Maria Bello Interview – THE MUMMY: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

     August 1, 2008

When you think of Maria Bello, you definitely don’t think of her fighting Mummies and going toe to toe with Brendan Fraser. And it’s not that she isn’t good at it (of course she is), it’s due to her never having been in one of those big Hollywood summer movies.

So when I spoke to her as part of a roundtable interview for the latest “Mummy” movie, she told us that she’d given up on her dream of being in an action film as a lead… But thanks to Rachel Weisz dropping out as Evelyn O’Connell, Maria has taken over the role and gotten her wish.

Anyway…posted below is the full interview with Maria and she talks about everything from making the lastest Mummy film to all the other projects she’s involved with.

As always, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the interview by clicking here.

“The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” is now playing everywhere.

Were you a fan of this franchise? Did you know it? Or did you go back and watch them?

Maria Bello: I didn’t go back and look at them, not for any reason except that I’d already seen them, because I love action movies. My whole life. I mean, I wanted to be Indiana Jones. I mean, that’s one of the reasons I got into acting. And surprisingly I’ve become known as this dramatic actress, but people would ask me throughout the years, ‘What role do you really want to do?’ And I’d say, ‘Indiana Jones. I want to be an action hero.’ And it was a month before my 40th birthday, and I finally gave up. I thought, ‘You know, I’ve gotten everything I’ve always wanted.’ I’d done these great roles, worked with amazing people, but I guess I’m not going to get that one, because how many roles are there for a 40-year-old action star?’ And two weeks later, Rob Cohen called me and said he really wanted me to do this role. And I was thrilled. And I read the script and I realized the character was so different from the Rachel Weisz character. He always said, ‘If Rachel in those films was like Audrey Hepburn, this character was Catherine Hepburn.’ A little older and more sophisticated. So I just fell in love with it. I didn’t have any second thoughts. I really fought for it.

It didn’t bother you being the mother of a 21-year-old kid?

Maria Bello: No, I’ve never had an issue with playing my age. I want to play my age. I don’t want to be 20. I’m 41, so I could very easily have a 20-year-old son. And then I also like the idea of women of my generation, 40-year-old women, 50-year-old women, look so great these days, and a lot of them have older kids and still are phenomenal.

Neither one of you looked old enough to have him as a child.

Maria Bello: Think so? But think about it. They’re in the ’40s, I mean.

Was the accent an issue for you? Did you copy Rachel’s accent?

Maria: It actually was a bit different from Rachel’s accent. But I worked with this great voice coach called [Joy Ellison], who was there with us every day on the set. The funny thing is, my little boy was there a lot, my seven-year-old boy, so sometimes he’ll say, [in a British accent], ‘Mum, can I have a spot of tea please?’ He goes into my English accent. But I loved doing it, it really dropped me into character. The beautiful clothes I wore made me stand a different way, the brown hair gave me that sort of Catherine Hepburn thing. And the accent especially helped me to sink into the role.

Do you keep the accent in between takes? Do you walk around the set with it?

Maria: Oh, no. No. The funny thing is, I can say my lines in a pretty good English accent, but I can’t do it in real life. If I sat here and tried to do an accent with you, I’d stink.

So you didn’t ad lib very much.

Maria: I did, actually. When I was in the moment, doing the accent and I would say one of my lines and then add something. It sort of came out. But I also had to do some looping for lines or words that I didn’t do correctly.

How was it shooting the action sequences? Was that a lot of fun for you?

Maria: So much fun.

Did you do a lot of your own stunts?

Maria: I did. Since I was seven years old, I was addicted to romance novels. And it was always about the young girl who sneaks on the pirate ship dressed as a guy and she’s a swordfighter and she shoots guns and she fights. And I always wanted to be that. So I think I fantasized about it so much, I was so excited to do all the stunt work. I had done training. I did Wushu sword fighting. I did fight training and had amazing trainers. So I would say 90 percent of the stuff I did. But I had an amazing stunt double called Karine Lemieux, who’s just brilliant. Some of the things I couldn’t possibly do, like jumping out of a moving truck or doing the flips that she did. She made me look much cooler than I actually am.

Was it as good as your imagination?

Maria: It was. I really felt grateful every day. I mean, there were some hard days. It was hard being away from my son for so long. It was the longest I’d ever been away from him. I mean, he was there every week or so, but when we were in China I was away from him at one point for three weeks. And that was difficult. But the actual working and being in my physical body every day was really something.

You mentioned that you had a strong desire to do an action film, and when you finally got the opportunity, how did it compare with what you thought it might be like?

Maria: It was actually exactly what I thought it would be like. My best friend did the Matrix movies, Carrie-Anne Moss, and I was there a lot. I signed up for the training. I was there for some of the shooting in Australia. So I sort of knew how it went, shooting it in different bits and how they would put it together. That’s why we really trained on my fight sequences, so we knew exactly what was coming next. Because I would just do one thing at a time. I’d be on wires and jump on top of the girl’s shoulders and do my elbow, then in the next scene I would roll off. It’s done in increments.

What was it like working with Brendan?

Maria: He’s so fun and funny. He brings such a lightness to the set. He comes with 150 percent. And the cast and the crew really feel that. He never had an preconceived notions about the relationship with Rachel in the first couple of movies and our relationship should be like this. We really worked to create our own relationship and he was really open to that.

You have a line that’s a wink to the character.

Maria: It was in the script from the beginning, but it went back and for the between lines. But when we finally got the shooting script it was in there. And I loved it. It was a great comment on it. I liked the idea that I wrote novels and the woman I wrote was this amazing, beautiful Rachel Weisz ingenue and she was the character, because she’s so perfect. And then there’s me, in my mansion bored to death.

It’s an interesting relationship.

Maria: I talked to a lot of people who have been married for a very long time. This is wild. I realized the other day when I was in Jersey. We’ve had no divorce in our family. Not aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents, cousins. So they’ve always been in really long relationships. And so I’ve seen the rollercoaster, the ups and downs, the places where the boredom sets in. And then something sparks. And I think that’s a great thing to portray on screen. I think a lot of people will relate to it.

What was it like filming in China?

Maria: An amazing experience. I was there 10 years ago and they were in the midst of transition. It was very heavy, the feeling there. Going back now was a whole different thing. I mean, there’s such a vitality and a hope there. And with China becoming an economic and political world power, though I’ve never been a fan of their politics, like I’m not a fan of George Bush’s politics, I feel in love with the people there. They are very generous, very kind. Like we saw during the tsunami, people coming from every area of China to help people. And so I really fell in love with the country. I think it’s a place to see right now.

Brendan was saying that just getting to the set was a major thing. Did it just take hours to get to work?

Maria: Yes. We had to be careful of the traffic times every day. Sometimes on the pass to go back to Beijing trucks had to wait for six hours. So I remember being so frustrated one day, crying because I just wanted to get back to the hotel because my son was there. And it took three hours when the ride should have taken an hour. And I called my boyfriend in the States crying from the car going like, ‘What am I doing? It’s horrible here.’ And he reminded me to stay grateful and to stay in the moment and just appreciate it for what it was. And out in the desert, especially the area we were, we would take the back roads and we witnessed a lot of poverty and that was pretty hard, especially for my son, who was with us. My favorite moment of the film was in the desert in [Tianamo sp?], my seven-year-old son playing soccer with 15 stunt men dressed as mummies.

I hope you have photos.

Maria: I do. I have photos of it. We took a video of it. It was cool. So he was there with us and my parents came. It was pretty something. My son and I and my dad went to the market in Beijing, the night market, and ate scorpions on a stick. There’s pictures of us eating scorpions. My son’ll do anything.

Was he a fan of Jet Li? That’s the age where kids love martial arts.

Maria: Yeah. He loved Jet Li. He was such a good fighter. And he’s real proud of his mom for fighting. And he used to come to training with me. They let him go on the wires. Also it’s one of my first movies he can ever see. So he’s real proud to go to the premiere. But he said something funny. He went to the Bee Movie premiere and he came home and he said, ‘I can’t wait for the Mummy premiere because of the car we’re going to take.’ And I thought he meant a limousine. And I said, ‘You mean a limousine?’ And he said, ‘No, the cars that look like bees with the little antennae coming out.’ Because that’s what they had for the Bee premiere. So he thought that’s how you get to every premiere, was a bee car.

So are you going to get a bee car for this?

Maria: I’m going to try to get a bee car.

Would you want to keep up this action heroine thing going? If they came up with something where you were the lead? Would you want to do something like that?

Maria: I would die to do it, but the sort of movies I like are the bumbling people who are real people, like Indiana Jones, like Brendan’s character, like my character in the movie, who aren’t perfect, who aren’t superheroes, who are more regular people in adventures doing extraordinary things. That’s more my sort of thing.

They do set this up for another adventure.

Maria: They do. And I’ve always wanted to go to South America. So I’m hoping it happens.

What’s Rob like to work with? He sounds kind of tough.

Maria: Well, I call him the bulldog Buddha. He’s very zen, he’s very spiritual, he’s very meditative, but when he wants something he knows how this movie should go. Even though he was very open with us, creating this relationship and these characters, visually he knew exactly what he wanted. Stunt-wise, he knew exactly. So I think it was a brutal shoot for him. I mean, he’s put every bit of energy into this film. And of course, he just had triplets. So trying to balance all that, I don’t know how he does it.

Is this the first film you’ve had to use green screen or sticks with balls on the top?

Maria: Yeah, yeah, the yetis. And I had to come out like 10 times and I laughed every time. Because I went, ‘Um, the Tibetans call them yet– [laughs]!’ Because I was looking at a green ball the whole time. But the greatest thing was our art department and Rob, had walls and walls of what everything was going to look like. So we saw what the yeti was going to look like. We saw what Shangri-la was going to look like. We saw what the Himalayas were going to look like, so that made it a little easier to fantasize.

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Does being a mom help you find that material instinct in your character?

Maria: Yeah. For sure. I was saying to one of my friends the other day who was having a problem with one of her kids, ‘We all want to do it perfectly as mothers. And we just don’t.’ I think, no matter how you do it, our kids are all going to be in therapy at 18 years old going like, ‘My mom did this to me.’ And I found that in the relationship with Alex, we didn’t do it quite right maybe. Maybe he’s distant because we sent him away in the war. I think that’s a regular maternal struggle, or parental struggle, really.

She has to watch him have a romance and she has a very keen eye on him.

Maria: You don’t want to let your baby go. They love their mommies. It’s a hard thing to watch them grow up sometimes.

You’re working with Rebecca Miller. Have you finished?

Maria: We have finished.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about your part in that film?

Maria: Sure. I read her book, “Personal Velocity,” when it came out 4 years ago and I wrote her a fan letter. It was one of my favorite books that year and she remembered the fan letter. So it was Robin Wright Penn, Julianne Moore, Keanu Reeves, Alan Arkin, Blake Lively and myself. I play Robin’s mother in flashbacks in the 60s and 70s, a manic depressive on dexadrine. So I got to be a wild child freak every day – a crazy person which I really enjoyed. I realized with the action film I’d like to continue this for the rest of my life. I love doing an action film but I could never give up the drama. You know, I need a balance of both. My ideal career would be to do one kind of independent dramatic film per year and one sort of action film.

Q: Your performance in “Downloading Nancy” was harrowing. How different is it at the end of the day coming home from that compared to coming home from the Mummy?

Maria: I have to say when we were filming Downloading Nancy we were in this tiny town called Regina, the snow was up to here and our saving grace was this Irish pub across the street called O’Hanlin’s. Jason Patric knows how to drink his Irish whiskey, his pints, and so there was a lot of that. So we were in pretty good moods most of the time.

Q: Do you have anything else on the horizon? Did you shoot anything after the Mummy?

Maria: I did Rebecca Miller’s film The Private Lives of Pippa Lee after the Mummy. It’s the only one I did after that because I really committed to spending a lot of time with my son after the Mummy. I have Towelhead coming out, Alan Ball’s movie, in September which is a quite provocative film which I’m really excited about. And Arthur Cohan’s film called The Yellow Handkerchief with William Hurt. That should be out in about January.

Q: I’m curious about your take on your character in Towelhead. She can be exceptionally unsympathetic at times.

Maria: I really worked on not playing the sympathy in her and I think it was for the story, for Jazerra’s character, to understand the young woman that she becomes because of these people. And to be honest, even though I have a sense that there’s a goodness in most people, I’ve met some people who are not good, who are such narcissists, who have a very mean nature. I find a lot of actors want to be liked in their characters and I decided not to try to be liked to serve the story so I hope it worked. I don’t know.

Q: It seems to me the film is really brave, yet controversial.

Maria: I’m happy it’s controversial. I think movies should be. They should either be for entertainment sake or they should be something that we talk about that makes us think and feel in a different way. I think it’s going to rub a lot of people…you know, scare them a bit, but I think it’s going to cause a conversation which I think is an important conversation about coming of age and sexuality and how complicated it all is..

I wanted to ask about your relationship with Luke on this. This big movie thing is new to him, so I was wondering if you gave him any pointers or did he have his role down pat or what?

Maria: Well, I think Luke is going to be a big, fat movie star and every young woman in America is going to fall in love with him. He’s so charming and good-natured, but he’s also an amazing actor. And advice that I gave him, I can’t really say. Motherly advice.

Has there been talk of a sequel?

Maria: There has been. There has been, yeah, which is exciting. Depending, I guess, how the movie does, I’m sure we’ll do another one.

What’s it like seeing the takes the director has chosen for your performance?

Maria: Sometimes I’d ask to look at a take. He was very open to us looking at takes and I’d say, ‘Oh, that’s my favorite one.’ And I don’t know if he used them in the film. I could never tell in the editing what take they actually used. Part of my fight in the library, they didn’t put the whole thing in, which I was so bummed about, because I worked for three days trying to get this fight right. And I had to swing off of a chandelier and a curtain and the whole thing. So stuff like that, I get disappointed in, but mostly I love how he built the character and the relationships.

Have you seen this?

Maria: Yes.

What was your reaction when you see everything put together?

Maria: Even in the title sequence, when you see the Great Wall and the terra cotta warriors and the Chinese thing, because I wasn’t there for any of that filming, I literally said in the audience, ‘Oh my God, it’s so beautiful.’ I mean, it’s so gigantic in scope, like not a lot of movies I’ve seen, except for like Lord of the Rings. I mean its that beautiful and gigantic. You know, when we were filming the scene in the Himalayas–did I tell you this? In Montreal?–it was 105 degrees. And there was fake snow blowing and we had on these thick jackets. They had to wipe the sweat off our faces between every take and in between we would like take off our coats and I’d be wearing a bra underneath, because I was so hot. And so to see that put together with the CG Himalayas in the background, it looks so real. I was really surprised at that. And that we looked like we were cold.

Do you like working on the giant movies compared to the smaller ones?

Maria: I like both. I like the more dramatic films for the sort of emotional place I get to go to and the intensity. And a lot of times they’re much shorter, the shooting schedule, which is good for my life as a working parent. But I also loved doing the big one. It was my first experience doing a really huge film.

Pretty big one.

Maria: Yeah. I’d like to do both.

Smaller films move so much faster because there’s no time or money. What about that compared to this? Don’t you just sit around forever.

Maria: Uh-uh. The thing is, Rob moves like this [snaps fingers]. We would do something in two or three takes. That was it. And I sort of understood the increments that you had to work at to do action, so it was okay. He was really quick.

He had a lot of Chinese crew and they’re very quick. Did you get to know them?

Maria: I did. A lot of them. And my translator who I’m still in touch with, an incredible person. I learned so much about China and the politics of China and the spirit of the Chinese people through her.

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