Before she appeared on the screen in 1998’s “Permanent Midnight” and mesmerized us as a barkeep/beer mistress in 2000’s “Coyote Ugly,” Maria Bello had been contemplating a career in law. In fact, she co-authored a book with one of her law professors on peace and justice education.

Raised in suburban Philadelphia in a blue-collar family, the 41-year-old actress attended Catholic schools and graduated from Villanova University, where she studied political science. But it was a fortuitous choice of “acting” as an elective course that put on the course to Hollywood.

Along the way, she has received two Golden Globe nominations: Best Supporting Actress in “The Cooler” (2003) and Best Actress in “A History of Violence” (2005).

Along with her many other roles, this summer, Bello has added action-adventure hero to her repertoire in “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.”

When not acting, Bello is a single mom to 7-year-old son, Jack. “Motherhood is a huge challenge,” she says, “but it’s brought me so much joy.”

Bankrate: You played some very violent and intense scenes with Viggo Mortensen in “A History of Violence,” which brought you critical acclaim. What qualities of your character, Edie, do you wish you actually possessed?

Maria Bello: I wish I had that sort of trust that she has at the beginning of the film when she turns to this man and says: “You’re the best man that I’ve ever known.” That I could have the courage to say that to someone and feel that and know it’s right and true without having a cynical thing about me that thinks, yeah … but.

Bankrate: And now you’re playing a different role … that of action-adventurer Evelyn Carnahan O’Connell in “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.” How was it filming this movie?

Bello: I worked with a trainer for a couple of months doing kickboxing and sword fighting. I also did some gun training, which I loved — I loved shooting an old Winchester. And I worked on wires for the first time in my life because I had to do some wire stunts. I did have an amazing stunt double, who did some of the more dangerous stunts. But I loved doing all that physical work. I usually don’t like exercise.

Bankrate: You have worked with many charities over the years. Who are you working with currently?

Bello: Well, I started a program in New York called the DreamYard Drama Project, which is a huge organization now, I’ve learned. Once I moved to Los Angeles, I was no longer involved.

I did a lot of work with Save the Children and toured Africa and Asia with that program and on my own. I went with them to Nicaragua during Hurricane Mitch and it was a great feeling of bringing joy back to the community, which meant reaching out to the children by bringing them toys and art supplies. I did a similar thing when I went to Kosovo during the war to the refugee camps. Now I work just with Save Darfur.

Bankrate: Do you sometimes think of leaving Los Angeles and settling into a smaller community with an idyllic lifestyle?

Bello
: What I know about myself is that I’m a gypsy and I take myself with me wherever I go. If it’s Venice, California, where I live, or Indiana, it would be the same thing. And I like a city; I like to be around people. I like the community feeling. I like going camping or going to the country every once in awhile, but I always have to come back to the city. It’s got a certain beat and rhythm.

Bankrate: I know you were looking at a law career, but went into acting during your junior year in college. How did that come about?

Bello: Someone said to me that I could take an acting class as an elective and that had never occurred to me before because my family is very blue collar. The first time I did a monologue, my acting teacher called my parents and said that I had a real gift for acting. And I knew it as soon as I finished that monologue. So with three bags filled with clothes and $300, I went to New York City as soon as I graduated college.

Bankrate: What was your first big splurge?

Bello: I was doing a TV show called “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” that didn’t last very long, but I bought a Jeep from my first big paycheck.

Bankrate: When was the first time you did a movie for love and not money?

Bello: Every movie I’ve done is for love, not money. Maybe I should consider that next time. My first movie was “Permanent Midnight.”

I’m a single mom with a 7-year-old son who I’ve put in private school. His dad is great, but I’m really the sole person paying the bills. I feel the roles I’m doing are just getting better and better. I mean who would have thought that at age 40, I would be playing my first action adventure role? Your career is your choice and I’m getting fantastic roles. I’m very, very lucky.

Photo courtesy Retna Ltd.