Copyright 2001

[ December 12th 2001 ]

Anyone who's heard Angelina Jolie gush about her husband's charms can guess Billy Bob Thornton has something special. Halle Berry doesn't have to guess. "He's very sexy," Berry says of her co-star in the upcoming Monster's Ball.

"I think he's handsome, absolutely, but his sex appeal comes from something else - the way he looks at you, the way he takes you in. He makes everyone feel special; he takes the time to talk to you and look at you."

Vanilla Sky brings together real-life lovers Penelope Cruz and Tom Cruise, and Ocean's Eleven paired George Clooney and Julia Roberts. But neither coupling produced the kind of sparks that flew when Berry and Thornton hit the sheets. Their scene was filmed on a closed set and the resulting footage was so hot that a minute's worth had to be cut to avoid an NC-17 rating. Even director Marc Forster was blown away. "I felt like I was watching two people who had no idea they were being watched," he said.

The savagery with which the two characters tear off each other's clothes and fall naked to the floor in a frenzied, drunken coupling has left early-screening audiences feeling almost uncomfortably voyeuristic, too. "Those characters are getting their needs filled," Berry told The Post during a quick trip to New York to promote the film, which is already garnering critical acclaim leading up to its Dec. 26 release.

Berry plays Letitia, the wife of a death-row prisoner (played by Sean "Puffy" Combs), and Thornton is Hank, the emotionally scarred prison guard who executed him. "It's polar opposites sometimes that make the best chemistry," said Berry. "That's what was displayed in the movie." Berry says the fact that both stars are secure in their marriages helped them leave their inhibitions at the door. "I didn't feel like [Thornton] would use this scene as a way to exploit the situation and take advantage of me, and I don't think he felt that, either," she said.

Berry says she and Thornton "got really close really fast" during the 21-day shoot. Still, Thornton insists Jolie wasn't jealous. "She and I have a real strong relationship, and we're the best friends in the world," he told The Post.

Berry's husband of a year, singer Eric Benet, was a different story. "I had a screening just for him to let him deal with it," Berry admits. "At the end of the day, he was able to say, 'I'm really proud of you for the risk you took.' But then he said, 'But I don't like seeing you with another man like that!' "

The 33-year-old actress says her notorious "three-second boob shot" opposite Hugh Jackman in this year's "Swordfish" prepped her for this role. "If I hadn't done that and been over it, when I got to the love scene in the 'Monster's Ball' script, I would have stopped reading and said, 'Not for me.'"

As it was, she couldn't put the script down. "I was shocked; I was riveted; I was moved, sad, angry," she says. "I felt I could totally relate to this woman character - she was strong, yet very vulnerable; she was angry, but very fragile; she went on a journey and, at the end, through her perseverance and strength, she bettered her life. "At that moment, I called up my manager and said, 'Let the fight begin! I want this.' "

And she did have a fight on her hands to convince Forster that, despite her many glamorous roles in mainstream blockbusters, she could get down and dirty in a sparse, shoestring-budget film that veers from tender to shockingly brutal.

Ironically, the A-lister - who weathered rumors that she'd demanded a $300,000 bonus to take her top off in "Swordfish"- says she walked away from "Monster's Ball" with just $5,000. Berry, who is about to start filming the "X-men" sequel and is negotiating to play a villain in the next James Bond film, also walked away believing she had given a career-changing performance.

Last week, she snagged the National Board of Review's Best Actress award for the role and she's in a strong position for the Oscar race. Asked what an Academy Award would mean to her, in light of the years she spent struggling for recognition as a black actress in Hollywood, she bows her head. When she looks up, her eyes are brimming with tears. "It would mean a lot," she says simply.

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