For the upcoming Monster's Ball (opening Dec. 26), Halle Berry shed her glamorous image — and her inhibitions — to play Leticia, a tortured widow in love with the Death Row prison guard (Billy Bob Thornton) who executed her husband. Don't be surprised if your fellow moviegoers spill their popcorn during the first love scene, when Berry bares a lot more than her soul!

"We didn't think of it as a sex scene in a movie," she says. "We approached it as these two characters really getting what they needed, like they needed the air to breathe." Committing to the scene on paper was easy; actually going through with it called for the actress to step outside herself. "I wasn't really there," she shares. "I was so out of my head. The next day, when I had to face the crew, I felt that they had seen a very intimate part of me."

Berry's first flash of flesh — as femme fatale Ginger in this year's hit Swordfish — prepared her for the more graphic demands of Monster's Ball. "Swordfish was frivolous, gratuitous sex, but I did it because I wanted to and I can," she declares. "It totally liberated and freed me [from] worrying about that part of what I do and allowed me to use my body as an instrument. And that feels good."

Actually, Berry's natural allure nearly kept her from landing Ball at all. Lion's Gate execs worried that the Revlon spokesmodel might be too pretty to convincingly convey Leticia's pain. "Tragedy affects everyone," Berry asserts. "I've certainly had my fair share of ups and downs and hard knocks, and my looks have not once stopped any one of those experiences from coming my way."

The Ball has already started rolling on Oscar buzz for Berry, who's been named best actress by the National Board of Review. "When I got the part, that was the win for me," she smiles. "I convinced somebody to give me a chance at something."