NEW YORK – 'I'd have stood on my head naked to do this movie," says Maria Bello (search).
But then again, that might not be such a stretch for Bello, an "E.R." alum who's been making a name for herself with bold performances in films such as 2003's "The Cooler" and 2002's "Auto Focus."
In "Violence," Bello plays Edie, the wife of small-town diner owner Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), who finds himself unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight when he takes action against two thugs trying to rob his eatery.
For a married couple with two kids, Tom and Edie have a surprisingly sizzling relationship. In one of the movie's first scenes, Bello dons a cheerleader outfit for an afternoon romp with her husband.
"David's choice of the cheerleader costume was brilliant, I thought," Bello says. "The idea of being covered up, playing a part -- keeping things on the surface, but what's really going on underneath?"
Which is, not coincidentally, the question at the heart of the film. After Tom's story is splashed across national newspapers, two mobsters show up in town claiming he's actually a vicious Philly gangster named Joey.
Tom swears they're mistaken, but doubt begins to set in for Bello's character, who becomes increasingly unsettled in what was once a storybook marriage. The unease culminates in the film's raciest scene, in which Bello and Mortensen go at it on a staircase with a vengeance.
"That was brutal," Bello recalls. "David likes to say that we limped onto the set the next day. I was black and blue from head to toe; Viggo's elbow was a balloon, and I had somehow bit the inside of his lip, so he had a fat lip.
"In the moment, we hardly felt anything," she says, "because we were just so into what we were doing."
Bello stringently downplays any suggestion that she's a risk-taker -- though many critics called her performance in "The Cooler" a revelation in its sexual realism -- because she says she doesn't see what all the fuss is about.
"I've made a conscious choice in my life, and my career, to not separate my sexuality from, say, what I have for breakfast in the morning," says the 38-year-old actress. "I think it's such a natural, normal part of our existence.
"Someone's sex life is certainly a great insight into who they are and how their relationship is -- but I hate to make such a big deal out of it. I don't really think it's a big deal."
The real struggle in that scene, she says, was conquering her inner control freak.
"For weeks I was saying to David and Viggo, 'Come on, you guys, we've got to figure this out. Where's my hand gonna be? Where's his hand gonna be?' And finally, the day before shooting it, David said, 'You know, Maria, you're not in control of this one. Because this scene is about her completely losing control and surrendering to her basest desires.'"
Despite the dark subject matter, Bello says the on-set atmosphere was far from doom and gloom.
"The first day on set I told Viggo, 'I thought you were going to be Intense Guy,'" she laughs. "But he's such a light spirit. David has this amazing sense of humor as well.
"People who are unafraid to look at the darker aspects of life," she says, "are usually the lightest people you'll ever meet."