How Halle Berry Fought Her Way to the Director’s Chair
By Ramin Setoodeh | Variety
Berry, 54, had injured herself on the set of a movie before — breaking three ribs on “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” without knowing exactly how she did it. On that 2019 action film, she remembers feeling no pain and then suddenly not being able to breathe. “I thought I had bone cancer,” Berry recalls. “I thought it was early osteoporosis. I couldn’t understand why this was happening to me when I was really physically fit.” She traced the incident to her diabetes. “I have a propensity to fracture bones faster than other people.”
When Berry got hurt on “Bruised,” after taking a knee to the chest from co-star Valentina Shevchenko, she wasn’t surprised. But this time, the stakes felt momentous. “Bruised,” which premieres at the Toronto Film Festival this week, is also her directorial debut. The magnitude of the opportunity wasn’t lost on her, as a woman and a Black artist in an industry where the odds of directing a movie are slim if you’re not a white man. To make sure she was ready each day, she’d wake up at 5 a.m., and she couldn’t let the pain from broken ribs slow her down.
“I didn’t want to stop because I had prepared for so long,” Berry says. “We had rehearsed; we were ready. So my mind, my director’s mind, was just — keep going. And I compartmentalized that, and I just kept going: ‘I’m not going to stop. I’ve come too far. I’m going to act as if this isn’t hurting. I’m going to will myself through it.’ And so we did.”
In many ways, that’s been Halle Berry’s story. She’s refused to stop, despite the hurt — rejections from roles that could have been hers, pursuing scripts that were written for white actors (including “Bruised”) — even after she’d torn down barriers. For her Variety cover story, Berry didn’t flash a movie star smile during a socially distanced photo shoot in Los Angeles. “I do feel at risk,” she says, referring to her diabetes. “I’m very strict about quarantining and who is in my bubble. We have a whole section of the house: When you go out in the world and buy something, it has to sit in this purgatory.”
Berry, who has frequently been in the tabloids following her public breakups (she’s currently representing herself in her divorce from actor Olivier Martinez), didn’t volunteer any details about her personal life or talk about her two kids during a 90-minute interview. She wanted to discuss her career, including the heartbreak that her historic 2002 Oscar win didn’t lead to change, fights with Bryan Singer during the “X-Men” franchise and her long journey to the director’s chair.
“I definitely feel like there’s a turning point,” Berry says about the forward movement for women directors. “I’m more encouraged that as women, we are feeling confident enough to tell our stories. And there is a place for us to tell our stories. For so long, our experiences have been told narratively through the guise of men.”
Berry discovered acting in the years post-college, after contemplating a career as an investigative journalist. Her first part was on “Living Dolls,” in which she played Emily, the lone Black character on the 1989 ABC sitcom about a sorority of teenage models. “I had a job, but I didn’t have a real part or purpose on that show,” Berry says. “I was very much the token Black person that didn’t have a storyline that was very compelling or meant much. I was the character that started every scene with ‘Hey, guys!’ and ended everything with ‘Come on, let’s go.’ Today, that wouldn’t happen, when you look at the landscape of television about the Black experience.”
Movies proved more welcoming. Berry made an indelible mark on the big screen in 1991’s “Jungle Fever,” in which she pitched herself to director Spike Lee for the role of a “crack ho” instead of the “pretty wife.” Throughout the ’90s, she worked steadily, portraying everything from the villain in the live-action “The Flintstones” to an activist in Warren Beatty’s political satire “Bulworth.” She landed an Emmy for the 1999 HBO film “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,” written by a then-unknown Shonda Rhimes, and earned international box office stardom as Storm in 2000’s “X-Men” and in three sequels.
But “Monster’s Ball” was an even bigger peak in her career. In 2002, for her performance as a waitress consumed by grief in the indie drama, Berry became the first (and still only) Black woman to win the best actress Oscar. That same year, she starred as the seductive spy Jinx in “Die Another Day,” the 20th James Bond film, which grossed more than $400 million globally.
And then — nothing. Big directors such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese never came calling. Hollywood seemed to revel in her failure with 2004’s “Catwoman,” a cheesy flop about the comic book villain, which swept the Razzie Awards. More recently, Berry has popped up in popcorn action movies such as 2013’s “The Call” and 2017’s “Kidnap.” Through it all, she says, she’s never stopped fighting for roles.
“I think it’s largely because there was no place for someone like me,” says Berry, who has been encouraged by the recent discourse about inclusivity in the industry. “I thought, ‘Oh, all these great scripts are going to come my way; these great directors are going to be banging on my door.’ It didn’t happen. It actually got a little harder. They call it the Oscar curse. You’re expected to turn in award-worthy performances.”
In her Academy Awards speech, Berry — through tears — said that she’d opened a door for “every nameless, faceless woman of color” watching at home. Two decades later, she can’t fathom the reality that not a single leading Black woman has followed. “I thought Cynthia [Erivo, the star of ‘Harriet’] was going to do it last year,” Berry says. “I thought Ruth [Negga, nominated for 2016’s ‘Loving’] had a really good shot at it too. I thought there were women that rightfully, arguably, could have, should have. I hoped they would have, but why it hasn’t gone that way, I don’t have the answer.”
Berry is still conflicted about what her Oscar win represents. “It’s one of my biggest heartbreaks,” she says. “The morning after, I thought, ‘Wow, I was chosen to open a door.’ And then, to have no one … I question, ‘Was that an important moment, or was it just an important moment for me?’ I wanted to believe it was so much bigger than me. It felt so much bigger than me, mainly because I knew others should have been there before me and they weren’t.”
In retrospect, Berry says it was naive to think a statue would change anything. “Just because I won an award doesn’t mean that, magically, the next day, there was a place for me,” she says. “I was just continuing to forge a way out of no way.” She likens it to how Dorothy Dandridge must have felt at the 1955 Academy Awards, as the first Black actor nominated for a lead role, who then went back to being an outsider in Hollywood.
After the success of “Die Another Day,” “Bond” producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson lobbied for Jinx to get her own spinoff, an idea that thrilled Berry. But MGM balked at the $80 million price tag. “It was very disappointing,” Berry says. “It was ahead of its time. Nobody was ready to sink that kind of money into a Black female action star. They just weren’t sure of its value. That’s where we were then.”
Instead, she decided to portray Catwoman, thinking that it was a risk that could pay off — and change the kinds of roles offered to Black actors. “People said to me, ‘You can’t do that. You’ve just won the Oscar,’” Berry says. “Because I didn’t do Jinx, I thought, ‘This is a great chance for a woman of color to be a superhero. Why wouldn’t I try this?’”
But she quickly noticed warning signs. “The story didn’t feel quite right,” she says about a dubious plot that involved a villain (played by Sharon Stone) with a cosmetics empire. “I remember having that argument: ‘Why can’t Catwoman save the world like Batman and Superman do? Why is she just saving women from a face cream that cracks their face off?’ But I was just the actor for hire. I wasn’t the director. I had very little say over that.”
When Berry first read the script for “Bruised,” she felt a strong connection to the character, an MMA fighter named Jackie Justice who returns to the cage when everyone has counted her out. Berry had been training for three years in mixed martial arts. To perform some of her stunts on “John Wick,” she’d immersed herself in jujitsu, judo, taekwondo and kickboxing — and she saw herself in the character of Jackie. But she had to be patient. Another director, Nick Cassavetes, was attached to make the movie with Blake Lively as the star.
“I’m tortured, because now I can’t let it go,” Berry says of the waiting period. “I’ve been thinking of how I can reimagine it for someone like me, a Black woman in middle age — not starting life — who’s looking for a last chance, not another chance. I’m stuck on it.”
Six months later, when the script became available, Berry pitched herself as the lead to the producers — including Basil Iwanyk of Thunder Road Films, who made “John Wick” and “Sicario.” “Why not a Black woman?” Berry remembers thinking. “It’s an old genre; there’s so many great fight films that have been made. I made the point why it would be worth retelling an age-old story with this new twist.”
She convinced the movie’s creative team, but they needed a director. Berry met with seven candidates. But she came away from all of those conversations feeling dissatisfied — nobody saw her vision of the film.
Finally, her producing partner, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas (“Hustlers”) came up with an idea: Berry should direct the movie herself. “I remember listening to her feedback from one of her meetings,” Goldsmith-Thomas says. “I just said, ‘This is nuts. You’re waiting for someone to tell you the things you know. You understand the evolution of redemption. Why the f— aren’t you standing in your own truth?’”
Directing was something that Berry had always thought about, having spent 30 years on movie sets, quietly observing — “watching and learning and absorbing” — how everyone from Lee to Beatty framed a scene. But when she’d had conversations about directing before, they’d been in the abstract. Now she had to sell herself as the first-time director of a real script. “I thought, ‘They’re going to think I’m high,’” Berry says. “They’re going to think, ‘Halle has lost her mind.’”
But instead, they hired her. For Berry, directing felt like a career rebirth. She threw herself into every aspect of production, from script revisions to cinematography. “It’s not just being a dancing bear,” Berry says. “I can project what I want to say.” She found the director’s chair far more empowering than being an actor. “As an actor, I always show up and do my part, and I can only do what I can do,” she says. “Being the director, I have a part in the totality of every department. I get to have a voice. That was different, and I really loved that.”
When she learned that “Bruised” would be playing in Toronto, Berry screamed in celebration — she’d submitted a “work-in-progress” cut of the film, not knowing COVID-19 would restrict international travel. “I’m hearing they’re going to send out screeners, but I’m thinking, ‘That’s piracy waiting to happen,’” Berry says before conceding that the details will be ironed out. In a follow-up email, she clarifies that “Bruised,” which is seeking distribution, won’t be doing virtual screenings. It will premiere on Sept. 12 in Toronto before a live audience.
“I’m hopeful that whatever partner comes along, they’ll support my vision and we’ll work together to bring a fully finished film to the mass public at the right time,” Berry writes. “That said, I’m extremely excited, and nervous and elated (and feeling all of the feels), for the first Toronto audience to see it.”
On YouTube, Berry’s Oscar acceptance speech has been viewed more than 5 million times. It’s still as inspiring today as it was in 2002 to watch presenter Russell Crowe open the envelope and read her name. Berry looks shocked — for the record, she says, that wasn’t a performance. Berry didn’t expect to win that night, and she hadn’t even written a speech. “The only thing I remember,” she says, “is somehow I was up on the stage, and I remember Russell whispering in my ear, ‘Breathe, mate. Breathe.’ Then I remember I turned around and saw all the faces and started talking.”
One of Berry’s professional hurdles has been to convince directors to look past her beauty. “That is a blessing and a curse,” she says. “People always wanting to see my physical self first, and then some will argue, ‘That’s what got you in the door.’ But even if that got me in the door, I’ve had to fight that image of being stereotyped, fight to be seen as an artist.”
On “Monster’s Ball,” even after she was cast, members of her team cautioned her about playing a character who has sex with a racist corrections officer (Billy Bob Thornton). They thought it could damage her image.
“It was a little movie,” Berry says. “And it had this love scene that, I guess, was explicit in the minds of some people. And I was getting paid nothing. They thought if you’re going to do something like that, get a s—load of money. But that’s not why I’m doing it. I didn’t feel it was exploitative. It was necessary for the character.”
A few years ago, Berry retired one of her most well-known performances, as Storm, in 2014’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” Since then, the film’s director, Singer, has been accused of sexual assault by at least four men who say they were underage at the time (which he denies); he also was fired mid-shoot from 2018’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” for allegedly not showing up to work (which he also denies).
When asked about her experiences with Singer, Berry answers the question with ellipses. “Bryan’s not the easiest dude to work with,” she says. “I mean, everybody’s heard the stories — I don’t have to repeat them — and heard of his challenges, and what he struggles with.
“I would sometimes be very angry with him,” she continues. “I got into a few fights with him, said a few cuss words out of sheer frustration. When I work, I’m serious about that. And when that gets compromised, I get a little nutty. But at the same time, I have a lot of compassion for people who are struggling with whatever they’re struggling with, and Bryan struggles.” (Singer, through his publicist, declined to comment.)
“Sometimes, because of whatever he’s struggling with, he just didn’t always feel present,” Berry says. “He didn’t feel there. And we’re outside in our little ‘X-Men’ stage freezing our ass off in Banff, Canada, with subzero weather and he’s not focusing. And we’re freezing. You might get a little mad.”
Berry has been inspired by the #MeToo movement. “Clearly, things need to change,” she says. “And what we as women were acquiescing to, and were allowing needs to change. And it needed to get blown up. And people needed to be outed.”
It’s too early to say when she’ll direct again, but she’d like to. As she was editing “Bruised,” she showed a version to Spike Lee, the first director who ever hired her to be in a film. “Holy s—,” he told her. “You made a movie.”