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A career so strong it survived 'Catwoman'

Halle Berry makes no apologies for the films she's made since winning an Oscar in 2002. It wasn't a detour, she says, just part of the journey.

October 21, 2007|Gina Piccalo | 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."

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