WITH A LANDMARK OSCAR FOR HER SEARING PORTRAYAL OF THE GRITTY BELLE OF MONSTER'S BALL, HALLE BERRY'S ON A ROLL
by Terry Keefe
Halle Berry wasn't looking to take the easy path to fame and fortune when she went in to read for her first movie role in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever (1991). Originally called in for the fairly conventional role of Lee's wife, Berry pushed Lee to cast her in another part - that of Vivian the young crack addict. It was a telling move as to the type of acting career Berry was seeking. This totally unglamorous role was not what most people would have expected from the young and beautiful Ms. Berry, but it presented a challenge for the young actress that she embraced with passion. Berry's Vivian was a strung-out bundle of nervous tics, grime, and explosive anger. It was a great career decision because it established her as a serious talent in her very first film; she clearly was not just another beautiful-model-turned-beautiful-actress. Of course, it's undeniable that her near-perfect looks and charisma hark back to the Golden Age of Hollywood when stars were stunners who could stop traffic. But she's also that rarity of rarities, a movie star with true acting talent to burn and a desire to continue to push that talent as far as she can. And as we all know, some 11 years after Jungle Fever, that combination of talent and desire earned her the honor of being the first African-American woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, for her work in Monster's Ball. The entire world watched on March 24th as she was overcome with emotion and gushed, "This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It's for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it's for every nameless, faceless woman that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened." She had come a very long way.
How long a way? Well, all the way from a land quite a few miles east of Hollywood - Cleveland, Ohio, where Halle was born on August 14, 1968 and named after the nearby Halle Brothers Department store. Her teenage years saw great success in beauty pageants, as she won the Miss Teen All-American Pageant at the age of 17 in 1985 and was first runner-up in the Miss USA Pageant a year later. She became a model shortly thereafter and then segued into acting with a few television appearances, followed by her big-screen debut in Jungle Fever. Lead roles followed in the films Strictly Business (1991), The Last Boy Scout with Bruce Willis (1991), Boomerang (1992) with Eddie Murphy, The Flintstones(1994), Executive Decision (1996), and Bulworth (1998). Then came the HBO film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), which also re-introduced Halle Berry to the world in a sense. Berry produced the movie and gave a performance that was quite simply a revelation.
It was no easy role to pull off. The real-life Dorothy Dandridge was a complex individual who was incredibly talented, driven, and loving to her friends and family. But she also harbored a great inner loneliness and a self-destructive streak. This was partially due to the sexual abuse she had suffered as a young woman and which seemed to send her on a lifelong series of destructive relationships with all the wrong men. Berry wrapped all of those diverse threads into her portrayal, giving us a glimpse into Dandridge's golden soul in the process, along with the demons that haunted her. There were also the challenges of recreating the singing and dancing of Dorothy Dandridge, performances which left audiences spellbound so many years ago. And yes, Berry managed to leave us equally spellbound, particularly when she recreated the musical numbers from Dandridge's landmark film Carmen Jones (1954). You forgot you weren't watching the real Dandridge, which is perhaps the greatest compliment for any actor starring in a bio pic. The film was to earn Berry a Golden Globe and a great deal of critical respect.
The box office would also show its respect for her as she donned the black cape of Storm, the mutant superhero goddess who controlled the weather, in director Bryan Singer's smash hit X-Men (2000) which was based on the most popular comic book series of all time. Then there was last summer's Swordfish where she starred opposite John Travolta and was also reunited with X-Men co-star Hugh Jackman. Both films were hits, further cementing Berry's star status. It would have been easy for her to coast on her fame with less challenging roles. But she did exactly the opposite when she jumped into the cauldron of Monster's Ball.Directed by Marc Forster, Monster's Ball features Berry as Letitia Musgrove, an emotionally beaten-down woman in the rural south whose convict husband Lawrence (played by Sean Combs) is put to death in the electric chair. Through a series of tragic circumstances, Letitia meets Hank (played by Billy Bob Thornton), the prison guard who presided over her husband's execution and who also is dealing with his own personal tragedy. Despite being the most unlikely of couples, they fall in love and manage to heal each other amongst the turmoil around them. Letitia's life is an ongoing train wreck which is difficult to watch, but you can't take your eyes off of her thanks to Berry's performance. She creates a subtle, nuanced arc in which Letitia slowly regains her strength and dignity. The film also features one of the rawest love scenes in recent memory between Berry and Thornton. But it's also one of the only times in recent memory that this type of scene is absolutely integral to the plot. These two characters have been through such hell at that point in the story that only an extreme physical catharsis could bring them together. Monster's Ball was shot on an extremely low-budget with all of the actors reportedly working for scale.
I reached Halle by phone while she was shooting the new James Bond film in London, where she plays a character named Jinx.
Tell us how you first became involved with Monster's Ball.
I first received the script from my manager who had gotten the script from (director) Marc Forster's agent. She passed it onto my manager already knowing that Marc really wasn't interested in me. But she thought I would be right for the role, and if my manager got me to read it, then maybe I would like it and I would fight for it. Which is exactly what happened. She kind of went behind his back (laughs).
So after you decided to fight for the role, what happened?
After I read it, I said `You're right. I have to play this part!' and so we worked on getting a meeting with Marc. From there it was just a process. There were no auditions - it's hard to really audition for a part like that. It was just a series of meetings and conversations and lunches and dinners, talking about it and just sort of fleshing out the character, and me trying to express how much passion I had for the project, how much I connected to her. How I saw her and ultimately how I saw her living through me. And also convincing Marc that I would do all the things it called for. So it was trying to convince him that I was really down to do it.
Once you were cast, what was your preparation process to become Leticia?
There was no real research. It was really just discovering how she lived in me and discovering things in my own life or my own experience to help bring the colors to her. So that was really my work as an actress - trying to figure out the nuances of her.
Leticia went through such tragedy in her life that it seems like hers would be a difficult skin to inhabit. Did you take her home with you at night?
When we worked on it, I really didn't leave her. We only shot in 21 days and we worked such long days that at the end of the day all I had time to do was go home, sleep, get up, and do it again. And I was in Louisiana, without my family. So for those 21 days, for all practical purposes, I was her. It was a good way to work on this character. I didn't have to worry about my family and going home and switching gears because I was on location by myself.
Monster's Ball is filled with so many intense scenes. What was the most difficult to shoot?
I think the scene where I sort of had to abuse my son (played by Coronji Calhoun). That was really hard because he was a real little boy. 10 years old and struggling with issues of obesity, you know? He wasn't an actor, never acted before. And I thought, 'Wow, I could psychologically really damage him.' I thought I could. I was afraid I would.
Was there anything you did during the shooting to make those scenes easier on him?
I just talked to him about the process of acting a lot. Explained things to him, methods that different people used, you know? I tried to give him a crash course in all the acting I knew. And then tried to hug him and kiss him a lot. Before the takes and after the takes. When I'd see him in the morning, I'd try to be as nurturing and as loving as I could all the time. We had a really good connection so that when we did work, he felt more like it was work and not me.
The film wouldn't have been as effective if the first love scene between you and Billy Bob Thornton wasn't as raw as it was. Did you have any hesitations about taking the role for that reason?
No, not at all. I knew it when I read it. I thought it was so pivotal. As a reader for the first time with the script, I kind of knew where it was going to go, where those two characters were going to end up. It's like when you read a romantic comedy, you know where they're going to end up, but it's the journey of how they get there that makes it interesting. I kept thinking, `How are these two polar opposites going to come together?' So when it did happen, it all made sense for me. I thought, `Oh, now I get it.' So I knew how important that scene would be to the movie.
You and Billy Bob must've had a real level of trust built up to do that scene.
He was great. He was as invested in it as I was. He was as naked, as committed to it, as vulnerable, as free as I was. I felt like I had a real partner. It wasn't the typical situation where the woman is usually the one who is sort of exploited, you know? We were in this scene together and that felt really good.
Is it true that Marc Forster gave you final cut over the scene?
Yes. That's the only way I think we both felt free enough to just go there. Because we knew that if we went too far and woke up the next morning and saw it, we could say `Oh-oh. What were we thinking? Axe it all out.' That gave us the freedom. We had that power. But we ended up leaving it all in (laughs). We didn't cut anything.
On a smaller film like Monster's Ball, there are fewer perks and luxuries than on a studio film. But are there more freedoms for an actor also?
What was great about it for me, because I had never really worked like that before, is that because there was no money we didn't have the luxury of time. We didn't have the luxury of shooting things over. It was a way of working where you come to the job totally prepared. And every day just following our instincts and going for it. Because we knew that we'll probably only get two shots at all the scenes, so it heightened our level of concentration and sort of our level of commitment because we knew we only had one or two takes and then we had to move on, because time doesn't allow us to do this all day. It heightened everyone's intensity. It was really great and felt really organic as a result of that.
Are you surprised at the level of acclaim the film has received or did you always think it had a shot at that?
I never thought that people would be nominated for Academy Awards. That was never in my thinking. I knew that it was a jewel of a movie. I knew that it was special when I read it. That's why I was willing to fight so hard for it. But I thought, `I don't know if people are really going to get this. I don't know if people are ready to deal with some of these issues.' But as an actor, I knew that the roles were just brilliant for actors to play, brilliant characters. Really colorful and full. I just didn't think anybody would be nominated for an Oscar, especially me (laughs).
I wanted to ask you a little bit about your earlier films. You had done some modeling and television work when you landed your first feature role, as the crack addict in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever. Was that first break tough to land?
Yeah, that was my first movie. Spike called me in to audition for the role of his wife originally. All I was up until that point was a model and I had done some beauty pageants, and I thought, `How can I shed this image?' And I asked him if I could read for the part of the crack kid in the movie and he let me do it and he eventually offered me that part. So that was a great way to start in the industry, sort of shedding my physical self and doing a little bit of a character piece. That was a great entry.
I understand your preparation for the role was pretty method-based and you went out and sort of lived the role?
At that point that was all I could do (laughs). I had no technique. I said, `Let me go and live on the street and try to be this girl as best I can.' So yeah, I didn't shower, I didn't shave. I went to a real crack den with an undercover police officer. These are things that today I doubt I would ever do, because it's too dangerous and it really doesn't make a lot of sense. But at that time, I was young and I was like, 'I don't know anything about crack. I've got to go see'(laughs).
A few years later you did such an amazing job playing the legendary Dorothy Dandridge. I wanted to ask about your preparation process.
The producing end was like 7 years on it. We tried to shop it around for 7 years, so that was a long prep time (laughs). But playing her, I had to work on singing, I had to learn to tap dance, all that physical stuff I had to do beforehand. I did a lot of interviewing with Sidney Poitier, Diahann Carroll, people that actually knew her. I spent a lot of time with these people, picking their brains, and sort of trying to get to the essence of who she was. And if I could find some common thread that they all said about her, I could use that. Basically I read every book, every piece of material there was to read about her. I saw tons of pictures. Her manager, who is still alive, let me go through everything that he had of hers, from personal private letters to all of her clothes, her jewelry he had, her family photo album. It was just about a six-month period before the shoot of finding every piece of information I possibly could.
You mentioned that you were looking for a common thread when you interviewed Dorothy Dandridge's close friends and associates. Did you find that common thread?
I would ask each one of them, `If you can tell me one thing that I must capture in order to play her, what would that be?'. They all said the same thing, `You have to find a way to be sad on every day, in every scene, in every moment. And always try to hide the sadness. And you'll get the essence of who she was.' I thought that because they all said that, it had to be true. I thought that was a good place for me to start.
Then you won the Golden Globe for your role as Dorothy. How were you feeling at that moment?
That was the first time I had ever been nominated for an award like that. And playing her life, there were so many opportunities she was not afforded. A lot of it had to do with the state of racial relations in the country at the time. And the other 50% was her own masochistic personality that led to her own downfall, you know? I felt very much when I was up there, that I was sort of up there for her. For all the things that didn't come her way, that in that moment I felt that it was really about her too. Because I was winning for telling her story, I felt very much like it was her moment.
And right now you're shooting the new Bond film. As the villain it`s reported. How does it feel playing the villain?
Well, that sort has been a little bit of a misrepresentation. It's not really clear exactly who this girl Jinx is (laughs). She's a little mysterious. Even to me right now.
Can you talk about the story at all?
No, I'm sorry. They make you sign your life away (laughs).
No problem. And after Bond, you've got the X-Men sequel coming up. How was it working with director Bryan Singer on the first one?
That was good. Directing that movie, there was so much pressure. The fans were just like, you know (laughs). Oh my god, I was so glad I wasn't him. And I thought he did a really great job dealing with all of the pressure. Every day he'd be on the internet, wanting to know what they said next. He did a really good job. He took those comic book characters and made them real. And I really loved that we weren't wearing, you know, silly suits and spandex. He really made them real people. I'm hoping that in the next one they'll even become more real.
Did you read a lot of the old X-Men comics before playing the famous character of Storm?
You know, I didn't. Bryan didn't want it. The people who didn't grow up with the series, he didn't want us to. He wanted us to read the script and read the back story that he provided us. Because all the characters changed from decade to decade, and they sort of went off in different directions. So he thought it would be really confusing and he thought it would be easier, and I think rightfully so, not to go back and read all the comic books. I read some, that pertained to the way he wanted Storm to be played. Those were the ones he suggested that I read and he gave me.