Monday, June 9, 2014

Archive: For Maria Bello "World Trade Center" Is Personal

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Archive: For Maria Bello World Trade Center Is Personal

(from 4/23/06)

"World Trade Center" is another super performance on a resumé that keeps getting better and better. Add this to her critically-acclaimed turns in "The Cooler", "Assault on Precinct 13," and "A History of Violence," and she has become one of the top leading ladies in Hollywood, an A-list star
One would think from the title of Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" that his picture would be an epic detailing one of the biggest events in history minute by minute and giving it a political slant. Surprisingly, it's instead a budget-conscious, intimate film about two gallant real-life Port Authority police officers, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) who were trapped beneath the rubble, the heroic men who rescued them, and their worried but strong-willed wives, Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
For Bello, this is another super performance on a resumé that keeps getting better and better. Add this to her critically-acclaimed turns in "The Cooler" (the picture that really made people take notice), "Assault on Precinct 13," and "A History of Violence" (for which she deserved Oscar consideration), and she has become one of the top leading ladies in Hollywood, an A-list star.

I was a Maria Bello fan dating back to her short-lived 1996 TV series "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," and believed she had star power. But I remember thinking she was making a big mistake when she left a secure role on "ER" to take a shot at being a movie star. I'm glad she proved me wrong.

Q: Do you have any specific memory of the Twin Towers?
Maria Bello: I lived in New York City for seven years, before moving to L.A., to Venice Beach, about ten years ago. I lived in the West Village and I would run, a few times a week, down the path on the West Side Highway, all the way down to the World Trade Center. So that was my picture of them...and suddenly they were gone.
I was in New York that morning, staying at a hotel on the upper West Side. I was on the street getting a pack of cigarettes at a newsstand. And everything was so quiet. And a woman turned to me and said, "I haven't smoked in eleven years, but do you have a cigarette?" I asked, "Why?" And she said, "A plane just went through the World Trade Center. When I got upstairs, my mother and I saw the second plane go through. We couldn't believe it.

Q: I've read that you went to St. Vincent's Hospital with your mother, who is a nurse.

 My personality is such that I said, "We've got to do something!" They called for doctors and nurses to go downtown, so we took an ambulance to St. Vincent's. My mom, who is a nurse, stayed there the whole day. I stayed for a couple of hours waiting for people to come in and no one came in except for firefighters for smoke inhalation and small cuts and bruises. Then I left because I had a six-month's-old baby back at the hotel. They were talking about other bombs going off and anthrax, and I had this mother-lioness-protector feeling come over me and went back to be with my baby.

I walked up Sixth Avenue in a sea of people covered in gray dust and saw the most astounding moments between individuals you'd never think would be together. I remember seeing a homeless man in a pink tutu holding up a man in a business suit who was crying and bleeding. I think that's what that day represented, when the whole world came together to support us.

Q: Did that experience influence you in regard to the movie?

 It did, because I walked away not only with the tragedy of that day but also the intense "humanity" that I felt when so many human beings came together. It was very big in my heart.
 Q: What was your reaction when you were first offered a film with this subject matter?

 Oh!!!! I read the script by Andrea Berloff and was so incredibly moved by it that I was just bawling at the end. And I said I had to do it. I met Oliver Stone and he offered me the role right then, in the room we were in. I stood up and hugged him so hard, and went, "I have to do this movie, thank you so much, I'm dying to act for you!"

Q: Do you think American people are ready to see this movie?

 I really do. I think it's time, I think it's an important part of our history that needs to be told, And I think the way the story is written, in that tone, is the perfect way to tell it. It's not about the tragedy of that day but how we came together as human beings. And I think Oliver is the perfect person to tell this story.

Q: Why do you think that?

 Not only is he brilliant and eccentric, but he also has a huge heart, which was needed for this movie. People don't know about his gigantic heart or his spiritual life, which is such a big part of who he is as a man, as a human being. I think he's very enlightened in that way and people are going to be really surprised to discover that. He was amazing to work with.

Q: Do you think people around the world are expecting from Oliver Stone a movie with political view of the whole event and will be disappointed?

I know what you're saying. Oliver is known for having a strong point of view politically in some of his movies. I think it shows his growth as a filmmaker that he was inspired by the story and had to do it they way he did. I think because of how moving the picture is, people around the world are going to appreciate that it's about human beings more than anything else. I think personal is very political as well. There's a line between love and fear and I think he made a statement in that.

 I know you and Nicolas Cage talked extensively to John and Donna McLoughlin before filming began. What was that experience?

 We spent a week or so with the McLoughlin family. Nick had a more serious approach than I did, videotaping John and getting his stuff down. From the get-go, he was so intent on getting every single characteristic of John McLoughlin correct, from his limp to the way he talked to his past history and how that informed the rest of his life. My feeling was that just by being with Donna, I would get to know her essence.

The first time we met them, Oliver, the producers who had become friends with them, Nick, and I went together to their home. The funny thing is that when we got to the McLoughlin's house on Long Island, it was like walking into my parents' house. John had a whole spread out, with his "famous" steaks he makes on the grill; and Donna and I ended up doing the dishes and putting the dessert out--so I kind of got to know her as we did simple things and chatted.

She reminded me so much of my mother. As soon as I met her I thought, "Oh, my God, I'm playing my mother." And I do look like my mother in the movie! I have the same hair and the same blue eyes--I wore blue contacts--and the same weight because I gained about fifteen pounds. This was probably the scariest role I've ever taken because I was playing a real person. I wanted to do it right and do Donna justice. I felt that to embody her was such challenge because I liked her so much--she's such a good woman. So I prayed to God every day that I could understand and portray her essence.
Q: You say you found her "essence." What is it?

 Love. I think it's that simple. She has a huge amount of love and such a kind heart. I was so in awe of her self-possession, her patience, and her love for her children and her family. It was about finding that. My mom has that as well.

Q: When Donna McLoughlin saw the film, did she think you got her essence?

Yes, when she saw the film, she told me that I got it. And her accent! Donna did say she wasn't as angry as I was in a couple of scenes in the movie--like when she pulls her son from the car and when she loses her temper in the police station because she had received wrong information that John was safe--but we needed that for dramatic purposes. She was probably a bit more subdued when those things really happened, but Oliver pushed me to go far in those scenes and I think they really worked.

Q: Oliver Stone has said that you captured Donna's calmness. Were you consciously trying for that?

 Yes. For her, at the beginning, it was all about keeping her children and family calm and being patient and not breaking down. She never broke down that whole day, except at the very end when she met that black woman whose son was missing at the hospital. She was trying to keep it together for her family and for her friends.

She said that being a cop's wife, she experienced this every day of her life. When he left each morning, she didn't know if he'd come back. So this was another one of those days. She was trying to keep positive and think he was still alive. It wasn't until she arrived at the police station and was told he was still buried and no one knew what was going to happen that she realized, "Wow, this might be it."

I think she has moments of dread when she's alone, when she's smelling the sheets and having memories, and when she's in his workshop and thinking about what a great father he is. The emotional stuff came out during such moments when she's not with her kids.

Q: Did she really smell the sheets that day?

 She really did. What you see in the movie, including dialogue, happened almost exactly like it is in the movie. Oliver would even ask John if the words were exact. We were in awe that he involved the families and the actors the entire way with the project. At our first reading he said we needed more about Donna, so we ended up adding a couple of scenes, including that scene where I stand next to the grieving woman. Donna told me that story and we incorporated it into the script. She doesn't know that woman's name but wants her to know she changed her life. She says she opened herself to her in that brief meeting in a way she never opened to another human being.

Q: How was it for you to play that scene? It seemed so spontaneous, but did you have to do it more than once?

 It was emotional. We did have to do it over and over again. We rehearsed it quite a lot. Her story was so moving that every time she told it, I broke down because of her beauty and pain. It was about Donna getting outside of herself and her own pain over her husband being lost, and touching someone else and allowing herself to be touched for the first time.

Q: Did you know that Oliver Stone was going in and out of focus on each of you?

I had no idea. Did you like that?

Q: Well, you are both in focus when you come together and hug, so it kind of works.
I remember seeing that for the first time and saying, "Is that a mistake?!?" Then I realized Oliver did that because the focus really needed to be on the woman as she told Donna the story, and for us to focus on her pain rather than Donna's.

Q: This film is about people helping one another. Did the actors playing those people help each other?

 When I saw the film I was inspired by the acting. It was because it was a real ensemble piece and nobody was trying to be a movie star. So Nick Cage wasn't Nick Cage and Michael Peña wasn't Michael Peña. They really became John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno and that had a lot to do with giving so much to each other. We were so engrossed in our characters and trying to play off each other. For my character, it was about giving so much to her kids, focusing on them rather than focusing on her own pain.

Q: You and Maggie Gyllenhaal played the wives of the two trapped men. Did you compare notes about playing Allison Jimeno and Donna McLoughlin?

 We talked quite a lot. I fell in love with her not only as an artist--she's an incredible actor--but also as a woman. We did our parts differently. She didn't try to mimic the woman she was playing, I tried to take on externally who Donna is. We went at it from opposite ways.

Q: You only have a brief moment with Maggie in the movie because the women are strangers. And in truth you don't have much screen time with Nicolas Cage, although he plays your husband. But how was it working with him?

 He and I have only a couple of scenes together but we sure had fun doing them. It was incredible working with Nick. I was so inspired by the unbelievable job he does in this movie. To be stuck like that beneath the rubble and not have use of his hands and legs and to have all the emotions there in his face and eyes--that was astounding.

Q: The marital problems of John and Donna seem minor to me, but in the movie they are magnified (at least in John's eyes), perhaps as a plot element. Were you forced to play to their having problems at all?

 You know what I played to? To anybody who has been married twenty years and has four kids. It's what Donna says to John when she goes to him in his dream and he asks if he loved her enough. She says, "It was in the moments." I think that's what life becomes in a way, if you're smart enough to see it--it comes in just the tiny moments that make up life. I do think they had a lovely life together--the beginning passion may have been gone but they created life out of friendship and common interests. They don't have major problems in real life, and I think we showed their relationship to be like that.

Q: Was "WTC" shot in sequence?

 No. We shot the New York exteriors in five weeks and the rest was done on a soundstage in Playa del Rey in Los Angeles.

Q: Did people come up to you in New York?

 Many people would come up and shout, "Hey, what film are you doing?" Others would come up and share their stories, saying where they were that day and what happened.

Q: Did you go to the Ground Zero set?
MB: I...did. It was incredible. It is what Ground Zero looked like that day, down to the minute details, including every water bottle on the street. It wasn't hard for me to be there--it was all inspiring. I couldn't believe it, I couldn't believe it.

Q: What was the atmosphere like on the set? Were people solemn or giddy or did they exhibit the whole range of emotions?

MB: The whole range of emotions. They flew out fifty firefighters and policemen and their families so the guys who were actually in the rubble on 9/11 were in the film doing what they really did. So that was a very emotional time. But I talked to a bunch of the guys and they felt being part of the movie was a real transformation for them and a great, really healing thing to do. So there was solemnity but the rest of the time we were joyful at the love that we were playing on screen.

Q: Nicolas Cage speaks of the film being healing.

 Especially with what's going on in the world right now, I think it's important to remember the lessons of 9/11 and the kindness of human being to human being. That's important step right now.

Q: What is the most important lesson you took from this film that you can apply to your own life?

I always bring something away from roles that I play. With this role, I took away a softness and gentleness I never had before, and more of a patience with my own child. I have found myself connecting with family and friends in a way that I hadn't before, and finding myself on the phone with my mom and dad every day and saying I love you over and over again, as if it could be the last time. Some days I lose that and get back into my "world" and my own self-involvement, but there are more days than not that I remember to connect again.
Q: How was coming down from this movie different from coming down from, say, "A History of Violence?"

 Oh, my God, after "A History of Violence," I was in bed for three months. I was so anxiety-ridden during the process that and I shaved off my hair because I needed to get rid of that character. Every single moment of that film, I had such anxiety and a high threshold of pain. I always had said that I wasn't a method actor, but I surprised myself when I discovered that I am a method actor after all. I completely took on my character. Even the weight loss I experienced throughout the film was real and not planned. It was just the stress and anxiety that drove me to that. But this film, I left with a calmness I never felt before. I felt I was leaving with a deep love that I had never felt going away from a previous film. So it was the only time I walked away from a film feeling great rather than wanting to shoot myself.

Q: When you look back at this film ten years from now, what do you think your reaction will be?

 I'll think the film is adocument of what happened that day. I will have huge pride. I've never been so proud doing a film and being part of a story. I feel really, really lucky that I got to do it. I see it as a milestone in my career. It's not just my character but the movie as a whole. I'm just incredibly proud to be a part of it.

Danny Peary: One thing, on a personal note. I saw you in Los Angeles this spring at the Music Cares James Taylor all-star tribute. It was a fabulous concert but I noticed you walking toward the exit early in the evening. Did you leave early?

Maria Bello: I did... You know why? Bruce Springsteen was one of the performers and he was my idol and I was going to get a chance to meet him for the first time. I was so excited. I was introduced to him and said, "I'm from Jersey, too!" And he went, "Oh, heh, heh, that's nice..." I'd had these dreams of saying "Bruce, I'm a Jersey girl!" and he'd say, "Oh, my God!" and wrap me in his arms. But he didn't and I was a downtrodden little girl walking out of Music Cares...
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