LOS ANGELES – Her ribs ached, but she couldn't tape them. Her costume was a sports bra and bike shorts.
Berry didn’t tell anyone. Instead, she spent three more punishing days shooting "Bruised" (in limited theaters and now streaming on Netflix) without a stunt double, trading savage punches and kicks while playing washed-up fictional MMA fighter Jackie Justice opposite the current UFC Women's Flyweight Champion, Valentina Shevchenko.
“I knew if I told (producers) this happened, they would shut down and I would probably lose my funding. I just willed myself to do it,” she says. “I took a bunch of Advil and I just acted as if it wasn't happening.”
Six-time UFC champ Shevchenko, who plays Lady Killer in the film, remembers it similarly. “Every single take you have to do with your full power, full speed,” the fighter recalls, noting the bruises that audiences see on their bodies are real. “You could tell something happened.”
Berry, 55, who had trained relentlessly in judo, taekwondo and Muay Thai for more than two years, also knew what delays cost: Making 2019’s “John Wick 3,” production shut down "for eight weeks" when she broke her ribs.
And so the two continued to trade hits.
Jackie Justice, at this stage in her career, is Berry’s Everest. The character was famously conceived as a 21-year-old white Irish Catholic fighter, with Blake Lively attached to star.
After Lively moved on, Berry and screenwriter Michelle Rosenfarb re-envisioned the character as a has-been, middle-age fighter and absentee mother on a quest for redemption. When she couldn’t find the right director, Berry put herself up for the job.
“I felt like I was at a point in my career where I had to bet on myself,” she says. “I had to make it happen.”
Onscreen for much of “Bruised,” Berry’s famous bone structure is disfigured under bulging black eyes, blood or both. She loved it.
“Especially being me and people always commented on how I look, it was so liberating to wake up every day and the more (expletive) up I looked, the better it was going to be for the day's work,” she says.
At home with her 13-year-old daughter Nahla, her mantra is “beauty is as beauty does. I hammer that into her head because I know that to be true.”
Filters on social media particularly worry her: “Sometimes I'm her least favorite person in the world because she's like, ‘Oh, Mom, please let me just be a teenager of my generation!’ And I want her to do that, too. But I’m worried about her self-image. And the filter life – it's not a real life.”
"Bruised" enters the Oscar race alongside awards season favorites such as Maggie Gyllenhaal's “The Lost Daughter,” which also mines the experience of a mother who has abandoned her children. Early in "Bruised," Jackie’s 6-year-old Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.) turns up, a haunted look etched on his face, his father dead. Jackie freezes; a traumatized kid doesn’t fit into her narrative of a comeback fighter.
None of this is pretty. That’s the point.
If this movie doesn’t finally change the conversation about Berry, it’s unclear what will. Few can look past the onetime beauty queen’s looks, not even a morning show that recently opened an interview with Berry by showing an extended clip of her bikini-clad Bond girl rising from the surf.
Berry levels a gaze across the table of the Edition hotel, her face makeup-free on a warm fall afternoon. She says she has a “numbness” to it: “It’s one of the reasons I fought so hard to make this movie. Because being objectified that way is something I’ve come to realize I can’t do anything about. All I can do is fight to do movies like this where I’m not.”
Berry directs her own love scenes in this tattered tale, creating an evocative, sensual sex scene between Jackie and her female trainer Buddakhan (Sheila Atim) that feels specific to a female gaze.
“I’ve been in love scenes where I've had zero control, so it was a really good feeling knowing that I would be in control of it. And that was really important for me to make sure that the actors knew that they could trust me,” Berry says. “There’s nothing worse than to agree on something, and then you see the film and you go, ‘Oh, wait, that's not what they told me it would be like.’"
How many times has that happened to Berry? “A few,” she says.
Off-screen, the star took her quiet romance with Grammy-winning musician Van Hunt, 51, public in August 2020 after meeting earlier last year, set up through up a friend.
“When we found each other, I was really done with relationships,” she insists. It started “at the beginning of the pandemic” when Berry was in L.A. and Hunt was in Georgia: “For two and a half, three months, all we did was talk on the phone. Just hours talking or we would write letters. … We didn't FaceTime. We didn't do a Zoom.”
Three months later, they finally met in person. In April, they attended the Oscars together; last weekend, he was on the red carpet with Berry at her "Bruised" premiere in Los Angeles.
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In this relationship, “I'm 100% myself, whether he's with me or not. And he's 100% himself when I'm around or when I’m not. So this I know is the recipe. This is what had been lacking before – both people had to change significantly to make it work. And now we just really are good together and connect, being exactly who we are.”
Berry, who has been married three times, says that's "the beauty in getting it wrong. If I’m honest with myself, I knew the other things were wrong Day 1,” she says of past relationships.
“I probably wasn't at a point in my life where I could even admit that because I was so invested in the fantasy of having the thing that as women we think we need that complete us, that we've been taught since little girls to covet. So only I can know in this moment I got it right. I know the difference in the feeling, the difference in the relationship, the difference in the connection. …That's why I'm willing to be a bit more public because I know it's for real.”
In the acting ring, she remains the only Black woman to ever win best actress at the Academy Awards, almost 20 years ago. To put “Bruised” in context, there has never been a woman who directed herself to an acting Oscar nomination, while there are 14 men who share that honor, including Woody Allen, Denzel Washington, Bradley Cooper and Warren Beatty.
(Beatty, who directed Berry in 1998’s “Bulworth” and remains a close friend, is “one of the first people” she showed the finished film. So was Spike Lee, who cast Berry in her first role, in 1991’s “Jungle Fever.”)
“When I first started 30 years ago, I didn't see many Black faces around. Now they're everywhere in the business," she says. "So for me, I ask myself what's more important? Is it awards or is it work? How do we validate ourselves?”
She’s also still navigating parenthood in a pandemic. Berry is vaccinated, which she says was not a hard decision, but her children, 8-year-old Maceo (whom she shares with Olivier Martinez) and Nahla (whose father is Gabriel Aubry), are not yet.
“I’m struggling to figure out what I’m going to do," she said. "They've had no vaccines since they're born. I've been anti-vaccination. ... Getting a vaccinated for polio that was eradicated how many years ago didn't make sense to me.
"But now we're living through a pandemic, so getting vaccinated is making more sense to me. My daughter's 13 now, she wants to get vaccinated, she's OK with it. So I think we're going to start making these hard decisions that we have to make.”
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This Thanksgiving, Berry is serving up "Bruised" – a movie with her blood, sweat and tears all over it. Let the critics come, she says. It's time for the public see it. She’d do it again.
Directing another film is “in the works,” for a “very different” type of story. Just don’t ask her to simultaneously star in it.
“Never again,” she laughs, catching herself. “Spike warned me: Don’t say never!”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Halle Berry talks 'Bruised' broken ribs, new romance and vaccinations