By Valerie Kalfrin
Halle Berry knows how to be a fighter. The Oscar-winner and action star plays an MMA fighter in “Bruised,” her upcoming directing debut. But she’s also battled throughout her career to showcase her talents instead of her appearance.
“I have always known that I’m more than the shell that I walk around in,” Berry said at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this week. She urged black women and women of color to create their own opportunities.
“Don’t allow yourself to be typecast. And don’t operate as a token. Say no. You have the right to say no,” she said. “Create your own stories. Write. Direct. Produce. … That is the power. Imagine your own stories, and don’t be denied.”
Speaking via an “In Conversation” event online because of the coronavirus pandemic, Berry said she was “blown away” that Netflix picked up “Bruised” for $20 million. “I’m so grateful,” she said.
Berry first caught Hollywood’s attention in the 1980s after being the first black woman to represent the United States in the 1986 Miss World competition. Although she’s a proud global brand ambassador for Revlon, she’s said that beauty for her is about what a person does and how they live, not how they look.
Create your own stories. Write. Direct. Produce. … That is the power. Imagine your own stories, and don’t be denied.”
Her first real acting job was as a teen model on the TV show “Living Dolls,” where she “always felt like a token,” she told TIFF. Her opportunity to “be seen as more than just a pretty face” came with her 1991 feature-film debut in Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever,” where she played a crack addict.
“Initially, they wanted me to read for the part of [a] ‘beautiful wife,’” she recalled with air quotes, but then she read the script and lobbied for the other part.
“Luckily for me … Spike gave me a chance to do that,” she said. “He also realized, what does one look like who’s affected by crack? It doesn’t discriminate.”
In 2000, Berry won a Golden Globe Award for her performance in the TV movie “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,” a project she also produced about the black singer, dancer, and actress. Soon afterward, she fought to win the part of Leticia Musgrove, the wife of a man executed on death row who falls in love with a prison guard in 2001’s “Monster’s Ball.”
The role won Berry an Academy Award for Best Actress, the first woman of color to do so. But during casting, a producer said he couldn’t see her playing Leticia because “she doesn’t look like the character,” she said. But director Marc Forster (“Christopher Robin”) believed in her.
“[He thought], What does one look like who is in this position? Who’s suffering? Who’s been marginalized in this way? What do they look like, really? I’m really fortunate that I got a chance to bring that character to life,” Berry said.
Her Oscar win was an “out of body experience” where “my subconscious took over and said what was on my spirit and what was on my heart.”
She finds it “heartbreaking” that in the nearly 20 years since, no other women of color have netted that award. (Regina King, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Lupita Nyong’o are among those who have won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.)
“I think arguably there could have been other women who deserved to have been there who haven’t been there,” Berry said. However, “I do feel like that moment mattered. Because so many people have come up to me over the years, and they have told me how that moment shifted their thinking about what they could achieve or what they aspire to do. Or what they believed that they could do. … That is the value that I know is real.”
Berry launched her own production company, 606 Films, with producer Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas (“Hustlers”) in 2017 to tell more stories about women and women of color. Their projects include the BET serialized comedy series “Boomerang,” based on Berry’s 1992 romantic comedy.
“I’m so inspired now to see so many women of color, black women writing, producing, directing, telling our own stories,” Berry said. “And I’m also inspired by those who aren’t of color who are supporting [them] … and helping them realize these opportunities.”
Berry, 54, didn’t set out to direct “Bruised,” in which she stars as a disgraced MMA fighter who faces her demons in the ring while striving to become a better mother. The character in Michelle Rosenfarb‘s script was originally 25, white, and Irish Catholic, but Berry related to her emotional journey.
“I’m always most drawn to characters who are fractured and broken, who are fighting to survive,” she said. “I think it probably speaks to in many ways some of my own brokenness and my own life experience. I think every time I get to act in those kinds of roles I get to have a cathartic experience, and I get to have some healing for my own self.”
She convinced the producers that they should “let me reimagine it for a middle-aged black woman.” Then when their search for a director couldn’t find anyone who aligned with her vision, she persuaded them to let her do it.
Stay clear about the stories you want to tell. … And have the courage to fight. Be brave. Don’t be led by fear, but be led by strength and knowledge.”
“I was scared sh—less,” she said, adding that she needed a nudge from Goldsmith-Thomas, who had the perfect response when Berry balked that she couldn’t do something this big: “Of course you can. No one understands it like you do. No one loves it like you do.”
A veteran of the “X-Men” franchise and “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum,” Berry had no issues training for the role, although she cracked two ribs after taking a knee to the chest during a scene. “The director in me said, no, no, no – we’ve gotta keep going.”
She loved helping other actors on “Bruised” shape their roles, but she hated watching herself, she said. She tends to see her films only once before the press junket, then at the premiere, and “never again.”
Berry is next attached to co-star with Patrick Wilson in the sci-fi adventure “Moonfall.” She credits her children with keeping her centered about what’s most important in life. “They force me to be the best version of myself because I know they’re always watching.”
While she does think that the industry has improved in terms of more diverse roles for women and women of color, she still encouraged creatives to recognize opportunities, not talk themselves out of them.
“Sometimes we allow other people to put their fears on us, and the things that they know they can’t do, they think are too hard for you. Sometimes we let them talk us out of our dreams,” Berry said.
“Stay clear in your vision. Stay clear about the stories you want to tell. Make them as authentic and as real as you possibly can from your own personal gaze on the situation. And fight for it. Fight. Stand up and fight. And have the courage to fight. Be brave. Don’t be led by fear, but be led by strength and knowledge.”