August 9, 2008
AT around the same time Halle Berry was voted prom queen at her high school, somebody started leaving chocolate and cream cookies in the mailbox outside her family home in Cleveland, Ohio.
To begin with, 17-year-old Berry thought they were from an admirer.
In fact, as she later discovered, the dark-and-light-coloured biscuits were a sick joke about her mixed-race parentage. It seems success and pain have always gone hand-in-hand for the Oscar-winning actor.
For Berry, the past four decades have had all the ingredients of the kind of movie she'd star in herself: racism, violence, broken hearts, divorce and suicidal thoughts.
One way or another, she's constantly strived to find contentment in her life. "I've had to struggle to find internal happiness," she says. "And it took me until the age of 40 to be able to say that out loud," says Berry, now 41.
From the start, the odds were stacked against her. Halle Maria Berry was born on August 14, 1966, to her white British mother and black African-American father - an unusual and explosive combination in 1960s Ohio.
Her mother, Judith Hawkins, who had left Britain when she was 10, met Berry's father, Jerome, at a psychiatric hospital for war veterans where they both worked in the early '60s.
That Judith (a nurse) was white and Jerome (a hospital porter) was black caused a rift in her family. When they married, all contact was cut between Judith and her parents.
Judith gave birth first to Heidi, who's now married with three children, and then Halle.
Both grew up in a family struggling with its identity. At first, they lived in a black neighbourhood, but when Berry's father left home, Judith moved to a white part of town with her young daughters.
"When we lived in the black neighbourhood, we weren't liked because my mother was white," Berry remembers.
"And in the white neighbourhood, they didn't like me because I was black. To me, colour was never an issue. It was only when the other kids started to say things such as, 'What's wrong with your mum?' or, 'That's not really your mum,' that I started to think about it."
As if that weren't enough for a young girl to deal with, Berry also had to cope with her parents' turbulent relationship.
"My father was an alcoholic and pretty violent," she says, "and my formative years were filled with turmoil and abuse."
Berry witnessed her father beating her mother and her older sister. "But he never beat me," she adds. "I had a lot of guilt as to why them and not me."
Jerome left home when Berry was four, but the family's relief didn't last long. In '76, he returned.
"My mum let my father come back when I was 10," she explains, "thinking that Heidi and I needed a father. But he was still drinking and, to date, it was the worst year of my life. If anything, he'd become even more violent. It brought back all our earlier memories of how terrified we were but, this time, I was so much older and had to relive past horrors as well as the present ones."
He left for good the following year but, by then, the damage was done.
When Jerome, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, died in 2003, father and daughter were estranged and Berry didn't attend his funeral. While she shut him so firmly out of her life, it's clear the legacy of his abuse has haunted her adult relationships with men and made her desperate to please others, starting with her mother.
"I was so close to my mother and felt so protective of her when my father left, all I wanted to do was to make her happy," says Berry.
"I wanted to do well in school. I didn't want to disappoint her. She made it easy for me to accept who I was. She let me know she wouldn't feel as if I was abandoning her if I felt more connected to the black community."
It's hardly surprising, then, that succeeding against the odds became an instinctive urge early on.
While children in the neighbourhood taunted Berry about the colour of her skin, at school she became a cheerleader, editor of the school newspaper and was elected class president in her first year. "I wanted to be the best at everything," she says.
A taste of acting in drama projects at school whetted her appetite, but she was drawn down another path by her boyfriend at the time.
In '83, when she was 17, he secretly sent a photograph of her to the Miss Teen Ohio beauty pageant.
She won and, when her relationship with that boyfriend turned sour, she used her looks as a ticket out of Ohio and headed for Chicago. While she was modelling for catalogues and print advertisements, she was also auditioning for soaps, and landed a role in the short-lived TV series Living Dolls.
The obligatory period as a 'resting' actor (she didn't work for six months) almost led her to throw in the towel. Then came her breakthrough role in the gritty Spike Lee film Jungle Fever.
Ironically, she almost didn't get the part of a crack cocaine addict because she was too attractive.
Determined to succeed, she decided to make herself look as plain as possible. "I didn't shave my legs, bathe or brush my teeth for days," she says. "I was pretty gross."
She also took a job in a strip club to help her get into the role.
"I had to pay the owner to let me dance, because I refused to strip completely," Berry recalls.
"And I had to give him all my tip money for the experience." After Jungle Fever, other acting roles followed, ranging from sexy secretary Rosetta Stone in The Flintstones to a TV biopic of '50s Hollywood actor Dorothy Dandridge and the platinum-haired Storm in X-Men.
In 2002, she became the first African-American woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress, for the film Monster's Ball.
The award itself was eclipsed by her emotional acceptance speech, with Berry in floods of tears as she dedicated her statuette to all the other African-American women who had fought hard to make their way in Hollywood.
"I don't think anybody wants to see me crying again after Oscar night," she says. "But I just couldn't help myself. It was the culmination of a pretty hard upbringing and all the racial, as well as physical, abuse. There I was, becoming the first African-American woman to win an Oscar. I just let myself go that night. When I held that statuette, I felt as if I had won a triumph not just for myself, but for every other woman who'd struggled to overcome the same sort of background."
After Monster's Ball, Berry says she was offered roles playing "every downtrodden black southern woman that was written. But I'd just done that, I needed to go in a new direction for a while."
So, she appeared in two X-Men sequels, and starred as Catwoman in the much-maligned film of the same name, as a Bond Girl in Die Another Day and as a journalist in the techno-thriller Perfect Stranger.
But she still has to fight for quality work. "It's still hard for any woman to find good roles," she says. "The movie gods didn't come and drop all the great scripts at my front door the morning after I won the Oscar. It's still a competitive industry and we all have to fight to make a space for ourselves."
And, despite her joy at winning an Oscar, things weren't quite so rosy behind the scenes. Her marriage to her second husband, singer Eric Bent, was falling apart after he had a string of affairs.
He even checked himself into a clinic to cure his sex addiction in an effort to save their marriage, but it was too late. This pattern of personal heartache had been set early on in Berry's life, when one boyfriend hit her so hard she lost 80 per cent of the hearing in her right ear.
"The minute he did that, I was gone. My mother always said, 'If a man hits you, you leave.'"
But Berry still dreamt of finding her Prince Charming. She had married her first husband, baseball star David Justice, on New Year's Eve in 1992 when she was 26.
"It seemed to be a good idea at the time," she says. "But we soon found that we didn't have much in common, and our work kept us apart for long periods - a major cause of strife. That was a moment in my life when my brain short-circuited and I just had to live with my mistake until I could escape from the marriage. It was a shame. It had started off with such promise. But it quickly unravelled, probably for the better."
In the end, the relationship became highly acrimonious, and Berry took out a restraining order against Justice.
The divorce was finalised in January 1997, by which time she was on the brink of a nervous breakdown. "I was really depressed," she admits.
"I thought about sitting in my car in the garage, connecting up a hose to the exhaust pipe and asphyxiating myself. But I remembered how my mother had struggled to bring me up against all the odds, and what a selfish thing I was thinking about doing. That brought me to my senses."
Her ill-fated 2001 marriage to Bent came next. She once described him as her soulmate but the marriage was over by 2004.
"That break-up put me on a fine line between sanity and madness," says Berry. "I felt as if all my relationships were doomed because I was finding it so hard to find the right guy to spend the rest of my life with. I'm not very good at relationships - I think being without a caring father for the most important years of my life is the cause. I used to think it didn't matter that I'd missed out on a relationship with my father. But, as I've aged, I've seen a pattern emerge.
"Not having a strong male figure has affected the way I relate to men and it's influenced what I think I deserve when it comes to a man. My mother had a lot of failed relationships and, on a subconscious level, that's what I expect for myself. It's probably something I'll spend my life trying to undo."
Although she has said she doesn't think she'll marry again ("The 'perfect guy' I'm looking for doesn't exist"), for the past three years she's had a relationship with Canadian model Gabriel Aubry, 10 years her junior.
They met on an advertisement shoot for Versace. "We instantly clicked," she says. When she celebrated her 40th birthday with Aubry in 2006, she was asked if marriage was on the cards. "I have no plans to marry for a third time," she replied. "I don't pick husbands very well."
Her career is still as successful as ever. In April 2007, Berry was honoured with a star on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame.
And she's received great praise for her portrayal of a grief-stricken widow in the film Things We Lost in the Fire. It's a powerfully emotional drama in which her character tries to come to terms with the loss of her husband (David Duchovny), while helping his drug-addled best friend (Benicio Del Toro) stay clean.
She says she was attracted to the film because "roles like that aren't written for women all that often".
She also thought the theme of loss would "resonate with almost everyone. I haven't dealt with that kind of loss in my life, but I know I will."
And despite - or perhaps because of - what happened with her father, she says the film made her "aware of who I love in life and (taught me) not to let people pass away with unfinished business or without saying the things I want to say".
Her current role, one she calls "the biggest production of my life", is the one she's yearned for - motherhood.
Her daughter, Nahla Ariela Aubry, was born on March 16 and Berry is relishing every moment. "It's a really great time for me right now and I'm going to enjoy every single moment of it," she says, with a smile. "I'm going to be a great mother."
It seems Berry has learnt a great deal from her turbulent upbringing and past relationships, and has finally come to understand that happiness doesn't lie in being one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood.
"The real trick to finding happiness is to realise it comes from within," she says. "I can decide to be happy any day, any moment I want. Nobody controls that any more."