Halle Berry: ‘Bruised’

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Actress and director Halle Berry. Photo credit: Randy Holmes

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes Oscar-winning actress and first time director Halle Berry. Berry’s directorial debut is “Bruised” on Netflix, which is about a disgraced MMA fighter who is battling her own personal demons. Berry also plays the lead in the film. She won the Oscar for her leading role in “Monster’s Ball” in 2001. Berry tells The Treatment that she is often drawn to characters who are broken down and searching. She says she actually shot one of her most challenging scenes on the first day of filming. And she says she wanted the look of the film to reflect the harsh, worn down world of the characters. 

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Welcome to the treatment, the Home Edition. My guest, Halle Berry, in her 30 years as an actor, has often played characters who show us their determination. This time she has to find her way back to her will in her directorial debut, "Bruised." You've so often played characters who are really determined, and I wondered if that made doing "Bruised" interesting for you. 

Halle Berry: I always love those characters that are in some ways in search of something or struggling, who are multi-layered, complicated, fractured, in some way broken, fighting their way towards something, finding something. So this character fit in that sweet spot.

KCRW: Even the way it's shot in sepia tones, it's like you're telling us through the way the film looks that this is an age old story with a woman in the center instead of a man. 

Berry: I love this genre, which is one of the reasons I think I was so attracted to this story. I love a good fight movie; I love a good underdog comeback, someone searching for redemption and finding it. The only reason to make a new one, in my opinion, because they've been made by some of the greatest directors of our time, was to have a new perspective. And I'd never seen a fight film from the perspective of a Black woman in MMA, which is now fast becoming a number one sport, and certainly in this world, in this community, in this inner city of Newark, New Jersey.

KCRW: MMA is at its core kind of a fighting system with no rules, but with a strict sort of code anyway. And the idea of putting a Black woman in a fight world where it's not about sticking to the rules, but finding a way to will herself through it seemed really interesting.

Berry: I thought so too, but there are rules to MMA. It looks like there are no rules because there are so many disciplines at play. It's just not boxing, something that we all can really understand the entire time we're watching. There are like seven or eight martial arts at play. But yeah, that's what made it interesting, I think, for me to see a new perspective, to see a take on this new sport that's emerging and to get inside of that from a female perspective because women are a big part of MMA.

KCRW: The movie seems to me to be about frustration, and people not being able to see what's in front of them. 

Berry: Yeah, I think that would be one way to put it. I think it's equal parts drama and equal parts fight movie. I had to figure out the drama behind the story to understand why a woman would fight because it's just not naturally what I think we do as women. We don't always think, yeah, I want to go get punched in the face, so I had to tell the story of why we fight as women. And I think all these characters are fractured and broken and trying to put their pieces back together. So I think that's in line with what you just said, trying to figure out what's in front of them. They're trying to figure out their life and deal with their own dysfunction and their family of origin, dysfunction and generational trauma, all those things that so many people have to face in real life.

KCRW: Yeah, it really seemed like this incredible metaphor for what women of color have to go through.

Berry: Yeah, I think not just women of color. I think women specifically have been marginalized since the beginning of time. And our struggle is always a different struggle versus our male counterparts. Whether you be Black or white, just being a woman, you have a different struggle, and then you make the person a Black woman, then you have even a more intense struggle.

KCRW: In so many ways we could look at this as the way you fought throughout your career, to make people look at you as more than just a pretty face.

Berry: Yeah, more than that and also, a Black woman finding a place no matter what my face looked like, finding a place as a woman of color, a Black woman finding roles that people thought were befitting of me, finding a way making a way out of nowhere. I started 30 years ago, and there weren't nearly the opportunities that Black women have today presented to me. It was really about fighting and finding a way and creating my own opportunities. And even today, I've created my own opportunities. I had to direct this movie and create another opportunity to tell a story and to create a vehicle for myself as an actor that I really, really wanted to play.

KCRW: Tell the audience what "Bruised" is about.

Berry: "Bruised" is essentially a story of a disgraced MMA fighter, my character Jackie Justice, who finds herself in a precarious situation because the six year-old son that she abandoned at birth is now dropped at her doorstep because the father that she left him with was suddenly killed. And now she has to figure out a way to get back in the ring again to get her career back because now she has to be the mother of this child, but, of course, he doesn't know who she is. So she's got to earn his respect back, earn her right back to actually be his mother.

KCRW: One of my favorite scenes, which I feel like is a scene that really shows your skills as a director, is the scene where the little boy Manny is cooking for himself, and it turns into something else. And suddenly, it's a story about household frustration and how domestic violence breaks out. Talk about staging that and directing it, because it's really demanding a lot of you, and we have to know what's going on at all times. 

Berry: Yeah, there are a lot of colors in that scene. There's the point of view of Desi, who is Jackie's boyfriend. There is Jackie's point of view. And then you have the little boy Manny in there who's having his own feelings about what's happening. In our story, this character of Desi, who was technically the abusive boyfriend, I think what I tried to do in the movie was get people to understand how frustration can build up and bring out different colors in ourselves that we put not our best foot forward, but we're just trying to deal. In all fairness, this guy never wanted to be a father; he never wanted to have this kid dropped back at his doorstep. It's not his kid. He's a fighter, he had a different dream and different plans. So when this child just gets dropped back into her life, it gets dropped in his life as well. And he struggles with dealing with that, and being an alcoholic, the struggle is even greater. 

So it was about trying to stage this thing in a way where we could try to understand why these characters were doing what they were doing and what their frustrations might be. Because I think if we can understand why then we can find a way to have a little bit of compassion for others, even when it seems like they're doing rather heinous things. 

BRUISED (2021) Halle Berry (Director) as Jackie Justice. Photo credit: John Baer/NETFLIX

KCRW: Yeah, I think what's really interesting about the movie is you really take your time. We don't really know the full story behind Jackie's disgrace and stepping away from MMA until a half hour into the movie. 

Berry: I love movies when I have to get engaged with the characters, and I like to think. I like to figure out what's happening. I don't always like things spoon fed to me right at the top. I like the mystery of watching a movie reveal itself and investing in the characters and then have moments throughout where I go, Oh, now I get that. Oh, that makes sense. Those are just the kinds of movies that I enjoy. So I tried to use those sensibilities of what I love as a movie goer and tried to stack those into this film.

KCRW: It has to be a world where we believe these relationships, and the scene where we get to hear your character talk about the real backstory behind what that relationship [with her mother] was, it's not played for melodramatic hysterics, but she's just being really matter of fact about abuse. 

Berry: One of the reasons it comes later in the film was because this is something that happened years and years and years ago and has never been talked about. So it would take a minute for that to come out in the movie, and it would take a situation that would force that to come out because they've been keeping these secrets for decades. It's so true in families with this generational trauma, there's things that people and families never talk about, they never find the courage, they never face it, and they stay stuck in their dysfunction. Because the little boy was dropped back into her life, what she couldn't do for herself, she couldn't speak up for herself throughout her whole life, but now knowing that this child that was hers might find himself in this environment, was the impetus for her to finally face her mother so that that which happened to her wouldn't happen to this little boy.

KCRW: Again, this is not a scene about hysterics. It's a scene of  her just putting this stuff out there, and I want to hear you talk about that, too, because you find a way to underplay a lot of this stuff that could be much bigger and be a set piece, but in fact, it's a building block towards where we end up at the end.

Berry: Yeah, because I really believe that in life, we don't really often go off into all those histrionics, into all those big moments that become drama filled. Sometimes we just drop little bombs, and we drop little truths. And just dropping those words is enough to ignite the situation. And I really was determined to play against melodrama and to make these things bigger than they needed to be, but trying to always stick with the reality of these situations and what I know to be true about these situations.

I come from a pretty abusive background, and I've seen many of these things play out for real, and oftentimes, they are not very dramatic, not at all. They sort of come out of nowhere, and they're over as fast as they come out. At least that's what I know to be true.

KCRW: It gives us some idea who Jackie is because we hear that she's a good grappler, and she knows when to inflict damage. That's almost her fighter coming out in her. She knows exactly what to say to do the most damage at this moment.

Berry: Yeah, she's doing damage, but she's also in pain. And this is the way she's surviving. She has to get it out of her body. You could say it's doing damage, but she's finally taking care of herself. She's finally realizing that she matters, that she's important. She's got to take care of this kid. She's connecting to that idea of: take care of yourself first and then you can take care of the littles, you know, like they tell you on the airplane: put your mask on first, then take care of the person with you. So she's also connecting to that, realizing she's got to get well, and confronting her mother is probably a first step in really becoming well.

BRUISED (2021) Halle Berry and Valentina Shevchenko. Photo credit: John Baer/NETFLIX

KCRW: It could have been really big and theatrical, and just the idea of setting it in the MMA world with a woman protagonist at the center, you could have gone in a much broader direction and made it about the fight. And it's not just about the fight at all, is it?

Berry: No, it's not just about the fight. For me it had to be about why this woman fought, why as women we choose to get involved in a bloodsport. That's just not what most women choose to do. So I was very fascinated as a filmmaker [about] the why. What drives someone to fight? What do women get out of this sport. That had to be a part of the story for me and all of this backstory and all of these relationships I needed to understand what she was fighting for and what she was running from or what she was fighting to achieve. All of that mattered. And so we could only tell it by having all of that family stuff and that relationship stuff, and all of those characters were essential. 

KCRW: I want to ask you about what it was like, your first day on the set, as director.

Berry: You know, it was pretty amazing. I remember pinching myself. It was such a long arduous journey to get to that point, when you do an independent movie, and you have to raise the money yourself. And I had been training for two and a half years reworking the script for probably a year and a half. It was such a long journey to get to that point. And there was a sense of feeling, it was surreal in some way, that it wasn't really happening. 

We also started with our big fight because I had been training with Valentina. We had done a weight cut; we had our choreo; we were all ready to go. So I actually shot the big fight at the end first. So my first day was in Atlantic City at Boardwalk Hall in this beautiful arena, about to do the fight of my life. That was day one of shooting.

KCRW: That's the kind of thing I feel you want to wait until the end of the shoot, so you have the kind of confidence you need, but you felt like you could do that from the outset.

Berry: Well, I really felt I had to because to shoot that fight on a level in which we shot it, I needed to be in tip top shape. Valentina needed to be ready, and we had worked on our choreo, so to do it at the end, that would have meant that I wouldn't have been able to have everyday to train with her. It wouldn't be fresh in our mind. So it had to be at the beginning of the shoot, so we could come fresh from our training right to the octagon. So my first day had to be that, whether I liked it or not.

KCRW: We get to see Jackie's physical posture change, as she's working out, and we get to see that confidence, but you started with that. That fascinates me because I figure you want to give yourself some chance to win that. Did it feel right to you that you could just start the film with your shoulders back and your head held up the way we don't see her at the beginning of the movie?

Berry: Yeah, because I knew the importance of shooting that first. I knew that it would be detrimental to the film if I waited till the end. To do that, I didn't think I would get the quality fight that I got out of myself and Valentina, because weeks would have gone by where we wouldn't have been able to be together. I would have been directing and  doing the rest of the movie. So I had to be ready. 

As an actor, we often shoot things out of order. We often play the end before the beginning, or we play the middle, then the beginning, then the end. So I'm used to compartmentalizing my performance that way and having it all mapped out. And always knowing where I am, no matter what the director would throw at me as an actor, it's my job to know where I am in the story and how I should be comporting myself along the way.

KCRW: Talk to me about the way it's shot. It's sepia toned; the world is kind of worn down. I want to know how you arrived at that look.

Berry: I thought that look would help us understand the world because it was a very worn down, rough world. There were people fighting for their lives, fighting to put their pieces back together. It was dark; it was heavy. And while it was also filled with some joy, I definitely wanted the look and feel to get inside of the truth of the story. It's a very worn, worn world. They're dealing with heavy, heavy issues, and I wanted us to feel that in its look and tone.

KCRW: Interesting, too, it almost all takes place at night.

Berry: Yes, and that was also by choice. [It was] sort of a subliminal way to feel the darkness of the world and feel the heaviness of the world, and I tried to put in rain. I had to fight really hard for the rain because rain is expensive, but I was determined to have that feeling of rain and the heaviness of what that makes us feel.

KCRW: So much of this frustration comes out when people who are exhausted have no place to turn. And we really feel that is the way she's acting and her manager is acting and her mother is acting basically at the end of the day when you barely have any resources left.

Berry: Yeah, and you know, those kinds of things usually happen behind closed doors, like you just said, in the evening hours when you get home from whatever your day is, and you're stuck. Wherever you run that's where you are, and sometimes you're stuck with people, you're stuck with situations and you're forced to deal.

KCRW: It is such a confident piece of filmmaking. As you were putting it together and doing the editing, were you surprised at the way it turned out?

Berry: I was very pleased and surprised. We didn't have many days, like 22. We didn't have a lot of money. Many days, I only got to do two takes. One scene, I only got to shoot a medium wide. And that's all we had time for. It ends up in the movie, just as I shot it, and I literally had one take. So when I got into the edit, I was surprised that I had more film, and more coverage of things, than it felt like I had on the day because I always felt so rushed. I felt like most of the time, the actors got two takes and that was it, and I had to move on in order to make my days. I feared that I just wouldn't have enough or enough great takes to put the story together and that I would let the actors down because I didn't give them enough time to play. But I was surprised by what I actually did get to capture once I got into the edit.

KCRW: There are a lot of long takes. We really get to see these characters and have these very small rooms that feel really claustrophobic, which has to be part of your plan, too. It's clearly why you have such skilled and talented actors because they have to be ready to go for a long time.

Berry: Yes, and I knew as I was cherry picking these actors, what would be required of them because I knew the script inside and out. I knew the money we didn't have; I knew the locations we would have. It all had to be practical locations. You couldn't take walls out or move things for the camera. We would be in tight tight spaces, and everybody would have to bring their A game very quickly. And so I knew that I needed actors that really were up for that challenge and that would be willing to play in that way. And they would be willing to go far and not worry about being judged, but just service these characters and do somewhat heinous things and know that their job was to just service the characters and not to judge them. And all of these actors were ready for that and ready to just leave it out there.

KCRW: At one point, Bobby talks about what she had to do to get to a Zen state, and you use a lot of the music in the films as communicators. There's a really great scene with a cello version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," that's reflective of that, but a few more moments like that in the film, too.

Berry: Yeah. And I love that you said that about Leonard Cohen. That's one of my favorite pieces. And I wanted to, in a subtle way, bring this idea of religion into the film because in every Black community, there is a church and often a liquor store on every other corner. And so, you know, the Black community, the Black family is steeped in religion, so I wanted to talk about it in a subtle way. 

KCRW: Just using that song for texture rather than for declaiming, I thought was, again, really about you wanting the audience to concentrate and get lost in the story, rather than just lay it all out for them. I mean, you really must have spent a lot of time just making sure this thing was as beveled and worked out to the core as you could.

Berry: I did. I had the luxury of spending a lot of time on the script before we actually went to production. I've learned over the years with successes and failures that I've had that script is king, and that that work needs to be done upfront. Because once you start shooting, if you have to be still writing and rewriting your script, I've always seen that turn out to be a disaster, at least things that I've worked on. So as a first time director, I knew that I needed that part of it to be solid, at least solidly what I wanted to do and what I saw in my mind. So on shoot day, I could worry about being also the actress, knowing that I could count on my script that I worked so hard on.

KCRW: The frustration often comes after moments of what could be humiliation for the characters, so that by the end, what could be humiliation for her is not that at all. It's a learning experience, that fight.

Berry: It is. And it's a testament to what she's made of and the fact that it was also by design that she ends up at that fight and that her trainer doesn't show up and that all she's got is the first friendly face she saw when she walked into that gym, a guy that knew her, that was always silently in her corner, and that he was all she had in that moment. And it was about her realizing that she has all the things that she needs inside of herself, kind of like "The Wizard of Oz." Dorothy could have always gone home, it was always inside her. She didn't know it. And I guess that's what I wanted Jackie justice to learn about herself: in that moment she has all the tools, all the keys, all the power. It's all inside her. She just didn't know it.



Rebecca Mooney