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Halle Berry's strongest ally: The fighter within
The movies don't really do justice to Halle Berry. As glamorous as she is on screen, in person, she's simply stunning.
You can remember her assorted sexy movie moments; as a swimsuit-clad Bond babe, as the slinky temptress in Swordfish, or recall that she was Miss Ohio in 1985, named by a poll in Britain's Express newspaper as having the "best body in show business."
But in the flesh -- in a drop-dead you-know-what navy blue sundress -- Kenneth Tynan's famous remark about an earlier screen siren, Greta Garbo, leaps to mind.
"What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober."
That beauty didn't keep Berry from her dress-down Oscar win, in 2002's Monster's Ball. But it is "baggage" that she carries, she says with a laugh. It's a big reason she's still, after years as one of the world's most famous beauties, able to consider herself "an underdog" when it comes to movies.
"You have to, in this business. You might have a moment of feeling like you're on top of the world; you have an Oscar, the X-Men just made $200 million. But the moment you turn your head, even a little, somebody or something comes up to knock you off the top.
"I always take the position of the underdog. It's a much safer place to be."
And at 40, she still has to fight for a lot of what she wants. Sure, her new thriller, Perfect Stranger, was built with her in mind. It's about a testy reporter who sets out to trap an ad-agency owner (Bruce Willis) she believes killed a friend. Her character had to be angry and feel victimized, but also good-looking enough to be office-candy in a high-powered New York ad agency when she goes undercover. Berry fills that bill with ease.
But her role in the upcoming melodrama Things We Lost in the Fire?
"They didn't want me for that. The role wasn't written for a black woman. I had to fight and fight to get that."
"Fighting" for Berry means asking for a meeting -- insisting on it -- with the director of the film, a story of a recently widowed woman who invites a troubled friend of her late husband to stay with her family.
"And begging," she adds, laughing. "It's saying, 'Please please please, let me meet with the director . . . I do feel the Oscar earns you the right to at least get a meeting with the filmmaker, if it's a project that you really feel passionate about. I could be all wrong for that part, I thought. But at least I deserve a chance to sit in a room for half an hour and make my case."
The daughter of an interracial couple (her mother was white and English, her father African-American), Berry was determined to bring her heritage to the movie (David Duchovny plays her husband). "I said, 'Don't change the script for me. Just stick me in it and have their world be as it would be, because interracial couples with interracial children are much more common, and that's the world we're living in.
"The look of the American family is so different today that this is a version of normal, and that was a social message I wanted to send."
Under the microscope
Perfect Stranger had other messages Berry wanted to help send. It's about privacy, the loss of it, and how what you learn about someone on the Web can be fiction.
"On MySpace, you can be whoever you want to be," she says. "It's just like dating. You create this image that you present to the other person.
"The problem with that, as this movie suggests, when you meet someone there, you're not really who you are in life. Pedophiles, stalkers."
On the Internet, she says, privacy cuts both ways. It's what you lose in an era when so much information is a mouse-click away. But it's also there to protect the fiction you can create for yourself.
"Privacy" is a tricky word for a woman who has spent more than a decade in the public eye. She can manipulate revelations about her life with the best of Hollywood -- telling Parade Magazine she considered suicide after this break-up or that one. She's always linked to men as gorgeous as she is -- David Justice, Eric Benet, her latest, model Gabriel Aubry. Star romance can be image-building, as everyone from Angelina Jolie to Anne Heche or Tom Arnold can tell you.
But in the Internet age, people aren't just famous. They're scrutinized. Berry arranges to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and Defamer.com labels it "Suck up to Halle Berry Day." She can take a joke, writing on a blackboard "I will never make Catwoman 2" when she was honored by Harvard's Hasty Pudding Club in 2006. But not everybody is going to always be at her best, and the Web has made it easy to beat up the big-time and the beautiful. Berry knows that better than most.
"We're becoming a society where imperfection is not tolerated," she says. "We're all imperfect human beings. We're all just trying to get it right. We shouldn't be demonized for making mistakes. We're all learning and growing, and we all screw up."
More than meets the eye
Berry's public persona is more than skin deep. Stories about her tend to emphasize her diva moments, occasions where she can appear high-strung or self-martyred. But that's perhaps the best reason for playing Rowena, her character in Perfect Stranger. Berry started life wanting to be a journalist. In playing one for the film, she got to depict a reporter with an eye for the gotcha, somebody with an agenda.
"Gotcha journalism can be fair, unless you're on the receiving end of it," she says with a chuckle. "I've done interviews where I realize, early on, that I'm dealing with somebody with an agenda. No matter what you say or do, I know this isn't going to come out well, for me.
"My response to that? Just choose not to be victimized by what's out there. People are entitled to their opinions. Fine. Don't deal. Learn to look the other way. Don't get in a stink fight with a skunk."