When I mention this to Bello, she'll be unfazed. "I don't know anything about guns."
Which is why they call it acting.
It's enough that her character knows a lot about guns, an expertise demonstrated in the very first episode of NBC's "Prime Suspect," the cop drama in which Norristown's Bello, 44, portrays an Americanized, adrenalized version of Lynda La Plante's groundbreaking Scotland Yard detective Jane Tennison, a role first played by Helen Mirren two decades ago.
Bello's Jane is a New York police detective named Timoney, the surname a nod to former Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney, who got his start with the New York Police Department, where he was an academy classmate of the show's technical adviser, Mike Sheehan, himself a former NYPD detective.
Jane Timoney is a bit more athletic than Jane Tennison, suggested Kirk Acevedo ("Oz," "Band of Brothers"), one of her co-stars.
"Maria, you believe she can take care of herself, you know what I mean? She's scrappy and she sells it," said Acevedo, calling her "a guy's girl in the best sense."
The two Janes do share an uncompromising attitude and a bluntness that's sometimes at odds with their ambitions, and some of their demons overlap.
But what the two projects, divided by an ocean and time, have most in common is their stars: beautiful women who care too much about their work to let being beautiful get in their way.
Executive producer Alexandra Cunningham, who, along with executive producer and director Peter Berg ("Friday Night Lights") developed "Prime Suspect" for NBC, describes Bello as "without vanity," estimating that she takes "20 minutes in hair and makeup on the set."
On the afternoon I'm there, the "Prime Suspect" cast and crew is in the midst of a week in which they're working simultaneously on the series' second and third episodes as well as reshoots of the Sept. 22 pilot.
Even so, Bello's appearance changes basically consist of pulling her hair back for one scene, loosening it for another and swapping a blue button-down shirt for a white one to accommodate a shift in day.
Viewers used to seeing female police detectives in tank tops shouldn't bother trying to adjust their sets.
"Someone was trying to do a photo shoot during the show and they said, 'OK, here's a tank top, and here's a leather jacket, and put your hair down,' and I said, 'That's never going to happen,' " Bello had told me earlier.
"And I went to my producers and they said, 'You're right. That's never going to happen.' Like that's not who this character is. She's not a tank-top and jeans type. There's an idea of what a woman cop is on TV and then there's a real person who happens to be a cop . . . She has her own style, she has her own sensibility, she has her own quirks."
For one thing, there's the hat.
For reasons I can't explain, some critics claim to be distracted by what Bello calls her "magic hat."
At a press conference last month, Cunningham, who once wrote for "NYPD Blue," defended the retro fedora as both "fashionable" and yet found surprisingly often on the heads of New York detectives she's seen.
"I put it on, and for me, it's Jane Timoney," said Bello.
A gun, but no smoking
Now the vintage green dress Bello wore the day of the press conference: That was probably a bit more Maria than Jane.
So, perhaps, was the champagne the actress was drinking late that afternoon on a veranda overlooking the pool at the Beverly Hilton as she entered the home stretch of a day of back-to-back interviews and photo shoots.
Timoney, however, might have tried for at least a secondhand whiff of Bello's cigarette, whose appearance seemed to explain a last-minute change of venue.
There are only so many places one's allowed to smoke these days.
American broadcast TV generally isn't one of them, which is why Timoney is trying to quit, even though Tennison got to puff away as much as any character on "Mad Men."
"It's unacceptable in television today, for a character to be flawed in that way, that they depend on nicotine and cigarettes, knowing how bad they are for you," Bello said. "I also think it's unacceptable to the general public that a person in real life smokes, you know, that somehow they're promoting it. When in fact I understand that it's hurting me . . . but I also don't want to lie."
Bello, too, is hoping to quit. (She'd proposed doing it for the pilot, said Cunningham, so she could "bring that sort of rage to the character," but was told by the producer, "Don't do that to the crew.") When we spoke at the beginning of August, Bello said she thought she'd try hypnosis, which had worked for her before, and seemed to be trying to time it around her 10-year-old son's return from summer camp.
Last Friday, she reported on Twitter that she was on her fifth day of not smoking, "and I don't want to shoot anyone."
Good to know.
Hollywood to Haiti
Yet however bad smoking might be for her, it adds to the sense that Bello's a bit of a throwback to a time when you didn't have to be British to be considered a dame (the uppercased title's been bestowed on Mirren, who's probably always been one, anyway) and gutsiness and glamour went hand in hand.
And, let's face it: Without the smoking, Bello might come off as too good to be true.
Beginning with her initial reaction to the new "Prime Suspect."
"I read it and said, 'Nope, I'm not doing that. I love it, but no. It would take over my life,' " Bello told reporters. "And I work in Haiti part-time, and I have a 10-year-old."
Trust me: We don't hear this one every day.
The actress' most recent role in Haiti is as one of the co-founders of We Advance, an organization serving women, but she'd been involved in other work there before the January 2010 earthquake, after which she was back in the country within a week, volunteering at a pediatric hospital. She's returned regularly since.
"It really is a huge part of her life. So we definitely need to accomplish what we need to accomplish on our schedule to give her room to do that, because she's not joking around," Cunningham said of her star's other occupation. "It's not just showing up at a black-tie event every month and a half. Really, she's hands on the ground in Haiti."
Hourlong dramas are notorious for long hours, but Cunningham hopes to eventually lighten Bello's load by focusing on other members of an ensemble that includes Acevedo, Aidan Quinn, Brian F. O'Byrne, Peter Gerety, Kenny Johnson, Damon Gupton and Tim Griffin.
(It doesn't hurt that Berg's brought in crew from "Friday Night Lights," a show known for its efficiency. "This, the Peter Berg model of this, is faster than any show I've ever" been on, said Griffin. "We're early almost every day.")
Bello's activism, pointed out her mother, began long before she became involved in the poverty-strapped Caribbean nation.
As a student at Villanova, where she'd been working toward becoming an activist lawyer until a theater class opened her eyes to another possibility, she'd been inspired by the Rev. Ray Jackson, a co-founder of the university's Center for Peace & Justice Education.
When she told him she wanted to pursue acting instead of law, the priest told her, " 'When you follow your passion, you will always be able to help people. And when you become famous, you'll be able to help more people,' " Kathy Bello recalled in a recent phone interview. "And that really stuck in her head."
Not that Bello waited to become famous.
"When she was a starving actress in New York . . . waitressing, bartending" to pay the rent, Bello co-founded the Dream Yard Drama project in Harlem, said her mother.
On Saturdays, she'd teach kids "how to write their life stories and then how to act them out," said her mother. "And she had nothing. She literally had nothing."
And these days? "I always have to tell her, 'Maria, breathe.' "
But then Kathy Bello's one to talk.
An administrator in a vocational high school in Montgomery County and a nurse who's been to Haiti herself on a medical mission, she was in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, for the premiere of one of her daughter's films, and found herself instead spending the day volunteering at St. Vincent's Medical Center, just a mile from the World Trade Center.
Diagnosed 26 years ago with non-Hodgkins lymphoma - "I was told . . . by [Memorial] Sloan-Kettering that I had two years to live and there was nothing they could do. So here I am," she said as she faces a new round of treatment - at 68, Kathy Bello seems to have embarked on yet another career. She's the author of a self-published cookbook, Aunt Kath's Kitchen: Cooking with Passion and Love for Family and Friends (available through auntkathskitchen.com) and is 40 recipes in to what could become her next.
"My mother has always gathered people, cousins, friends, family, around the table and had conversations. You know how you're cooking in the kitchen and people just start talking? My mother is that person. And she makes the most delicious, home-cooked, beautiful food," said Maria Bello.
"She's been through everything, and her biggest thing, she just keeps telling me, 'You just gotta laugh.' She has such an amazing sense of humor and such an amazing sense of joy and life. So everybody has her cookbook right now, every friend and every cast member. They come up to me every day, saying, 'I made your mom's meatballs,' 'I made her sauce,' " Bello said.
(You can, too. See Page 31 for the recipes Kathy Bello listed among her daughter's favorites.)
In April, "we were filming [the pilot] in New York and I took the train down and the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce honored her as a person changing careers midstream," Bello said.
Hopping Amtrak home to Philly isn't exactly an option now that the show's filming on the West Coast, but Bello said she's grateful to NBC for moving it.
"I said I can't do the show if it doesn't shoot in L.A. Because my son's here and his father [Bello's former longtime boyfriend, screenwriter/producer Dan McDermott] is here . . . and we're such good pals and we all see each other every day, and I just couldn't do that."
That doesn't mean her son - Jackson, named after the late Father Ray - is a stranger to his mother's roots.
"My family has had a house [in Sea Isle City] since I was a kid. We owned a pizzeria there growing up called the Charcoal Pit," she said, and her son "loves it. He can't be away from the Jersey Shore. It's really my home and my soul."
Earlier in the summer, "we went to a family wedding . . . in Philly and my son knows what water ice is and he says 'wooh-der' . . . The other day, he says to his dad, he's like, 'Dad, you don't know what a hoagie is until you've had a hoagie in Philly.' "
Owning her age
It's one thing to listen to an actress talk about food, and quite another to see her actually ingest it, but having witnessed Bello digging into a dish of Aztec chocolate ice cream during a snack break on the set - and returning to it between takes - I'm ready to believe her when she says she likes to eat.
And though I've never been one of those people who can instantly spot who's had "work," I've sat across from enough actresses to know that when a forty-something woman's face still moves, it's a statement.
Does Bello, whose roles - and choices - have usually been interesting ones, think of "Prime Suspect" as her reward for maintaining a face capable of expression?
"This is awful but true. I had to say to someone the other day," during a photo shoot for the show, '' 'Please don't erase my wrinkles.' Because . . . they'll Photoshop you and erase all this," she said, gesturing toward her face. "That's what makes me me. That's my life, on my face," she said.
"Little bits are OK," she conceded. "But all of these women who say, oh, there's no roles for women after 40. You know why? Because you're trying to look 20 . . .
"I think, play your age. Enjoy it. All the photos I have, all over my house, of all of my heroes: Georgia O'Keeffe and Beatrice Wood and Colette and Edna St. Vincent Millay, and their life shows on their face. They've had these extraordinary lives and I only hope to be as lucky."