Halle Berry is real cool.

Not like she doesn't know she's beautiful, more like she doesn't trip about it.

So when she offers to take your bag, which probably weighs more than she does, then grabs it before you have a chance to demur, and carries it for a while as you scramble to catch up, it's clear that, well, that Halle Berry, who is now walking with your bag, is so over the fact that she is a screen-goddess-movie-star.

She thinks she's just a regular sister from Cleveland.

Of course by then, you are tripping. Hard. Which may have something to do with the fact that she's the type of woman who inspires the kind of fantasies you remember from when you were a little girl. Fantasies that go something like:

Lord, please let me look like her so my life will be sweet, my prince will be charming and nobody will ever leave me.

Which is, says Berry, in her real-cool way, the biggest beauty myth there is.

Berry, 33, is starring tomorrow night in HBO's "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge," based on the life of the first black woman nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award, for 1954's "Carmen Jones." Eleven years later, Dandridge was dead after a string of career disappointments and broken love affairs--barely a postscript in Hollywood history.

Onscreen, Berry has amassed a steady list of film and television credits that have given her wealth and name recognition. Offscreen, she's also starred in a number of dramatic roles, most famously confessing to Oprah that she thought about killing herself after her marriage to baseball star David Justice ended. And so while there are a number of similarities between these beautiful black actresses, what you really want to know is, will Berry be able to flip the script?

For Halle Berry, this is Act II. And as the lights go down, everybody is waiting to see whether this actress will reprise her character role as a tragic beauty, or take her turn at star.

A Transcendent Desire

In 1950s Hollywood, Dorothy Dandridge sizzled and sang. A contemporary of Ava Gardner and Marilyn Monroe, she became the first black woman to grace the cover of Life magazine after her portrayal of doomed seductress Carmen Jones. Dandridge was regal and earthy. Her beauty and talent, in many ways, transcended color, but her career--her life--never did. She died of a possibly deliberate prescription drug overdose more than 30 years ago--but her impact is more enduring than the footnotes she's been consigned to.

An Ebony magazine article called playing Dandridge the role of a lifetime. Angela Bassett, Jasmine Guy, Vanessa Williams are all said to have been interested in the part. Whitney Houston had the rights to one of the Dandridge biographies. Janet Jackson had the autobiography. Lots of women wanted it.

Berry wanted it more.

"We were always fighting" to get the film made, says Berry's former manager Vincent Cirrincione, who, along with Berry, executive-produced the film. "Everyone says Halle beat out these other actresses. She didn't beat anybody out," Cirrincione says. "We wanted it more. We wouldn't be denied."

Berry remembers when Dorothy Dandridge burrowed into her soul. It was after seeing "Carmen Jones" on a UHF station in Cleveland. Maybe it was karma or kismet, given that Berry was born in the same Cleveland hospital as Dandridge. Maybe it was because at 18, Berry was already on tiptoe, reaching for a star. Or maybe it was because Halle Berry has always been hungry for the things she didn't have, and this strong, fiery, beautiful black woman seemed to be channeling her.

"I never saw an all-black movie before," Berry says. "I mean I had seen 'Song of the South' and Uncle Remus, but never glamorous and beautiful and sophisticated."

Berry says the people looked happy "and I remember thinking, wherever that is where black people are living like that, that's where I want to be. Of course it was nowhere around me. That's when I said not only do I connect with her--I connected to that way of life. That could have been where my fantasy began."

After buying the rights to a biography by Dandridge's former manager Earl Mills, Berry shopped the project to movie studios for five years.

Then she turned to cable. Finally, HBO said yes. But Berry briefly wavered.

"She certainly did have an initial panic attack," says John Matoian, the former president of HBO, who green-lighted the picture. "Can I do it? Can I pull this character off? The music, the dance. Can I produce? Once she decided she could, she was extraordinary in all aspects."

Ummm, hello? Wrapping your mind around Halle Berry's secret fears can be a stretch.

She's become a cultural icon. She's "Brazen Berry," as a Revlon cosmetics spokesmodel; "tasty and chocolate" to sell M&M candies. Her name is a metaphor for "real fine" in rap lyrics, and she is perennially one of People magazine's most beautiful.

To many folks, she seemed like a shoo-in to play Dandridge. She's always occupied that same singular place, where black folks, especially, are hungry for a sho' nuff screen goddess. Somebody who makes us want to be them, or at least pay eight bucks over and over to see them.

It is difficult to imagine that she had any hesitation, because she believes in the project. Because she's proud of her work. But Berry's fears go deeper than any one role, even if it is the role of a lifetime.

Success tends to hush detractors. But sometimes only a resounding success can drown out the harshest critics.

For Berry, that critic has always been the one inside her own head.

Early Scars

When she was a preschooler, Berry's black father, Jerome Berry, left his wife and children. Berry and her older sister Heidi were raised by their white mother, Judith, a former psychiatric nurse who moved her daughters to an all-white suburb of Cleveland and raised them alone.

That abandonment is a defining feature of Halle Berry's life.

Parts of her extended family turned away from the trio, some for being too black, others for being too white. But Berry believes one of her mother's most enduring gifts to her was a way to think about her biracial identity. The notion that you are what the world treats you as when they see you. What you see when you look in the mirror. And from early on, Berry saw black.

As a teenager, she was not content to be a cheerleader for three sports or part of the "Bright Futures" program for young female achievers. She also ran for high school student body president. But in an oft-told story, Berry was accused of stuffing the ballot box for prom queen and had to share the title with a white classmate. She might have been accomplished, but she would not be allowed to out-beauty-queen the white girls.

Berry never acted in any Bedford High productions. But she did have a flair for the dramatic. For her senior project, she played Tillie, the sensitive, withdrawn daughter of dysfunction made famous in "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds."

And she worked it out.

"She went into this other world," says Berry's high school drama teacher, Mary Ann Costa. "When you have the ability to create a character that well, you have to tap into something, somehow. Who knows where that came from."

She turned to modeling after high school, and won Miss Teen Ohio and first runner-up to Miss U.S.A. before playing a young model in television's short-lived "Living Dolls." Her first major role came in 1991 as a crackhead in Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever." Television roles starring in Alex Haley's "Queen" and Showtime's "Solomon and Sheba" followed. And she became Hollywood's "crackhead of choice" with 1995's "Losing Isaiah."

Some roles, like her evil turn in "The Flintstones," have capitalized on her beauty and sex appeal, but many, like the crackheads, like the rapper-girlfriend in "Bulworth" or the sista-girlfriend in "B.A.P.S.," were against type. Anti-lovely. Proof positive that there was more there there than a body and a face. Hollywood needed that proof, she says. And Berry needed to prove something to herself.

"I realized that I always had a feeling of not being enough and that came from my father leaving," says Berry. "It came from so many things that I never felt good enough. I really suffered from low self-esteem for many years."

It's something Berry says took her a long time to realize. A long time to focus on because, when you are beautiful, there's always somebody around who wants to kiss it and make it better.

Berry hasn't always hooked up with the most chivalrous brothers. She successfully defended herself in court against one former lover, a dentist from Chicago, who alleged she owed him money. Another former boyfriend once struck Berry hard enough to cause her permanent hearing damage. But after she met David Justice, then of the Atlanta Braves, she seemed to be a little luckier in love.

They married in 1993, and for a minute it looked like some kind of Joe DiMaggio-Marilyn Monroe deal. They were astoundingly photogenic. And each rhapsodized about their love in the pages of magazines and newspapers. That public openness later contributed to her humiliation. In 1996, Justice filed for divorce.

Talk Soup

Berry is sitting at a corner table in a Beverly Hills restaurant. From six inches away, her skin is so flawlessly caramel, it looks like she borrowed it from a taffy apple. Her features so symmetrically perfect, she is very nearly an airbrush of herself. She is gracious and complimentary and goes way out of her way to put you at ease with her disconcerting beauty.

For a long time, "everybody tried to make believe that [beauty] was the best thing about me," Berry says. "Then I realized no, that's not the best thing about me, that could all be taken away tomorrow and I'd still have all the gifts that I have on the inside."

Berry is talking about lessons learned. About how famously her personal life has played out. About how now, she is in a different, more spiritual place. How, for real, she doesn't want to talk about the past anymore. Berry is rumored to be dating R&B singer Eric Benet, but she says they are friends. The actress is candid, but not too. She's an open, sensitive, chatty person quietly going against her basic nature. It is a reaction against a few years of really bad press. It's a decision to control her boundaries.

After her marriage ended, Berry hit bottom. Hard. She told Ebony, then Oprah Winfrey, that she thought about checking out. That she sat in her car in her garage with her dogs and fantasized about going to sleep and never waking up. That she turned the key in the ignition. She shared that story, and others about her healing, her struggles with men and self-esteem.

It's always been one of the things people have eaten up about Berry. Her vulnerability. Her everyday, "Girlfriend, can we talk"-ability. Her eagerness to keep it real. It is an inclination that has bitten her on the butt.

"I was so open and so forthright and so wanting to share so that people could learn from mistakes I had made," Berry says. "And I don't regret it. I still get letters saying thank you, but I'm really not interested in ever going down that road again."

The Berry-Justice divorce was messy. It played itself out in a series of lawsuits and countersuits, and in the media. Although she spoke publicly about the breakup, Berry maintains she never took the low road. Never talked details. Justice did. In 1997, Justice, who felt Berry had garnered public sympathy, granted an interview to Ebony Man magazine. In detail, he painted her as needy and demanding. And worse. More than anything else, it is his portrayal of Berry that has given currency to the notion that she is emotionally out of control in intimate relationships. Unstable. It is a perception that Berry, quietly, serenely, "will not dignify with an answer."

There was a time when she would have. When she was invested in the perceptions and projections of others. There was a time when the critic inside her head would have taken that ball and autographed it, or tried to explain it away. But that time has passed.

Berry says she's had counseling on and off to deal with her abandonment issues. And she sought therapy after her divorce. She has tried, she says, to take the time to get into her headspace. It's a difficult thing, she says, "to listen, to stand still in the fire." To face your demons. Berry has met some of hers. Banished a few. Made peace with others. And, in many ways, with herself.

These days, she says she relies on the therapy of good friends. Her inner circle is largely made up of people from the Midwest. People who knew her when she was Hal, from around the way. She is a card-sender, a gift-giver--she stays in regular contact with her fifth-grade teacher. And her friends reward her with loyalty.

"In many ways, she is more of a symbol than a real person to people," says close friend Jeffrey Johnson. The two dated briefly in the mid-1980s and have remained buddies since. He says people don't know that she's spiritual, intellectual, an avid Web surfer and can talk politics for hours. That she's three-dimensional. "People wanted to be around me, they wanted me to be the life of the party," Berry says. "That's hard work, to always live up to everybody's expectations. But you know I realized I'm entitled to have a bad day. I'm entitled to get angry." Entitled too, she says, to make mistakes.

Berry knows there are similarities between her and her character. Dandridge was the victim of an industry that didn't have a place for glamorous black women. A victim of abuse and heartbreak and most especially the self-destructive choices she made.

Scenes Berry has starred in before, to be sure, but "I'm sooo not a victim," says Berry. "I mean I have my shortcomings and I have great vulnerability but . . . I'm not blaming anybody for what has happened to me. I've made every choice I've made, good and bad, they're mine and I wouldn't change a thing. I've learned some amazing life lessons and now at 33," she says, "I'm strong."

Plus Ca Change?

"As an actress, I struggle from being in an industry that doesn't have a place carved out for me," Berry says. An industry that can't quite figure out what to do with her. She is in Pasadena doing all-day interviews at the summer TV press tour. She could have been speaking in character as Dorothy Dandridge in 1955.

Crack ho, Ghetto Goddess, Black American princess. Those are all roles that Hollywood sees for black women. That Berry has been called for over and over. But Berry has been outspoken in saying, s'cuse me, could a sister get a little more range. And in advocating that black folks take more responsibility for changing their images.

"I want to do roles that weren't necessarily written for a black character," Berry says, "but I don't want to not be black in them. I want very much to do the Julia Roberts type roles and bring all the things to the character that a black woman of the '90s would bring."

It is a note Berry has sounded for a while. Part of the mantle, and responsibility, she feels she inherited from Dandridge. While Berry has enjoyed huge name recognition and crossover success, "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" is her first leading part. One that nobody handed to her.

Why hasn't Berry ever done a Meg Ryan-Cameron Diaz kind of turn?

"In the best of all possible worlds, one would hope she could get any of those roles," former HBO exec Matoian says. "But you know Hollywood is not colorblind. And until it becomes colorblind, who knows."

Vincent Cirrincione was Berry's manager for 10 years. He says it's always been hard for a young woman trying to break into the business. Harder still if you're black. "It's never been easy to get people to give her chances," Cirrincione says. "It's not that everyone is a racist. That's too easy. They are just not thinking of her for roles."

Reginald Hudlin, who directed Berry in 1992's romantic comedy "Boomerang," says Berry's got the right stuff--girl-next-door looks, plus the acting chops--to make it to superstar. Hudlin questions why Berry has never been paired with Denzel for a big, glossy romance. Or box office superstar Will Smith.

"It's tough for Hollywood to recognize black people as human beings," he says. "They are comic relief, physical threats, a series of 'Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks,' " he adds, quoting a title by Donald Bogle, who also wrote a Dandridge biography.

Bill Duke, a 20-year Hollywood writing, acting and directing veteran who also chairs the radio, television and film department at Howard University, says Berry has the potential to break some new ground for black actresses. To buck a long history. "What Ms. Berry has the opportunity to do is really create for black cinematic images a classic entity that will transcend trends. Something we all have wished for."

Duke ticks off several white lead actors whose images of strength and passion and courage endure. "What the black audience misses, and continues to hope for, is black females who also can be used as vehicles for these universal messages," he says. "That remind us of people we know. My mother, my aunt, my sister. . . . I think this particular role will be the litmus test in terms of determining where [Berry] chooses to go."

It is a heavy load to shoulder, especially when you realize black audiences often don't support the kinds of deeper, less stereotypical films that make studio heads willing to go off-road. It is why there is a lot invested in a star with the popularity of Berry. Why she might have a shot at changing things. Maybe.

Berry does not put her struggle for leading lady roles on par with that of Dandridge. "She walked through the back doors so that I can go through the front doors," Berry says. Still, it's a struggle nonetheless. Her next role is Storm, a black character from the comic strip "X-Men."

"When a producer tells me, 'We're not seeing a black actress for that role,' " that's racism, Berry says. And while she knows it may not change anytime soon, she promises it won't be for lack of trying.

Arrival

It is half past 7 and a white stretch limo is winding its way through the residential streets of Pasadena. It rolls up to a Masonic temple and comes to a stop. It is a dinner for "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge." The door opens, flashbulbs go off and the crowd splits down the middle like a fresh-baked loaf of butter-top bread.

Halle Berry steps out of the car, and into her moment. It was six years in the making, but probably felt like longer.

Sometimes, you think you know a person, but then they go and flip the script.

You thought they were fragile, but they are stronger than you imagined. You thought they'd always be a character actress, a tragic beauty consigned to bit roles. But tonight she's a leading lady. You might have thought you already knew her, but this is her second act.

Introducing Halle Berry.

CAPTION: "She walked through the back doors so that I can go through the front doors," Berry says of the star who ignited her young imagination.

CAPTION: Dorothy Dandridge in a 1953 publicity shot.

CAPTION: Front and center: Halle Berry flanked by Sharon Brown, left, and Cynda Williams in "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge," which airs tomorrow at 9 on HBO.

CAPTION: Berry with then-husband David Justice in 1993. The marriage ended in a bitter divorce.