Halle Berry entered the ring ready — she's been a fighter all her life
In Bruised, which is now available on Netflix, Berry plays a disgraced mixed martial arts fighter named Jackie Justice, who takes on MMA's newest star. She does this to win back her name while figuring out how to be a mother to her estranged child. It's a role that Berry identifies with fundamentally.
Other segments from the episode on December 8, 2021
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest is Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actor Halle Berry. She directed and stars in the new Netflix movie "Bruised." Her films include "Monster's Ball," "Boomerang," "Bulworth," "X-Men" and "Cloud Atlas." This week, she received the career achievement award at the Critics Choice Association Celebration of Black Cinema and Television. Halle Berry spoke with guest interviewer Tonya Mosley, host of NPR's midday show Here & Now. Here's Tonya.
TONYA MOSLEY, BYLINE: On the second day of filming her new movie "Bruised," Halle Berry broke two of her ribs. Now, this is the kind of injury that can take months to heal. But Berry didn't have that time, and she'd been in Hollywood long enough to know that taking a few months off of an independent film could derail the entire production. And so Berry kept her broken ribs a secret, spending days shooting without a stunt double.
In "Bruised," which is now available on Netflix, Berry plays a disgraced mixed martial arts fighter named Jackie Justice who takes on MMA's newest star. She does this to win back her name while figuring out how to be a mother to her estranged child. Halle Berry not only stars in "Bruised" - the film is also her directorial debut. And this winter, Berry will also star in the sci-fi epic "Moonfall," about a last-ditch mission into space to save the world.
Halle Berry, welcome to FRESH AIR.
HALLE BERRY: Thank you very much. I'm so happy to be here.
MOSLEY: Well, congratulations on your debut as a director. Was directing something you always wanted to do?
BERRY: Gosh. I can't say it was something I always wanted to do. But, you know, acting was nothing I wanted to do, either, until I started acting. You know, I wanted to be a journalist. So I've learned in life that sometimes these things that you're meant to do, they actually call you. And it's about, do you answer the call or not - you know? - because my path, my life's path, is certainly different than I imagined it as I was growing. That's for sure.
MOSLEY: What a way to start off your debut - I mean, breaking ribs the first days of shooting, and you kept those injuries a secret. My big question for you is how? I mean, when did you realize you were hurt, and what was the conversation you were having in that moment in your head about whether to tell people?
BERRY: Well, I only knew - I didn't have an X-ray at this time, so one would argue I didn't really know. But I only really knew because on the movie before I did called "John Wick" I had broken three ribs, and so I was very familiar with what it feels like to break ribs - what the pain is like, what the breathing is like. So I knew that I had done that same thing again on a different side of my body, but the feelings were exactly the same. And I also knew that on "John Wick," when I told everybody right away, our movie got shut down. I had to go heal for eight weeks. But that was a big-budget studio movie, and so it could absorb a shutdown.
But my little movie I knew would never be able to absorb a shutdown. I knew they would shut it down because no doctor would say it's OK for me to do, you know, these fight scenes that I had to do because there's such a danger of a broken rib puncturing a lung, and then that causes real damage. So I knew that nobody in their right mind would allow me to keep fighting.
MOSLEY: Were you afraid?
BERRY: You know, I wasn't afraid in that moment. I had been training to play this character for 2 1/2 years, and I really had acquired - and I still have it, and I don't know if I'll always have this now - but I had the mindset of a fighter. And a fighter's mindset is you never stop. You keep going. You don't stop until they drag you out of there, you know? So stopping was not even a thought that crossed my mind. I thought more about the production, how hard I had worked, all the people that had worked so hard, who were all there, counting on me, counting on this movie to go forward. I knew I'd lose my money, and I knew I'd probably never get Valentina Shevchenko back. She was my opponent, the current flyweight champion. The fact that she took three months out of her, you know, championship reign to come to a movie was pretty impressive.
So I just knew I would lose all of these things that I had been working so hard for. And I knew I could puncture a lung, sure. I was told that the first time I broke the ribs, which is why they made me stop. But I took the gamble. You know, I really - stopping never crossed my mind. It was more - how can I get through this fight? And will I be able to perform at a high level like I was planning on with this injury and not being able to breathe and the pain? I was more worried about that, not doing a good job in the movie, than actually really puncturing a lung.
MOSLEY: Your interpretation of Jackie Justice is different from the original screenplay, which conceptualized her as a 21-year-old white, Irish Catholic fighter. What was it about the character that resonated with you?
BERRY: Well, one, I was a huge fight fan of boxing when I was a little girl. And I had, at this time, when this script got put on my lap, I was a huge MMA fan, especially the women of the sport. So right away, I was attracted to the fight, to the sport. And also, I knew that if I could re-imagine these characters, it would provide me a great opportunity to deal with some issues that I've always wanted to deal with, issues that I understand fundamentally. And that's, you know, domestic abuse. It's the, you know, intergenerational trauma that we suffer, especially mothers and daughters, and this idea of motherhood. So there were just themes that really spoke to me that I thought I understood, and I thought I could bring it to life if given an opportunity to re-imagine it a little bit.
MOSLEY: Well, "Bruised" definitely illuminates intergenerational trauma and domestic violence in a way that kind of humanizes both the victim, being you, and the abuser - for instance, your mother, who allowed you, in the movie, to be abused as a child, and your mediocre and abusive manager. When talking about your character, Jackie - I mean, this is kind of what you're alluding to right now - you said that you understand the trauma of life that makes one want to fight, need to fight, have to fight. The trauma of life is always, in a way, though, the subtext in fight movies. That's always kind of what we're rooting after - for the person to overcome those things - but never quite as explicit as it is in "Bruised," maybe because it is from a woman's perspective. Why was it important, though, for you to draw that throughline for your character, specifically the intergenerational trauma and the different ways that this has led her to be a fighter?
BERRY: You know, I think you're right, and I think this is why it's so important that women get to tell our own stories because we definitely have a different perception of all of the issues, all of the things you just expressed. And I think that's why this is a fight film. And we're really seeing this for the first time because not many women have, you know, directed or imagined fight stories from our point of view, from our perspective and sort of dug into and delved into - why do women fight? It's not very natural for women to fight and be a part of a blood sport. It's not naturally, I think, what any of us would do.
It's also interesting that you say that, you know, the victim and the perpetrators are kind of seen in the same light because I believe that there - it really is no right and wrong. We're all fractured beings, and we're all struggling with our issues, our family trauma, our addictions. So that was sort of the goal for me. And the only reason to be a part of wanting to make another fight movie - and so many great ones have been made by some of the greatest directors of our time - was to try to show a different world, have a different perspective. So those were the reasons why I really gravitated towards this story.
MOSLEY: There's this scene where your character goes to a diner with her son, and she has a panic attack. And she goes into the bathroom, leaving him at the table. And she's in there for quite some time. And when she comes out, she searches for him. And she finds that he has left and found his way to his grandmother's house. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BRUISED")
BERRY: (As Jackie) Is he here?
ADRIANE LENOX: (As Angel) He's sleeping. Yeah.
BERRY: (As Jackie) Mama. Mama. Wait.
LENOX: (As Angel) He was sitting outside the movie theater at 11 p.m. Some woman saw him and brought him here. Boy had my napkin in his pocket. I'm taking custody now.
BERRY: (As Jackie) Wait. What?
LENOX: (As Angel) You homeless. And you ain't fit.
BERRY: (As Jackie) Yeah, but I'm his mother. Manny, you know I didn't mean that. That was a mistake.
LENOX: (As Angel) You really need to get it together.
BERRY: (As Jackie) Mama, I'm trying to do that. I'm a fighter.
LENOX: (As Angel) Well, you ain't a mother. That's for certain.
MOSLEY: And Manny is your son in the movie. You know, Halle, the thing about this clip is that your character's mother was also not a good mother. And here is your character trying her best to explain to her son her reasons. It made me think about the ways we try not to repeat our parents' mistakes. What are some of the ways, maybe, you've tried to break that intergenerational pattern in your own life?
BERRY: Yeah. I mean, there's lots of abuse in my childhood, you know? I had - I grew up with an alcoholic father that was very abusive both verbally, emotionally, physically. So those are issues that I knew in my life I would not be victim of, you know? I wouldn't allow myself to be a victim of domestic violence. I was as a child because I had no choice. But when I grew into my womanhood, I knew that hitting me or allowing myself to be hit or allowing myself to be involved with someone, you know, clearly in their addiction and not dealing with it and seeking help would never be a path I would choose.
But I also knew that I was hard-wired to find myself in that situation. And I did find myself in that situation a few times because I was hard-wired for that in some way. I was drawn to that. Or I drew that to me. And it was in those moments I had to break the cycle and realize, here it is. I drew it because I'm hard-wired. But now, what am I going to do about it? Am I going to stay stuck? Or am I going to rise out of this and make changes so that I break the cycle? And I'm happy to say I consciously have been breaking and will continue to break any cycle that I find myself in. And I think you only do that by being aware of what those cycles are.
MOSLEY: Your father died in 2003. You've mentioned before that you two weren't close. And as you said, he was abusive to you and your family. Last year, on Father's Day, though, you wrote on Instagram that you were full of love for your daddy and that you now understood his addiction. How were you able to come to that understanding of him?
BERRY: I'd come to the understanding long before last year when I wrote that. I went through a lot of therapy. When he died, I was given a gift of talking to a spiritual healer and someone that took me through some spiritual exercises to sort of heal my wound with my dad. And in doing so, I was able to really do some work and look at, you know, what I talked about earlier. The man he was was largely because of the love and the guidance he didn't receive as a child. He didn't - he wasn't born into the world an abusive, alcoholic man who was out of control. He became that by what he was and was not given, what he was exposed to and what he wasn't exposed to. So when I started to look at him as an innocent little boy who got raised by an alcoholic father and a mother who was so broken herself, she didn't protect him from the environment that he was born into because she was so broken herself - and she actually needed protection, but yet she was asked to protect him. She had no wherewithal and no ability to do that.
Then going back another generation, they came from slavery, where my great-great-grandmother saw her daughter ripped away from her, and the trauma that caused. And, you know, when I keep tracing it back, you realize that this was just generational trauma, that my father was just trying to survive. He was trying to, you know, find himself, find his manhood. And he was doing the best he could. And while he failed me and my family miserably, he really was only working with the tools that he had been given, you know? And when I looked at him that way, it did make me feel full of love. And I had empathy for him. I felt sad by the life that he lived, you know, saddened by that and realized he was turning to alcohol as a way of numbing his experience - and numbing the fact that he felt like a failure, and numbing the fact that he didn't become who he imagined he would be or who he thought he should be, you know? So looking at it that way, I'm full of love for him.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview our guest interviewer, Tonya Mosley, recorded with Halle Berry. Berry directed and stars in the new film "Bruised," which is streaming on Netflix. Tonya is a host of NPR's Here & Now. We'll hear more of their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS SONG, "PROCEED IV (A.J. SHINE MIX)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview with Halle Berry. She directed the new film "Bruised" and stars as a mixed martial arts fighter who left the ring six years ago and is trying to make a comeback. She spoke with our guest interviewer, Tonya Mosley, a host of NPR's Here & Now.
MOSLEY: Well, Halle, what was it like for you growing up in Cleveland, Ohio? Or what was it like where you grew up in Cleveland?
BERRY: Well, I grew up in sort of two different phases of life. My early childhood was in the inner city, very much like the world created in my movie "Bruised." I was being raised initially by my mom and my dad. Then my dad left when I was about 3 years old, and left my mom, who was a white woman, to raise these two little Black kids in this all-Black inner-city neighborhood, where she wasn't always accepted, you know, being, like, one of the only white women in this all-Black neighborhood. I know at my school, as a girl, I wasn't always accepted - having a white mother come up to the school. And we were always called half-breeds or Oreos or - you know, we were made fun of.
And my mother, one day - when she told the story - she went to the high school that my sister and I would eventually go to. She went there to investigate sort of some extracurricular activities for us to be a part of. And she said she went to the school, and she got a dose of what that would be like. And she was horrified to think that we would end up going to this high school. And she worried, you know, for our future. And so she made the decision in that moment that she needed to move us from the inner city and move us out to the suburbs. And while that was a smart thing to do, and I'm glad she did - we got a much better education living out in Oakwood Village. And I went to Bedford High School. But then we had another problem. Now we were - at that time, we were one of, you know, the only few Black children now in this neighborhood. So we were in culture shock in a way.
So, you know, it led to a childhood of feeling like - not really fitting in into any world - because in the Black world, we had this white mother that made us not fit in. And in the white world, we had ourselves that made us not fit in. So that's sort of how my childhood was - searching where I fit, feeling very Black and treated very Black and discriminated against because I was Black, but also having this white mother - since my father had - I guess, sort of, you know, in and out - and trying to understand, you know, that part of who I was as well, but not - but while not feeling very white - always feeling very Black and that it was the community I identified with more.
MOSLEY: I know that you were part of pageants.
BERRY: I know, I - my - yes. That was something I didn't want to do either. That wasn't by my own doing.
MOSLEY: It wasn't? Whose idea was it?
BERRY: It was my boyfriend at the time. I was 17 years old. I was about to graduate high school. And my boyfriend saw - in the "Cleveland Plain Dealer," he saw there was an ad for girls signing up for the Miss Teen Ohio pageant. And you just had to send in a picture and, like, fill out a questionnaire, and they would - you know, they were accepting contestants for the pageant. And he, at the time - tells the story - he wanted his girlfriend to be a beauty queen. So he entered me into the pageant.
BERRY: And I get this letter in the mail that said, you, Halle Berry, have been accepted for the Miss Teen Ohio beauty pageant. And then they listed all the information - the day I had to come and what I had to do and blah, blah, blah. And I was floored. And I thought, well, how did I even get in this? And then I was talking to him about it, and he laughed. And he was like, well, I did that. I signed you up. I really want - I want you to go do this. And because he wanted me to do it, and, you know, as many - us women are - we're, you know...
BERRY: Our boyfriend says, I want you to do it. You say, OK (laughter). So at that time, that's who I was. And I said, OK, I'll go. And so I went to this pageant. And I wore my prom dress because I was - I had - was also prom queen. So I wore my prom-queen dress to the pageant. And to my surprise, I won the thing, never imagining - I mean, that really wasn't even why I was there. But I won it. And then as a result of winning it, then I had to go to the national pageant and represent Ohio.
And so what you find out when you get into pageant life - then I won Miss Teen Ohio. I mean, Miss Teen Ohio - then I won Miss Teen America. And then my Teen America pageant said, now you have to go to the Miss Ohio pageant. And I was like, oh, OK. And then I won Miss Ohio. And I'm like, now you have to go to the Miss USA pageant as Miss Ohio. So I ended up doing these pageants just because I kind of haphazardly won the first one.
MOSLEY: Did you come to like it? - 'cause that's a - that you went pretty far there.
BERRY: Yeah. You know, I came to realize the benefit of it. And it has helped me greatly in my life - with my chosen career, especially. It helped me learn how to speak confidently in front of people. It's where I honed my people skills. And that has served me really well in my career. And it would have served me well in my journalism career also, had that been the route I had gone. It instilled great confidence in me, with all the things that were asked of me - and not just the pageants, but as the national winner. I traveled to all the states of the United States. And I saw the country. And I got to meet all different kinds of people - all different walks of life. And it was a real education for me about this country that we live in. And that's something that has also served me very well over the years.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview our guest interviewer Tonya Mosley recorded with Academy Award-winning actor Halle Berry. She directed and stars in the new film "Bruised." It's streaming on Netflix. Tonya Mosley is a host of NPR's midday show Here & Now. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Halle Berry. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the 2001 film "Monster's Ball." She's still the only Black woman to win that award. She won an Emmy for her role in the 1999 HBO film "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge." Now she stars in the new Netflix film "Bruised" about a disgraced professional mixed martial arts fighter who's attempting to make a comeback. She's also trying to form a connection with her estranged young son. The film is Halle Berry's directorial debut. She spoke with our guest interviewer Tonya Mosley, host of the NPR midday show Here & Now.
MOSLEY: When was it that you realized you wanted to be an actor and you went down that path?
BERRY: Well, again, it was someone else telling me, this is what you should do. I was living in Chicago, and I had just finished my last beauty pageant. And I was deciding to go back to college and figuring out what school I was going to go to and study journalism. And one of the judges of the Miss USA pageant I had become very friendly with after the pageant - and she said, I own a modeling agency in Chicago. I'd really love you to come there and try modeling for a little bit. And I thought, oh, but that's not really what I want to do. And she said, you can make pretty good money. You can save up money for college. And you're young now. You're hot off these beauty pageants. I think you should just give it a year and see how much money you can make, save it up and then go to college. So I thought, that sound - OK. That sounds like a plan. I think I can do that.
And in doing that, what I found was - I was in - I moved to Chicago. I was there all by myself. And I had a lot of free time at night. I had very little friends. I was just - I had just moved there. I was just 19 years old. And I started taking classes at Second City just for fun and to give me something to do at night and maybe meet some people to make some friends. And through doing that, one of my teachers said to me, halfway through my second semester there - said, had you - have you thought about doing this professionally? You really - I think you have talent. I really think you have some natural God-given something, and I think you should really take this seriously. I really think you should. And it was because this teacher believed in me and told me that I should, I thought, again, you think so? Well, maybe I'll try that. And then I got an agent and I got my first audition. And very quickly after that, I got a job on a television show that moved me to Los Angeles.
MOSLEY: Were you doing comedy at Second City?
BERRY: Yes. (Laughter) Yes.
MOSLEY: Obviously, they thought you were good. Were you kind of going in that direction?
BERRY: I wasn't. I wasn't even saying I could be an actor. I was sort of in - I was stunned. And I thought, huh? You really think I can make a - like, it didn't - it really didn't occur to me. At that time, acting, to me, wasn't a real job to be had. I didn't grow up that way. Like, I was never in the school plays because I was Black, and I couldn't play Cinderella in the school play, you know what I mean? It's just not how it was at that time, 30 years ago. So acting never felt like something I coveted. It never felt like a real profession that I could really have and I could win at, that I could be successful at.
MOSLEY: When did that shift happen for you where you were saying, that teacher's right? I'm going to go in this direction. This is my calling.
BERRY: I think when I got my first television show. It wasn't very long from the time he told me that until I wound up on a sitcom with - my own television show, on a sitcom, living in Los Angeles. It was sometime during that experience. And I made more money than I had ever made before, and I thought, oh, my God, I - maybe I can do this.
MOSLEY: Was that "Living Dolls"?
BERRY: That was "Living Dolls." And I remember being so happy when the show got canceled, in a way. Yeah, you never want to get canceled. But I also felt like there was so much more that I could do than I was allowed to do on that show. And so when that got canceled, I felt free to now go, you know, follow my own North Star. And then I got "Jungle Fever" shortly after that.
MOSLEY: You've talked about this quite a bit. You famously became the first Black woman to win an Academy Award for your role in the film "Monster's Ball" back in 2001. I mean, you expected the offers for roles would come flooding in, and they didn't. I've always wondered, when did you realize the calls weren't ever going to come?
BERRY: Oh, very quickly after. Very quickly. I would say within a few weeks after winning that award, I realized that nothing really had changed other than I had been indelibly changed. I had accomplished a huge goal. It was a huge accomplishment, you know? And I was very proud of that. And I worked hard for that and fought hard to even get that movie. And I, you know, worked hard at portraying that character. So I felt proud. I felt accomplished. I had done something.
But I quickly realized that as a Black woman 20 years ago, the climate was very different than even it is today. There just weren't a lot of roles for me. Here I had this shiny, beautiful award, the top of my field, but there was still no place for me, really. There were really no opportunities, and it was about trying to convince people that if it was a role written for a white woman, that I could play her. But even that was a hard sell because it wasn't just saying, let's keep the character exactly the same and drop Halle in. That would be saying that you didn't have to pay any attention to the fact that it wasn't written for a Black woman. And we can't just drop a Black woman in a white woman's role and think that she can just play the part because then you leave out the biggest part of us, which is our culture, which is who we are, which is how we behave in the world, the skin we walk in. And that has to be implemented into the script.
And many times, people didn't want to do that work on the script. Or if they dropped me in as the wife and it was a family - and then they would say, well, then what does that make the kids? Are the kids interracial? Oh, what - yeah, that's changing the story too much, you know? So let's not do that. You know, so it was hard having this award and then actually knowing how that would help me, you know, be allowed to be dropped into movies. It just didn't work that way.
MOSLEY: "Bruised" is, in many ways, what has borne out of that, because you were able to take a script that was not written for someone like you and create something that felt very true. How did the reality of what you experienced after winning the Academy Award change the way you choose roles overall?
BERRY: You know, the one thing I try to not let - have happen is sometimes people win that award and you now are expect - or you feel like people expect you to only do Academy Award-winning roles after that moment, when the truth is how does anyone know what an Academy Award-winning role actually is? When I said yes to "Monster's Ball," that was a role that wasn't supposed to give me an Academy Award. It was really supposed to end my career. That's what many people told me.
MOSLEY: Oh, in what way? Why?
BERRY: Because it dealt with all of the racial issues at the time, 20 years ago, put us back in 20 years. It was all of the issues that we dealt with, the racial issues that the movie dealt with and the fact that it had this very explicit love scene that was very much a part of the movie and was always going to be a part of the movie. And up until that point, I had never done anything like that before, really.
MOSLEY: It's so interesting because when we talk about "Monster's Ball," that sex scene always comes up. But in revisiting it, wow, it really is of the moment on the issues around race and racism and mass incarceration. We weren't having those conversations, and we certainly weren't having them in the way of the art of cinema.
BERRY: Exactly, which is why people around me thought, this is taboo. You don't want to talk about these things in cinema. Don't do this role. But instead, this taboo thing garnered me the highest award in my industry, so I go back to saying I always wanted to continue operating within my career that way, taking risks and chances. You don't win big if you don't risk big. But you also lose big, and you have to be prepared to assume either.
But I've also learned through my beauty pageant days that if you can't be a good loser, you don't deserve to be a good winner. And just because you lose, it doesn't mean you stay down, and it doesn't mean you've lost. It means you've learned. So I've never been afraid of risking, because for me, there's no losing. It's just maybe something doesn't work out how you had hoped, but there is a lesson in whatever that is. It's just my job to get the lesson and then put my big-girl panties on and keep a moving and move on to the next thing.
MOSLEY: Halle, having now accomplished so much, what's the dream project? I mean, what is maybe an artistic expression that you haven't explored, but you want to?
BERRY: I, you know, I don't really know what that is. I would love to do theater at some point, probably towards my very, very last act, I see myself on Broadway.
MOSLEY: Why do you see it as your very last act?
BERRY: I just think having my children right now, going to New York and doing a run, that just probably wouldn't be possible. You know, if I'm going to do theater, I really would want to go do theater and sort of set up shop there and hopefully have a meaningful, significant run at theater. And with my children being based here in LA, I just don't see that as a possibility right now. I think it would take me away from my family a bit too much right now. My kids still are little, especially my son. He's only 8. So I just see that as something a bit later in life when my kids are set maybe more on their way.
MOSLEY: If you get to go to Broadway, what kind of role would you like to play?
BERRY: I know what I want to play. I want to play Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate" much later in life. But that's the kind of role that I want to play. That's one of my favorite movies and one of my favorite characters, and I just love the craziness of it. I - we would have to update it, I think, in many ways to have it be relevant by the time I end up doing it. We would have to augment it for the world that we were living in and what would make that relationship of an older woman and a younger man as titillating and as exciting as it is in "The Graduate." But I love seeing two completely opposites who who should not be together actually find the commonality in their pain that inextricably connects them. That's very interesting to me.
MOSLEY: Halle Berry, thank you so much for this conversation.
BERRY: Oh, thank you. Thank you. It's been a lovely conversation. Thank you.
GROSS: Halle Berry spoke with our guest interviewer, Tonya Mosley. Berry is the director and star of the new film "Bruised." It's streaming on Netflix. Tanya Mosley is host of the NPR midday show Here And Now. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.