Halle Berry: GLORY, GLORY, HALLE-LUJAH
Before Monster’s Ball, Halle Berry was a better-than-average model-turned actress who spent more than her fair share of time on the covers of tabloids thanks to her failed celebrity marriage. That changed when she became the first (and to date only) actress of color to win an Academy Award for Best Actress. In this interview from the December 2001 issue of Movieline magazine, Lawrence Grobel asks Berry about her marriage to David Justice, her hit-and-run car accident and why she chose to go topless for Swordfish.
Beauty is just about a requirement for becoming a leading lady in Hollywood. Halle Berry has always known that, and drew upon her generous assets to get a leg up in Hollywood. She played the siren in Strictly Business, and then the girl who steals Robin Givens’s thunder in Boomerang. She was the only thing worth looking at in the football flick The Program, the campy blockbuster The Flintstones, the Kurt Russell terrorist thriller Executive Decision and the flaccid farce B*A*P*S, to name a few.
If her films lacked distinction, Berry made up for them with her celebrity. Offscreen, she stood out as the lovely who looked nothing less than sensational when appearing at red-carpet events. Her brief marriage to major-league baseball star David Justice provided many megawatt photo ops and was fodder for gossip columns. By the mid ’90s, Berry’s face was popping up everywhere–even in glossy Revlon ads.
Though at first glance one might assume this former cheerleader, prom queen, fashion model and Miss USA first runner-up could forever be content peddling her pulchritude, there are signs she’s interested in revealing what’s lurking beneath all that beauty. This is a woman who, after all, refrained from showering for several days to get into the part of a homeless crack addict in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever. Who, just as her career was gaining momentum, gladly tossed her glamorous image aside to play another crack addict, this time a very unlovable one, opposite Jessica Lange in Losing Isaiah. Who dared take a bite out of Warren Beatty’s controversial, much-ballyhooed film Bulworth. And who, by the late ’90s, took a chance on producing and starring in the HBO biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, for which she won a Golden Globe. The payoff was instant–she was cast as the good mutant Storm in the big-deal blockbuster X-Men and picked up a $2.5 million paycheck to costar with John Travolta in Swordfish. But Berry also wanted to prove she could sink her teeth into a challenge, which is why she took an enormous pay cut to costar with Billy Bob Thornton, Heath Ledger and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs in the dark drama Monster’s Ball. For those who like to take their Berry with sugar on top, in 2002 she’ll cause a Storm again when she starts shooting X-Men 2.
When Berry pulls into my driveway and gets out of her champagne-colored Range Rover, she looks a decade younger than her 33 years. She’s wearing a white tank top adorned with the letters FWB–Funky White Bitch, chanteuse Nikka Costa’s pseudonym–the W of which is curved into the shape of a woman’s backside. It’s been only a few days since the terrorist attacks occurred at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and Berry tells me she’s in a funk. She’s looking for a way to help those in need, which she does by donating blood to the Red Cross and answering phones for the “America: A Tribute to Heroes” telethon. When she settles in the living room of my house, I offer her a Pepperidge Farm double chocolate chip cookie to cheer her up.
“I can’t,” Berry says. “I’m diabetic.” I knew that, but wasn’t thinking when I bought them. She opts for some melon instead (“there’s plenty of sugar in that, too”), and we settle into the next few hours of conversation.
HALLE BERRY: A few years ago I vowed that I’d never talk to Movieline again because in 1995 they did a story on me and titled it “Halle Terror.” I’ll never forget that. It was the first horrific thing that happened to me in my little show-business world.
LAWRENCE GROBEL: So why are you talking to Movieline now?
A: My publicist talked me into it. Do you find publications take your stories and make them into what they want?
Q: That’s a journalists nightmare, but it won’t happen here. Though I can’t promise the publication won’t get clever with a title again.
A: So what’s Movieline trying to say about me right now?
Q: That you’re taking a turn in your career with Monster’s Ball. What piqued your interest in it?
A: It’s the kind of movie I’ve always strived to do, but haven’t always been able to. There aren’t that many great parts for women, so you veer off and do other things. I get a chance to leave behind the glamour that got me into this business, and I love when I get to do that. I really get off on taking on a challenge. This character is totally tortured, and I love playing tortured.
Q: Does the film deal with racism?
A: There are three generations in one family that deal with racism. Billy Bob Thornton is a product of his father’s teachings, but he’s on the fence about these ideals and if he should carry them on. His son is played by Heath Ledger, who wants to go in a new direction. It’s their family struggle.
Q: And you develop a relationship with Thornton’s character?
A: We share similar pain because we’ve both lost people in our lives and we both have guilt, because I was a shitty mother, he was a shitty father–we’re two people doing the best we can given the lot we had in life.
Q: Do you think the film is any good?
A: I like it, but I haven’t seen it finished. I need all the bells and whistles to get it. Otherwise, I’m just way too critical. I’ll think, This is the worst piece of shit. Why did I sign up to do this? My careers over.
Q: Is Billy Bob Thornton as sexy as Angelina Jolie says he is?
Q: What is it about him?
A: I really get it. I didn’t at first. Not that I didn’t think he was an attractive or talented man. When they told me I was going to have a mad, passionate love scene with him, I thought we should meet first because I didn’t know if we were going to have that. But the minute I met him–it’s a thing. What makes it so powerful is you can’t describe it. It’s not the way he looks or speaks or what he knows or doesn’t know, it’s just something about him that most women will find sexy. It’s not about being physically gorgeous, it comes from another place.
Q: Angelina warned any woman who might have eyes for Billy that she’d beat her up.
A: I read that, too! [Laughs] I did nothing with her man that’s not on the screen! But I could see her saying that, given what he’s like and given that many women will go for a man even if he’s married.
Q: Did you ever talk to Angelina to perhaps calm her fears?
A: No. She came to our set just one day, really briefly.
Q: Just to check you out?
A: [Laughs] Well, she didn’t seem threatened, so … it was all good.
Q: What do you think about the two of them wearing vials of each other’s blood around their necks?
A: It’s interesting. I like my husband’s blood in his body where it best serves him. But whatever makes them feel more connected. Billy told me he gets up in the morning and puts the cross of her blood on his chest, and that’s how he feels connected to her. God bless them.
Q: She’s called him the most amazing man she’s ever met. Who’s the most amazing man you’ve ever met?
A: [Long pause] My husband [Eric Benét]. I’ve met some pretty intelligent men, but what would make a man amazing to me is somebody who could love me unconditionally. I always wanted a father in my life, never having had one. Eric is amazing because he loves me no matter what–when I fuck up, when I’m less than perfect.In my history with men, when I show signs of being not the beauty queen they signed up to date, they split. But Eric loves me with all of my flaws and inconsistencies and double standards. He says that’s what he loves about me. He’s the first man who hasn’t run in the other direction when he’s found out that I’m not what he thought I was.
Q: What’s your greatest flaw?
A: I have many flaws. I can be very inconsistent with how I feel about things, which makes it hard to have relationships. I change with the wind. I hate that about myself. Sometimes I believe in religion, and two days later I’ll say, “I don’t believe a thing about what the Bible says.” I justify it by thinking that I’m evolving. I want to be able to change my mind.
Q: Have you changed your mind about your $5 million lawsuit against The Star for their saying your marriage was on the rocks?
A: No, but it wasn’t because they said my marriage was on the rocks. It was because they involved our child. I’m a new mother. My husband has a nine-year-old daughter who is old enough to read these things. I’ve taken a lot of hits in my career, and who really cares? But when they brought her into it and she started asking, “Why are they saying that I don’t like you?” I thought, We’re going to stand for something now. We choose to be in this industry, and if you want to take potshots at us, that’s one thing, but this little child has nothing to do with who her parents are. If you’re going to do careless journalism, fine–but don’t do it with the children.
Q: How bad does careless journalism get for you?
A: I had a tough time with photographers when David [Justice] and I divorced. And Eric and I were chased after the car accident happened. Eric’s instinct was to run, and we almost killed ourselves a couple of times running. These photographers would be running red lights. A couple of times I stopped and hailed policemen, who said there was nothing they could do.
Q: Let’s talk about the car accident. Why did you leave the scene when you collided with a woman in February 2000?
A: I can’t remember the accident or the drive home. That’s why I pled no contest–to leaving the scene, not to a hit-and-run. Technically, I did leave. How could I say I’m not guilty of that? I just know I didn’t knowingly do that. My medical condition forced me to react the way I did. The hardest part has been trying to explain to people who never had it happen to them. They say, “If you don’t remember, how could you drive home?” Well, I was a block from my house. I became obsessed with talking to trauma specialists. What they’ve explained is that when a trauma like that happens, your body goes into autopilot. Driving from that corner to my house is something I’ve done a thousand times.
Q: Did your fame lead to the implication that you had committed a crime?
A: I think so. People who are drunk drive into people’s living rooms and don’t get the coverage I got from an accident where there were no drugs or alcohol and nobody was really seriously injured. I had a gash in my head and the other woman had a broken arm.
Q: Whose fault was it?
A: It was undetermined. I was never cited or charged for it because the witnesses said conflicting things. The side of my car and the front of hers were damaged.
Q: Billy Crystal made fun of your car accident at the Oscars when he joked that they were going to do a remake of Driving Miss Daisy as an action movie with you behind the wheel. You didn’t appreciate that, but your Bulworth costar, Warren Beatty, had another take on it, didn’t he?
A: Yeah, he said, “It just means that you’re famous. Don’t take it any more to heart than that.” When he said that a light went on. He was right.
Q: Does fame ever become a burden?
A: Yeah, but I can think of worse burdens to have. You begin to become stifled because so much weight is put on your words. We’re no different than anybody else, but somehow when we speak, more emphasis is put on our opinions. When I hear someone say, “I don’t know why you took your top off in Swordfish, my daughter used to look up to you,” I just think, I’m sorry I let your daughter down, but guess what? I’m living my life.
Q: Was Swordfish something you really wanted?
A: No. When I read it, I was scared to death of it. I thought, This is a great part for somebody.
Q: Who talked you into it?
A: Probably my husband. He read it and thought, You could rock this. You’ve never played this sexy part of yourself. You always want to play tortured women or teachers. You always hide that other part. I hid it because I always tried to shed that beauty-pageant/model image, thinking I’m going to be a serious actress.
Q: I read a poll of what people most liked about that film, and it was seeing your breasts. What does that say about the rest of the picture?
A: [Laughs] That says that my boobs are pretty fucking incredible!
Q: Did you get a $500,000 bonus for keeping to the script when it came to that scene?
A: It wasn’t ever an issue whether the top would be on or off. It was always in the script that it would be off. I had a price that I was willing to do that movie for, and I ended up with more than they wanted to pay me.
Q: Would you say appearing topless was the greatest risk you’ve taken as an actor?
A: You mean when I decided to be nude in a movie for the sake of gratuitous nudity? [Laughs] That felt pretty risky to me because I thought, I’m never going to be able to explain this. And there was no explanation–I did it because I wanted to.
Q: Knowing their value to a picture, if you’re asked to show them again, would you ask for more money?
A: No. I had an explicit love scene with Billy Bob, and I got $100,000 for Monster’s Ball. So it’s not about paying for nudity. To do a movie like Swordfish, I had a price. To do Monster’s Ball, which had a character that I could stick my foot in and shit all over and get a great deal of creative satisfaction out of, it wasn’t about the money. By the time I paid all the people I have to pay, I made like $5,000. Honestly.
Q: Does your husband get jealous when he sees you doing love scenes with other men?
A: No, because he’s pretty confident in what he’s got. [Laughs] Yeah, he’s confident in his self, in what he’s carrying.