Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Halle Berry

A Berry Good Year

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Things are pretty good for Halle Berry right now, and that's no small statement. She's been on top of her game just about her whole life.

In high school, she was an honor society member, editor of the school paper, class president and prom queen. She won or placed in several beauty contests and landed a role on the 1989 TV Series "Living Dolls," which finally allowed her to list "actress" on her resume. Her first big break came when no less a director than Spike Lee cast her as a crack junkie in Jungle Fever (1991). Petrified, Berry went to great lengths to excel in the part.

"I didn't know how I would get in touch with the psyche of a crack-addicted woman," Berry tells me in a recent phone conversation from New York. "I got down and dirty, I didn't bathe. I went under cover with the police to a real crack house, which was totally insane. I would never do that today. I got to the point where, if that's what I gotta do, I'll pass."

Working on a Spike Lee movie was unnerving for a young, inexperienced actress. "I was so in over my head. I was scared to death. I was so green, so new. I was so happy to be there, believing I could play this character, but not sure how. Spike let me learn a lot. He let me in on the editing process, he let me go to the dailies -- I didn't even know what dailies were."

That was ten years ago, and since then Berry has starred with Eddie Murphy in Boomerang, in Warren Beatty's great Bulworth, and as Storm in the hit movie X-Men. In 1999, she won an Emmy for playing actress and singer Dorothy Dandridge in the TV movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, which she also co-produced.

But all that feels pretty small right now as Berry prepares to attend the Golden Globes, where she's nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture (Drama) for her newest film Monster's Ball and gets ready to celebrate her first wedding anniversary with new husband Eric Benet.

"This feels good," she says. "That first year of marriage, that's a big accomplishment." I ask Berry when she finds time to sleep. She just laughs and replies cryptically, "I sleep."

And though we agreed not to talk about a possible Oscar nomination for fear of a jinx, Berry says it would be extra special to her this year. Her idol Dorothy Dandridge received her one nomination (for Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones) at age 35, the same age as Berry today.

Directed by Marc Forster, Monster's Ball tells the story of a racist executioner named Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) who operates the electric chair for condemned criminals. After his son commits suicide, Hank quits his job but finds himself falling for his last victim's wife: a single mom and struggling waitress named Leticia (Berry). These two lonely, confused, depressed people find -- if not particularly love -- then at least solace in each other.

One startling scene shows the couple having sex for the first time, and it's a powerful moment, revealing the characters at their most needy and most vulnerable. Forster increases the effect by showing both actors devastatingly naked. This, of course, brings to mind Berry's quick and needless topless scene in her last film, the critical flop Swordfish.

"Those are polar opposites," she says. "One is very necessary and the other isn't necessary at all. In Monster's Ball, it's essential. It wasn't about titillation. Without it, you have no second half."

Berry doesn't make a big deal out of her onscreen nudity, saying that even in the 21st cenruty, Americans are still pretty hung up about sexuality. "I was always worried about what people would think if I did [a nude scene]. Secretly I always thought it was okay -- if I saw nudity in movies I didn't think anything of it. I was worried that our social milieus in this country tell us that it's wrong. Yet it's okay to kill people and shoot people in the head. When I really started thinking about the contradiction of it all, I decided that I really should do what I want to do and not really care what people are going to think."

"This is the reason you do the Swordfishes," she continues. "As an actor, it's still your job and you're making a living and supporting your family. Sometimes to make these artistic choices you have to make some money so you can go off and do something you believe in for practically free."

Berry and her Monster's Ball co-workers -- Thornton, Peter Boyle, Sean Combs and Heath Ledger -- all worked for union scale so that the shoestring-budgeted film could get made. "The days were really, really long. Many days I thought, 'Are we going to make it? Are we going to run out of money? And even though I wasn't the producer, I was somehow always worried about money. 'How much money do we have left? Are we going to finish? Is this ever going to come out? Is this going to be a real movie?"

She laughs. "[But] I knew that something wonderful was happening."

January 17, 2002

Partial Halle Berry Filmography:
Jungle Fever (1991)
Strictly Business (1991)
The Last Boy Scout (1991)
Boomerang (1992)
CB4 (1993)
Father Hood (1993)
The Program (1993)
The Flintstones (1994)
Losing Isaiah (1995)
Girl 6 (1996)
Executive Decision (1996)
Race the Sun (1996)
The Rich Man's Wife (1996)
B*A*P*S (1997)
Bulworth (1998)
Why Do Fools Fall in Love (1998)
Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999) (TV)
X-Men (2000)
Swordfish (2001)
Monster's Ball (2001)
Die Another Day (2002)
X2: X-Men United (2003)
Gothika (2003)
Catwoman (2004)
Robots (2005) (voice)
Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005) (TV)
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Perfect Stranger (2007)
Things We Lost in the Fire (2007)

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