Halle Berry caused a storm by exposing her breasts in Swordfish for a reported $500,000. Now that she has made Oscar history with her winning role as Leticia in Monster's Ball it's her acting talent that everybody is talking about. In the film, Berry plays an executed convict's wife who abuses her obese son and becomes romantically involved with a violent, racist prison warden.
You had to fight for this role. Why did you fight so hard for this one?
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 in 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 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.
Why were they resisting?
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.
How did you convince him?
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 inside 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.
What was it about the script that made you want to go out for the part so much?
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.
Have you ever had any specific experiences with people that allowed you to relate?
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 known what to do about it because it was just in (she speaks with anger and disbelief) like 1993 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 and 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 say that. But they do.
I guess it wasn't an Atlanta Braves fan that said that...
No it was! We were having dinner, he (Atlanta Braves outfielder David Justice) 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)
Do you think there are still people down there who are capable of saying the vile things that Peter Boyle's character said to you?
Not just down there. I think everywhere. There are people who are capable of doing it everywhere. Yeah, it still exists in people. Unfortunately, some 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.
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?
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 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!'
But the European version is longer?
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 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.
The production notes talk about how much he likes to use the silences to convey emotions. Can you talk about that?
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 places that are hard to get to, or hard to want to go to, or hard to get out of! (laughs)
With the love scene, was it hard to do? And what was your husband's reaction?
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.
How do you work with a child that way?
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 really 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 going to be worse than what the kids at school do to me".
Maybe when they see him on screen it'll be different.
Well, now he's going to be popular.
You run the gamut of emotions in this, how difficult is it to do and do you take it home with you?
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.
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.
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.
You're so beautiful, has it been a struggle to be seen for more than that?
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-men 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.
Doing X-Men II, will it be surreal after doing a movie like this?
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 that I'd done before, or the same character, I think I wouldn't be as happy.