Halle Berry: ‘I was very disheartened after winning the Oscar’

The actor on not getting parts she loves, and her directorial debut with MMA film Bruised

Halle Berry in Bruised

Halle Berry in Bruised

 

When Halle Berry won the 2002 Oscar for best actress – the first time in the Academy’s 74-year history that it had been awarded to a black woman – there was no doubting what the win meant.

“This moment is so much bigger than me,” she said, through tears, as she received the statuette for her role in Monster’s Ball. “This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me – Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett – and it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of colour that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”

But more than two decades later, powered along by Me Too, questions about representation and the jailing of Harvey Weinstein, that door is only now coming unlatched. 

Berry winning Best Actress for Monster’s Ball in 2002
Berry winning Best Actress for Monster’s Ball in 2002

“I was very disheartened after winning that gorgeous guy,” says Berry, who looks as young as she did on the night she walked onto the Oscar podium. “I was sure the script truck would just back itself up to my front door. That’s what I thought would happen. Like: now I’m going to get all the great parts. But unfortunately for me, that was not my reality. I’ve been continuing to try to make ways for myself. Because it’s hard. I don’t often find great parts that I really, really love to sink my teeth into.”

Berry (55) has certainly learned to roll with the punches. At the turn of the millennium, she seemed poised to become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. She was Storm in the multibillion-dollar X-Men franchise. She proved more than capable of going toe to toe with James Bond (Die Another Day). She starred alongside Robert Downey jnr, Benicio del Toro and Warren Beatty. She was directed by the Wachowskis, Suzanne Bier and Spike Lee.

It seems odd to say that an Oscar winner and movie superhero should have been a contender, but there’s long been a sense that Hollywood never quite knew how to make the best of her. Many of her greatest performances – including the lead in an Oprah Winfrey-produced adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005), and title roles in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999) and Alex Haley’s Queen (1993) – were for television, not cinema. Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson hoped that Berry’s Jinx character would get her own spin-off but MGM wouldn’t spend $80 million on a movie with an action heroine.

Berry is reluctant to dwell on the near misses. 

“I’m generally a very positive person. I’m a glass-half-full kind of person. I’m not going to sit around bashing things. I’m here to work. I have more hills to climb as long as I’m here. I’ve got more things to learn. I’ve got more challenges to face. I can continue to get better.”

I had to reimagine the story because it wasn’t on the page, it was written more for an Irish Catholic: a very young, white Irish Catholic character

Berry is a fighter. In every sense. A student of Muay Thai, capoeira, and jiu-jitsu, the moment she read the script for Bruised, she saw potential in the main character, an MMA fighter named Jackie Justice who returns to the cage against all odds. 

“This came about as a great acting part for me,” she says. “I had to reimagine the story because it wasn’t on the page, it was written more for an Irish Catholic: a very young, white Irish Catholic character. I was trying to find a director so that I could just act. But I had a hard time finding a film-maker that connected to the drama of the story and the world of the fight game. They either loved fighting and didn’t care about the drama or they wanted to do the dramatic part of the film but thought: why do we need to do the fighting? I couldn’t find the right person; a person that loved both of those worlds the way I love those worlds. So then I realised that, unfortunately, I had to do the unthinkable and try to direct it myself.”

The fight was on. The script, which initially had director Nick Cassavetes and Blake Lively attached, passed to Berry six months after her initial reading. She had considered directing over the course of her three decades in the business. She had also hoped to start small: “I really thought I would start with a nice little short. Something that I had written. I have a short about plastic surgery. I wanted to start with that.”

She laughs: “But I ended up in the octagon trying to keep my head from getting kicked off by the flyweight champion of the world.”

Halle Berry in Bond film Die Another Day. Photograph: Danjaq, LLC/United Artists Corporation/PA Wire
Halle Berry in Bond film Die Another Day. Photograph: Danjaq, LLC/United Artists Corporation/PA Wire

In Bruised, Berry plays a troubled heroine, a washed-up, ageing mixed martial arts star who is unexpectedly reunited with the son she gave up for adoption just as she accepts an offer to return to the octagon to face MMA star Lady Killer. The latter is, indeed, played by Valentina Shevchenko, the current UFC flyweight world champion.  

The irrepressible Shevchenko is full of praise for her co-star and director. “It was an unbelievable experience. Like something everyone would just dream about. I got a call from Halle saying, like, Valentina, do you want to be a part of this? And there wasn’t 10 seconds of thinking about it. ‘Yes, definitely – 100 per cent.’ And working with Halle was so nice and so easy. She’s an amazing person. She is always spreading positive energy around. I would say everyone on the set was feeling the same, that no matter what’s happening around us, we are here like, happy, safe, and everything’s going to be good.”

The original Rocky film is always one of my all-time favourites. And I tried to imbue my film with some of the grittiness of that film

A huge challenge for Berry was reinventing a genre that has been, well, pummelled into the ground. Working with cinematographer Frank G DeMarco, Berry breathes life into her training montages and fight sequences. The film’s final caged stand-off finds poetry in a sport that, to the uninitiated, can look like street brawling. 

“I did ask myself the question: Why make another movie in a genre where so many wonderful movies have been made by some of the best film-makers of our time. Right? So the original Rocky film is always one of my all-time favourites. And I tried to imbue my film with some of the grittiness of that film. It maybe helped that I didn’t have a lot of money nor did Sylvester Stallone for the first Rocky. So you have that feeling. I also love movies like The Fighter and The Wrestler and Million Dollar Baby. It’s always been a genre that’s a winner for me. People love to see the underdog win. We can all relate to that.”

It’s a big performance on both sides of the camera for Berry. And it took its toll. The actor was already nursing two broken ribs from the set of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum when she arrived on the set of Bruised. Within weeks she was injured while sparring with Shevchenko. 

“Here’s the truth,” she says. “I’m always getting injured. Little injuries. Like even in my training, I broke a couple of toes before I even met Valentina. Damn. My finger got out the socket, and my trainer had to jam it back in place. So there are things that happen in training. And when you’re an actor that does your own stunts, injury is just par for the course. Usually, what happens is that stunt people come in, and they always get injured, but we don’t ever hear about it because they’re supposed to get injured. That’s their job. When actors do their own stunts, we hear all about it. It’s perceived that it’s somehow surprising. Oh, they got hurt. Well, of course you get hurt! So yeah, I did get hurt. But that’s part of it. And I’d be lying if I said ... It’s a part of that I don’t love. I don’t like getting hurt. But I love pushing myself to those limits and then pushing myself through those limits. In those moments you come face to face with it, and you learn about who you are.”

Berry’s directorial debut arrives at a moment when several high-profile female actors have been afforded an opportunity to direct. That career path may be easier than it once was, she notes, but it’s still anything but easy. 

“Oh, my gosh, it was so hard to get it made,” she says. “It was very, very hard for me to get the money. And once I got the money, then I lost the money. And then I had to go get more money. And then I lost half of that money. And I had to cut 10 days out of my schedule. And you know, that’s the world of independent film-making. It couldn’t get any harder than it did in 2020. But I probably wouldn’t have gotten it made at all 10 years ago.” 

Bruised is on Netflix from November 24th

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