Upon embarking on her latest film, Bruised, Halle Berry knew she would get hurt. “If I don’t get hurt, if I don’t somehow injure myself in this process, I’m not really giving it my all,” she says. In the film, she plays Jackie Justice, a disgraced mixed martial arts fighter who’s coaxed back into the ring for the sake of her son. The film also marks Halle’s directorial debut.
In most other action films she’s worked on, Halle has collaborated with stunt performers who “take the heat and the falls and the hurts for us.” Doing her own stunts meant taking the hits head-on. During rehearsals for John Wick 3 a few years ago, Halle broke three ribs, which caused shooting to halt for eight weeks while she recovered. “That budget could absorb a shutdown,” she explains. “On my little movie, if we shut down two days into a five-day fight sequence, I would lose my financing. I’d probably lose Valentina [Shevchenko, reigning UFC champion and Halle’s fighting partner onscreen], and my dream would die. Three years of hard work would have been for nothing.”
So, this time, when she broke two ribs during a fight scene, she powered through the sequences and gave herself time to recover only once they had wrapped. She didn’t want to miss a single day.
Fighting for the story
Bruised is a passion project for Halle. The actor has been a fan of MMA for years—watching fights every Saturday, supporting friends in training, studying martial arts disciplines herself—which is probably why, when the script landed in her lap, she couldn’t let it go. “It just seemed like a no-brainer that I would want to fight to be able to play the character.”
At that point, Blake Lively was attached to the project. The character was Irish Catholic and in her early 20s. When the role opened up, Halle had to pitch a total reimagining of the story, about a middle-aged Black fighter who, as in the original version, is introduced to the audience during a match in which she jumps the cage. But this time, her impetus for jumping, and her desire to get back into the game, would have to be different. “I felt like having a last chance was much more compelling than a younger woman having another chance,” she says.
Her similarities to Jackie ran deeper. “I’ve always been a fighter,” Halle says. “Within this industry, I’ve had to make a way out of no way, refusing to quit, having to suffer through. Any career has ups and downs, and I’ve had to manage the ups and downs.” She was drawn to Jackie’s story, both as a fighter and as a woman. “I understand the cycles of abuse. I understand generational abuse and the fractured-ness of human beings. And I thought that all of these characters were beautifully fractured and broken,” she says. More than anything, she wanted to bring her perspective on this world to the film, so much so that, when the team couldn’t find a director to lead the project, Halle stepped in.
“Sometimes we’re faced with an opportunity and either we embrace it or we run from it. In order to get the movie made, I would have to be the one to direct it. So I chose to face it because I love this story so much. I couldn’t imagine not telling this story.” —Halle Berry
Bruised may be Halle’s directorial debut, but she came armed with three decades of experience. “I’ve had the luxury of being on so many sets, working very closely with directors,” she says. “I’ve always been the kind of actor that goes to work, but I don’t just stay in my trailer and say, ‘Okay, call me when everybody’s ready.’ I’ve been much more nosy than that. I’ve been out with the crew, talking to all the departments, trying to understand and learn. I love the process of filmmaking. I love the community of filmmaking.”
That said, Halle knew the task would be a novel challenge altogether. “No matter how many years I watched it, when you are in charge and you are the keeper of the vision, there are big decisions that have to be made,” she says. “The fact that I was scared meant I cared, so I leaned into that fear.”
Halle brought to Bruised the directorial approach that she always appreciates as an actor. “I love when I have a director that’s collaborative, that has respect for the actor’s point of view when it comes to the character.” She wanted to give her actors the same sense of freedom and ownership. She also learned the importance of hiring the right collaborators across departments from none other than Warren Beatty, who had directed himself on Bulworth. He told Halle that the most important piece was taking his time to choose his department heads, people he trusted, and then letting them do their jobs. In bringing this approach to her movie, and choosing her collaborators carefully, based on trust, she says, “I allowed myself to be surprised every day by what their creativity brought to the process.”
Rolling with the punches
Halle trained for almost three years, five hours a day, six days a week, covering everything from judo to aikido to jujitsu to tae kwon do to Muay Thai and beyond. As she practiced these disciplines over and over again, they became muscle memory. And, with a tight budget, that’s just what she needed. “Time is money, so I knew that if I couldn’t nail these moves the first one or two times, it would start costing me more money than I had,” she says. “I knew that it would serve me to put in this time.” And by being her own stuntwoman, she didn’t have to worry as much about using the camerawork to hide reality or tell a different story. It gave her a sense of freedom, even if she took a few real punches along the way.
Fighting against Valentina was another way to add a dose of reality to the MMA story. “She brought a real truth to the fight,” Halle says. She had initially considered working with a stuntwoman, who would be trained in throwing fake punches, but Halle wanted to know what it was to be in a real fight. As a director, too, it would help her tell a better story. “All of my disciplines went up tenfold just by getting in the cage and actually training with a real fighter—not a teacher, but a real fighter at the top of their game. The learning curve just skyrocketed. I learned so much in those moments.”
Was she scared? “Always,” she says, “but I love that. That was what made it so exciting. It felt like something I shouldn’t be doing, and yet I was doing it.”
Behind the punches and the bruises, though, there’s a real story of redemption, of second chances (or last chances), that Halle hopes resonates with viewers, even those who might not know a thing about MMA. “There’s always hope. No matter what your circumstance is, no matter where you come from, what you go through, you can grow through it and you can find redemption.”
Bruised is an exercise in bringing the unseen to the forefront, and making representation a priority. It’s still a work in process. “There’s always work left to be done,” she says. “Until the end of time, there’s going to be work to be done. There are new horizons that we’re all striving for, always.” In 2002, Halle Berry became the first—and so far, only—woman of color to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. A lot has changed since then, she says, and certainly since the start of her career. “We’re realizing that we can do it, and that’s part of the challenge: for us to know that we can fight hard and be relentless in our pursuit of these opportunities.”
“Everywhere I look now, I see us, and so I know that there’s change. I’m seeing Black women directing: Dee Rees, Ava DuVernay, Lena Waithe. I mean, I got a chance to do that this year. There are women around me doing things that I never thought possible 30 years ago. I wish there were more and I think there will be more. The more I get to do it or Ava gets to do it or any other woman or woman of color gets to do it, the more we will know that we can and the more we will.”
By Nadine Zylberberg
Bruised debuts on Netflix Nov. 24.