PHILADELPHIA—There’s a big, bold demarcation line running through Halle Berry’s life: before Oscar and after Oscar.
“There was a time, before Oscar, when I could not have even got in the room with certain directors,” says the actress, who won her Academy Award in 2002, for the Southern-fried “Monster’s Ball,” in which she played a Death Row inmate’s wife who falls into an affair with the prison guard—Billy Bob Thornton—who executed him.
Halle Berry, Bruce Willis, Giovanni Ribisi, Gary Dourdan, Nicki Aycox, Patti D'Arbanville
(Sony; US theatrical: 13 Apr 2007 (General release); UK theatrical: 13 Apr 2007 (General release); 2007)
Now, Berry can get in the room, and more often than not leave with the part. In “Perfect Stranger,” a dark, tricky thriller opening Friday, she gets her name above the title (with Bruce Willis), as a tabloid reporter looking to expose an advertising tycoon’s adulterous, and quite possibly murderous, ways.
She followed the very-Hollywood “Perfect Stranger” with the very-indie “Things We Lost in the Fire”—an intense character study slated for late-year release and costarring Benicio Del Toro. The project hails from Susanne Bier, the Danish director nominated this year for an Oscar for “After the Wedding.” The actress is a passionate fan of Bier’s emotionally raw “Brothers” and “Open Hearts.” The Berry collaboration marks Bier’s English-language debut.
“I fought really hard to be in that movie and work with her,” says Berry, dressed in trim pinstripes, holding forth at the Four Seasons Hotel recently. “I was determined to have that experience, and it was everything I thought it would be.”
It wasn’t that Berry was hurting for work back in those pre-Oscar days. The first “X-Men,” in which she’s suited up as the meteorologically powered mutant Storm, had come out; Warren Beatty had cast her in his brash political satire, “Bulworth,” and Berry gained gobs of notice—and a hefty bonus—for flashing her breasts in the crime caper “Swordfish.”
But the one-time Miss USA and Miss World contestant, a striking woman of African American and English heritage (her father’s black, her mother’s white), was, like so many Hollywood beauties, not really taken seriously.
“The great thing the Oscar does for me is it allows me the right to be in the room and have a meeting and make my case,” says Berry, who keeps homes in New York and Malibu and continues her gig as a Revlon spokesstar. “As long as I can do that, then I feel like all is good in the world. Because the filmmaker absolutely has the right to say, `No, Halle is all wrong.’ But knowing that I have a shot at it, it’s all that I ever asked for. And I get that these days.”
James Foley, who directed Berry in the erotically charged, heavily promoted “Perfect Stranger,” points to “Monster’s Ball,” too.
“That was the first time she was given the opportunity to use what I think is still an underrated talent,” says the director, whose credits include “At Close Range,” “After Dark My Sweet” and “Glengarry Glen Ross.” “The fact that it took so long for her to get in that position makes me mad about the movies she could have been making had Hollywood come to its senses, or luck had gone in different ways.
“But when you think about it,” he continues, “in 90 percent of Hollywood movies, the lead is male. And 99 percent are white. And she doesn’t fit those categories. So for her to get in a position of first billing with Bruce Willis, I can imagine the sort of perseverance she must have. ... And she doesn’t wear it at all. There’s none of the `I deserve this because I worked so hard’ stuff. She’s ambitious in the best sort of way.”
Although Berry, at 40, is one of the few stars out there who doesn’t want to direct, her ambition has led her to take control of the films she appears in—and ones she’s interested in seeing, even if there isn’t a part for her. Under her production company banner, Bellah Films—“Halle B backwards,” she explains—Berry is developing “Tulia,” based on the real-life events surrounding the wrongful arrest of 46 blacks in a Texas drug sting; “Class Act,” another based-on-a-true-story, about Tierney Cahill, the Nevada schoolteacher whose sixth-grade students helped her run for Congress, and “Nefertiti,” a big-budget epic about the 14th-century B.C. Egyptian queen. (Her “Monster’s Ball” director, Marc Forster, will steer her through that one.)
Berry’s also overseeing a project for singer Alicia Keyes and a TV series for Lifetime, called “Mixed.” Although she won’t appear in the latter, it’s a subject rooted in her own experience.
“It’s about growing up mixed-race,” she says. “I think it’s timely right now. We’re all sort of becoming more tolerant of each other. It feels like with this new generation, they’re not having some of the issues that I know I had when I grew up, and that my parents had.”
Berry—raised in suburban Cleveland by her mother, a psychiatric nurse—says her own ethnicity wasn’t an issue until she reached school. “When you grow up in that (multiethnic) environment, you see the world differently. Being a mixed-race child, I didn’t always see color in people, I really didn’t. It was other people that made me see the color all the time. But, left to my own devices, I grew up very much color-blind. Then I got old enough for other kids to start contaminating the way I thought.”
Berry’s experience with racism—in schools, in jobs, in Hollywood—has prepared her, she says, for another ism: ageism. Berry’s at a point in her life where studio execs start looking elsewhere—as in younger—for their talent. Even with an Oscar, some parts might be harder to come by in future years.
“I started in this business 20 years ago, and I’ve always had to struggle, being a woman of color,” she says. “So the fact that I might have to do that because I’m getting older will feel like normalcy to me. ... I will continue on as I’ve been for the first 20 years of my career, fighting to get a good part for a woman like me.
” ... I know what that fight is all about, and it doesn’t scare me at all.”