Ever since she was 27 and a castmember on E.R., Maria Bello has spent a portion of each year in her “happy place”: Nairobi, Kenya. Bello — who is producing and has a story-by credit on Sony’s historical epic The Woman King, set in the Kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Benin) and out Sept. 16 — spoke with THR about her love of the continent.
You’ve been journeying through Africa for half your life. What keeps drawing you back?
The continent offers itself up to your imagination. I’m so excited about what’s going on there. It’s quite the stereotype that all of Africa is one big safari, but it’s not. There are thriving, beautiful cities and people lump them all into one, “Oh, it’s Africa.” But it’s not, it’s so diverse, with so many distinct cultures and food and music. I almost exclusively listen to Afrobeats now since my friend’s kids turned me on to Burna Boy from Nigeria. There’s so much energy right now on the continent. For me, it’s one of the most exciting places on the planet.
The Woman King shot in South Africa. Why do you feel Hollywood should film more in Africa?
In the ’80s, Kenya was a hub of filmmaking with such films as Out of Africa and White Mischief, but through changes of leadership, the industry mostly left for South Africa, along with many well-trained crews. The current government is open to giving tax credits to specific projects and is working toward getting the film community back. Kenya has great soundstages and equipment just waiting to be used. I would love to see Hollywood really coming to explore African stories and meeting different filmmakers in Nigeria and Ghana, too. There are a multitude of very interesting stories to be told and distinct locations to be shot, and it would change the economy of a lot of countries. We are just beginning to look outside the box of traditional American fare as the global culture expands.
What sparked you to produce and develop The Woman King?
The Woman King was definitely born of my love of the continent in general. It’s based on women’s history, a story I found many years ago about this army of women in the 17th century. I was watching Braveheart and I was like, Why isn’t there a woman’s movie like this?
You call Karen, a suburb of Nairobi, your part-time home. How do you spend your time there?
I live in a little cottage on the grounds of the Eden Hotel. It’s become a hub and gathering place for some really interesting people in the industry. Anna [Trzebinski], the owner, is an incredible designer and the property is amazing. There are many different areas of Nairobi that are so gorgeous. The River Café in Karura Forest is incredible. I have the best meals at Talisman and chef Dennis Ang’ani’s Embark Restaurant. But really I love the roadside nyama choma. It’s barbecued meat, basically and it’s so beautifully done. I’m salivating thinking of it. We’re putting together an African food and wine festival in Kenya for the fall, because my fiancée [three Michelin-starred chef Dominique Crenn] became really curious about this idea, too, that there’s so much interesting food in the different African countries that a lot of people don’t even know about. We’re planning to bring amazing chefs from all over the continent and world to this food festival.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.