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A version of this story first appeared in the May 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Maria Bello‘s 2013 New York Times op-ed, in which the mother of one opened up about her romantic relationship with best friend Clare Munn, sparked a wide-reaching conversation about sexual orientation and identification. The Prisoners actress, 48, continues that conversation in her book of essays, Whatever … Love Is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves, which hit shelves on April 28. THR talked to Bello about her views, her work and the consequences of her revelation.
Your book is about questioning labels. Do you believe sexuality is fluid?
Absolutely. So many people have come to me and shared stories. One woman said the other day that she’s been married for 26 years, but she hasn’t had sex with her husband in 6 years — but they are the best of friends and great companions and she thinks he may have had an affair, but it doesn’t really matter to her. There are different ways to have relationships and maybe it’s time to start being really honest about that. I mean the very definition of desire is to want something you don’t have; for many people in longtime committed relationships it’s very difficult to desire the same person. I always say whether you are conservative or liberal, black, white, man, woman, whatever — sexuality is very complicated, and let’s just stop pointing fingers and start asking questions instead.
In your book, you write that a lot of media outlets got it wrong when your essay was published, writing that you came out as a lesbian. Has that been hard?
It was disheartening, but I sort of expected that because that is the easy answer. But that was not the point to the story and not the point of my journey. In my story, traditional labels don’t seem to fit anymore for most people; they are limiting the possibility for me to become who I am meant to be. I just don’t define myself by who I have sex with.
You wrote in your New York Times piece that you wondered how coming out would affect your career. Has it?
A woman came up to me at an event — and she’s a producer in Hollywood, a well-known lesbian — and she was always a little bit rude to me. Like, not nice at all. She said, “Welcome to the club.” I said, “I don’t want to be in your club.” The club I want to belong to is the people that come from their heart and are fighting for people they love and standing by people they love.
The book is a series of chapters focused on questioning the labels. What questions, or chapters, were the most difficult for you to write?
The chapter that was the most difficult for me to put out in the world, not specifically to write, was a chapter called “Am I Forgiving” because it deals with my father and our upbringing and him being in an abusive home and the pain he went through and how it affected us. I was scared for him to read it. I didn’t want him to be hurt. And weirdly enough he was the first person to read my drafts. He said, “The part about me was great, it’s just the sex stuff I didn’t like so much.” That was the perfect “dad” answer.
The book reads like a journey of self-discovery, rather than a journey of wrestling with those labels. Have you felt a lot of pressure from society?
All I know is that when someone says to me they have the answer, capital THE, I run quick. I realize I have had these incredible people in my life who have taught me stuff that I use in my life still today, but they could never tell me who I am. The only person who could tell me who I am is me. My relationship with myself and my relationship with God was a huge part of my journey, but I don’t have answers for people. I’m simply posing questions for myself that I have not even struggled with but that I am curious about, about the labels I have given myself or the ones other people have given me, and hoping that other people will feel the freedom in revaluating the labels they give themselves or other people give them.
You owe a lot to your son, who sparked this entire conversation and revelation in the first place. What does he think about the book?
He is so 14 — soccer, FIFA, school, fun. The truth is, he is really, really proud. He hasn’t read it yet, and I say to him, “Jack, there’s some things in the book you may not want to read about, you know, things about my sex life.” He’s like, “Why, Mom? I don’t really care. It’s fine, I’ll read it.”
I love that you’re committed to the concept that life is ever-evolving and people are ever-changing. How have you changed since the essay first came out?
Oh my gosh! I mean, how have I changed since yesterday?! I am changing and becoming every minute and I am learning every minute and I am serious and fascinated with life in general and living.
You write that you’ve had some very positive responses from those around you. Have you faced reactions that weren’t so positive?
No — it’s incredible. Everything has been so incredibly positive, and again, it hit a nerve with people. It was one of the top 10 “Modern Love” columns in decades. It wasn’t about me, it was about a subject and redefining our labels and partnerships and families. So, no negative reaction. I wouldn’t have written the book if people weren’t interested in the subject — I would have just expanded on the essay. But because so many people were interested I felt like it was my responsibility in a way to share more and perhaps help more people question their own lives.
One of the chapters, “Am I a Feminist,” you write about what a controversial subject it has become, especially for actresses. Did that make you any more sensitive or careful about what you wrote?
No. What I’m basically saying is, “You don’t have to take that label.” I’m OK with people saying, “I’m not a feminist.” Women are allowed to say that and they have a platform to say that. And in my definition a feminist means [you support] equal rights between men and women. One of my favorite feminists is Michael Kimmel —you know he’s a man. It’s an energy of compassion, and at the heart of the matter is equal rights for all.
Is marriage something you want?
I am so excited we live in California so we have the right to choose; let’s hope the rest of the country catches up. I see a groundswell of this generation [in support of marriage equality], and hopefully more people will catch up to that and by the time Hillary gets into office [laws restricting marriage rights] will be a thing of the past.
You write that you’ve become a writer now. What’s been the hardest part about making that transition?
I wrote a pilot and a screenplay, and I’m happy to say it will be announced in the next couple of weeks that we started a new production company called Ground Seven Entertainment. Our whole company focuses on the normalcy of diversity in productions, specifically women. So we are telling lot of stories — films, TV shows, video games — all with female perspectives that are fun, interesting, empowering and dynamic. It’s all about expanding people’s voices, because I want to hear more voices.
You write about the late John Calley and your close relationship. How hard was his death on you?
I don’t want to make it so simplistic to say that it was like losing a limb, but John and myself always had an understanding that [our relationship] was something more. This man who I talked to every day for all those years, I still talk to every day. I do believe he is a great guide in my life. He was when he was alive and I believe he is now that he’s dead. I still have his phone number in my phone. I don’t know how I would ever explain our relationship or who he was in my life. I am really honored to have been his friend.
What was it like to see his former home, Sony, a studio he steered for seven years, go through the crippling hack?
Everyone in our business would say that he was just the biggest gentleman in our business. I think he would have been very sad that happened.
Were you nervous about revealing details about past relationships, like the one about “Prince Charmingly Unconscious,” an actor who the tabloids reported got sent to rehab for prescription drugs addiction?
The truth is all those guys that I wrote about are just one big mashup of guys in the hope of finding Prince Charming and all my hopes and dreams in one man. It doesn’t matter who they are. None of them were bad guys, just projections. We all grow up with that fantasy of finding our soul mate when in fact there is no soul mate; you are your own soul mate. It was so hard to talk about having an affair with a married man because that’s so “out” in our society. People don’t really talk about it in a real simplistic way. Let’s get honest people: In the last poll I read more than 50 percent of people had affairs — men, women, liberals, conservatives. What does that mean and why does that happen? Sexuality is very complicated, and so it was. How about let’s talk about it and stop pointing fingers.
You write about the show Modern Family and how the show’s representations of family figure into your own life. Have you spoken to anyone from the show?
I have asked to be on the show; I am dying to be on the show. You know their show, like Will & Grace, is a game-changer show. That is what our production company is aimed at as well — telling funny, entertaining stories. What I love about Modern Family is it’s just funny and it makes it normal. Normal, which means to me there’s a lot of love, because in the end, love is love.
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