When considering Halle Berry, it is almost impossible not to focus on her beauty: The exquisite cheekbones, the flawless cafe au lait skin, the eyes like two huge dark caramels and the wrists so narrow they look as if they could almost fit through the hole of a doughnut.
Her hair is shorn to her skull and slicked back in a style that only super models can carry off. Twinkling in her ear lobes are large diamond studs, an anniversary gift from her husband, the Atlanta Braves outfielder David Justice.
She is folded gracefully on the sofa of a Manhattan hotel suite, looking raffishly chic in a black frock coat, miniskirt, boots and stockings that reveal an expanse of slender thigh.
Ms. Berry, 26, has the preternatural poise of a beauty queen -- which she was (first runner-up to Miss U.S.A., among other titles) before she began her acting career. Was she ever voted Miss Congeniality?
"No, but I did win Miss Photogenic," she replies.
Paradoxically, in Hollywood, excessive beauty can be "a curse as well as a blessing," according to Sherry Lansing, the head of Paramount Pictures. "You are constantly fighting against being pegged."
For Ms. Berry, fresh-scrubbed sexiness was a drawback when it came to being considered for the most substantial role of her film career: Khaila, a crack addict who abandons her infant son and then sues his white adoptive parents (Jessica Lange and David Strathairn) to regain custody in the film "Losing Isaiah," which opens today.
"Frankly, we wondered if somebody as gorgeous as Halle would be believable as a crack addict," explains Ms. Lansing, whose studio is releasing the film. "She was exceptional in 'Jungle Fever,' but it was a small role and quite a few years ago. And we also wanted to be sure she could hold her own against Jessica."
Ms. Berry (whose first name rhymes with Sally) did a screen test of a pivotal scene in which Khaila reveals to her rehabilitation counselor that she abandoned her baby in a garbage heap.
"With every take, Halle got stronger and stronger," recalls Stephen Gyllenhaal, the film's director. "She has such a reservoir of emotion. I was blown away."
Ms. Berry prepared for the part of a nearly illiterate addict by talking with women in prisons and rehabilitation centers. "Emotionally, Khaila was the hardest thing I've ever done," she says. "Because I don't have children, I had to really dig inside myself to understand what it must be like for a mother to lose a child."
Yet she instinctively grasped the issue that is at the core of "Losing Isaiah." The youngest of two daughters of an interracial marriage, Ms. Berry was raised by her white mother, a nurse, after her father left the family when she was 4.
"I could imagine my mother being told she couldn't raise me because of the color of her skin," she says. "When you love a child, it doesn't matter what color your skin is. What matters is that a black child is taught about his history and culture and is prepared for the racism he'll face. To shelter him and let him grow up in a fantasy world where everyone is equal is to do him a big disservice.
"But I know it can be done, because my mother did it," she says.
Ms. Berry speaks in a small, sweet voice and radiates the confidence of a woman who knows that whenever she appears, all eyes are on her.
It was not always that way. As a teen-ager growing up in a Cleveland suburb and attending a predominantly white high school, she was painfully insecure. "It was sickening how much I craved being liked," she recalls. "I was Miss Everything -- cheerleader, student senator, on the newspaper, the honor roll, you name it."
In her senior year she was elected prom queen, but classmates accused her of stuffing the ballot box. So the runner-up, a blue-eyed blond, was appointed co-prom queen with her.
"I had worked so hard to be accepted, but when it came to being a standard of beauty for the school, they didn't want me," she says. "That taught me. No more being a dancing bear."
By the time Ms. Berry graduated from high school, she had waltzed off with the crown of Miss Teen Ohio and Miss Teen All-American. She went on to become the first runner-up to Miss U.S.A. 1986.
"Pageants teach you how to lose and not be devastated," she observes. "It was great preparation for Hollywood."
Acting stints in television series led her in 1991 to "Jungle Fever." Director Spike Lee originally wanted her for the role of his on-screen wife, but Ms. Berry persuaded him to cast her in the scene-stealing part of Viv, Samuel L. Jackson's partner in dope.
"With that movie, I shed my beauty queen baggage," she says. "People realized I could act."
Mr. Jackson, who plays Khaila's lawyer in "Losing Isaiah," adds, "Most actresses who look like Halle tend to use their looks, but she's willing to submerge herself in a role and let the beauty stuff go."
After "Jungle Fever" came a bevy of roles in uneven films -- "Strictly Business," "The Last Boy Scout" (Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote, "The best thing in the film is Halle Berry, an actress who is going places"), "Boomerang," "The Program," "Father Hood" and "The Flintstones."
She says she considers it a coup to have snared the role of the prehistoric temptress in the "Flintstones." Rosetta Stone a coup?
"They originally wanted Sharon Stone or a blond Sharon Stone type," she says. "I really pushed for the part. It was important to me that a black woman be seen as the object of desire."
On television, Ms. Berry starred in "Alex Haley's 'Queen,' " the 1993 mini-series and, last month, in "Solomon and Sheba." That show was touted by Showtime as the "debut of an African-American actress playing the Queen of Sheba."
When conversation turns to Hollywood's racial barriers, Ms. Berry's serene manner turns feisty. It is apparent the actress is a formidable competitor who is determined to go toe to toe with Winona, Meg and Demi over plum parts. The days of being co-prom queen are over.
"I don't like taking 'no,' " she says crisply. "I fight for roles. I want the same shot as everyone else. But I never even got the chance to read for 'Silence of the Lambs' or 'Intersection' or 'Indecent Proposal.' The excuse is that a black woman would change what the movie was all about.
"Recently, there was a role of a park ranger that I really wanted. We kept pushing and pushing until finally the studio called my agent and said, 'We don't know if a park ranger would be black.' Hello? It's 1995. But this is the kind of mind-set I'm up against."
Not to mention what Ms. Berry calls "in-house discrimination."
"Right after I got the role in 'Strictly Business,' the producers decided that I was too light-skinned, so they hired someone darker," she says. "But she didn't work out, so they came back to me. If that happened today, I wouldn't take the part."
She is as goal-oriented in her private life as she is in her career. When it came to marrying Mr. Justice, one of baseball's most eligible heartthrobs, it was Miss Berry who proposed.
She says she isn't worried about growing old in an industry that worships youth. That's because she plans to retire at 45, raise a zTC family and run an art gallery.
"Honestly, I can't see myself doing this my whole life," she says. "It's much too stressful on your health."
The actress was found to be diabetic six years ago and later lost most of the hearing in her left ear when a boyfriend beat her. "Could you please make it real clear that this was a one-time thing with a guy I was dating and the minute he hit me I was out of there?" she pleads. "I don't like the perception that I'm this passive, battered woman."
Ms. Berry, who divides her time between homes with Mr. Justice in Atlanta and Los Angeles, is going to Australia later this month to shoot her next film, "Race the Sun." She describes it as a family movie in which she plays a teacher.
"The character was written white, but the studio offered it to me," she says, beaming. "I don't think they would have done that two years ago. So it is getting easier. Of course, there will always be people who ask, 'Can a forest ranger be black?' "