03/25/2002 at 01:00 AM EST
With that luminous smile and those five-figure couture outfits, Halle Berry
has never been Hollywood's go-to gal for grunge. So when she lobbied for the role of a hard-luck waitress in Monster's Ball
, the filmmakers were skeptical. "I felt she was too beautiful," says producer Lee Daniels. Berry's response? "She said, 'Who are you to tell me that because I'm too pretty, I can't do this?' " recalls Daniels, who liked her tough response. "I said, 'Oops. We'd better give this girl the job.' "
It worked out well for everyone involved. Shedding much of her glamor—and very many of her inhibitions—Berry delivered a performance that won her an Oscar nomination and a SAG Award for best actress. The validation is especially sweet for Berry, 35, who has long been dogged by personal troubles—from a tough childhood to her ugly 1997 divorce from baseball pro David Justice to a misdemeanor conviction for leaving the scene of a car crash two years ago. Now married to R&B singer Eric Benét and savoring her role as a mom to India, 10 (Benét's daughter with Tami Stauff, who died at 25 in 1993), Berry says she has emerged stronger. After the accident—Berry said she was dazed from a gash to her head when she walked away—"I couldn't speak out [for legal reasons], so I had to risk people thinking I was this terrible, evil person," she told the Los Angeles Times. "As time went on, I got a thicker skin."
Viewers get to see a lot of her (nonmetaphorical) skin in Monster's Ball
, where Berry and Billy Bob Thornton engage in a sweaty love scene fueled by alcohol, lust and remorse. "Most of the actresses we spoke to didn't want to do it," says screenwriter Milo Addica. "Halle said, 'I want to go for it.' " Nor did she play the diva on the Monster's
set in Laplace, La., where she bunked at the Best Western and visited death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola for research. "She held their hands. She cried," Daniels says of Berry's visit with the inmates. Says Martha Coolidge, who directed Berry to an Emmy win in 1999's HBO biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge
: "She has great gentility."
Berry credits her resilience to her mother, Judith, 66, a retired nurse who raised Halle and her sister Heidi after splitting from her abusive husband, Jerome, a former hospital attendant, in 1970. Growing up in Bedford, Ohio, Berry got a lot of attention—good and bad—for her looks. Although kids taunted her for her mixed-race heritage (her mother is white, her father is black), she went on to win the Miss Teen All-American Pageant in 1984. Seven years later she made her film debut in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever
, and although she has worked steadily since, it was her often-rocky personal life that made headlines. One ex-boyfriend, she has said, hit her so hard that she lost 80 percent of her hearing in one ear; she filed a restraining order against Justice during their bitter divorce. Still, Berry claims no regrets. Of Benét, 35, she told Oprah
Winfrey in February, "I wouldn't have gotten it right had I not been through everything else, because I knew what right looked like."
The pair met at one of Benét's 1997 concerts and secretly wed in January 2001. Their relationship was one of the few constants in her life when she pleaded no contest to having left the scene of an accident in L.A. and was placed on three years' probation with community service at a battered-women's shelter. (The other driver, who broke her wrist, sued for damages and settled out of court.) Although close to her mother, Berry has little contact with her homemaker sister, 38, and none with her father. Instead she devotes herself to Benét and India. "They're very close," longtime friend Yvonne Sims said of Berry at the time of her wedding. "It's quality time she spends with her, shopping, talking, dealing with mother-daughter stuff."
With a new confidence at work and at home, Berry has developed a sense of humor about her bombshell status. When she told her friend Samuel L. Jackson that the character she plays in the upcoming James Bond
movie is named Jinx, "he was like, 'Oh, damn! I thought they were going to call you something like Cinnamon Buns,' " she recently told reporters in England. "I'm really Jinx," she added. "But in my mind I'm kind of Cinnamon Buns."
Michael Fleeman and Rachel Biermann in Los Angeles, Pete Norman in London and Kelly Williams and Lauren Comander in Chicago