Halle Berry has had more than her share of difficult times. And coping with her recent break-up from her daughter Nahla’s father and the gossip surrounding her new relationship with co-star Olivier Martinez can’t have been easy. But, as she tells Maureen Paton, she’s never been shy of confronting the sharks in her life
'I'm madly in love with my daughter, and happy I waited till I was older,' says Halle
An October day in Warsaw, and the Polish glitterati are out in force at the capital’s Intercontinental Hotel as an armed police escort delivers the most exciting arrival from Hollywood for years. Even the chefs have come out of the kitchen to stare in wonderment at the pared-down beauty of Halle Berry who, panther-like in a skintight black Helmut Lang catsuit and gamine crop, makes every other woman present look overdressed.
Halle is here for the European launch of her third Coty perfume Reveal, looking just as sleek at 44 as when she played the title role of Catwoman six years ago. After becoming a mother for the first time at 41 when she had her daughter Nahla back in March 2008, she still has the willowy figure of a woman half her age. But there’s a good reason for that: ‘I exercise all the time because I’m diabetic,’ says Halle, who was diagnosed at 19 and was taking insulin until a change in her diet and exercise programme a few years ago enabled her to stabilise and stop taking the hormone.
It’s clear that this former beauty queen and ex-fashion model takes nothing in life for granted. The actress who was named Sexiest Woman Alive by Esquire in October 2008 just months after having her baby (and who broke an ageist taboo by admitting in the same magazine that she had far better orgasms in her 40s than her 20s) is still the only black woman to have won a Best Actress Oscar (for Monster’s Ball in 2002) and the first black girl to win the title of Miss Teen USA (1985) and represent the US in the Miss World contest (1986). Modelling became her stepping stone to acting, yet she remains sensitive about racism in Hollywood and elsewhere, having had to fight to win roles mainly intended for white actresses before making her breakthrough as a drug addict in Spike Lee’s 1991 film Jungle Fever.
From left: Halle with new squeeze Olivier Martinez, at the Carousel of Hope Ball in Los Angeles in October; with Nahla, three, in Beverly Hills today
Her determination to take risks has seen her accept diverse roles, from the mutant superheroine Storm in the X-Men franchise and Bond girl Jinx Johnson in Die Another Day to her nude scenes with a racist, played by Billy Bob Thornton, in Monster’s Ball. I wonder whether creating her own fragrances makes her feel more in control than she could ever be in an acting career that will always depend upon the parts she is offered and on getting the green light from risk-averse studio bosses. (She’s executive producer of the forthcoming film Frankie and Alice, in which she plays a woman suffering from a multiple-personality disorder, but it has taken her nine years to get it made.)
‘There’s no element of ever feeling in control for me,’ she says. ‘I put my heart and soul in a fragrance or a movie project and just hope that people will love them. But whether things turn out the way anybody hopes isn’t really the goal for me – I just like to challenge myself. Sometimes it scares me to death, but for me, it’s always about growing as an artist.’ Which is why she’s making her Broadway debut this autumn in The Mountaintop, set in a hotel room in 1968, the night before the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King (played by her Jungle Fever co-star Samuel L Jackson). ‘How did I manage to touch a great white shark in the wild? Very carefully!’
It’s the kind of project that particularly appeals to a star without any sense of A-lister entitlement, for Halle’s life lessons have been hard learnt. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, she’s the daughter of a white Liverpool-born mother, Judith, who, along with Halle’s older sister Heidi, suffered violence from Halle’s father, an alcoholic African-American called Jerome Berry, now dead. Growing up in a dysfunctional household left its mark on Halle, who has two broken marriages behind her, to baseball player David Justice (1992 to 1997), and musician Eric Benet (2001 to 2005). A fight with a boyfriend in the early 90s has left her with hearing loss in one ear, so she now campaigns for victims of domestic violence and takes time out to work at shelters for battered women in Los Angeles.
She insists that she is ‘really, really happy now’ despite – or perhaps because of – recent developments in her private life. Halle split up with Nahla’s father, French-Canadian model Gabriel Aubry, in April after a four-year relationship. Strangely enough, she seemed to anticipate the break-up in another interview with me for YOU in the summer of 2009, when she said, ‘Gabriel and I don’t look at our relationship in terms of for ever… Neither one of us feels the need to attach ourselves to each other for life.’ And she told US Vogue in its August issue this year, ‘You realise you are not meant to go the distance with everybody, though Gabriel and I were meant to bring this amazing little person into the world. I’m not done with love, but I refuse to settle, I won’t stop till I get it right.’
Given that first-time motherhood is so precious to her, the role she has just finished
was a hazardous one – as a marine biologist in the forthcoming action thriller Dark Tide, where she swims with sharks and even gets to touch a great white in the wild. ‘Apparently, I’m one of the very few people who have done that. How did I manage it? Very carefully,’ she tells me, laughing.
Yet she insists she didn’t put herself in danger. ‘I got into the same water as the sharks. Was I scared? Yes. But I never put myself in harm’s way because I’m a mother and there are certain things I just would not do any more. I spent some
time with a man known as the shark whisperer; my character is modelled on him. He has studied sharks for a couple of decades and swims with them – with nothing to protect him but a stick – so studying with him for a couple of weeks taught me how to interact with one. Does it help me cope with the human sharks in Hollywood? You need more than a stick with those guys!’ she says, laughing again.
Dark Tide brings us to the delicate subject of Olivier Martinez, Kylie Minogue’s handsome French ex and Halle’s co-star in the film. He plays Halle’s protective husband, who helps her get back into the water after a near-lethal attack by one of the creatures she is studying. And the gossip machine has been in overdrive ever since they were spotted kissing in a doorway in Paris, where parts of the movie were shot. ‘Doesn’t count on location’ (DCOL) is a cynical show-business saying about on-set romances, as emotions expressed in art can sometimes be confused with real life, but the man dubbed ‘the Parisian Brad Pitt’ is undoubtedly a hard one to resist. He’s the same age as Halle and comes from a similar working-class background, and there’s a certain caveman appeal about statements he has made, such as, ‘If I love a woman, I love her. Nothing will stop me.’
For all her approachability, it seems that – in the spirit of her new perfume, which urges us to reveal something but not everything in order to retain our womanly mystery – there are some areas where Halle won’t go. When I ask about her rumoured romance with Olivier, she visibly bridles. She doesn’t issue an outright denial, instead saying, ‘Oh, I’m not talking about that. I’m sorry, it’s private.’ But she does tell me she’s
‘a hopeless romantic’, which is why she creates perfume. ‘I want women to feel confident and smart and sexy, so that they feel good when they walk into a room. As to whether I’m looking for romance, that is all kind of personal.’
I’m not surprised when, two weeks after our meeting, Halle finally goes public over the romance with Olivier, being snapped holding his hand at one of Hollywood’s most high-profile events, the Beverly Hills Hilton Carousel of Hope Ball.
But she remains ferociously private about her honey-haired little daughter. Gabriel travelled to South Africa and Paris to look after Nahla while Halle was filming with Olivier, some onlookers claiming that Gabriel was sidelined like a glorified nanny. All Halle will admit is, ‘I share the childcare with Gabriel – we have a really good situation
that works out nicely. And we also have help when we need it, because we both work. I’m madly in love with my daughter, and I’m happy that I waited till I was a little older because I really can enjoy every aspect of being a mother.’
Each of the three fragrances she has launched so far reflects a phase of her life, she says, and Nahla is at the centre of her world now. ‘My first fragrance, Halle, was earthy and natural, while the second one, Pure Orchid, was sensual and sexy. Right now I’m so into motherhood, because I think birthing a child is the most feminine thing we do as women.
‘So there’s no mystery that a fragrance as feminine and floral as Reveal would come along now that I’m two years into being a mother and really feeling like a woman
– more so than ever before. I’m in a joyful place, and the floral aspect of the fragrance reflects that.’
The mimosa flower, which she was delighted to discover is the nickname for ‘a delicate person’ in Polish, is her favourite scent. ‘It’s the basis for all of my perfumes,’ she explains. And she makes sure Nahla knows where nature’s fragrances come from. ‘My daughter loves flowers, and I put a lot of energy into my garden in LA. We have all kinds of flowers, fruit trees and vegetables. It’s important for her to be in touch with nature and to understand that vegetables don’t originate from the supermarket, they come from the earth, and that flowers don’t come from the flower shop, but the back yard.’
The mood around her new fragrance seems to have influenced choices, since we can presumably expect to see a much happier on-screen Halle in the comedy The Skank Robbers and the chick-flick Shoe Addicts Anonymous. Last year she admitted that she would love more children. When I ask if that’s still the case, she laughs, ‘If God says so!’ Halle Berry’s new Coty eau de parfum Reveal is available nationwide, from £20 for 30ml