For Halle Berry, the Academy Award-winning actress, her happy place is in the cage, where fighters trained in mixed martial arts do battle. "I could've never guessed that this would be the turn that my life would've taken," she said.
Berry has spent years training in kickboxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and other martial arts.
"Sunday Morning" contributor Kelefa Sanneh asked, "I'm guessing when you show up at an MMA gym, people are thinking, 'Ah, this'll be cute. Halle Berry's gonna do a little fighting.'"
"I don't think anybody was really ready for me to show up as the fighter that I've become," she replied.
Playing characters like Storm in the X-Men franchise, and Sofia in "John Wick 3," she got into action-hero shape.
"Do you remember your first time where you took a really hard shot?" Sanneh asked.
"I was training for 'John Wick,' and I was doing very much MMA-type style workouts, and I broke three ribs," Berry said.
But for her directorial debut, "Bruised," she had to be even tougher. Her character, Jackie Justice, is an MMA fighter.
Sanneh said, "There's the thing where you get punched in the face?"
"Yeah. Well, nobody wants to get punched in the face, especially not a woman. Like, it's not in our DNA to get punched in the face!"
To watch a trailer for "Bruised" click on the video player below:
Before she was an actress, Berry was a beauty queen. She was the first runner-up in the 1986 Miss USA Pageant. But in this film, her famous face is often beaten and bloody.
"Beauty is so subjective," she said. "But that word has been tagged to me since the beginning of my career. And so, I've had to work really hard to dispel what 'beauty' is, and what 'beauty' does, and what 'beauty' can do."
Since her first movie, when she played a drug addict in Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever," she has fought for chances to take on unglamorous roles. She said, "Do you think this package that I walk around in spares me any real-life situation? Do you think crack would pass me by because of the way I look?"
Her portrayal of Leticia Musgrove, the wife of a Death Row prisoner, in 2001's "Monster's Ball," made her the first Black woman to win a Best Actress Oscar.
Sanneh asked, "How did that change your life?"
"Now, more people knew who I was," she said. "But how it didn't change my life is, you know, the movie script truck didn't back up to my front door and just drop them all off because I had this beautiful golden guy now."
Maria Halle Berry was born in Ohio 55 years ago. Her middle name was a nod to Halle Brothers Company, a local high-end department store. But she says she has never had it easy: "I grew up in the inner city of Cleveland. Latchkey kid, absentee father. I was being raised by a single mother. So, you know, we had our good days, we had our bad days, we had hard days. I grew up very Middle America."
"Middle America? It sounds like the bad days were pretty bad."
"Some days were. I had a very abusive alcoholic dad, for the time that he was around. He was, you know, struggling, suffering. So, you know, I saw some things that, you know, most little kids shouldn't see."
Some kids escape through art or music. But she loved boxing. "Watching boxing on the weekends was my favorite pastime," she said. "I would imagine that these men like Muhammed Ali and George Foreman and Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard, like, they were in my family."
Sanneh asked, "Who was watching these fights with you when you were just sitting at home?
"Me! By myself."
"By yourself in front of the TV?"
"In my room, imagining that these men were my fathers … or my husbands! But more my fathers. And I just loved the spirit of boxing. I loved everything it represented. And I love the nobility of it."
"Did you take that fighting spirit onto the schoolyard?"
"Oh, I got in my fair share," Berry laughed. "And as I've navigated my way through my career, and have gotten older, that ability to fight and not being afraid to fight, realizing I have to fight, and wanting to fight, I think, has served me well."
Berry said she wants to be seen as a strong role model, especially for her daughter, who is now 13. "You know what it says to her? She can do anything she wants. And as a little girl, a little Black girl, a woman, a girl of color, she needs to see these images. She needs to realize that her mom can do anything she sets her mind to doing. She needs to understand that."
Sanneh asked, "Has she gotten in the cage yet?"
"Not yet," Berry smiled.
"This movie might encourage her – or discourage her."
"No, she will. What she will have to do, and I'm going to require this, is she will have to learn some form of martial arts. Like, I'm adamant about, especially women, learning how to protect themselves. I think that's key."
Over the years, Berry has learned that movie stardom means constant scrutiny.
"In the past I would read things about me and I would know that it's not true, and in the early days it would bother me; it would keep me up at night. And as I got older, and my skin got a little tougher, I realized that, 'You're just dinnertime fodder. Don't sweat it. The real people in your life know who you are.'"
Berry has served as an ambassador for Jenesse Center, a domestic violence organization. And she says mixed martial arts have been helpful to her, and to lots of women who have faced difficult times.
She said, "Many women are fighting to get their power back, they're fighting for their voice, they're fighting to be seen, to be heard. And, for me, I would say that's why I do it, too."
"What is it about fighting that has that appeal? What is it about risking that kind of violence, that kind of damage?" Sanneh asked.
"If you're desperate to heal, I think you'll take those punches in the face. Getting punched in the face doesn't feel as scary as some of the lives that these people have had to live. It pales in comparison."
"A lot of fighters talk about, 'They fight because they have to.' With you it seems like you're doing this because you want to."
"Because I have to. I have to, too," Berry said. "I have to, I have to survive. I had to make a way for myself. I've had to support myself. I've had to create a career for myself, a 'way outta no way.'
"'No' has never been an answer for me. Getting hurt and stopping? Never what I do. Questioning? Never what I do. Taking chances? Always what I do, because I have to."
And at an MMA gym, Sanneh learned one more lesson: Don't get in Halle Berry's way.
For more info:
- "Bruised" streams on Netflix beginning November 24
- Jenesse Center (Domestic Violence Intervention & Prevention Program)
- Instructor Rob Constance, at Renzo Gracie Academy, New York City
Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: Jason Schmidt.
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