Exclusive feature

Halle Berry

HBO: This is obviously a special project for you. What was it the made you say: "I must do this film?"

Halle Berry: I decided I must do this film about five years ago. However, there was no studio that felt the same way. I realized early on that not only was Dorothy's life very influential to the industry, but her life was something that would be very interesting to play as an actress. She had great highs and great lows. She was a singer, a dancer; she had a personal situation with men and a retarded child so that made for great drama. And I thought as an actress, this is something I'd love to do. But also I thought that, in her life, she never got the due that she deserved. Someone needed to bring her life to life and finally give her the recognition that she unfortunately never got in her life.

HBO: What are your earliest memories of Dorothy Dandridge? Did she have any effect on you and your dreams to become an actress?

HB: I knew Dorothy and I are both from Cleveland. We were born in the same hospital actually. So that was exciting. And my first memory is of CARMEN JONES. I saw that when I was probably about 16 years old, and I was just mesmerized by her beauty and her poise, and her charisma. I had never seen a black woman quite like that in a film that I could watch; and she was someone that I could admire and that I could aspire to be like. She gave me hope.

No, I didn't want to be an actress when I saw Dorothy. I wanted to be a black woman, because she was a beautiful example of what a black woman was. And I felt really proud to know that I'm going to grow up and I'm going to be a black woman like her.

HBO: In terms of the physical preparation for his role, what have you done to move like Dorothy, dance, etc? Could you talk a bit about what that was like?

HB: The rehearsal process was massive for me. This is the first time I've spent almost a three-month rehearsal time prior to our scheduled rehearsals with actors. I had singing classes, extensive dance classes. I learned to tap dance. I had my first tap shoes about three months ago. I worked with our choreographer, Kim Blank, and our tap teacher Carol Christianson, and we choreographed four numbers, with dancers, some solo. But it was a real good chance for me to get in touch with my body and work on body movement and really learn to dance. I never had a dance class or anything like that. So I was like an infant, just starting. It was pretty intensive for me.

HBO: What kind of a woman is Dorothy Dandridge? Is there one scene in the script that just captures the essence of who Dorothy is for you?

HB: I don't think there's one scene that captures her essence. I think hopefully if we've done our job the movie will capture her essence. I think the two-hour movie is very ambitious because her life was so broad and so many things happened. So, I can only hope that the movie will capture the essence because she was not only a performer, she was a wonderful mother. She was a wife, not once, but two times. She was an actress. She was very much involved with civil rights. She was socially conscious. And she was also a black woman in an era where black women were not really accepted and appreciated the way they are today. So she had a lot of that inner turmoil that she had to deal with because of racism -- and also sexism.

HBO: There is a line in the script, when Dorothy goes to the actor's lab, "you can only make a part yours by using you to make the part." What parts of you are you using to bring to your role of Dorothy Dandridge?

HB: I'm using every part of me to play this role. And if I tell you the truth honestly, five years ago when I first had this dream, I was in no way prepared to play her. And it's funny how things happen, the way they're supposed to happen in their own right time, because today I've been through, not only different things as an actress, but personally as a woman I've grown so much in five years. I think now, and only now, am I able to bring the sense of self and sense of depth and the confidence that I think someone would have to have in order to [take on this role].

HBO: Could you talk about the scenes you are shooting today?

HB: This is probably the most famous scene in the CARMEN movie I think; most people recognize this scene. It's the cafeteria scene, where Carmen comes in and she works about five different men. They do this great crane shot where they never cut; they cut one time, but most of the scene is all in one shot. And she sings a three-minute song; and she works the entire cafeteria playing to almost every man in the place. That's what we're trying to do.

HBO: There is also a line in the script, a Dorothy voice-over line saying, "I think she should have chosen her men better." Could you talk about her relationships with the men in this story?

HB: I think the fact that she never got a handle on her situation with men was certainly one of her biggest downfalls. I think she's not unlike many women though. She's really no different. I think many women grow up not really understanding the male/female relationship. From when we're little we're taught to find Mr. Right and that Prince Charming is going to come riding up. I know I was. And I'm sure she was. And so we never really look at relationships from a realistic point of view -- and Dorothy fantasized everything. Everything was a fantasy for her. And each relationship never measured up to that fantasy, and I think it crushed her each time. It chipped and chipped and chipped away until finally there was nothing. I think the relationships were one of her biggest pains in her life besides her retarded daughter. She always felt inadequate; even though she had so much, she never realized how much she really had to offer

HBO: Could you describe the scene where she first meets Otto Preminger for her CARMEN audition? How does her relationship with Otto change throughout the film?

HB: Her relationship with Otto is, I think, probably the greatest love of her life. She meets him on an audition for CARMEN and he thinks of course, she is not Carmen, she's Cindy Lou, the sweet fiance of Harry Belafonte, and she gets rejected. She decides to come back and she's going to dress like Carmen, walk like Carmen, talk like Carmen; and she comes in and she basically takes the job because she proves to him you were wrong. I am Carmen. I'm an actress. So their relationship starts off kind of fiery and kind of... I think that's what he liked about her, that she had the courage, she had balls. They become romantically involved in the '50s. She being a black woman and him being white, and both in the entertainment industry... their lives, not unlike today... when you're in this industry your life is very much up for public consumption. Otto felt that if they were to be together, neither one of them would ever work in this town again. So they basically were in love, but could not be together. I think Dorothy suffered greatly. I think Otto did too, but I think Dorothy paid the biggest price because she really took it as a personal rejection, not so much as a society situation or social rejection. I think she never recovered from that relationship, or the relationship with her first husband Harold Nicholas.

HBO: Could you describe the relationship between Dorothy and Earl Mills? Is he the one guy who really loved her unconditionally?

HB: I think Earl loved her unconditionally. But sometimes to love someone unconditionally is great, but if you're not attracted to that person then you don't have the part of romantic relationship that you need. You don't have that X factor. But I think he did love her unconditionally her whole life; and I think finally at the end of her life, she did realize that. Unfortunately I don't think the passion for Earl was there. And that's a shame, because, had it been there maybe her life would have been a little bit different -- but it wasn't.

HBO: What kind of historical research did you do to prepare for this role? What is something you've learned about Dorothy that you didn't know before doing this project?

HB: Dorothy was very involved in civil rights and the movement and very socially aware of what was going on. [She] took many stances in support of the NAACP, black people in general, other black entertainers. I think she was always aware that she was the chosen one that was allowed in, and always was conscious of trying to bring others with her and uplift her people through her talent. We do have a part of that in the movie. Unfortunately, we don't have a lot of it because it is a two-hour movie

HBO: As executive producer of this project, what would you like viewers to take away from this film?

HB: I hope they will realize the humanity of this woman, realize her greatness, realize her contribution, not only to our society as a black woman, but to the film industry as a wonderful, talented, charismatic actress. I hope they can also take a look at her life and see how ridiculous racism is, and how painful it is. And how we are still plagued with the small minds that still believe that if you're black then you're second class, you're not good enough, you're not equal. I think that's what her life struggle was all about. I think I'd feel really happy if people walked away with those messages; and if they have a good time, and they enjoy the music, and they laugh or they cry, that's the icing on the cake.

Back to Interviews Menu


I hope they will realize the humanity of this woman, realize her greatness, realize her contribution, not only to our society as a black woman, but to the film industry as a wonderful, talented, charismatic actress. I hope they can also take a look at her life and see how ridiculous racism is, and how painful it is.