Berry revels in success and a `good life'

November 17, 2003|By Bob Strauss | Bob Strauss,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Halle Berry has a big, Cheshire grin as she reports on her latest male trouble.

"He won't come out from under the bed," she says of the cat she adopted to study for the movie she's currently making, a Batmanless vehicle for the comic book hero's slinky nemesis/romantic interest, Catwoman. "It's not working too well, actually. He's scared of me."

Which, though she clearly finds it amusing, must also be kind of frustrating for the Academy Award-winning actress. But at least the shoe's on Puss-in-Boots now; the cat's scared, but not Berry, which is a very nice change from the way things once were.

"I'm really good," she says cheerfully, convincingly. "Yeah, I am. Life is good, you know? Nothing to be upset about."

Not even, apparently, the recent separation from her second husband, singer Eric Benet. Berry's happy, upbeat demeanor is the polar opposite of the self-lacerating one she carried seven years ago, shortly after the collapse of her first marriage to baseball player David Justice.

"I think the difference is that, ... then, I was in fear that that was going to break me," says Berry, who was well-established at the time as one of the world's great beauties, if not yet ranked among its most respected actresses. "He was my first big heartbreak in life, and dealing with it so publicly ... I was so fragile and scared. I've been around a little bit now. I've been through much worse than this, and I know that I'll be OK. I think I understand that, really, that's what life's about. I'm healthy, I've got enough food to eat, I've got my arms and my legs. ... Life is good."

And it's good Berry has learned to overcome fear. She needed that to get through Gothika, her first supernatural horror movie. Opening Friday, it's the story of a criminal psychologist who, after an eerie encounter on a dark road, wakes up an inmate of the prison psych ward where she used to work, accused of horrifically murdering her husband.

It's a big star turn that involves a lot of running, fighting and freaking out. And although it's in a genre picture, the assignment proved to be as demanding -- and as draining -- as the role that earned Berry the only best-actress Oscar ever won by an African-American woman, the grief-stricken Leticia Musgrove in the 2001 Monster's Ball.

"The hard part was to have that level of emotion for about three months," Berry says of Gothika character Dr. Miranda Grey's intense struggle with her own sanity, among many other trials. "I didn't really consider that when I read the script. But two weeks into shooting, I was like, `My God, I've got to do this for 10 more weeks? You're kidding?' That was the challenge. But it was also cathartic and, at the end of the day, felt good."

Well, not at the end of every day. One day at the film's Montreal location, while doing a take with Robert Downey Jr. (who plays Miranda's former colleague in the film), Berry broke her arm.

"It was one of the early scenes where my character realizes that she's been institutionalized and doesn't understand why," she recalls. "Of course, she's fighting, and Robert's character is trying to sedate me. We were fighting against each other, and my arm just twisted in the wrong way.

"No stunt coordinator was there. It wasn't anything that we thought would be that strenuous. But I guess we both were so into it and committed to going for the reality of the scene that it just cracked. I knew it was broken right away, and he did, too. I was on the floor in tears, screaming my head off. It was the most painful thing I've experienced that I remember."

Not that she's complaining, though. After a six-week production shutdown, Berry was back on the job, a sheath of prosthetic skin covering her arm cast.

There is no denying that Berry's beauty has been an integral part of her success. However, as she approaches an age when, well, age begins showing, the actress sounds fearless on that front as well.

"I'm not concerned yet," Berry, 37, says with a shrug. "I'm hoping that I become a woman who will be OK aging. I'm certainly OK with how I look now, and I know that I'm so much more than this shell that I walk around in."

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