Few people exude beauty and talent quite like Halle Berry, an actress who has surpassed most cultural barriers in contemporary society through her work.
Yet in her latest big screen project, Cloud Atlas, the actress goes beyond the norm in a gender-bending, race-defying performance that imagines her as both man and woman – black, white and brown – in a dramatic interpretation of the cycles of humanity.
In the film, hitting theaters Friday, Berry embodies six different characters of multiple ethnicities to depict the story of eternal life throughout the ages. For the Academy Award-winning actress, it was a chance to break anew; to show the range of her façade; and to tackle roles she’s never been able to play in the past, most significantly that of a Jewish white woman named Jocasta Ayrs.
“To tell you the story, I was in a costume fitting with [director] Tom Tykwer trying to bring Jocasta to life, and he was bringing out one costume after the next to try them on,” the 46-year-old tells theGrio at a press junket in Los Angeles.
“He was like, ‘Oh, you look so beautiful, you must have worn dresses like this from 1932 before.’ And I just looked at him and I said, ‘You think I have, really? You think so? As an actor, you think I’ve done this before?’”
She continues, “All the sudden, he goes, ‘Oh you’re black; you’re not really white. You wouldn’t have been this kind of woman in 1935 ever, right?’”
It’s a truth Berry has recognized throughout her career, taking on the relics of racial disharmony in films like Monster’s Ball, Losing Isaiah, and TV movies such as Introducing Dorothy Dandridge and Their Eyes Were Watching God. Though she is biracial, many of her roles have been a specific interpretation of the African-American experience, making her latest gig a particularly interesting experiment in reinventing racial constructs.
In Cloud Atlas, Berry moves beyond classification, portraying an African native in the era of slavery; the well-to-do wife of a famous composer in 1930’s Belgium; a young, in-the-know investigative journalist chronicling the volatile scene of San Francisco in the 1970’s; an Indian party guest in present times; an Asian doctor in a future-esque metropolis; and a superhuman following the end of time. The movie illuminates the concept of an ongoing spirit – reincarnated, karma-driven or perhaps simply embedded in a universal consciousness – and surmises how individual stories shape the collective tale of time.
Accordingly, Berry says the chance to throw out former notions of what she was eligible for as an actress was a big reason she joined the project in the first place
“I did love being turned into Dr. Ovid,” the actress remarks about her scenes playing an Asian man. “Never before in my life would I ever have thought anybody would ever hire me to be an Asian man for any reason.”