When Halle Berry first read the script of her most recent film, Bruised—which she directs and stars in—she knew it wasn’t going to work for her. The Netflix movie, about a troubled mixed martial arts fighter who tries to get back into the sport when she regains custody of her son, was clearly written for an actress who could play an Irish Catholic woman in her early twenties. Berry was drawn to the intensely physical and emotional story, and identified with the motherhood subplot, but she recognized that the lead role would have to be reworked if a Black woman in her fifties was going to play her—even if it was a Black woman who has looked ageless for her entire career.
Another actress was considering the project, and Berry’s agent told her to wait to see if the film came to her instead. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I became obsessed,” Berry says. When the other actress eventually passed, Berry was ready. “I was then able to make my pitch for how I could reimagine it for someone like me,” Berry says. She helped rework the screenplay, and after meeting with several potential directors, she realized that she might be the best person for that job, too. The resulting film is harrowing and deeply affecting, with Berry again doing what she does best: showing us a complicated Black woman in a way we haven’t seen before onscreen.
Bruised shows Berry doing what she does best: portraying a complicated Black woman in a new way. But this time around, she’s also behind the camera.
Berry has seemed to be everywhere lately—posting photos of her boyfriend, the musician Van Hunt, on Twitter; uploading her workout videos on Instagram; tweeting with fans about her older films, like the Black comedies B.A.P.S and Boomerang, that get new waves of online praise. It’s fitting joy for an actress who has consistently pushed boundaries—from being the only Black woman who’s ever won a Best Actress Oscar to producing and starring in a film about pioneering film star Dorothy Dandridge. “Some of these movies were way before their time, and it’s nice to go back and have the conversation with people who appreciate them for what they were,” Berry tells me.
She grew up watching boxing movies like Raging Bull; she loved the idea of a “strong, noble man” who triumphs in the end. “Fighting for the right to be is something that I know,” she says. “I started my career 30 years ago when Black women didn’t really have a prominent place in the industry, so I understand what it is to fight for what you believe in. I love stories that are about redemption, allowing people second chances—and in our case, last chances. I love knowing that we can all make mistakes and be forgiven.” Being a mother, she adds, has also given her insight into the kinds of sacrifices a mother is willing to make, and how a child can motivate a person to be her best self. In the film, Berry’s character gives up her son and then, “full of fear and self-loathing and doubt,” soon leaves fighting. It is only when the father of her child dies and her son is left on her doorstep that she is motivated to return to competition.
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“It was one of the hardest things that I have ever done, and that I’ll probably ever do,” Berry says. “I don’t really think I will ever direct and act in a film in quite this way again; it was a monster role. I had a lot of pressure.” She trained for nearly two years while simultaneously revising the script. Berry had done some boxing and capoeira, but learning mixed martial arts was “pretty intense.”
Berry had to learn new skills as a first-time director, too. She had met with around 12 filmmakers when searching for an outside director, but none of them seemed to understand the story she wanted to tell, the Black female perspective she wanted the film to have. “As I’ve gotten older and as I’ve grown in the business, I’ve been feeling like storytelling is what I would probably do in my second act,” Berry says. And so she decided to ask the producers whether she could direct the movie herself.
The professional mixed martial arts fighter who played her rival, Valentina Shevchenko, tells me that filming was one of the highlights of her year. She and Berry trained for five hours every day over two months—“She’s in incredible physical shape,” Shevchenko says—for their fight scene. “From the direction side, it was very easy to work with Halle because she can explain what she has in mind and what she wants from you,” Shevchenko says. “She’s trying to find an approach to everyone in a unique way.”
Berry wants to direct again, but she’s prioritizing staying well in the meantime. She considers herself spiritual, and takes the time to meditate and read self-help books to be a better mother and person. During the lockdown, she started rē•spin, a wellness website, to help people be healthy at home. And she is happy to see her industry finally evolving in the wake of last year’s racial uprising. “For so many years, it felt like making a way out of no way. When I was starting out, the landscape was very, very different than it is now,” Berry says. “I’m grateful that I’m still here, and I’m a part of this awakening. Because I really feel inspired by what’s happening now.”
Hair by Sara Seward; Makeup by Jorge Monroy; Manicure by Kayo Higuchi for Chanel Les Vernis; Produce by Jonathan Bossle at Tightrope Production.
This article appears in the November 2021 issue of ELLE.
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