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A New Level of Comfort

Halle Berry once turned down film parts that didn't jibe with her self-imposed image of 'role model.' Things have changed.


NEW YORK — Other people's opinions: Actress Halle Berry doesn't live for them anymore.

And that, in a nutshell, is the answer to the nudity question.

Berry is ensconced in a room in the fashion-forward Time Hotel in midtown Manhattan, here to talk about "Monster's Ball," a tough film about the unexpected relationship between a racist death row prison guard (Billy Bob Thornton) and the widow of one of the black men he has helped execute.

There's plenty to discuss about this brooding, provocative film--but Berry finds that all anyone (read: reporters) wants to talk about is the film's steamy, progressively undressed love scene she plays with Thornton in the film. Or her 42-second (according to a Web site that measures such things) topless shot in last year's "Swordfish." Or the fact that, after a decade in the movies, she chose to take off her clothes at all.

"There are a lot of issues people are not asking about," she says of the press' fascination with her nude scenes.

On an unseasonably warm December day in Manhattan, Berry is a vision in a bone-colored knit dress--but one gets the feeling she'd be a vision in a sweatsuit after a 5-mile run. Her looks, she maintains, are exactly the thing that have stood in her way of playing roles such as Leticia Musgrove in "Monster's Ball," a part she had to fight to get.

In a sense, Berry has battled what she calls "the model image" right from the start of her career, when she convinced Spike Lee she could play a crack addict in "Jungle Fever" and again when she won the right to play a woman who aged into her senior years in Alex Haley's "Queen." But despite well-regarded acting turns in "Losing Isaiah" and "Bulworth," she still struggles against the perception that she's too beautiful to play a troubled character.

"That's the thing I run up against: She's too pretty, she's the face of Revlon," says Berry, 33, who won the Miss Teen All-American Pageant in 1985, representing Ohio from her native Cleveland. "People think that if you look this way, you can't be downtrodden. They have this stereotyped image--and it's nice to challenge stereotypes. I've had my fair share of ups and downs."

The daughter of an African American father and a white mother who divorced when she was 4, Berry battled for this role in a story about the ways racial hatred is passed down from generation to generation--and the ways it can be overcome.

"Being the product of an interracial marriage, I've always known the racial divide is insane and ridiculous," she says. "This film speaks to the issue that people are racist because they are taught to be. Those attitudes are passed down without meaning. The sad part is that these people don't even understand why they believe what they believe. But in this film, those beliefs get challenged."

The film got a jump-start before it even opened, when the National Board of Review named Berry and Thornton as best actress and actor of the year. Berry subsequently was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an American Film Institute Award as best actress. But she said the NBR award, coming in early December, almost a month before the film's opening, moved her to tears.

"I think I had an out-of-body experience," she says. "This is an independent movie that I thought would not get noticed in that way. I just hoped that it would get other directors to see me differently. What I hoped when I got the role was to get people talking, to draw people to the theater to get the message. So the awards are a great thing to happen to an independent movie. We hope they make people curious enough to see the film."

Even a couple of years ago, Berry would have read the "Monster's Ball" script, gotten to the surprisingly explicit love scene--and tossed the script aside.

"All I'd have to hear was 'nude scene' and I'd say, 'Don't send me that,'" she says. "I'm sure I passed up wonderful scripts that I never read because I knew they required nudity."

The reason: the fear of disappointing other people. Having been class president and prom queen in high school (where she was also an honor society member and editor of the school newspaper), Berry grew up eager to please others. She found that, as her fame and visibility increased, so did the hopes of people she didn't even know, whose belief in her as a role model brought surprising pressure to bear on Berry's psyche.

"I worked hard to be what people wanted," she says. "I used to be obsessed with wanting their approval, way back to my childhood. Particularly the black community. So many black people would approach me and say, 'My daughter aspires to be like you. Stay positive.' So I'd try to stay that way.

"I thought that if I did nudity, I'd let them down and send the wrong message to those girls. But then I realized it's not my job to raise those girls."

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