As the emotionally spent and psychologically tattered wife who unwittingly seeks solace in the arms of the racist white prison guard who oversaw her husband's final days, Halle Berry gives what may be the year's rawest, most devastating performance in Monster's Ball. It finally should elevate the 33-year-old actress above the ranks of the simply beautiful. It may even win her an Oscar.
Leticia Musgrove couldn't have been an easy part to play. She's a woman without a tether. Her husband has been executed. She has no money, no job and no skills that would help her land one. She's angry, but has nowhere to vent that anger - save on her helpless son, a self-loathing, overweight young boy who eats to fill the emotional void left by his father. When Leticia discovers his secret candy stash, she lets loose the full measure of her wrath. The scene is heartbreakingly brutal, and Berry opens up her acting throttle in ways not hinted at in previous roles.
But appearances to the contrary, what audiences see on the screen was the easy part, Berry says from Los Angeles in a telephone interview. Earning the chance to show what she could do - now, that was tough.
"Everybody says, 'You had to go to some bad places there, it must have been really hard,' " she says. "But the hard part was just getting the part at all; that seemed like a harder struggle than actually performing."
Berry, whose acting has chronically been overshadowed by her world-class beauty - she's a constant presence on lists of the world's most gorgeous people, and a former first runner-up in the Miss U.S.A. pageant - says director Mark Forster initially "was not having me at all. I had to have several meetings with him, long conversations with him about the character. I had to convince him that I saw her not only the way he saw her, but that I saw a way I could breathe life into her. I think that's what he didn't quite believe."
A native of Cleveland and the daughter of a white mother and black father, Berry says she "directly connected to what the movie was about. Being half-black and half-white, I understand what that kind of racism, what interracial love is all about."
Not that she didn't have her own doubts. Basking in the glow of such a breakout performance, Berry admits now that she wasn't quite as confident as she sounded. "That was one of the scariest things," she says. "I fought so hard to get the job, and then when they said, 'You have it,' I thought, 'Uh-oh, now I have to go do it.' "
Three years ago, after a decade on TV and in the movies, in parts that rarely went beyond the superficial, she wouldn't have been the only one with doubts. But in 1999, she played the title role in HBO's Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (a movie in which she served as executive producer), a film biography of the first African-American woman nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for 1954's Carmen Jones. Heads were turned by more than just Berry's looks, and she ended up with both a Golden Globe and an Emmy on her awards shelf.
Since then, she's worked hard to establish herself as both bankable and versatile. Returning to the big screen, she appeared as the weather-controlling mutant Storm in X-Men, a big-budget smash that both increased her visibility and put her in the sort of movie franchise that should ensure she'll never need to worry about a paycheck again. (She starts filming X-Men 2 this summer.)
Her next role reaped unexpected benefits, both for Berry's more lascivious fans and for her career. In a 10-second sequence that elicited hoots and hollers in moviehouses throughout the land, Berry famously bared her breasts in last year's Swordfish, playing a moll to John Travolta's scenery-chewing bad guy.
Berry's breasts have almost certainly been the movie world's most-discussed piece of human anatomy during the past year, and in many interviews, she's acknowledged that the scene was absolutely gratuitous. But without the experience, she adds, she never would have been able to make it through the love scenes in Monster's Ball. In these grimy, passionate encounters with Billy Bob Thornton's character, emotions are displayed as nakedly as bodies.
Sure, all the talk about onscreen nudity can get a little tiresome. But unlike in Swordfish, she believes the nude scenes were essential to Monster's Ball, and if they are what people want to talk about, that's OK.
"I don't know if I feel there is too much fuss being made," she says. "I feel that scene is very pivotal; it's an important scene. I'm happy if it inspires people to talk about the film. Quite honestly, if they weren't talking about it, then we'd be in really big trouble with the movie.
"The problem I have is when people want to reduce it to a scene that is about titillation, about sex, about nudity; it really wasn't about that. It's about so much more. As long as they can get that out of it as well, then go ahead and talk about it all you want."
While Berry never has had to face the sort of overt racism Leticia encounters throughout the film, she's experienced enough to know what it feels like, and to be able to work through how it would affect a woman like her character, who has lived in the Deep South most of her life. (Monster's Ball was filmed in Louisiana and set in Georgia.)
"I grew up in an all-white neighborhood," she says. "I always knew that I was different. My mother's white family disowned her, so I didn't have a great relationship with that side of my family. But nobody ever was calling us names. It was more subtle than that. They never came out and said, 'We don't like you because you're a nigger.'
"I once actually had that word said to me straight to my face in Atlanta, and I almost didn't know what to do. I was shocked. My head almost blew off my shoulder. I got really angry. I was ready to fight."
Last week, Berry was nominated for her first Oscar. It follows a Best Actress nomination for a Golden Globe, though she lost out to Sissy Spacek for In the Bedroom. And while she has no intention of downplaying how good the recognition makes her feel, she also knows it's only a beginning.
"It feels really good," she says, "like I don't have to fight so hard to prove that there's something else going on here. I think I'll always have to continue to fight for great parts. I think all actors do. We're all fighting for good roles; that won't change. But I feel the fight has been made a little easier by some of the things I've been able to accomplish."