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).