Halle Berry's Monstrous New Role
Halle Berry is one of Hollywood's truly glamorous stars, yet even as exquisitely beautiful and famous as she is, she had to fight hard for the role of a young woman drawn to a former racist prison warden in the powerful Monsters' Ball. After fighting for recognition on her own terms, Berry may finally win the day - and an Oscar nod. Paul Fischer spoke to Berry about the film, stardom and her own battles with racism.
PF: You had to fight for this role. Why are you still fighting for roles and why did you fight so hard for this one?
HB: I don't know why I still have to fight for roles. It certainly keeps me working hard, that's for sure. I think being a woman, especially a black woman, I can identify with her struggle against racism. Feeling the effects of that on my life, and like most women who have had ups and downs, highs and lows, who have struggled at certain times n my life to understand who I am, to make ends meet, to make my way. I've certainly been there and I'm not free of it. I think that's part of life, we're always struggling that way, to get to set new goals and get to where we are trying to go. Sometimes it's just to survive if not financially, just emotionally. To stay above water.
PF: Why were they resisting?
HB: Why? Marc [Forster, director] didn't want me that's all I know. It wasn't a personal thing. The wonderful thing about Marc is that he had a very clear vision about this movie and the story he wanted to tell and the version of Leticia he had just was not me, he had another vision of who she would be and I didn't quite fit it.
PF: How did you convince him?
HB: I just know that I was relentless in my approach. I just wanted a chance to sit in the room and tell him who I thought she was. My take on the movie. How I thought I could breathe life into her. I wanted a chance to tell him all these things that were brewing in side of me and I finally got that chance. And then I met with him a couple of times and then the producer and then Billy Bob until they just gave in.
PF: What was it about the script made you want to go out for the part so much?
HB: It's a wonderful character for a woman to play and we don't see them that often. I think they are becoming more available but not that often. I think I related to her right away when I read the movie, screenplay, I was riveted. I wanted to know what would happen to her. Things kept happening, the unthinkable, twists and turns and I started to care about these people.
PF: Have you ever had any known or had any specific experienced with people that allowed you to relate?
HB: Sure. Especially with the racism. That's been my way of life since I can remember. Especially being the product of an interracial marriage, the product of a white mother and black father, I dealt with it a lot and watched my mother deal with it especially, having two little black kids. I also have been called that terrible n word straight to my face and not knowing what to do about it because it was just in like 1993(anger and disbelief in her voice) that someone called me that. I was living in Atlanta, Georgia at the time when I was married the first time. I didn't deal with it like Leticia did, I didn't take the high road ad deal with it internally like Leticia did. I was ready to like, you know - (her eyes grow large) laughs - you know. It shocked me. Never being in the south and living in the south. I didn't think that people still that. But they do.
PF: I guess it wasn't an Atlanta Braves fan that said that
HB: No, it was! We were having dinner, he was my fiancé at the time. And a woman came up, and wanted his autograph and he wouldn't give it because we had all these papers out planning our wedding and he said, 'Not now, I'm busy, and in that split second she said, well, I don't want your autograph anyway, you guys are nothing but two niggers anyway!" Just like that (snaps her fingers)
PF: Do you think there are still people down there who are capable of saying the vile tings that peter Boyle's character said to you?
HB: Not just down there. I think everywhere. There are people who are capable of doing it everywhere. Yeah, it still exists in people. Unfortunately, still have that view of black people and unfortunately it's been passed down just the same disgusting way. Haphazardly. Senselessly. Without real reason. It's just passed down like a pair of old shoes.
PF: But you more than any actress has broken the mold in the roles you've done and been cast in. Is that something you have to fight for, roles like in Swordfish or do they just think of you?
HB: They don't even think of me in roles like this - as Black, thirty year old women - which fits my description - [laughs] - no. I 'm just pretty much used to the fight. In my career. That's pretty much what my career has been about.
PF: What prepared you for the fight. That has to be ingrained, lots of people would give up?
HB: I don't know. It has been ingrained in me since I was little. Probably being raised by a white mother. She always said to me: "You're going to have to work harder. You're going to have to be better. You can't take no for an answer. You're going to have to fight." She taught me that from little. It's just been my way in this industry. It's just normal. I don't know any other way to act.
PF: There was a lot of hullabaloo about your 'intimate moment' in Swordfish. One suspects there'll be the same kind of thing in the love scenes in this one. How tough was it to shoot?
HB: I'm praying that audiences will be more sophisticated than to reduce this scene in this movie to the level of the scene in Swordfish. I'm hoping that we are a little more sophisticated than that - but you never know. But I'm hoping. They are clearly polar opposites. One was clearly done for shock value and gratuitous and one is the pivotal vital part of the movie. But I think we approached the scene like every other scene that had heavy strong subject matter. From the abuse of the child to the use of the racial slurs, we dealt with it in the same way. To be true to it to be honest to it. Do those uncomfortable things that sometimes do and feel too risky to say. We just opted at every scene to go ahead and do it. Go ahead. Say the N-word. Do it for real like how people really do, don't make it pretty for Hollywood.
PF: But the European version is longer?
HB: Yeah. You don't see any different angles, you just stay on angles longer. Marc thought it should be uncomfortably long and it is even now, but he felt it should be even longer. Because it's such a moment when these two characters come together. And you have to understand that from that scene onwards you have to understand that they are connected. They go from two people who probably couldn't stand each other to being in love with each other. And that scene is where all that is solidified, and where they are almost reborn and they get what they need from each other, and I think he thought that you really need to see it for as long as you can.
PF: In the notes it talks about how much he likes to use the silences to convey emotions. Can you talk about that?
HB: When I read the script I thought it didn't feel like an American film. It didn't talk you to death; it didn't tell you what to feel. There were big empty spaces for you to just feel it. Big lingering moments, which are a big part of the movie and that's one of the hardest parts to create, because you can't really act that. Really good actors can probably fake it and you'd believe it, they could convince you. But to convey feelings without words you have to be feeling what you're supposed to be feeling or feeling something else that can translate into what the script is calling for. But you've really got to be feeling something and it requires a lot more work for the actor, because you really have to go to some faces that are hard to get to or hard to want to go to or hard to get out of. (laughs)
PF: With the love scene, was it hard to do and what was your husband's reaction?
HB: It was tough, but like I said, not tougher than when I had to abuse my overweight son. No tougher than that. That was probably tougher than the love scene.
PF: How do you work with a child that way?
HB: Through heart to heart talks with him. Kissing him and hugging him every minute before and right after and really making an investment to him. He's still part of my life. I felt it really important not to just dump him off. Do this to this poor kid and go, 'Thanks!' That's been meaningful for me. The aftermath. Staying in his life. Caring about what happens to him and I rely genuinely do. But it was hard because he said something really heart breaking to us, Marc and I were talking to him, saying this is just a movie, and I kept saying, everything I do and say, it's not real, I really think you're wonderful. And he said "Well, whatever you do to me, Halle Berry, it isn't gong to be worse than what the kids at school do to me".
PF: Maybe when they see him on screen it'll be different.
HB: Well, now he's going to be popular.
PF: You run the gamut of emotions in this. How difficult was that to do, and do you take it home with you?
HB: No. I did take it home. Luckily we shot in Louisiana, on location, and home wasn't really home, it was the hotel room in Louisiana, very much a safe place to take it to. I didn't have my husband or my daughter there to take it home to. So I did take it home and that was ok, because we only shot in 21 days. So for 21 days if I'm going home every day it's ok, because it's only 21 days.
PF: There is a lot in this movie that is hard on actors. Peter Boyle is pretty liberal, and those scenes where he espouses strong racist views are tough to watch.
HB: Yeah, that one in particular. That made everyone uncomfortable. And actually Peter Boyle is the one that came up with the split dark oak line. The lines the writer wrote were ok, but we were really searching for something even more. We were trying to go to what was the worst thing some one could say, and the words written weren't coming out of Peter's mouth right for Peter. So he actually came out with some of those lines, and Marc will tell you the story, everyone was shocked, that he being such a liberal guy, so different from who this character is, was able to come out with that.
PF: You're such a beautiful woman, has it been a struggle to be seen for more than that?
HB: Yeah, it's been a struggle. I can think of worse struggles to have and that's why I'm not complaining. But it has been a struggle. And that's why I fight so hard for roles like this. And even though I do the X-Mens and the Swordfishes, they have a valid place in my career being who I am, but so do these kind of movies. And that's why it makes me want to fight harder and do better because I know it's not expected.
PF: Doing X-Men II, will it be surreal after doing a movie like this.
HB: That's the real joy of being able to do this if I can go from one to the other. After this I can come back and do another character driven dramatic piece or a comedy, that I haven't really done before. That's the real joy for me. If I had to do the same thing as I'd done before or the same character, I think I wouldn't be as happy.
PF: How is X-Men II coming along?
HB: I think pretty good. They are tight lipped about the script. All I know is that I, Storm gets a haircut.
PF: What about the James Bond movie?
HB: Hopefully I'll be able to fit that in before X-Men II because they don't have a start date. That goes before. In January.
PF: You get to be a bad girl in that movie, yes?
HB: Yes. I've never done that before.
PF: There is talk of you being nominated for an Oscar which I imagine would be the ultimate validation of your casting. Do you think about it?
HB: Yeah, because every interview I've gone on today, they've brought it up. That certainly wasn't why I got involved. My Oscar actually came when I got the part, when I convinced Marc I should get it. That was such a victory that I went out and celebrated for four days non stop, that I got this part and I'm going to go do this movie, So anything that has come, or will come or that doesn't come, it's all just - this is the big cherry.
PF: How did you celebrate when you got the role?
HB: I went out with my friends. I have four different groups of friends and I don't mix them because they all don't mix well. So I went with each group and we celebrated and had champagne. They didn't really know about the movie just that I was vying hard, that it was something I cared about, so I got to sit down and say ok guys, here's what this is about. And they were really happy for me.
PF: Is Eric [Ms. Berry's husband] happy for you? I heard you got a private screening for him?
HB: I did. I thought out of respect to him, I didn't want him to see it on premiere night and have some reporter and go, So.. (laughs) I thought that was the right thing. It was hard. It's hard for any man to see his wife like that, but once the initial shock, because he read the script and said, 'Oh, you've got to do this. He didn't think about the love scene then because the love scene wasn't real yet. They were just words on paper and he just saw the beauty of the story, and how as an actress it would be great for me. When he saw it it was a different deal. But at the end of it he was able to say, I'm really proud of you. You took a risk. This was before we knew how anybody would think of it. He said 'I don't know how it's going to turn out, just know however it turns out, I'm happy you took a risk. I hope you keep doing that.
PF: We haven't talked about Sean (Puff Daddy).
HB: That was really good and surprising.
PF: What about that?
He was really good. You never, and one of the reason's I took this movie is because I was working with real actors, Billy Bob, Peter Boyle, Marc forester, and independent movie. Independents are known for being real 'actory' and a chance to really act. So when they first mentioned Puffy I think everyone went, "Huh? Puffy?" But I knew how he was feeling because everyone was going, "Huh? Halle?" So I could relate. And I was so proud that he went down there and worked hard, he worked with a coach, and came prepared. I think he did a fine job for what he had to do.
Monster's Ball opens in NY and LA on December 26 and wider next month.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.