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The Woman Who Would Be Queen

February 14, 1993|JUDITH LAZARUS | Judith Lazarus is a free-lance writer based in Calabasas Hills

"Although what I've gone through isn't anything close to what Alex Haley's grandmother suffered, in the corner of my mind I was always aware that it could have been me. This could have been my story, and that made it real," says Halle Berry, who plays the title role in "Queen."

"Being interracial myself, it dug up childhood feelings of not knowing who I was or where I belonged, and the hurt I felt at the things people said." Berry's mother is white; her father is black.

"Queen was so naive that she was more confused at the rejection than the hurt. She was born of love, not lust, and knew deep down the white side of her family loved her. She could see their pain at rejecting her but couldn't believe they wouldn't accept her.

"All people have the same range of emotions. They're smart and not so smart, funny and not so funny, but we're mostly the same when it comes to love and family."

Berry believes that "Queen" is a tale with a message that is important and relevant to viewers today. She hopes that viewers come away from it with an understanding that love can be deep and legitimate between people who may seem different on the surface. "People just aren't used to seeing it," Berry said. "We should all be our own unique selves and appreciate the differences."

The role challenged her in other ways as well, including expectations for the other branch in the Haley family tree. The role requires the 24-year-old Berry to age from 15 to 65, in the presence of a daunting cast that included Danny Glover, Ann-Margret, Martin Sheen, Jasmine Guy, Madge Sinclair, Paul Winfield and Ossie Davis. Much of the time, she suffered back pain in sweltering heat, compounded by wearing a constricting corset the role required.

"During a scene in which two men at the local store are harassing me, I jump on my horse to elude them," Berry said. "Going through a gate, my wide skirt caught on a nail and the horse bolted." The result was weeks of pain, medication and riding to the plantation location in an ambulance. But to delay the shoot would have meant recasting Glover as "husband Alec" because of scheduling conflicts. Working with Glover was something Berry didn't want to miss.

"The scenes with him were some of the most important in Queen's life, and most emotional for me," she said.

Berry's back injury made it harder to endure the hours of makeup necessary to age the young actress through five decades. To ease things, a ramp was built and a dentist chair rented for the makeup trailer. "The first prostheses made me look like something from 'Star Wars,' " Berry said. "But it was toned down and I relied more on acting technique as I 'aged.' "

Berry looks uncannily like the real Queen. When George Haley, the late author's brother, came to the set, he looked up at the actress in costume and said, "Hello, Grandmother."

To help prepare for the part, Berry read many books of the time, including "Slave Diaries," and haunted the streets, houses and plantations of the South to soak up the atmosphere.

"Everyone bonded on the set, reliving this painful chapter of history," Berry said. "There were no black and white issues; everyone felt compassionate toward each other. No one was judging others for what their ancestors did. Still, I was angry a lot to think all this really happened."

Sometimes she had trouble letting go of emotion. Director John Erman "knew all the right things to say to help," said Berry.

So did her new, real-life husband, Atlanta Brave Dave Justice. "When Dave flew in, he respected my working on my character and understood, gave me leeway when I was cranky," she said. "But he also gave me hugs to make me feel better, and told me I was doing a good job. It's nice to have someone say it with whom I'm comfortable enough to expect the truth."

When Berry was younger and wanted to know the truth about why she was "different," her mother, Judy, would put her in front of a mirror and ask her what she saw. "You're white, I'm brown," Berry said. "You're grown up, I'm little. Mom said that was the reality: 'You are black; we're different colors but I'm still your mom.' I'm grateful for that, knowing who and what I am. It's easier if you accept reality and be proud of your heritage."

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