello: Yes. I think that Shawn Ku did an incredible job. He is going to be a huge director.

When these school shootings happen, it is very, very rare that we ever hear or see these parents come out and talk about this. Did you ever communicate with anyone that went through something like this? Was it easy to find couples who were willing to talk about what their child had done?

Maria Bello: I didn't even reach out and try, to be honest. I have so much compassion for those parents. What is interesting is, the first week of shooting, Susan Klebold came out in O magazine with her first interview about that day, and what happened. And it was quite stunning. I have deep compassion for them, and I would never want to make it worse for their family.

And it might be detrimental to your process as an actor, because everyone is going to have a different reaction to this situation.

Maria Bello: I found a synchronicity there, and a meant-to-be quality about it. What she had said was mirrored in the script. And how I had already decided to play this character. It was eerie.

How does having the same acting coach as your director change or improve the situation on set?

Maria Bello: We didn't know each other. We were years apart. Because we had the same director, he had a great understanding about how to speak to me. To help me, guide me, and direct me.

What do you hope people take away from this movie?

Maria Bello: I never think about that. I hate the idea of issue movies. Of a movie trying to do something. I hope that people are moved. I am glad that it is thought provoking. I am glad that it sticks with people. And that it is a really great story.

What kind of discussions go into the creative process, when you clearly have an issue at the heart of your film, yet you also want to make it an entertaining film that people are going to want to watch?

Maria Bello: That is largely the script and the director, to be honest. Not trying to force anything down someone's throat. To entertain, and let people take away from it what they will.

Michael Sheen is such a wonderful actor. What was the connection like on set for you two?

Maria Bello: Michael and I had an immediate connection. We realized we were soul friends. We trusted each other implicitly, and we could just have fun with it. He is the sort of actor, like me, trained in the moment and reacting off of that person, and getting aside of yourself. Using the other actor, and trusting the other actor enough to work off of them. That made for great chemistry, and a great working environment.