Halle Berry knows how uncomfortable it is to film a love scene for a major motion picture — even on the best-run movie sets. Based on her firsthand experience, trust in the person behind the camera is paramount to making those sequences work. "I've always liked when I've had to do these kinds of scenes... when I've had a director say, 'I will give you full right to approve this scene. I'll show it to you beforehand,'" Berry tells Yahoo Entertainment. "When someone tells you that — and you believe them — you go far because you trust what they're telling you and you become uninhibited." (Watch our video interview above.)
Up until this point in Berry's career, the person behind the camera has almost always been a man, whether it was Dominic Sena directing her first-ever topless scene in 2001's Swordfish or Marc Forster guiding her and Billy Bob Thornton through a draining sex scene in Monster's Ball, released that same year. But that changes with Bruised, Netflix's new MMA-themed drama that the Oscar-winning actress directs and stars in as Jackie Justice, a disgraced fighter who battles her way back into the ring. Stepping into the director's chair herself helped any lingering inhibitions melt away when it came time to shoot a crucial love scene between Jackie and her trainer/love interest, Bobbi (Sheila Atim).
That sequence represents a significant moment for both the characters and the performers themselves: It's Atim's first-ever onscreen love scene and Berry's first same-sex love scene. That's yet another reason why she's thrilled to be the one calling the shots. "I knew that I was in control," Berry observes, adding that she wanted to be "sensitive" to the LGBTQ community as well in the way she staged that scene. "I think [Sheila] really felt comfortable knowing that it was in the hands of a woman, and that she could trust that I wasn't out to exploit her in any way, but just service these characters in the movie."
For her part, Atim says that she "trusted Halle completely" when it came time to shoot the scene, and credits her with ensuring that the on-set crew was predominantly made up of women. "We talked a lot about what the scene meant to both of the characters. It's not gratuitous, you know, there's a reason behind it. It was as closed as a set can get. There were some men there, but everyone was so respectful. The scene had the right kind of gaze and the right angle and the right vision, particularly because it's two women together, and it was invaluable to have that."
Berry also followed the practice she prefers, making sure that her co-star got the chance to watch and approve the love scene footage before cutting it together. "I did watch it back that day, and I was instantly so comfortable with what they were going to edit in the final stages," Atim says. "I could see it was coming from the right place."
"It's important that those things become mandatory and commonplace and that we talk about them," she continues. "It's important for the industry going forward to know that these things need to be ironed out so that everyone feels comfortable. That was my first intimate scene ever on camera, and I was so glad that it was with her in that kind of environment. I felt really looked after."
Berry has often discussed in interviews how the back-to-back experiences of making Swordfish and Monster's Ball changed how she approached sex and sexuality onscreen. And she's now able to draw a direct line from her Oscar-winning role in Monster's Ball to Bruised. "Monster's Ball was a risk," she says, reflecting on that movie's rapidly-approaching 20th anniversary. "Because of the nature of that sex scene — and the racially-charged nature of the movie — everybody told me, 'You could ruin your career.' I heard similar things with Bruised: people were like, 'You're going to star in it, play a fighter and it's your first time directing a film? Do you realize how crazy that is?' And just like back then, I told them: "Yep — I'm sure.'"
Given the risks that come with even heavily choreographed fights, there were times when Berry walked out of the ring with actual bruises. A more serious injury occurred in the middle of shooting a four-day fight sequence with professional MMA fighter, Valentina Shevchenko, who plays Jackie's opponent in the movie, and also trained Berry off-camera. "I took a kick to the ribs that I was not prepared for," she says, resulting in an injury that plagued her for the rest of production.
Berry had previously injured her ribs during the making of the third John Wick film, Parabellum, and that experience taught her that you don't take time off unless you absolutely have to. "On John Wick, I told everybody and we shut down for eight weeks. I knew that if I told anybody this had happened, they would shut me down and I would probably never come back to this movie. I would lose Valentina... I probably would lose all of my financing... I knew I would lose it all. So I realized I had to keep this to myself and do what real fighters do: suck it up and keep on going."
Shevchenko was one of the few people on set who knew the extent of Berry's injuries, and she remembers being impressed by the director's warrior spirit. "She was like, 'I don't have the right to stop right now. I went so far, and this is not the moment [to stop] — I have to continue.' I so admire her for this." In fact, Shevchenko thinks that, having come out the other side of the bruising Bruised shoot, Berry could potentially step into the Octagon for real. "She can have anything she wants," the fighter says. "It all depends on what is her next desire."
It sounds like Berry's next desire doesn't involved a professional bout, though. "Hell no — I don't want to break any more ribs!" she says, laughing. "I have so much respect for the sport and these athletes and how hard they work. I am nowhere near ready. I got into the cage last week to give a belt to Rose Namajunas [at UFC 268] and I was shaking in my boots just being in the real cage with a real audience. You know what? It's scary! So no — hell no."
— Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by John Santo
Bruised is playing in select theaters now, and premieres Nov. 24 on Netflix