Maria Bello is one of those actresses who gravitates toward roles that are emotionally exhausting. In films like "The Cooler," "A History of Violence," "Permanent Midnight" and "World Trade Center," she has played women faced with gut-wrenching situations and issues. But the 42-year-old Philadelphia native, who broke into the national consciousness with her stint as Dr. Anna Del Amico on "ER," is also a committed Bruce Springsteen fan and a woman who always wanted to star in a big-budget action film, a chance she got when she appeared in 2008's "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor."

In her latest, "The Yellow Handkerchief," which opens Friday, Bello co-stars with William Hurt as a woman trying to repair a damaged relationship. Lewis Beale caught up with the actress by phone from Los Angeles, shortly after she returned from doing relief work in Haiti.

Tell me about your work in Haiti.I belong to an organization called Artists for Peace and Justice, and we've been working in Haiti for years. We fell in love with Father Rick Frechette, and all the things he's doing there. We started raising money; he works in the community and makes every penny count. When the earthquake happened, he was in Connecticut, and he said, 'Help me dig my people out.' We brought cargo planes filled with medication and food. I worked in a hospital for a couple of days, and we delivered supplies. I witnessed the worst devastation I'd ever seen. It's just all rubble.

 

What is most needed there?Medicine and food. All the aid organizations are doing their best, but a lot are not connected into the community. A lot of the big aid organizations haven't been able to get their supplies in; it's stuck on the tarmac.

 

Haiti has unfortunately been a political and environmental disaster for 200 years. Do you think it can actually recover from this latest blow?A new age is coming. Unfortunately, it took this huge tragedy for the eyes of the world to look at Haiti, and it's important for us not to take our eyes off again. The city is in rubble, and it could be a beautiful city if we invest in it. I have faith in the resilience of the Haitian people.

Where did this sense of social consciousness come from?I studied social justice at Villanova University, and that's my past, what I've dedicated most of my life to.

 

So, with that background, how did you get into acting?I read a lot of novels as a kid, and always wanted to be a character in a novel. I never knew I could be an actor, and it wasn't until university that I realized I could take acting as an elective, and when I did my first monologue, I knew it was what I wanted to do. The monologue was from a Bob Dylan song; it was about feeding starving people, and I realized that art could be a vehicle for social change.

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One of the things you're really known for is your fearlessness, your willingness to expose yourself both physically and emotionally in your roles. How do you do it?I believe it's my duty as an artist and human being to go to places and feel things that people can never express themselves. I feel to thine own self be true, and my job is to use everything to give back, and my duty is to be truthful.

What's the best and worst advice you've ever been given about the business?

The best is to be 100 percent yourself. And the worst is to take a job you don't like because it might be a big moneymaking movie.

 

Yet you starred in that "Mummy" film.That was my dream come true! I always wanted to be Indiana Jones. I was nearing my 40th birthday, and I felt that opportunity was past. Then I was offered that job, and I loved it. I loved running around with a sword, and I loved seeing my little boy run around playing soccer in China with 10 guys dressed like ninjas.

 

So, as a Philadelphia native myself, I'm wondering how you're still most Philly.I enjoy my roots. Two weeks ago, I was with a girlfriend at a bar on the Main Line, and we were dancing to "Thunder Road." And I have a cheesesteak store up the street from me here in L.A., and my son and I go there once a week.