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Oscar-nominated Halle Berry listens to her gut

By Paul Clinton

(CNN) -- After several roles in which she was often dismissed as more pretty face than actress, Halle Berry is finally gaining respect for her craft. Indeed, she's up for a best actress Oscar for her role in "Monster's Ball."

But Berry's looks have always been combined with a bright intellect and a solid determination. She was an honor society member at her Cleveland, Ohio, high school and was elected both prom queen and class president. And yes, she was also a cheerleader.

It was her beauty that gave Berry her first break when, at the age of 17, she won the Miss Teen All-American pageant. In 1985, she became Miss Ohio and first runner-up in the Miss USA pageant. She broke into acting with the 1989 TV series "Living Dolls," but her big break came when she was cast by director Spike Lee as a crack addict in his 1991 film "Jungle Fever."

Other roles followed, and she began to be taken truly seriously by the powers-that-be with her role opposite Warren Beatty in "Bulworth" (1998), then with a Golden Globe-winning performance in the title role of the made-for-cable TV movie "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge."

In the gritty, dramatic "Monster's Ball," her beauty is played down. She is now basking in the glow of not only an Oscar nomination, but a best actress nomination for the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Shortly after the Oscar nominations were announced, Berry, 35, talked to CNN from London, England, where she is shooting the next "James Bond" movie.

Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton star in 'Monster's Ball'

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CNN: How are you dealing with all this attention from your performance in "Monster's Ball," especially the Academy Award nomination?

Berry: I'm just as excited today as I was two weeks ago, but I've learned how to sort of contain it and control it. Being here working on "Bond" has been a great distraction, because it has allowed me to focus on something else and not just spin out of my body.

CNN: What do you think these nominations -- and maybe wins -- will do for your career?

Berry: This is a really competitive industry, and great scripts are really hard to come by for anybody. So, I know the nomination has been wonderful, but it doesn't mean I won't have to continue to work hard and fight for things that I really believe in.

CNN: Speaking of competition, you fought hard to get the role in "Monster's Ball," correct?

Berry: I did. You know, I read the script and I instantly -- about 15 pages in -- was hooked, and I knew that it was one of the best screenplays I was reading. Right away I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this is a great, great movie,' and I really wanted to be a part of it.

CNN: You have an extremely graphic love scene in "Monster's Ball" with your co-star Billy Bob Thornton. Was that uncomfortable for you?

Berry: Sure, there was some level of being uncomfortable, because it was so unnatural to be in that sort of position with someone you just met 35 days before. At the same time, we knew what the scene was about and what it wasn't about.

CNN: But you went topless in "Swordfish" and took a lot of heat for that, and that's not been the case with "Monster's Ball."

Berry: "Swordfish" was such gratuitous nudity and some people have a problem with that, and while I was making "Swordfish" I knew it was gratuitous. I never made excuses for it. But had I not shed my inhibitions in "Swordfish," I would have been afraid to tackle a love scene like this in "Monster's Ball." That's a tribute to listening to your gut and doing what you think is right for you, and not getting caught up in what other people think about the choices you make.

CNN: It's somewhat ironic: at the heart of the film "Monster's Ball" are the issues of prejudice and bigotry. Now, the fact that you, Denzel Washington ("Training Day"), and Will Smith ("Ali") are all African-American and are all nominated for the top talent awards has been a big deal in the media. On one hand, the movie is about race and an interracial love affair, but when it comes to something like the Academy Awards, shouldn't it just be about talent?

Berry: You know, you're right. It is an issue. ... But at the same time I take great pride in the fact that we all are there. And you know, the big dream is that one day it won't matter that we're all three black people. It'll just be that we're three people hopefully worthy of a nomination. That day's not here yet, but that's the big dream that that day will come. And I'll get to see it, I hope in my lifetime.

CNN: Well, here's the really important question. To phrase it like Joan Rivers, who [which designer] are you wearing to the Academy Awards?

Berry: What I'm really worried about is what my mom's going to be wearing, because my mother's coming. So, I'm more worried about her right now -- and yes, we'll be sharing a bathroom, and that could be a problem. (laughs)



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