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Halle Berry entered the ring ready — she's been a fighter all her life

Halle Berry plays MMA fighter Jackie Justice in <em>Bruised</em>.
John Baer
Halle Berry plays MMA fighter Jackie Justice in Bruised.

On the second day of filming her new movie, Bruised, Halle Berry broke two of her ribs. It's the kind of injury that can take months to heal, but Berry feared that taking time off of an independent film — which she was both directing and starring in — would derail the entire production. So she kept her injury a secret, and spent days shooting without a stunt double.

"I knew I could puncture a lung, sure," she says. "But I took the gamble. Stopping never crossed my mind."

In Bruised, which is now available on Netflix, Berry plays a disgraced mixed martial arts fighter named Jackie Justice, who takes on MMA's newest star. She does this to win back her name while figuring out how to be a mother to her estranged child. It's a role that Berry identifies with fundamentally.

"I understand the spirit of a fighter," she says. "I've also been a fighter my whole life, my whole career."

In the original script, the main character was a 21-year-old white Irish Catholic woman, so Berry knew the part would have to be reworked. Reimagining Jackie as a middle-aged Black woman allowed Berry to dive into topics that are important to her, including domestic abuse, intergenerational trauma and motherhood.

"The only reason to be a part of wanting to make another fight movie — and so many great ones have been made by some of the greatest directors of our time — was to try to show a different world, [to] have a different perspective," she says. "In this case, a female one and then a Black female one is even more different. We've really never seen that either. So those were the reasons why I really gravitated towards this story."

Interview highlights

On her decision to keep filming, despite her broken ribs

I had been training to play this character for two and a half years, and I really had acquired — I still have it and I don't know if I'll always have this — but I had the mindset of a fighter, and a fighter's mindset is you never stop.

I thought more about the production, how hard I worked, all the people that had worked so hard, who were all there, counting on me, counting on this movie to go forward. I knew I'd lose my money and I knew I'd probably never get Valentina Shevchenko back. She was my opponent, the current flyweight champion. The fact that she took three months out of her championship reign to come to a movie was pretty impressive. So I just knew I would lose all of these things that I had been working so hard for. ...

I had the mindset of a fighter, and a fighter's mindset is you never stop.

It was more, 'How can I get through this fight and will I be able to perform at a high level like I was planning on with this injury and not being able to breathe and the pain?' I was more worried about that and not doing a good job in the movie than actually really puncturing a lung.

"The only reason to ... make another fight movie — and so many great ones have been made by some of the greatest directors of our time — was to try to show a different world," Berry says of <em>Bruised</em>.
John Baer / Netflix
"The only reason to ... make another fight movie — and so many great ones have been made by some of the greatest directors of our time — was to try to show a different world," Berry says of Bruised.

On breaking out of the cycle of abuse that she grew up with

There's a lot of abuse in my childhood. I grew up with an alcoholic father [who] was very abusive: verbally, emotionally, physically. So those are issues that I knew in my life.

I wouldn't allow myself to be a victim of domestic violence. I was as a child because I had no choice, but when I grew into my womanhood, I knew that hitting me or allowing myself to be hit, or allowing myself to be involved with someone [who was] clearly in their addiction, and not dealing with it and seeking help, would never be a path I would choose. But I also knew that I was hardwired to find myself in that situation. And I did find myself in that situation a few times, because I was hardwired for that in some way. I was drawn to that, or I drew that to me. And it was in those moments I had to break the cycle and realize ... 'What am I going to do about it? Am I going to stay stuck? Or am I going to rise out of this and make changes so that I break the cycle?' And I'm happy to say I consciously have been breaking and will continue to break any cycle that I find myself in, and I think you only do that by being aware of what those cycles are.

On growing up in both Black and white neighborhoods in Cleveland, Ohio, and feeling like an outsider

I was being raised initially by my mom and my dad, then my dad left when I was about 3 years old and left my mom, who was a white woman, to raise these three little Black kids in this all-Black inner city neighborhood where she wasn't always accepted. As a girl, I wasn't always accepted having a white mother come up to the school. We were always called "half breeds" or "Oreos." We were made fun of. ...

[My mother decided] she needed to move us from the inner city and move us out to the suburbs. And while that was a smart thing to do, and I'm glad she did — we got a much better education living out in Oakwood Village and I went to Bedford High School — but then we had another problem. At that time, we were one of the only few Black children now in this neighborhood. So we were in culture shock in a way.

So, it led to a childhood, a feeling like not really fitting in into any world, because, in the Black world, we had this white mother that made us not fit in, and in and the white world, we had ourselves that made us not fit in. So that's sort of how my childhood was, searching [for] where I fit, and understanding who I was and my family of origin, and feeling very Black and treated very Black and discriminated against because I was Black, but also having this white mother.

On the lack of roles for Black women in Hollywood when she began her career 30 years ago

It was about trying to convince people that if it was a role written for a white woman that I could play her. But even that was a hard sell because it wasn't just saying, "Let's keep the character exactly the same and drop Halle in." That would be saying that you didn't have to pay any attention to the fact that it wasn't written for a Black woman. And we can't just drop a Black woman in a white woman's role and think that she can just play the part, because then you leave out the biggest part of us, which is our culture, which is who we are, which is how we behave in the world, the skin we walk in, and that has to be implemented into the script. And many times people didn't want to do that, work on the script. Or if they dropped me in as the wife ... then they would say, "Well, then what does that make the kids? Are the kids interracial? That's changing the story too much, so let's not do that."

On being the first Black woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress (in 2002 for Monster's Ball) and how she still wasn't offered more roles afterwards

I had this shiny, beautiful award, the top of my field, but there was still no place for me, really.

I would say within a few weeks after winning that award, I realized that nothing really had changed other than I had been indelibly changed. I had accomplished a huge goal. It was a huge accomplishment, and I was very proud of that, and I worked hard for that and fought hard to even get that movie. And I worked hard at portraying that character. So I felt proud. I felt accomplished. I had done something.

But I quickly realized that as a Black woman 20 years ago, the climate was very different than even it is today, there just weren't a lot of roles for me here. I had this shiny, beautiful award, the top of my field, but there was still no place for me, really.

On how things have changed in Hollywood for Black actors

I look around now and I see Black women on television and film everywhere. We have more opportunities today than we did 20 years ago. And if a Black woman wins [the Oscar] today, I do think she'll have scripts dropped off at her door because these scripts now exist because we have more female and Black female directors, we have more Black writers, we have more Black men and women producing. We didn't have that 20 years ago.

Ann Marie Baldonado and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Clare Lombardo adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.