Born in Pennsylvania c. 1967, Maria Bello attended Villanova University as a political science major, but acting ability - evident from an early drama class - altered her career plans. Following graduation, Bello honed her acting skills in a number of New York theater productions before she broke through to the public as one of the leads in the short-lived TV spy comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1996). Bello gained broader primetime exposure as Dr. Anna Del Amico on NBC's blockbuster ER during the 1997 season and segued into films with her performance as recovering junkie Ben Stiller's confidante in the film-a-clef Permanent Midnight (1998), adapted from Jerry Stahl's harrowing book.
Bello scored her first pop hit as Mel Gibson's beautiful cohort in the harsh crime drama Payback (1999). Poised to potentially become one of the select group of actors who transition smoothly from television to film, Bello co-starred as one of the bottle-tossing, bar-stomping babes in charge of the titular drinking establishment in the Bruckheimer-produced hellraiser Coyote Ugly (2000).
When Coyote Ugly failed to live up to box office hopes, Bello starred as Suzi Loomis in Bruce Paltrow's Duets, and as Ruth Harkness in the IMAX feature China: The Panda Adventure (2001), based on her real-life experiences with the eponymous creatures. Bello scored a bona fide critical, if not financial, hit with Paul Schrader's biopic about slain Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane, Auto Focus (2002). As Crane's co-star and second wife Patricia, Bello holds her own opposite Greg Kinnear's bravura performance as the nymphomaniacal Crane, evoking the complex emotions of a spouse who accepts yet ultimately cannot contend with her husband's desires.
A year after Auto Focus, Bello would score even bigger with the critics with a starring role alongside William H. Macy in the gritty Vegas romance The Cooler. As the cocktail waitress who falls for Macy's sadsack ne'er-do-well, Bello brought a sense of extreme realism to her character. The film netted her a Best Supporting Actress nomination from the Screen Actors Guild and a runner-up prize from The National Society of Film Critics.
In early 2004, Bello appeared as Johnny Depp's estranged wife in the Stephen King adaptation The Secret Window, and in John Sayles' well-received political thriller Silver City. Though subsequent appearances in the fairly forgettable Assault on Precinct 13, The Dark, and The Sisters followed in 2005, Bello's Golden Globe-nommed performance as an unassuming housewife who married into mystery in A History of Violence, coupled with her prominent performance as a determined alcohol lobbyist in the critically-acclaimed Thank You for Smoking, helped to get her back in the good graces of critics and end the year on a decidedly high note.
When 2006 arrived, Bello joined Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, and Maggie Gyllenhall in World Trade Center, Oliver Stone's docudrama/survival picture that recounted the experiences of two Port Authority firefighters trapped beneath the rubble of the destroyed buildings. Bello joins the cast of the same year's Flicka, adapted from the seminal children's novel by Mary O'Hara (and incarnated decades prior as the movie and TV series My Friend Flicka) , alongside Alison Lohman and country singer Tim McGraw.
Bello had a lead part in Alan Ball's feature film directorial debut Towelhead in 2007, and tackled the indie horror film Downloading Nancy the next year. In 2010 she scored a small part in the Adam Sandler comedy Grown Ups as well as major parts in a couple of dramas - The Company Men and Beautiful Boy.
She next returned to television, taking the lead role in the NBC remake of the British series Prime Suspect in 2011. The show was cancelled after only 13 episodes, but Bello quickly booked another television role, in the second season of Fox's Touch, opposite Kiefer Sutherland. That show was also canceled after that season, and Bello returned to film, reprising her role in Grown Up 2 in 2013.
Active in social causes as well, Maria Bello co-founded the Harlem not-for-profit arts and education program, Dream Yard Drama Project for Kids.