Maria Bello Has Been Waiting to Make The Woman King for Decades
Maria Bello has played many roles in her life, as an actor, writer, artist, producer, activist. But the title she most closely aligns with now was given to her by friends in Paris: “Flâneuse.”
“It’s a woman who travels and collects stories—connects people and collects stories,” Bello tells me on a Zoom from her picturesque home in Paris, with a terrace overlooking the Seine.
For Bello, known for her work in TV (ER, NCIS) and film (Coyote Ugly, A History of Violence, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), her lifelong ability to collect stories and connect people is what led her to The Woman King. When the credits roll on the film, viewers may have been surprised to see Bello’s name listed with a story and producer credit, but for the past couple decades, Bello has been carrying the story of a group of female African warriors close to her, looking for the right people to bring this story to life. She finally found the army she needed when she joined forces with producers Cathy Schulman, Viola Davis, and Julius Tennon, screenwriter Dana Stevens, and director Gina Prince-Bythewood. The film, which stars Davis as the leader of a fearsome female army, earned critical praise, awards buzz, and $92 million worldwide thus far at the box office.
Although storytelling is a pillar of Bello’s life, she’s kept the story of her involvement in The Woman King relatively quiet, and is speaking in-depth on it for the first time now. “I always felt like it wasn’t my story to tell,” she says. “This movie wouldn’t have been made without Viola and this team. I’m just proud.”
As a child growing up in Pennsylvania, Bello would read encyclopedia chapters about African nations over and over. Later, she worked at the library while studying political science at Villanova, which is where she began to focus in on women’s stories—or the lack thereof. “I realized there were really no history books about women,” she says. “The only women I could find in America were like Betsy Ross. She sewed the flag, and then what?”
As she embarked on her acting career—her early role included a stint on ER and a role in *Coyote Ugly—*she noticed that this lack of female-focused stories extended beyond books, into big, blockbuster movies. In 1995, when she fell in love with the Mel Gibson–starring film Braveheart, she became set on her future in Hollywood. “At the end of the movie, I said, ‘One day I’m going to make a female Braveheart,’” she says.
It would take a while to get there. After she joined ER, Bello began traveling to Africa often. “I fell in love with Kenya many years ago and I have a group of friends there that are like my family,” she says. That’s where she first learned of the Agojie, warrior women who served as the army for the kingdom of Dahomey, an empire in West Africa founded in the 17th century. It seemed a story tailor-made for the big screen, but Bello, who is white, knew that she needed the right people to tell it.
Then, in 2015, Bello was asked to present an award to Davis at the Skirball Cultural Center for the National Women’s History Museum “Women Making History Awards” in Los Angeles. “I said, ‘There’s so much incredible history. Can you imagine Viola Davis as this warrior in Africa?’ And I even said, ‘As a female Braveheart,’” remembers Bello. She got a standing ovation for her speech, along with Davis’s attention. Soon after, Davis and Tennon—her producing partner and husband—signed on to produce.
Bello worked with Stevens on the story, focusing on an all-female unit of warriors, led by General Nanisca (Davis), who is training the next generation of fighters while also facing the darkest parts of her own past. Among the new recruits is a young woman named Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), whose headstrong attitude at first frustrates Nanisca before the pair discover the way their fates are intertwined. Bello says the story came together by layering of all the things she’d been most interested in—an action film centered on women that also explores sisterhood and captures a complicated family relationship. Plus, she wanted to explore “rape as a weapon of war. There are so many revenge fantasies with men—people who hurt them and they get their revenge. I was like, what would that be like [with women]?”
Even with the team onboard, it wasn’t an easy film to get financed in a Hollywood system that often still doubts that moviegoers will sign up for a female action film. At one point, according to Bello, they were offered just $20 million to make it. “Braveheart for $73 million in !” says Bello. Sony eventually signed on with a $50 million budget. “It was one of those films that showed the business point, which we’ve always been trying to prove, which is that movies with women can make as much money,” says Bello.
Bello wasn’t able to attend the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, where Vanity Fair’s review declared, “The Woman King reminds us of how much unclaimed territory there is yet to explore on film of any genre, planting its flag firmly in long-unacknowledged earth.” But she went to a screening opening night in New York with her son and his best friend. “It was better than I could have ever imagined,” she says. “To see something that was in my head for so long, but to see it so elevated because of the work of those actors, and of Viola Davis and of Gina, I just live in gratitude to have been able to be a part of this whole process.”
The film’s success—and the whole experience—has made Bello even more determined to make sure women’s stories make their way to screen. “I’ve been so fortunate to meet women on six of the seven continents—incredible creators, producers, storytellers,” she says, adding that one of the reasons she relocated to Paris last year (she’s been engaged to chef Dominique Crenn since 2019) was to drown out the noise of Hollywood and focus on telling more stories for and by women. “The amount of money that traditionally female-led movies have gotten to male-led movies is really silly—a half of the [production] budget and a third of the marketing budget,” she says. “That’s why we’re here building a globally inclusive women’s media house. We realize not only the need, but the great potential and desire for a house that really finances and develops great women’s stories from all over the world.” That story is just beginning.