A career so strong it survived 'Catwoman'

Times Staff Writer

Halle Berry breezed into the hotel restaurant beaming, her hair long and loose, her pregnant belly barely hidden under a snug black jersey dress, her glamour muted but still compelling enough to hush the jaded Four Seasons crowd and befuddle the waiter.

She joked easily, but a bit self-consciously, about her pregnancy weight and her abundant bosom and wondered aloud how hard it would be as a diabetic and at 41 to regain her famous figure after the baby. In that instant, Berry was just another anxious, first-time mom-to-be. But that candor gracefully gave way to the comfortable self-possession of one of Hollywood's highest-paid actors, reportedly earning $14 million per picture. On this Monday morning, the eve of the L.A. premiere of her new film "Things We Lost in the Fire," Berry wasn't keen on girl talk.

She was, however, eager to defend the detour into commercial and critical disappointments her career took after she earned an Oscar in 2002 for "Monster's Ball," from the horror film "Gothika" to her turn as "Catwoman." It was all part of her strategic plan, she said.

"After 'Monster's Ball,' I really wanted to go in a different direction," said Berry, her expression open and accessible. "Sometimes those things work really well. Sometimes they don't. But as a person, and as an actor, it worked well for me. I tried new things. I took risks. I faced certain fears. You don't win big by just making mediocre choices."

Berry said she still battles anxiety the day a film opens though. Usually, she said, she knocks back a couple of cocktails to take the edge off the box-office anticipation -- a crutch she obviously can't employ while pregnant. The reality check doesn't come until two weeks later, she said, when she makes a point of walking the streets to see what regular folks have to say about her film.

"You have no real way of knowing until you go out in the world," she said. "People have the feeling that they can tell me what they like and what they didn't like. They'll come up and say, 'Don't make movies like that anymore.' I get that a lot."

"Things We Lost in the Fire," however, represents Berry's return to smaller, more earnest filmmaking, a project where "nobody's getting big paychecks" and there's no "diva stuff."

"You're there because you love the material, you love what you do," she said.

Berry plays Audrey, a mother of two whose idyllic life is shattered when her husband (David Duchovny) is killed trying to rescue a woman from her violent husband. In her desperation and grief, Audrey forges a deep and unusual bond with his close friend, Jerry, a lawyer-turned-heroin addict played by Benicio Del Toro, an actor with whom Berry had long wanted to work.

The dynamic between their characters is layered and complicated, much like it might be in real life. And the film's rawness and hopeful ending drew Berry to the role from the moment she read Allan Loeb's script, long before Oscar-nominated Danish director Susanne Bier was attached to the project.

"It scared me to death, and usually, when that happens, I'm like a moth to a flame," Berry said. "And it was something I haven't experienced in my own life, this kind of loss, the devastation of losing someone so close to you, so sudden, so tragically. That scared me, and I thought this would be an interesting challenge for me as an artist. But also as a human being."

Bier, who favors intimate material that often grapples with familial issues, bonded with Berry over her insistence that the film avoid sentimentality. Instead, Bier said, they asked themselves: "How much of a love story is it? How close can they get? When is that point where you actually realize that you love somebody?"

"It was pretty firm in the script," Bier said. "But it was also very clear that that process has to be done little by little throughout the entire shooting. The development of that character was such a nuanced, such a sensitive thing."

To prepare for the role, Berry read Joan Didion's Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir "The Year of Magical Thinking," about Didion's own struggle to recover from the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. Berry also studied grief psychology. And then, she just drew on her own experiences with personal tragedy.

"When you go through tragedy . . . you never go back to the way you were," Berry said. "You don't go back to the same thing. You're forever changed. But it doesn't mean your life can't be as good. Or even better."

Berry herself seems to have reached a stable plateau after a tumultuous decade that brought phenomenal career highs along with two divorces, one so bitter that it led to a suicide attempt. Born in Cleveland and raised by a single mother, Berry was an honor student and a beauty queen who broke through as an actress in 1991 in Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever."

Her first marriage, to pro baseball star David Justice, ended in 1996, and Berry recently told Parade magazine that she was so disappointed by the breakup that she sat in her garage with the car running, waiting for the carbon monoxide to take hold. The image of her mother discovering her body stopped her.

Her second marriage, to singer Eric Benet, ended in early 2005 with his claims of sex addiction and another emotional breakdown for Berry. About a year later, she met French Canadian model Gabriel Aubry while shooting a Versace ad. They're expecting a child in February.

As Berry and Bier dissected the themes of "Things We Lost in the Fire," the subject of unconditional love surfaced. Bier was explaining that Berry's character, Audrey, expressed her grief by lashing out at her children, a scene she felt revealed the true depth of love she felt for them.

"Where love is not unconditional," Bier said, "you sort of restrain yourself and force yourself into some sort of unnatural pattern of feeling."

Berry picked up the thought.

"Because you have the feeling you're being judged for what you're doing," the actress said, with sentiment that seemed to echo her own experience. "And love might be taken away if you're less than perfect. If it's real love, even if it's in relationships with friends, you can be your real self because you know that the love isn't going anywhere."

Winning the Oscar

Berry lobbied hard for the role that ultimately landed her in the history books, that of death row widow Leticia Musgrove in "Monster's Ball." Director Marc Forster wasn't convinced she'd be believable as a woman hardened by such disappointment and despair. She was just too pretty.

"When I met her I just thought, 'Halle Berry is the most beautiful woman I've ever met,' " he said. "I was just blown away by it. When I read the script, I didn't see the character like that."

Ultimately, Berry's persistence and her passion for the character changed his mind. It didn't hurt that she and Billy Bob Thornton had great chemistry.

"We both saw the character in a specific way that felt very real," Forster said. "That's when I gave her the part."

Berry's performance made her the first African American woman to win a best actress Oscar. And then, her career took a sharp U-turn. She became a "Bond girl" as Jinx in "Die Another Day," reprising the ocean exit made famous by Ursula Andress.

She joined the "X-Men" franchise as the weather minx Storm. By the third film "X-Men: The Last Stand," directed by Brett Ratner, Berry had grown accustomed to fans of the comic book character stopping her on the street to critique her interpretation of Storm.

"She cared so much about staying true to the character and she knew what mistakes had been made in the past as far as her hair and other issues," Ratner said. "She made it the great character it was because it came full circle. She really rose to the occasion. . . . Halle, more than anything, has an incredible range."

"The way I approach the work is always the same," Berry said. "I don't do less work on a movie like 'X Men.' It's still a character I try to get in the skin of, I try to break down, I try to create a life before, I try to really bring a full life to the character. But in a movie like 'X Men' there are also 12 other characters that also have to be developed as well. So you don't get to get as in depth as you do with a movie like 'Fire.' "

Berry has maintained her sense of humor about the response to some of her roles. When she earned the 2005 Razzie for worst actress for "Catwoman," Berry accepted the award in person.

"To be at the top," she said at the time, "you must experience rock-bottom."

Berry makes no apologies for her choices now.

"I'm not the actor who's always going to give you the dramatic performances one after the other," she said. "That's not where I creatively live."

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gina.piccalo@latimes.com

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