Reading “The Journey Is the Destination” changed Maria Bello’s life. After devouring Dan Eldon’s journals about his travels through Africa and learning about the photojournalist’s work to bring attention to the famine in Somalia and apartheid in South Africa, Bello became inspired to find more ways to combine art with activism.
She’s done that by pushing for stronger roles for women in movies and television, by advocating for gay rights, and by trying to raise awareness for genocide victims of the Darfur Conflict and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Eldon’s story is an inspirational one, but it has a tragic coda. In 1993, he was stoned and beaten to death by a mob while he was covering the conflict in Somalia.
Bello hopes that “The Journey Is the Destination,” a big-screen version of Eldon’s book, will introduce his story to a new generation of budding activists. The film stars Ben Schnetzer (“Pride”) as Eldon and is directed by Bronwen Hughes (“Stander”). Bello co-stars as Eldon’s mother, Kathy, and executive produces the film. She spoke with Variety in the lead up to the film’s premiere at this year’s Toronto Intl. Film Festival.
How did you get involved in this project?
Kathy wanted me to play her because I knew her so well. She is one of my best friends and favorite people. I met her through a friend and fell immediately in love with her as a human being. She said she’d been trying to get this movie made for 22 years, and I told her that anything I could do to help, I would.
She was on set the entire time and she was in the audience when we filmed the Dan’s celebration of life or funeral scene. For her, I think the film was a way of closing a chapter and raising awareness and drawing other young people into activism.
Why was it so hard to get this movie made?
Smaller dramas tend to make less money, so studios don’t want to take a chance on them. I think that’s starting to change. People are getting bored with tentpole movies. People like my son. He is 15 1/2 years old and he can’t wait to see “Journey.” It’s more authentic. It’s a story that’s more about who they are.
There were a couple of films out in the last few years that dealt with teenagers falling in love, like, what was it, “Fault in Our Stars.” Young people want to see those sorts of things. It’s a mistake to think it’s just the big action movies that capture their attention.
You have written a book and a widely read op-ed about your relationships, both heterosexual and same-sex. Why did you feel a need to share your story?
I’m not a person who talks a lot about my personal life, but I thought it was so important to have a conversation around the fluidity of love and I wanted to add my voice. It all started because my son’s dad was getting married and we were all so excited. He really is my best friend. That, more than my sexuality, inspired me. I’ve been astounded by the response. I can’t think of anything negative that’s been said. There have been tweets and Facebook messages saying I have a modern family too, and I never knew what to call it. Or I’m sexually fluid now, and I’m questioning the labels we’ve been taught to give ourselves.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the lack of diversity in movies and television. Are those discussions translating into change?
We’re starting to see more movies starring fabulous women, not just because it’s nice, but because it’s good business. I’m a part of Women in Film and as part of that we had a two-day seminar where 40 of us in the business and some amazing men sat around and talked and we got into the idea of unconscious gender bias. We asked the question of all the female directors present in the audience, do you want to direct a big action movie? And they were like, “Hell yes! We’ve wanted to do that for years.” Because of unconscious gender bias they’ve never been asked. It’s assumed that the women only direct certain types of films.
There have been scripts that I’ve been offered where I’ve said to the producers, “Can we change the detective into a woman?” That would be more interesting for me as opposed to me playing the wife or or the woman on the side. That’s not my thing. It would be more interesting for the audience too. I don’t want to see another billboard of two guys standing there doing God knows what. As a woman, I want to see more people who reflect me on the screen.
You executive produced “Journey Is the Destination.” Would you ever direct?
I think that soon I’ll direct something for TV. I’m not very detail oriented. I don’t think I could do a movie and live with it for a year, certainly not with a 15 1/2 year old at home.