Actress Maria Bello

Bello, one of the stars of the new film The Company Men, talks about sexism in business and her ongoing work in Haiti, which pre-dated the 2010 quake.

Actress Maria Bello planned to be a lawyer; but, a drama class in her senior year at Villanova changed her course. After being cast in small off-Broadway plays, she's since taken roles in such films as The Cooler, A History of Violence and, her latest, The Company Men. She's also won acclaim for her work on TV. Bello has a passion for social causes, especially those involving international women's issues. She's co-founder of WE ADVANCE, which supports Haitian women working to rebuild their country, and active with Artists for Peace and Justice.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Maria Bello back to this program. The talented actress and former “ER” star is part of the terrific cast of the new film, “The Company Men.” The project also stars Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Costner and Craig T. Nelson, among others. Here now a scene from “The Company Men.”
Tavis: In this town and, for that matter, in life, I suspect, timing is everything.
Mario Bello: Yeah.
Tavis: You and I were talking before you came on the air here about how long ago this script was actually written, but the timing of the movie, given the subject matter, couldn’t be more propitious.
Bello: That’s right. I mean, it’s so relevant to what’s happening right now with our economy. But John wrote this years and years ago because I think he saw it happening, the downsizing, the beginnings of that, and just recently made the movie. So it’s stunning that it just happened to happen now.
Tavis: Since we’re into it, for those who haven’t seen it, you can tell us what the movie is about then.
Bello: “The Company Men” is about the downsizing of corporate America told from a really personal point of view of Ben Affleck and his family and his friends who are in this company. I play one of the head honchos whose horrible job it is to fire these people who I know and love, but that’s my job.
Tavis: Yeah. It seems to me that there’s a fine line between – back to this point about timing – it’s great to have great timing. On the other hand, you don’t want to be prosethelytizing or preaching or trying to rub it in. How does a movie, you know, come out with this sort of subject matter right now and not be too in your face, as it were? Does that make sense?
Bello: Yes, absolutely. You know, I’m someone who hates the idea of issue movies, right? It has to be entertaining. It has to be personal. It has to be moving. It has to mean something. It has to be a great story where the backdrop happens to be the issue, and that’s what I like about John’s writing.
Tavis: So you don’t see it as an issue movie then, obviously.
Bello: No. I see it as a personal presence of the story which a lot of people are going through, but not an issue.
Tavis: How do you – do you have to – you don’t have to have lived the experience, of course, of the character that you play, but how do you develop – I’m trying to find the right word – empathy for a character because there are so many Americans going through what this movie is about right now?
Bello: You know what’s so funny is that this particular character, her job is to fire these people. So many people said afterwards to me, “That character is such a bitch,” but guess what? I really believe, if it was a guy playing my part in the movie, people wouldn’t say that guy’s whatever.
I really do find that a sexist remark for this particular character. I do, because I think she was strong in doing what needed to be done and vulnerable to a certain extent, but was surprised at the reaction of some people.
Tavis: Let’s explore this.
Bello: Yeah.
Tavis: I want to as often as I can give people the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes you can’t do that, but let’s try.
Bello: Okay.
Tavis: Maybe what they’re responding to is this sense that everybody in America has now of either angst or just outright anger with corporate America and anybody they see portrayed who’s firing people, letting people go, is gonna be called the B word if she’s a woman or, you know, another term which we can’t say on PBS if it’s a dude.
I can’t imagine that anybody playing that character right now, given what’s going on in the real world, would be embraced or beloved. So maybe it’s not sexist. I don’t know. You tell me.
Bello: Maybe. You know, I’m not sure. I do believe that there is a lot of sexist mentality, especially in business.
Tavis: Oh, absolutely. I agree.
Bello: I’ve been in business quite a lot over the last year and a half, a lot of it dealing with Haiti, and I notice being in certain circumstances and offices with kind of CEOs and men being in a power position that it’s a very interesting dynamic and something I’m just starting to look and explore.
Tavis: How have you decided at this point – I mean, I suspect to your point now that you’re just starting to explore, your point of view on this may change, your strategy may change, but how at this point have you personally dealt with being in those environments where you know that the person is treating you in a patriarchal sort of way?
Bello: That’s a great way to put it, treating in a patriarchal sort of way. Well, I think for me it’s important to have as much information and education as I possibly can so I know exactly what I’m talking about. I’m really clear on my vision and what I want and I really set boundaries from the beginning to say this is what I want.
Also, what a lot of people do, I find, especially artists who also are doing business because our art business has a lot to do with it, is giving our power away in a lot of ways.
I find myself to be a really generous person, so I’m always giving, you know, ideas, connections. And then when I realize, “Huh, I’m not asking anything back or taking anything back for that to do what I want to do,” it’s interesting. So I’m learning how to navigate that right now and it’s exciting.
Tavis: Another strange question, and I want to phrase it the right way because I mean no disrespect by this. But since you are a so gorgeous person to look at onscreen and certainly in person, I wonder whether or not you – I’m just curious, in those meetings – whether or not you know where the line is.
Not that either is acceptable, but whether you know where the line is between when a guy’s being sexist towards you or hitting on you because he thinks you’re an attractive woman. Do you know where that line is, you think?
Bello: You know, I don’t. I never think anyone’s trying to pick me up. I really don’t. People have said it sometimes like, “Don’t men try to pick you up in bars?” I’m like, “Never.” I just don’t.
Tavis: So you’re that oblivious to it?
Bello: I’m completely oblivious. So even if they were, I would have no idea.
Tavis: Wow. Okay. I think you got hit on like three times just walking to the stage today [laugh] by that guy and that guy and that guy.
Bello: I just think people are kind, you know, and getting excited. I don’t ever think that they are –
Tavis: – I got to send you a copy – was it Chris Rock – the special that’s hilarious where – I can’t repeat the line, but Chris has a funny joke. He says, “Whenever a guy looks you in the eye and says hello to you, “Hi, Maria,” he’s basically asking you for something.” When a guy just says hi.
Bello: Well, that’s Rock [laugh]. That’s what he’s like.
Tavis: I got to send you the Chris Rock tapes and you can get schooled on whether guys are hitting on you or not. All right, so let’s set that aside for a second.
Bello: Okay.
Tavis: You mentioned Haiti earlier and I know that Haiti is your heart these days, so tell me how your work is coming along.
Bello: It’s incredible. You know, I landed in Haiti a few years ago. Paul Haggis met an amazing doctor and priest there and we all took a trip there and it was as if, as soon as I landed, I got hit by the Haiti bug and I went, “I’ll never leave. Like it’s home. It will be my home forever.”
So working there a few years and I work with a group of women, politicians and business women, these very sophisticated, incredible women, supported the women’s media campaign for women to get elected in Haiti. And then right after the earthquake, went down with Paul and few other friends, in a 55,000 person IDP camp, and built the first women’s clinic.
Tavis: So you were there prior to the earthquake?
Bello: Yes, for some years before the earthquake, and have many, many friends from all different levels of the societies, social, economic strata which is very interesting as well. So I realized that there was this hole in the NGO world.
The NGOs are not – it’s very hard to organize these NGOs, as we’ve been hearing about, especially the larger NGOs. Everyone is constantly trying to take ownership; they’re fighting for funding; they’re fighting for areas, and we found that we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel.
I have a new organization called WE ADVANCE,, and it’s to advance the health, safety and well-being of women throughout Haiti, uniting agencies that are doing the same thing and have the same vision. So we’re filling in a hole of getting all these NGOs together and figuring out how we can work together. We’re right now working with ELA and the Man Up Campaign to start a whole men’s safe house campaign in Haiti.
Tavis: So is that work like herding cats or are you having some success here?
Bello: We are having some success. You know, I was with Paul Farmer the other day who – Partners in Health who’s one of the agencies I admire the most – what he’s done in Haiti because he works with what we do, only local partners, grassroots level, putting the power back into the hands of the Haitian people. I’m not there to save anybody; I’m there to, you know, give my sort of ideas and expertise, but they’re the ones who are running the country.
And I’ve gotten in trouble with some of the big agencies and NGOs for coming out, you know, telling the truth, telling what I’ve seen, telling what my Haitian friends have to say about certain agencies. I was upset about it before, but now I see all these grassroots agencies are certainly coming together.
Tavis: In your own words – not that you could use anybody else’s words anyway. That’s always a strange – in your own words [laugh]. Tell me about the Haitian people as you have gotten to know them. I don’t want to color the question any more than that.
Bello: You know, people always say, “Oh, they’re so resilient, they’re so joyful.” All of that is true, but there is an energy in Haiti and a life force born out of this revolutionary spirit and a deep cultural and artistic awareness and a groundedness to this earth which is pretty extraordinary.
The thing that I find is very interesting is you only hear about the Haitian elite as people who supported Duvalier, Aristide, who own 90 percent of all the economy and then there’s the poor down the hill.
What’s happened is a lot of the children of these adults who were educated in the states have come back since the earthquake and before that to say, “Wait, we’re not gonna act how our parents acted.” They have a broader view of how to help their country. So it’s these people, these young people, who are really creating the biggest change in Haiti.
Tavis: We keep following this story hoping that things are gonna get better there. It will, if people like you keep doing the work you’re doing. So thank you for what you’re doing in Haiti.
Bello: Thank you. Happy to be here.
Tavis: And thank you for the film. It’s called “The Company Men” starring one Maria Bello. And if you see her in person and decide to hit on her, just know that she won’t know you’re trying to pick her up anyway.
Bello: So please tell me directly [laugh].
Tavis: Or just walk on by [laugh]. Maria, good to see you.
Bello: You too.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm