Berry ripens in ‘Ball’

From street-smart girl to ghetto mom, thesp adds humanity to roles

Halle Berry has spent her career battling stereotypes, fighting for substantial roles when producers see only her beauty, and struggling to bring humanity to roles that play on her African-American heritage. She washed away any squeaky clean image she might have generated as a former teen pageant queen with her film debut as a crack addict in Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever.” She continued to play down her physical attributes as a ghetto mom who abandons her baby in “Losing Isaiah.” And in “Bulworth,” she’s a street-smart girl from the ‘hood who revitalizes a U.S. senator played by Warren Beatty.

“I had seen her in a number of things and liked her very much,” says Beatty about why he cast her. “(‘Bulworth’) was a guy who was depressed and took out a hit on his own life for insurance money and he ran into somebody who changed his mind. She comes with that kind of firepower.”

Berry’s character has a similar effect on Billy Bob Thornton in “Monster’s Ball,” in which she plays Leticia, an impoverished woman in the rural South whose husband is put to death in the electric chair. For the emotionally demanding role, Berry was nominated for an Academy Award. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that having won the Screen Actor’s Guild laurel as best actress on March 10, Berry is the frontrunner to win the Oscar, since the actor’s branch is the Academy’s largest voting body.

“I really don’t have a pulse on how it will change things,” says Berry, who’s been in London filming the latest James Bond movie, “Die Another Day.” “I just hope that maybe next time I won’t have to fight so hard to get an audition.”

Berry says playing Leticia “paled in comparison to the dog-and-pony show I had to do to get (the filmmakers) to take me seriously.” The 21-day shoot and long hours were so grueling that she was almost given no choice but to stay in character.

“Making the movie was very cathartic because I got to purge myself of all kinds of different emotions I had brewing inside of me,” says the actress.

Berry’s ability to channel her energy, along with her sense of purpose, squares with Beatty’s take on where her career will lead. “She’s a combination of a formidable actress with a sense of social fairness, genuine humility and (she has) a big sense of humor about herself,” says the actor-filmmaker. “She crosses a lot of sectors and there is an inherent equilibrium about her that makes people gravitate towards her.”

As for what Berry will wear to the Oscars, she says she “has no idea,” despite her predilection for Valentino. “It’s more about what my mother’s going to wear. She’s going with me and she’s never been to one of these things. I just want her to feel really good and wonderful.”

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