The Fighter: Halle Berry steps into the ring (and behind the camera) for Bruised
Not long ago, Halle Berry appeared as a guest on Hot Ones, the viral YouTube talk show in which assorted celebrities (Billie Eilish, Charlize Theron, Shaq) agree to eat chicken wings of increasingly ungodly spice levels until they either quit, cry, or lose control of their fine motor skills. As she worked her way through a series of sauces with names like Chocolate Plague and Da' Bomb Beyond Insanity, Berry came across as charming and funny and self-deprecating, talking easily about old Kanye lyrics and dog-training tips. But when the show's host presented her with an endurance trophy at the finish line and asked whether there was anyone she'd like to thank, she turned unexpectedly blunt: "I'm gonna thank my damn self on this one," she shook her head, half-delirious on habaneros. "Because I did it. Nobody helped me. Nobody prepared me, either… Thank my damn self."
Thirty years into a storied but often unpredictable career — and nearly 20 after she became the first and still only Black woman in history to win a Best Actress Oscar, for 2001's Monster's Ball — Berry has consistently managed to ride out the fickle heat index of Hollywood. She's also learned the hard way how much that work could fall to her alone. Soon after Hot Ones aired, she began shooting what would become her directorial debut, Bruised (due on Netflix Nov. 24), a scrappy indie drama in which she also stars as Jackie Justice, a disgraced MMA fighter grasping for one last shot in the ring.
The movie never should have come to her at all: Originally, it was conceived as a Blake Lively vehicle with Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook, The Other Woman) at the helm.
"They gave me the script and I loved the story, but it was written for a twentysomething Irish Catholic white woman," Berry recalls on a rainy summer Sunday in Boston, where she's temporarily posted for her next project. "I couldn't get it out of my mind, so I thought, is it possible that this could be reimagined for someone like me? Because I think I have a take on it that could actually work — making it about a middle-aged Black woman, someone fighting for a last chance rather than another chance. When you're young we all get chances, they're a dime a dozen. But when you're at a certain stage in life it becomes something more impactful and meaningful, right? So about six months later when [Lively] decided in her own time that it wasn't for her, I went to the producer, Basil Iwanyk, who I'd just done John Wick 3 with, and gave him my pitch. And he said, 'Great, we love that idea. Now go find a director.'"
Berry, a longtime UFC loyalist and fan of eye-of-the-tiger touchstones like Rocky, Raging Bull, Girlfight, and Million Dollar Baby, dutifully met with nearly a dozen potential takers, but left disappointed: "I had to go back and say, 'I've tried really hard, but what's in my head, no one else sees. This is going to sound really crazy because it's crazy for me to even think it, but I think I should direct this.'"
Iwanyk agreed, and she began to customize the story line, bringing on Adan Canto (Designated Survivor) as Jackie's abusive manager/boyfriend, Good Girls' Danny Boyd Jr. as her estranged 6-year-old son, and a statuesque British stage actress named Sheila Atim as Bobbi "Buddhakan" Berroa, the reluctant trainer who also becomes her love interest. Still, stepping into the top jobs on both sides of the camera seemed like a preposterous risk; the physical training alone would be brutal. There was also the question of believability: Could audiences buy a prizefighter, even a broken one, in her 50s?
It's become cliché by now to note the almost surreal endurance of Berry's beauty; whole corners of the internet remain dedicated to it. In person though, it's nearly impossible not to stare at the startling symmetry of her face; her fight-club-honed body, too — even clad as unobtrusively as it is today in low-key black from neck to toe, like the world's chicest street mime — does not appear to acknowledge the mortal effects of age or gravity. She credits good luck and clean living (a by-product of decades spent managing type 1 diabetes) for keeping her so improbably fit, as well as extensive training for heavy-load action films from 2004's Catwoman to the X-Men franchise. Still, it's hard to picture most actresses in her demographic putting themselves in front of a fist — and uncountable elbows, and at least one vicious roundhouse kick — with as much willful abandon as she does in Bruised. In fact, Berry broke two ribs on the first day of shooting (not the same ribs, it should be said, that were cracked on Wick: "When you break something, it calcifies and it's stronger. You don't usually break the same bones twice," she explains helpfully.)
Realizing the stakes, Berry chose to work through the pain and not pause production. With Wick, she recalls, "I told the director about it, they told the insurance. We had to shut down for months and it was a big ordeal. On this, because it was an independent movie, we didn't have a big budget. The director in me said, 'I didn't come this far and work this hard to go home.'"
The location of the break, says fight choreographer and stunt coordinator Eric Brown, is "kind of a crazy injury. But that was just her intensity…. Halle's a special case. I've worked with tons of actors, and almost none of them have that kind of work ethic."
Berry's IMDb page backs him up; she's rarely been snobbish or half-committed when it comes to genre, moving between big-bang popcorn (X-Men, Swordfish) and quieter dramas (Frankie & Alice, Things We Lost in the Fire), with an underappreciated sideline in comedy (the fandom for '90s gems like Boomerang and B.A.P.S in particular endures).
Even after an Emmy and a Golden Globe for the 1999 TV movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge and her 2002 Academy Award, though, she found herself still struggling to land the kind of roles that most white actresses with her bankability and trophy case would presume as a birthright. The result is a resumé, Berry readily admits, guided as much by economic necessity as artistic choices: "It's like, okay, that's a film I can't say I'm totally in love with, but this isn't a hobby. It's how I take care of my children. But I try to keep that sense of wonder and stay curious. Because being a Black woman, I haven't always had parts that I absolutely love.'
"It was surprising," she acknowledges of her prospects post-Oscar, when the expected deluge of offers for prestige directors and projects never came. "Because I thought they were going to just back up the truck and drop them off at my house, right? When you have a historic win like that, you think, 'Oh, this is going to fundamentally change.' It did fundamentally change me, but it didn't change my place in the business overnight. I still had to go back to work. I still had to try to fight to make a way out of no way."
As both boss and star, Bruised allowed her — budget and broken bones permitting — a kind of agency she's never had before, especially when it came to expressing sexuality on screen. After years of being directed by others, she says it was crucial to make her love scenes with Atim not only "beautiful, but something that felt realistic and not salacious. Sheila was as in charge of it as I was, and that's how I like it, because we're exposing part of ourselves. It's an intimacy."
Berry is well aware that past roles haven't always allowed for that same level of nuance or control. Still, she's adamant about owning the entirety of her career — even Catwoman, the latexed slice of superhero camp whose grim reviews lined the litter box, earning her a Razzie award. (In typical good humor, she accepted in person, and brought her Oscar along to the podium.) "For me," she insists, "it was one of the biggest paydays of my whole life, which, there's nothing wrong with that…. I don't want to feel like 'Oh, I can only do award-worthy stuff.' What is an award-worthy performance?"
Still, the press narrative that solidified around her — that she was not in charge of her personal or professional direction, that she was somehow Oscar-cursed — eventually left her so disillusioned that for nearly a decade, "I just stopped talking. I thought, 'I can't keep allowing people to tell me the same story, the same version of who I am.' I have evolved, I've moved on, I'm grown. Let me live!" she exclaims, as close to exasperated as she's sounded all day. "Social media has been great for that because I get to be who I am. And they get to meet me where I'm at, not in the past."
An early enthusiastic adopter of Twitter and Instagram, Berry has indeed built up an engaging and gratifyingly unfiltered presence online — posting throwbacks, memes, and occasional clapbacks in ways that seem both determinedly positive (she often uses the platform to lift up people she admires, particularly young women of color) and refreshingly unmodulated by actressy ego or marketing concerns.
She chooses to see the rise of smaller screens as a new kind of freedom for filmmaking, too: "With the pandemic I think we pushed ourselves probably 15 years ahead, because people want to watch things at home on their own time. They want to stop it and start it. So I think we have to start reimagining and rethinking how we're evolving. People have said to me, 'You made an independent movie. Why would you sell it to Netflix?' Because I'm assured people will see it, and that's the goal! That is ultimately the goal."
Increasingly, Berry is leaning into the screen-to-stream model; after playing an astronaut in the upcoming Roland Emmerich action blowout Moonfall, due in multiplexes early next year, she signed on to shoot another Netflix project, The Mothership, a family-centered sci-fi story helmed by Bridge of Spies screenwriter Matt Charman. Daily 4 a.m. call times preclude her from doing much off set in Boston besides spending time with her kids — taking son Maceo, 7, to local farms and go-kart tracks, or walking 13-year-old daughter Nahla across the Commons to watch In the Heights. Again. ("Ten times!" she says, laughing. "I'm like, 'Can we please see something else?' ")
But when Mothership wraps, she says, she wouldn't say no to a second crack at television — 2014's Steven Spielberg-produced Extant ran for two seasons on CBS, and made her one of the first movie stars to sign on to the TV renaissance — another action franchise, or an eventual transition into directing full-time.
"It used to be when you were 40 your career was done, and I mean really done," she says. "Or you had to wait until you were old enough to play a grandma, and then you could have another bite at the apple, right? I mean, I couldn't think that I'd be playing an MMA fighter at 54 years old. Yet I did, so it's got to be changing. I'm proof of that."
It's a brave new world for more than just Berry, of course; the long, messy work of progress takes uncountable moving parts. But she can still thank her damn self, to start.