They oooh and ahhh when fists collide violently with faces, when bones break, when the plasma starts spurting. They wave and wink when the cameras spot them. But the celebrities who—inevitably, these days—ring the front rows of UFC fights? They seldom know the subtleties of mixed martial arts, much less grasp what the combatants are enduring.
That’s not so for Halle Berry. A veteran of dozens of films—including Monster’s Ball, which won her an Oscar in 2002—Berry, now 55, could not resist the familiar seduction of directing. But the urge would take her to an unfamiliar place: the inside of a steel cage. Almost five years ago, Berry read a script about an Irish Catholic woman in her 20s who uses fighting to find redemption. Berry made the equivalent of a few strategic adjustments. She changed the sport from boxing to MMA. She switched the lead role to be a woman of color, and considerably older. She set the story in Newark, a city that sits both close to the bright lights of Manhattan and immeasurably far away.
Perhaps most critically, Berry cast herself as the lead, a disgraced former fighter and put-upon single mother who stages a comeback. To train for the role of Jackie Justice, Berry spent months in various gyms, marrying the capoeira skills she recalled from Catwoman (and the agility she had as a young gymnast) with boxing, wrestling, kickboxing and jiujitsu. The result: Berry gets high marks overall and special recognition for execution during the fight scenes. (Still, it didn’t prevent her from getting battered and bruised on the set by Valentina Shevchenko, a top UFC fighter in real life and Jackie’s bruising rival, Lady Killer, in the film.)
Berry’s directorial debut, Bruised—imperfect but ultimately a triumph—hits theaters today and lands on Netflix on Nov. 24. The film tells the story of Jackie as she sets her sights on regaining much of what she has lost. Berry has firsthand intimacy with more than a few themes undergirding Bruised—ascent, descent, comeback, domestic violence, self-sufficiency—but the director-star insists that the film is rooted in the universal, not the personal. She simply wanted to enter the familiar genre of the sports movie, apply her own touch (and blood and sweat) and create a heroine in the most raw and violent sport going.
Sports Illustrated: When you started this project, what was your level of interest/passion/knowledge for MMA?
Halle Berry: I grew up a huge sports fan. Being a latchkey kid, watching boxing was always one of my favorite pastimes. And then Ronda Rousey came around, and my interest for MMA sparked. I finally got to see a woman being part of what you would consider a blood sport, and sort of in a man’s world—but at the top of the sport. I became a huge fan at that moment.
SI: If we were going to connect the art of fighting to the art of making movies, where would you begin?
HB: It’s equally as hard and as taxing and as trying. It’s equally as challenging for women to find our place and find our voice and be treated fairly and equally. I put them on par with one another.
SI: It strikes me that directing has some MMA in it. You have all these different skills to combine. Instead of stand-up and kicking and ground game, it’s visual and writing and structure. This is new territory for you. What did you learn about yourself in terms of your strengths?
HB: I learned that my 32 years of being an actor, they really came into play for me as a director.
SI: How so?
HB: I knew how to talk to actors, and be with actors, and get the most out of actors. Because I know what it feels like when I’m working with the director and they know how to talk to me. If you can’t get the actors to do what you need them to do, then you are really going to struggle telling your story, no matter how pretty the pictures look.
SI: Some people get a fight and they’re like: I’m never doing that again. Others are like: I got the bug. Where are you with directing?
HB: Oh, I got the bug. I may not star and direct again. It wasn’t my intention to do it this way—it just ended up being this way. I didn’t set out to direct my first film and have such a monster role. Once I got into it, I thought this was kind of suicidal. Why did I decide to do this? But having done that now, there’s certainly a sense of accomplishment. I faced it and I rose to it. But I can’t say I would choose to do that again.
SI: What did you learn talking to so many MMA fighters—especially female MMA fighters?
HB: This isn’t the case for all fighters, but what I learned is that, more often than not, female fighters fight to get their power back, to get their voice back. Many of them have been abused and, as women—marginalized as we have been—they’re fighting for their power. Whereas men are usually fighting, I found, to be the breadwinners of the family, to rise out of poverty, to be the head of their household. They’re fighting for different reasons. And I certainly wanted to add that element to our character, Jackie Justice: overcoming childhood trauma, adversity.
SI: How bad did you get dinged up?
HB: Pretty bad. I mean, I was fighting Valentina, so you can imagine. We did the fight scene first, because Valentina and I had trained for a while together and we got our choreography—we knew it within an inch of our lives. So we shot the end of the film in our first four or five days. On Day 2, I got kicked and broke two ribs. And, you know, there was a moment when I thought: We can shut this down and I can go heal, or I can keep going and just fight my way through it. And I had to sit with myself and think. O.K., Valentina and I have trained two years for this movie. She may never have another window. If I lose the funding now, I may never get the money again. This could all go away. And I’ve worked too hard. So I thought, I’m not going to tell anybody this happened. Get through the fight. And then tell them.
SI: That’s something a real fighter would have to go through, right?
HB: I’m not saying that in my right mind I’d make that choice again, but you’re right: I was so in that zone, in that world of being a fighter, mentally and emotionally. The fighter in me stood up and said: You just have to keep going, take some Advil and tough your way through it.
SI: Your character is so sharply drawn. But I’m curious: Why do you think Lady Killer is in this game? What’s she all about?
HB: I tried to write her as the formidable champ who herself is looking to rise up. What I love about female fighters, especially, is that you can have a rivalry with someone and talk a lot of s---, but after the fight Lady Killer’s character can also stand in solidarity with Jackie. She can appreciate and applaud Jackie’s triumph, realizing that if she does, it doesn’t diminish her own.
SI: You’ll watch Valentina’s next fight?
HB: She’s my friend, so I will always be there for Valentina.
SI: How’d you pick her for the movie?
HB: One, she’s in my weight class and I wanted to fight with my real weight class. Two, I wanted the fighter to be in the UFC. I wanted to really challenge myself, push myself as far as I could as an athlete. And as the director, I felt like having a real fighter opposite me would bring a certain reality to the movie that I know I didn’t have. She did that in spades. She helped me make sure that every move we performed—every moment of the fight—was authentic.
SI: How did personal experience inform this film?
HB: It’s personal experience, but I think it’s also human experience. As human beings we all face adversity. We all are fighting for something. Many of us have dealt with abuse in some ways—whether it’s sexual, emotional, physical. I don’t think you find many people [for whom] one of those boxes don’t get checked. There are some similarities [between Jackie and me], but more than me I think what Jackie represents is what everybody is fighting for. So, my idea for this film was to make all of these characters equally fractured, equally bruised, equally fighting for something—they’re all looking for some kind of redemption. Does that relate to me? Of course. Because, like everyone else, I’m human. I’ve suffered.
SI: What ought we read into your character’s last name, Justice?
HB: I guess you could read into it and ask: At the end of the day, does she get the justice she deserves? But that wasn’t at all what we thought about. Her name was already there when I got the script. Jackie Justice just had a ring to it that made sense.
SI: What’s your favorite sports movie?
HB: There are so many. I would have to say either the first Rocky or Fight Club. The first Rocky, that’s my all-time favorite.
SI: When’s Jackie’s next fight?
HB: You mean in fight terms?
SI: You take that wherever you want to take it.
HB: I’d say Jackie’s next fight was a month after her last fight.