Halle Berry has played all types of characters: a "crack ho" in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, a Bond girl in Die Another Day, a superhero in the first X-Men movie. In 2001, she became the first African American woman to win the Oscar for best actress, thanks to her part in Monster's Ball. But these roles didn't come easily to her -- Berry had to beg to be taken seriously by Hollywood. "I came from the world of beauty pageants and modeling and right away when people heard that I got discounted as an actor," she said. In this year's Royals portfolio, Berry is paired with Melissa Benoist, the star of the new hit CW series "Supergirl."
Why did you go into beauty pageants?
Actually, my boyfriend at the time wanted a beauty pageant girlfriend. So he entered me and I got this letter in the mail saying, "You are a finalist in the Miss Team Ohio," and I thought "Uh, what is this?" And then he told me, "Oh, by the way, I sent your prom picture in and now you have to go." So I took my prom dress--It was quite taffeta, hoop skirt, off the shoulders, almost like I was getting married--and I went to this contest, thought it was fun, and I ended up winning. And once you start winning these things it's like a snowball. And you have to go to the next one and if you when there you go to the next one, and I kept winning all the way until the Miss USA pageant where I did not win. I was first runner up to Christy Fichtner. And that ended my beauty pageant career.
What was your talent in the beauty pageant?
I had no talent. We didn't have to have the talent. [In] Miss America you need a talent. Miss USA you're talentless. You just show up. Thank god I didn't have to sing.
When did it get into your head that you wanted to act?
After that I graduated high school. I'd worked so hard in high school to be Ms. everything: I was head of my class, editor of the newspaper, in the marching band, the mascot. I was so exhausted from high school that I thought I have to leave town and go have a break. So, I moved to Chicago. I knew a woman that owned a modeling agency and I started modeling. While I was there I started studying at Second City and that's when one of my teachers there said, "I think you should be an actor. I think you've got some talent." And I thought "well, I don't really want to be an actor. I want to be a journalist. I'm gonna go to college and I'm gonna be a journalist. I like to write." And he said, "Okay but I think you should be an actor." So, one thing led to another and I took that path. Sometimes I look back and I think how, "How could my life have been different. What if I were that journalist? What if I didn't choose this life? How would it be different?" And I'm not complaining. I love what I've ended up doing. I love what I do. But I do think, I do look back and I think, wonder what if I had done something different.
What was the first thing you auditioned for?
A television series called "Living Dolls" back in the late '80s. [And I got that job. Scariest day of my life. I actually got my first job with my first audition. Luckily for me that show was very short-lived. It got canceled 13 weeks in, and then I got off on my movie career and my next job was with Spike Lee in Jungle Fever.
Spike Lee wanted me to read for the part of his wife and I read that part fine enough, but then I said to Spike "You know I really am eyeing this crack ho role, can you please let me audition for that?" And he said, "no, no I don't see you as the crack ho." I said, "I am the crack ho. Really deep down I'm the crack ho!" And he was like, "No, I don't see it." And I said, "Let me go in the bathroom, wash all this makeup off; you will see eyeing the crack ho." So, he let me do that and I came back out and I got to read the crack ho, and I got the part of the of the crack ho. And it was an amazing way to start my career, playing a crack ho be directed by Spike Lee. It was major for me.
In the beginning of your career, it always seemed to me that you were intentionally trying to play the not gorgeous person. Was that intentional on your part?
Yeah. It was intentional to not play the gorgeous girl. I came from the world of beauty pageants and modeling and right away when people heard that I got discounted as an actor. So, I had the job of trying to eliminate that part of my persona, and Spike gave me a chance to do that. And I took on roles early on that really didn't rely on my physical self at all and that was a good way to sort of get some credibility within my industry.
With Monsters Ball, Lee Daniels didn't want to see me read. He was actually disgusted by the thought. He thought there's no way and my argument to him was, just because someone looks a certain way doesn't mean that they are spared adversity. Adversity does not discriminate. I thought, "My looks haven't spared me one hardship or one hurt moment or one painful situation. So please, you know, give me a shot at this." I said, "I often think it's more interesting when you see someone that looks a certain way struggle in ways that you wouldn't think they would be struggling with." He ultimately gave me a chance and that sort of changed the course of my career in so many ways.
Watch video interviews with all of W's royals--past and present--here.