Golino was born in Naples, Italy, the daughter of an Italian father who was a Germanist scholar, and a Greek mother, Lalla, who was a painter. One of her grandmothers was Egyptian-French. She grew up in an “artistic household”, and after her parents split up, was raised alternating between Athens and Sorrento (near Naples). Golino is the niece of the journalist Enzo Golino at L’Espresso, and her brother is a musician. When she was a girl, her mother frequently took her to the cinema, and she quickly became interested in films. In spite of this, though, she never thought about pursuing a film career until she made her first movie. Instead, she wanted to be a cardiologist. Valeria was diagnosed with scoliosis at age 11, and she had to have a steel rod implanted in her back for five years. She remained in the care of a surgeon in Chicago for six months, where she learned to speak English. At age 14, she started to work as a fashion model in Athens, Milan, London, and Los Angeles. She was in TV commercials for beer, perfume, and cosmetics, and she modeled swimsuits and blue jeans. Being an unfocused student, she dropped out of high school after acting in her first movie.
Golino never formally studied acting. Her career started by chance when her uncle Enzo received a phone call from the director Lina Wertmüller, who was searching for a young girl for her movie, and encouraged Golino to go to Wertmuller’s house to meet her. The two met and Valeria was eventually cast in her first film, A Joke of Destiny (1983), alongside Ugo Tognazzi after an audition where she performed Shakespeare. Despite her parents’ reservations and Wertmuller’s demanding on-set behavior, she liked the experience so much that she decided to pursue an acting career. She gave up modeling, which she had never found fulfilling or interesting, and started to study diction and elocution. Among her early auditions were Una spina nel cuore (an audition that she called “distasteful”) and The Name of the Rose but was passed over for both films. She was offered roles in Giochi d’estate (1984) and other similarly themed romantic films about teenagers, but she turned them down to focus on smaller and more challenging projects. She followed her first with a string of independent films, including roles in My Dearest Son and Little Flames (both 1985), her first leading role, both of which won her a Golden Globe award for Best Breakthrough Actress. Later that year, she was involved in a car accident which displaced the metal bar in her back and had to have surgery in order to fix it: she was bedridden for five months. Her star-making role came the following year, when she played the life-loving cleaning lady who romances two different men in Storia d’amore (A Tale of Love) by Francesco Maselli. Her performance received rave reviews and earned her two prizes at the 1986 Venice Film Festival, the official Best Actress award (now called Volpi Cup) and the Golden Ciak award. The same film also won her the oldest and most prestigious critics’ prize of the Italian cinema, the Silver Ribbon award for Best Actress. Her following projects were once again independent, auteur-driven films, The Gold Rimmed Glasses and Three Sisters. She was supposed to reunite with Maselli for his following film L’uomo della casa di fronte, co-starring Marcello Mastroianni, but the project never happened. The same director then moved on to another film, Codice privato, and Golino turned down the role that was eventually played by Ornella Muti.