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Maria Bello Talks Captain Underpants and the Jane Austen Book Club

From The Cooler to A History of Violence, Maria Bello has built her reputation around playing strong-minded women who you wouldn’t want to cross. After a senior-year acting class waylaid her lawyer aspirations at Villanova University, Bello nabbed a stint on ER as pediatrician Dr. Anna Del Amico, followed by roles in Permanent Midnight, Coyote Ugly and Auto Focus. But the movie that put her on the bigtime map was The Cooler, in which she famously bared all with co-star William H. Macy. The role earned her a Golden Globe nomination and paved the way for A History of Violence (for which she nabbed another Globe nomination), Thank You For Smoking, World Trade Center and now, The Jane Austen Book Club, an ensemble movie about a group of women who deal with divorce, break-ups and canine death at their monthly book club meetings. Bello plays Jocelyn, a fiercely independent woman who prefers the companionship of dogs to men.

Bello has a six-year-old son, Jack, with former boyfriend Dan McDermott, a TV executive. Though most of her movies will be off-limits to Jack for many more years (due to potty mouths, violence and sex), Bello says she did the kid-friendly Flicka last year so that her son could finally see one of her movies. The well-read Bello spoke to Babble about her son’s favorite books and her distaste for Jane Austen. – Mina Hochberg

Have you read many Jane Austen novels?

I’ll be brutally honest and say I’m a huge reader – I read about two novels a week, I’ve been reading since I was five – and I’ve never gotten through a Jane Austen book. It’s just not my type of writing. I sort of like more testosterone-driven, hard-hitting novels like Hemingway or Philip Roth or Simone de Beauvoir. I sort of like things that go right for the gut. Maybe I’ll grow into liking Jane Austen, but right now, eh.

Did you have to read any Austen for the movie, at least?

I skimmed Emma before I did the movie but didn’t immerse myself in it, that’s for sure.

Is your son reading on his own yet?

He is! He just started first grade on Thursday and he loves all sorts of shark books and animal books. The nature books. And he loves Captain Underpants.

Are there any books you look forward to recommending to him when he’s old enough?

We’ve read to him the whole Harry Potter series and we’re in the last book, but we skip over the really scary parts. I can’t wait till he can read that series on his own.

What first appealed to you about this role?

I had read the book before and then [producer] John Calley, who’s a dear friend, and [director] Robin Swicord approached me with the script. I liked the book but I loved the script. I found myself going through a similar phase that Jocelyn was going through, which was to have a guarded heart . . . I was more guarded when I was younger. As I’ve gotten older I’ve become more open. You stop judging yourself and you stop judging others. And it doesn’t matter anymore if anybody likes you.

I liked Jocelyn because she’s very independent and able to be happy on her own, but then there’s this implication that there’s a consequence to this fierce independence.

I’ve found that in my own life. I’ve always been terribly independent, but there are the nights when you wake up and you feel so lonely and you just wanna be held by somebody who knows you.

Which of the other characters did you find yourself relating to?

We bonded on such a huge level, this cast. Robin had us do improv the first day of rehearsal. By the end of it we felt like we’d been friends forever. We’re all sort of different generations and at different levels in our career, but we laughed so much and really enjoyed each other. I think my dearest friend walking away from it was Amy Brenneman, who is just a whirlwind who everyone gathers around. I think her character is someone I could relate to.

What was it about her character that was relatable for you?

You know, I’ve gone through a relationship and I have a child. The permutations of trying to make a relationship work and a family work. Her sort of emotionality I really understand.

I’ve always been terribly independent, but there are the nights when you wake up and you feel so lonely and you just wanna be held by somebody who knows you. You’ve worked on a couple of other female-dominated casts, like Sisters and Coyote Ugly. Is it different working with such a female-centric cast as opposed to one that’s more gender-balanced?

I have to say doing a female-based movie, with a large group of females, there’s much more conversation. We like to talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. We like to talk about our feelings all the time, what we’re doing, how we feel about our boyfirends, our children, our love. We just share our guts. Working on sets with men, they’re a little more lowkey. Like [assuming a low, husky voice] ‘How was your day?’ ‘Good.’ ‘What’d you do this weekend?’ ‘Nothing, what’d you do?’ Kind of like that.

How did Jimmy Smits and Hugh Dancy get along with the ladies? Did they get any nicknames?

We called Hugh our mascot. He’s like our lucky charm. He’s an amazing actor and a lovely guy. And Jimmy we all had a crush on, he’s just dreamy.

Do you have any favorite Jane Austen movie adaptations?

I sure loved Gwyneth Paltrow in Emma. I remember seeing that and falling in love with her.

This movie will probably have a lot more appeal to women. How would you sell it to men?

There hasn’t been a sweet romantic comedy in such a long time, and it’s a great date movie. It reminds you of falling in love all over again, and I think men are into that as well as women.

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