Halle Berry Covers Vogue September 2010 photographed by Mario Testino.
Where have you been, Halle Berry?
If one hadn't read the tabloids lately, one might be forgiven for thinking that the Oscar-winning actress had thrown in the towel. After all, she has not given a proper interview in three years, nor has she made a big commercial film since X-Men: The Last Stand, four years ago. Aside from her Revlon ads and a perfume launch for Coty, Berry has lain low by the 2010 standards of never-let-'em-see-you-rest celebrity. Except, of course, most of us do see the tabloids, where Berry appears nearly every single day. Which means you already know two things: that Berry gave birth to perhaps the cutest baby girl ever, Nahla, with her very good-looking boyfriend, Gabriel Aubry, in March 2008; and that Berry and Aubry split earlier this year, an event that was covered as if Michelle Obama had decided to take the kids and move back to Chicago.
On a perfect day in June, Halle Berry and I are having lunch in the garden of Il Cielo, in Beverly Hills. She is wearing distressed jeans, a black sleeveless shirt, and a lot of silver jewelry made by a woman named Irit. "She is my new favorite thing," Berry says, "my biggest indulgence of this year." I start by asking her why she hasn't given an interview in so long. "I was burned-out with having other people tell the story about me that they wanted to tell. I told my publicist, 'I'm not going to talk anymore. I'm just going to live my life and be who I am.'"
What is the biggest misperception of you? I ask.
"That I am this brooding, twisted, lovesick person who just can't get it right in life. Every story about me is so heavy and dramatic. That's not how I do life. But that's the impression people have, and that's what keeps getting reiterated. As if I'm still stuck in all the muck of the past. And I am so not."
It's well known that Berry had been, prior to her silence, uncommonly frank about her trials and tribulations, her relationship troubles, and her difficult childhood. I wonder if she has any regrets. "No," she says. "I don't regret it. When you share like that, it helps a lot of people, it connects you to a lot of people, but I do think I should have the right to move on."
The only reason she is submitting now, she says, is that Vogue made her an offer she couldn't refuse: the September cover. "What that means for a woman of color and what that means in the fashion world, what that means to pop culture, there was no way I could say, 'No, I'm not going to be on the biggest issue of the year.'"
Berry decided to have me join her while she went about her life for a couple of days. Which is why one morning she picks me up at my hotel to see her personal trainer—the personal trainer (to the stars, the Lakers...), Gunnar Peterson, with whom she has been working out five days a week for the past year. At 44, she is obviously in extraordinary shape, toned and tan and tiny as ever—the most fit she has ever been in her life. She is wearing gray tights, a hot-pink tank top, and those funny-looking split-toe sneakers. Aside from the career requirements (Bond girl, superhero), Berry works out so much because she has diabetes, and she weaned herself off insulin a while back. "I do not love to work out," she says, "but if I stick to exercising every day and put the right things in my mouth, then my diabetes just stays in check." She probably sees Peterson more than most anyone else these days; they live on the same street in Beverly Hills, and they are also in the process of developing a unisex sports drink for GNC, something "sustainable and light and not a gimmick," she says.
The workout is brutal. Gunnar has Berry lie on her back and attaches her ankles to a weighted pulley. Then he has her pull her knees to her chest, over and over again while she curses a blue streak. This, she says, is how she lost her post-baby "pouch." But this is also the exercise that caused her uppermost abdominal muscle to spasm a few times. "I went down," says Halle. "It was excruciating." Gunnar thought she was kidding the first time it happened. "I was laughing, but she kept going, and I thought, Wow, she is really committed to this little moment, staying in character." He chuckles and then says, "Another Oscar!"
An hour and a half later, we are back in the car. Sitting between us is a green stuffed frog that clearly belongs to Nahla. "Best thing that ever happened to me." She smiles. "I'll tell you a story: I took her shopping, and I had that moment that every parent has," she says as she zips through the side streets of Beverly Hills. "You look away for a second and they're gone, and your body just gets all hot. And so I had a little breakdown. Shut the doors! I've lost my daughter! I look around and, sure enough, 30 seconds later, she pokes her head out: 'Hi, Mommy.' But it made me think: What if she really did get lost? Would she be able to say who she is? So that night, I said, 'What's your mommy's name?' And she looked at me like, You idiot. Why are you asking me what your name is? I asked her again: 'Nahla? What is Mommy's name?' She thought about it for a second, and finally she said, 'Halle Blueberries!' Blueberries are her favorite fruit." Berry laughs, still tickled. "I'm just glad she didn't say 'Halle Blackberry.'"
That evening, I head to Malibu to Berry's weekend place, which is on a quiet gated lane that runs between the Pacific Coast Highway and the ocean. The house sits out over the surf—one of those big, white, modern boxes. When you walk in, all you see is an endless expanse of blue water.
I am here for a dinner Berry is giving for a handful of friends and colleagues. There is something unusually intimate and yet oddly stilted about the scene. The dinner has been staged on my behalf (the chef, G. Garvin, is cooking up a storm in the kitchen), but everyone here is clearly close to Berry. Among the guests are the photographer Cliff Watts, one of Berry's best friends, who has shot her many times for magazine covers and Revlon ads; Patrick Delanty, the interior designer who decorated this house with Berry when she bought it seven years ago; and Karen Earl and Avis Frazier-Thomas, the executive director and the president of the board of directors of the Jenesse Center, the domestic violence-intervention organization with which Berry is very involved.
Our hostess is wearing a long brown-and-white striped cotton tank dress. She is barefoot and wandering around with a glass of red wine in her hand, looking serene. The skin is a marvel: She does not look a day over 30. As hors d'oeuvres are being passed, I join Watts and Berry on the terrace. The two met when Watts photographed her for Interview magazine eleven years ago; they have been pals ever since. Indeed, her affectionate nickname for him is "Daddy." He asks her, "Why are you so tan? I've never seen you this dark." She explains, "I was at Disneyland with Nahla for twelve hours." Before she goes back to the kitchen to get more wine, she shoots me a look and then says sweetly, "You are the first writer I have ever let into my house."
During dinner, at a long wooden table covered with candles, Halle makes a toast and then more formal introductions. She seems especially proud of Frazier-Thomas. The Jenesse Center provides, among other things, transitional housing—safe houses—for women and their children when they finally leave their abusive husbands or boyfriends. How did you get involved? I ask. It turns out that after her infamous car accident of 2000, in which she inexplicably left the scene, her sentence was, she says, "a $15,000 fine, three years' probation, and 250 hours" of community service. "They gave me a list of charities that I could choose from. I searched my heart for what would be meaningful to me. Domestic violence is important to me because I grew up with it; my mother was a victim of domestic violence. And I saw the Jenesse Center, the oldest domestic-violence center in South L.A., and I thought, That's where I want to go." What she didn't know was that she would wind up staying for nearly ten years. "Outside of being the mother of Nahla," she says, "it's the most meaningful thing that I do."
After dinner, Berry takes me on a tour of the house, which is clearly an extension of her life, her personality. There are pictures of Nahla; her cats; her fifth-grade teacher, Yvonne Sims, "a mother figure" in Berry's life who remains one of her dearest friends. There is also surprising art: mostly modern painting and sculpture, a lot of it of a sexual nature. In her living room there is a very tall statue by Curt Brill of a naked woman looking out to sea. "I love the naked female form," she says. "I just feel like that's the most empowered position you can be in. She is standing tall in all her nakedness, and she is just commanding the room. Everything revolves around her in the house. I love it."
We head down to the bedroom level, where there is more sculpture. One, in a hallway, is meant to be cheeky; it depicts the twelve astrological signs—but with couples in comic sexual positions. Berry looks for her sign, Leo. "I'm on top, baby!" she says, and laughs. Berry seems entirely comfortable with her sexuality. "That comes with age," she says. "I've been slowly getting there. If the world wouldn't persecute me, I'd take nude pictures every day of the week." Next thing you know, she picks up a small framed picture and hands it to me. It is a photograph of her, naked and eight months pregnant on the beach in Mexico. She is leaping through the air. "I was in Cabo San Lucas with Cliff, and there was a beach full of people. And I was like, 'I'm going to take my clothes off,' and he was like, 'No, HB, don't!' And I'm like, 'Fuck it! Take the picture!' And I took my clothes off and I just ran down the beach." She laughs at the thought. "I could not have been happier in my life."
The next morning, Berry picks me up and we drive to the Jenesse Center. When I ask where we are, she says, "We in the 'hood," and then adds, "This is the good part of the 'hood. There are much scarier 'hoods." We drive past the Debbie Allen dance studios; a few blocks later, on Crenshaw Boulevard, Berry points out a big modern building and says, "Everybody in town goes to that church," by which she means Denzel Washington, Magic Johnson, and the rest of churchgoing black Hollywood. When I mention a gay black nightclub not far from here, Berry lights up. "I go there with Cliff on Halloween." (Berry dresses up every year in a way that I am not allowed to describe except to say that her costume completely obscures her face. "It's one of the funniest things we do," she says. "Total anonymity. I just let it all go, get wild, lose my mind. It's great.") It is clear, in other words, that while Berry may live in Beverly Hills and Malibu, she is entirely at home in this part of town.
We arrive at the center, where a dozen photographers follow her as she makes her way across the parking lot. Inside, she is greeted so warmly by the women—who call her Miss Halle—that you sense immediately that she is part of this big family. As Karen Earl says, "This is not someone who is just showing up with a journalist. She is here all the time; she has relationships with the staff, who all have her E-mail address. She gives the clients her E-mail address. I couldn't speak from my heart about her if it was not the real deal."
Berry is in the midst of renovating two apartments as safe houses for abused women. They are in a dicey neighborhood, and driving to them while losing the paparazzi (if their location was discovered, the women's lives would be in jeopardy) feels like some sort of caper in a bank-heist film.
When we walk into the building, there are more hugs and good vibes from staffers and women and children as Berry shows me her pride and joy: a small one-bedroom apartment that she has, with the help of some friends, renovated into a playroom, a place where children can get new clothes, make art, and have therapy—as she did when she was a ten-year-old coping with an abusive, alcoholic father. The space is beautiful. It is called Nahla's World. On a wall near the door there are two tiny handprints in colored paint—her daughter's signature. "The last day we were here when we were finishing up this room," Berry says, "Nahla came and spent the whole day playing outside with all these kids for hours. She cried when I had to take her home." Berry and her team have pledged to renovate fifteen apartments by next April. "Because of my mother's and my experience, I understand fundamentally what these women and kids are going through. And I think that's why my heart is so in it."
Berry is ready to put herself back out in the world in more familiar ways, too. "I'm so looking forward to getting back to work," she says. "It's been good being a mom, and I love it, but Nahla's gotten to a point where it's OK for me to get back to what I love, to have that creative outlet."
She's about to shoot her first big film in years in South Africa—Dark Tide, a thriller she refers to as "the shark movie," which involves great whites, a bad husband, and all manner of undersea scuba action. Immediately afterward, she will begin shooting another film, as yet untitled, that she describes as like The First Wives Club—but about shoes. "Shoes are sort of a metaphor for these women all coming together and dealing with who they are—in their 30s and 40s." She has her third perfume launch in February, and has an independent film coming out in October that she produced herself. Nine years in the making, it is called Frankie and Alice and is based on a true story set in the 1970s, about a stripper (from the 'hood) who suffers from multiple-personality disorder. "I am really proud of it," she says. "It's a small art movie about this woman and her journey dealing with MPD at a time when people didn't really believe it existed."
The film costars Stellan Skarsgård as the shrink who helps her come to grips with her disorder—a character based on the real Dr. Oscar Janiger, famous for his association with the Beats; he wrote the story before he died in 2001. Berry, who had been trying to figure out how to get it made for years, saw Tipping the Velvet, a three-hour Victorian-lesbian drama directed by Geoffrey Sax, on the BBC, and hired him. "Pretty much as soon as I started working with her," says Sax, "I thought to myself: There is a reason why she won an Oscar. This could have either been schmaltzy or very kind of gothic, but what she brings to the role is absolute truth."
Perhaps the most tantalizing prospect on the horizon for Berry is her appearance for the first time on Broadway sometime next year in Katori Hall's two-person play The Mountaintop, with Samuel L. Jackson, to be directed by Kenny Leon, who directed Denzel Washington and Viola Davis to Tony Awards in Fences. The play is about the last night of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, life, with Berry playing a kind of imaginary chambermaid/angel. Not having been onstage since her days with Second City in Chicago more than 20 years ago, she is just a tad anxious. "Terrified is putting it lightly," she says, laughing a little too loud.
For most of the last decade Berry has had a problem that many actresses would kill for: She is considered only for serious dramatic roles, which has partly to do with Monster's Ball. She has rarely been in a romantic comedy, or any kind of comedy, for that matter. Anything not dark or devastating she has had to fight for. As Benicio Del Toro, who worked with her on Things We Lost in the Fire, says, "A lot of her roles have been pretty intense, and that's because she's got the chops; she can carry those parts."
But now? Ever since she put herself back on the market, her phone is ringing with offers: The shoe movie, the shark movie, the Broadway play. "Everybody talks about the Oscar curse," she says. "People win Oscars, and then it seems like they fall off the planet. And that's partly because a huge expectation walks in the room and sits right down on top of your head. The moment I won the Oscar, I felt the teardown the very next day. I thought, If I'm going down, I'm going down taking chances and daring to risk." She starts to laugh. "Hence...Catwoman."
How big a disappointment was that?
"I had such high hopes for that movie," she says with a sigh. "It seemed like a good idea. Men have done it. But our story just wasn't good enough. But I will tell you one thing that has helped me deal with the failure of that: Critics bashed it, but people come up to me now and either they say, 'I loved you in the movie B.A.P.S,' which is a comedy that I did, or they say, 'I don't care what anybody says, I liked Catwoman.' Nobody ever says, 'I really loved Monster's Ball.' Nobody. No. Body. Nobody!"
It's sort of ironic that just as Berry was getting ready to make her comeback, the news of her breakup with Gabriel Aubry upstaged everything. "Just my luck!" she says. "By the time it hit the papers—full of rumors and lies, with people having to make up problems between us—Gabriel and I had long dealt with it. We were done. And we were on a good foot, and we had decided what we were going to do for Nahla, and we were able to say, 'This will pass.'"
And did it pass?
"In two weeks!" she says. "Because there was no truth to any of it. There is no discord, there is no fighting. So it came and went. Now we are back to how it was before: living apart, raising our daughter."
Would it be fair to say that relationship simply ran its course?
"It's just that you realize you are not meant to go the distance with everybody," she says. "We were meant to bring this amazing little person into the world. And I think that's why we came together. And because of that, we are going to be together forever, all three of us. We are a family until we are not here anymore."
Are you two friendly at this point?
"Yes. Very." She pauses for a moment, collects her thoughts. "We have always been friends, we're still friends, we love each other very much, and we both share the love of our lives. And we are both 100 percent committed to being the best parents we can be. And while it was not a love connection for us, he was absolutely the right person to have this child with because she is going to have an amazing father. And that was really important to me. We'll make sure we always do what is right for her and put her first. And she will see as she grows that we have a lot of love for each other."
After Berry's breakup with Eric Benét, she famously vowed that she would never get married again. Does that still stand? "Yes," she says. "I'm not done with love, but I refuse to settle. I am a hopeless romantic. And I won't stop till I get it right."
She goes on, "I don't think I'm unlike a lot of people. I am just someone who is trying to find that mate, and I think it's a really hard thing to do. And I'm not willing to stay somewhere where I am really not happy. And I am not willing to pretend I am for the kid's sake or so that I don't have to go through another public humiliation."
Berry seems to have gained some hard-won wisdom: "It's about accepting who we really are, not who we want to be. As much as I have always wanted to be in this committed relationship and have the picket fence and grow old with the same person, I'm coming to terms with: Maybe that's just not who I am." What is clear is that she has found "the love of her life" with her daughter. "If anything was missing, it was that."
What's your biggest worry these days? I ask. "I worry that this whole insatiable appetite for celebrity children will somehow adversely affect Nahla. I don't think it's fair, and I don't think it's safe. How will she grow up, having been objectified like this for most of her whole young life? Already they write things about her: Oh, she looks like this; oh, she looks like that. But nobody knows her. They just pick her apart on a very superficial level. How will I be able to help her keep that in perspective in this town?" To that end, she recently rented a house in San Francisco to spend time alone with Nahla away from the glare of celebrity. She's considering moving there full time, "to have her grow up in a place that is less of a fishbowl."
For Berry, being a mother seems to have brought a clearer understanding of her own childhood. "I have a new focus that's outside myself," she says, "and that feels really good, in your 40s, to have arrived at that place. I'm actually lucky and grateful that I waited until an age when I can really be present. I saw my mother in her early 20s having two little kids, and I don't think she enjoyed me at two the way that I enjoy my daughter. She didn't have that luxury." She gets a funny, thoughtful look on her face. "Nature has got it all wrong: When you are younger, it should be harder to get pregnant, and as you get older it should be easier. When you are so ready, you can't do it to save your life. And when you are 21, you are so not ready, but you are ripe as could be. The eggs should become more developed the older you get, not die slowly from the day you're born. That's one thing God got wrong."
"Halle's Hollywood" has been edited for Vogue.com; the complete story appears in the September 2010 issue of Vogue.