Bernhard with a Vengeance

Sandra Bernhard is keeping it raw and real, entertaining and ironic, and she's eager as ever to critique the status quo

Interview by Will O'Bryan
Photography by Kevin Thomas Garcia
Published on February 28, 2013, 7:14am | Comments

It's the very picture of domestic life. Sandra Bernhard is at home in New York City. Her girlfriend, Sara, is at the store picking up something for dinner. Her 14-year-old daughter Cicely is watching a basketball game at her new school. And the dog is back.

''Hold on one second," Bernhard says. "George, my dog, just came home." She excuses herself for a moment to talk in cute, funny voices to her pup.

Sandra Bernhard

Sandra Bernhard

(Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia)

''George goes off with his New York pet concierge every day," she says. "We've had him three-and-a-half years. We got him when he was eight weeks old at the North Shore Animal League. We're so proud of him. He's grown into such a fine young man.''

She laughs after the last line. It resonates, but why? Oh, that's right. It was part of her WASP parody from her show and movie, Without You I'm Nothing, now more than 20 years old. In that instance, it was Mrs. Jensen talking about her boy, Chip.

It's a classic of the Bernhard canon, but, at 57, it's just a slice. There was King of Comedy, countless appearances on Late Show with David Letterman, her characters Charlotte Birch (The L Word), Nancy (Roseanne) and Roz (Crossing Jordan), her books, her albums, her stage shows, and more. Her cartoon voiceovers alone offer an impressive résumé. Bernhard is comedy and drama, singing and standup. Most importantly, she is uncompromising.

Family life may have mellowed Bernhard a bit, but she's still full of fight and bite. And, as always, she's genuinely kinder than her image might indicate. That is, of course, as long as you don't fuck with her. Assuredly, there is a warrior inside Sandra Bernhard.

METRO WEEKLY: You look as fit and strong as ever. What's your secret?

SANDRA BERNHARD: Everything in moderation. I love to eat, but I never eat crap. I never eat anything hydrogenated or just downright bad. But I might have a piece of cake or a piece of pie, something that's fun. It's moderation, and I do work out quite a bit. I walk a lot. I don't drink. I don't smoke. I've never done drugs.

MW: You don't drink anymore?

BERNHARD: I never drank, sweetheart.

MW: Oh. I thought you had the occasional gin and tonic or whatever.

BERNHARD: Well, yeah. By ''occasionally'' we're talking once or twice a year. I'm just not a drinker. I don't like the taste of liquor. I'd say it's probably a blessing. It's just nothing good comes out of it.

If you've had a big drinking problem and you've been a fucking mess and you fucked up your life a hundred times, you cannot make it. You can't keep it up. It breaks a body down. It breaks the mind down. You cannot do it. So the children are cleaning their shit up.

METRO WEEEKLY: The show you're bringing to D.C. on March 2 -- I don't see a title for it? How is it being billed?

BERNHARD: The show's called I Love Being Me, Don't You? It's the title I've been using for the show for the past two years. There are so few places I've actually gone to. I'm just really starting to go back out on a much more diversified, intensified tour of many cities I haven't been to in a long time. And the show has completely evolved since I recorded it live in San Francisco two years ago. I'd say it's at least 80 percent different since then. It just keeps going through evolutions. It's a real mixture. A lot of things influenced my work over the years. From burlesque to standup to cabaret to theater to rock 'n' roll – it's all a big blend. I'll have my band with me. It's evocative. It's sexy. It's personal. It's big. It's small. It's all over the place.

MW: There is no particular mood?

BERNHARD: It's moody. [Laughs.] It's mood-y.

MW: Are you familiar with Anthony Wayne, New York-based artist with the show Fabulous One More Time: A Sylvester Concert? He was at the same venue, Howard Theatre, late January.

BERNHARD: No, I don't know him. I should know him, since Sylvester has been such a big part of my oeuvre.

MW: The venue itself is pretty incredible.

BERNHARD: Oh, I know. It's a revival of the great, black theater. I'm excited to be there. I wish I could come in the day before, but I'm also doing two nights at Frostburg [State] University in Maryland. So I can't even come in before and fully absorb my Washington, D.C., experience, which is a bummer. But sometimes a girl has to do what a girl has to do.

MW: You can pretty much keep up with us on C-SPAN. Although, the Obama White House has made the city alittle more hip.

BERNHARD: That's why I'm hoping I can get Michelle out to my show on Saturday night. Maybe not. A girl can hope. ''Mm-mm, can't be seen with that white girl; I've got enough trouble on my plate.''

Sandra Bernhard

Sandra Bernhard

(Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia)

MW: Being D.C., will your show get a little more political than it might elsewhere?

BERNHARD: Yes and no. The amount of political stuff in my show now is sort of just fun. There's really nothing to say. You don't need to hit anybody over the head. Thank God for Rachel Maddow and that whole crew. I don't feel like I need to take that on. I want to have some fun. There might be a smattering of that, but not what you'd expect. It's not a bitchfest about what's going on. We're all burned out from the second election. Everyone needs a break – a psychic break.

The senators, the Republicans, all the people that fall from grace – that's always ripe for fodder. But when you live in D.C., does anybody really want to hear that shit again? There's got to be a way of doing it that's a little more creative, and hopefully that's what I do. I don't want to be that person who goes on talk shows and shit. I'm not a talking head, per se. I'm no good at memorizing the talking points. That's a very specific thing. Like my friend Lizz Winstead, who's brilliant, she can sit there and talk the nuts and bolts of politics. But I cannot.

MW: Well, one last thing on politics. New York got marriage equality no so long ago. Was that a big deal to you?

BERNHARD: Well, I guess it's a step in the right direction for a lot of people. I think it's different for me because I'm a performer. I've always approached my life in such a different way, anyway. I had my baby on my own. I met my girlfriend a year after I had my baby. So I don't really follow the typical rules. And I don't have to. I have a certain amount of financial independence and freedom that most people do not have.

I can say that my girlfriend and I are domestic partners in California, and I just got her on my [Screen Actors Guild- American Federation of Television and Radio Artists] insurance, which adds $300 a month. Is that enough of a commitment? [Laughs.] How much does the bitch need? [Laughs.]

MW: Speaking of New York, did you get out for Fashion Week this month?

BERNHARD: You know, I actually went to shows for the first time in a very long time.

I went to these young designers, Tome. I went to their presentation. They've been making some very cute shit for me. Then I went to Rag & Bone, because I'm very, very good friends with the designer, who's married to Gucci Westman; they live in my building. That was a fabulous show, and they turned me out. Then I went to Ralph Rucci, who's also a friend of mine who dresses me for the super-duper glamorous moments. Then I went to Thom Browne, who's also a friend, and who's been giving me some tiny, shrunken suits.

I like to wear things I look great in. I like people who push it to the outer limits, who are artists, people who love what they do like I love what I do. Those are the clothes I like to wear and the people I like to hang out with. These are my friends, people that actually dress me. I thought it was appropriate. As a matter of fact, in the Eric Wilson review of Thom Browne's show, he quoted my Twitter from the other day. The New York Times needs to cut the bitch a check!

They were all great, great shows and really fun and unique. It was fun to step back into that world again.

For a while, there were all these people, there was no reason for them to be at Fashion Week. They're not associated with fashion. They don't have any passion for fashion. I've been in it, around it, since the late '80s, and I really love it. It was always so special to me. And I try to bring something special to it and add to it. So when everybody else and their sister started going, I was like, ''I just gotta back off this shit. I don't wanna just be one of those stupid people in the front row.'' But this time there weren't too many people there, almost nobody I recognized.

MW: Did you take a break because fashion had become too accessible?

BERNHARD: It was another place for people to come and be publicity whores. The Kardashians, all these people who are not really part of the sensibility of fashion, the emotion of fashion.

MW: Like the Kardashians, fashion makes me think of reality TV, like Project Runway, RuPaul's Drag Race. You've been critical of celebrity, so I'm wondering what you think of reality TV. Is it making celebrity more egalitarian, or is it just out of hand?

 

BERNHARD: It's satellites circling. There's the extreme, trashy reality 15 minutes, and this other satellite of great, talented people, shows like Downton Abbey, Girls, interesting shows you can find all over the place. Eventually, I think people will come back around to things that have resonance, with people that actually write things, produce things, direct things, act in things.

Sandra Bernhard

Sandra Bernhard

(Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia)

MW: You were doing a show on Logo, right? DTLA?

BERNHARD: Yeah, that was a little scripted show. I filmed a couple of episodes. A friend was involved in it, asked me to come and do it. It was cute, kind of a dramatic role. That was fun. But they did it and Logo picked it up. It wasn't like they did it for Logo. It was a cool little gay soap.

MW: So, no other TV plans?

BERNHARD: Oh, I very much do have TV plans. My friend David Brind who wrote a film called Dare that I had a small part in, he'd coming up with an idea for me and another actress. I'm not even going to talk about – I want this shit to happen, so you can't put it out there. I'm going to L.A. next week to have a meeting with David and this actress. We're going to sit down and come up with our pitch, and then I go back again in April. Then we go to all the different networks and pitch it and then, insha'Allah, somebody picks it up and we shoot the pilot and then, insha'Allah, they pick it up. So that's something I'm really working on right now.

I'm also working on a show that I want to create based on my life when I first came to L.A., as a manicurist by day and performer by night, called 351 North Canon, which was where I was a manicurist from 1974 to 1979. It would be based totally on my early years in L.A. It won't be me starring in it – it will be some fun, groovy actress. At night, she's off doing all the crazy things she does and performing and falling into the whole crazy gay-disco scene and being a fag hag, this crazy bisexuality of that time, the wonderful friends that I made…. It will be a real slice-of-life. I want it to be fun, but real. A little bit dramatic. It's one of those shows that could really cover the whole time period.

MW: As a former shampoo boy, I can't wait.

BERNHARD: It's an ambitious project. There are so many period pieces now and I just think that '70s thing has not been done. And it's all hung around my character, this girl who's this big explosion of fun and light and unbridled enthusiasm. The salon I worked at had hanging macramé baskets of vines and greenery and was all woodsy. I want to recreate the sort of crazy all-over-the-placeness of the time, and the simplicity, pre-Internet, which made it so different.

MW: Now I'm going to have a hard time getting the theme song from Three's Company out of my head. Moving to the other side of the Atlantic, I want to ask about Morocco. Is that still a special place of you?

BERNHARD: I'm sitting here staring at my incredible antique map, ''Maroc,'' a French map of Morocco, probably from 1930 or something, in my living room. Morocco is always sort of my dream. Hopefully, I'll go back sometime in the next year. The years go by and we've just been so frigging busy. But, yeah, it's really kind of my spiritual homeland. It just washes over you when you're there – the colors, the smells, the people, the music, the spiritual journey of it for every minute you're there. It's amazing. It's like nowhere else and it's been untouched in so many ways by modern civilization. You have a wonderful opportunity to step back in time.

MW: You talk about being busy, and I'm reminded of looking at your filmography recently. I had no idea just how extensive it is. TV shows, movies, shorts, voiceovers…. You must be a workhorse.

BERNHARD: Yeah, I kind of am. It's funny. I really go about it in such a relaxed way. I've never been one of those performers with a big, overarching plan to my career. Things have just sort of fallen into place. I've met people in a very natural, organic way, who have become collaborators, people I've worked with for a while. Sometimes you just move on. I'm a Gemini, so I'm very, very fluid. I've very open to the endless journey. That's why I love Morocco – the winds just take you. I love that experience. It's like floating through life, knowing that every time you get on that plane you might meet the next person who takes you to that next level. It's a great thing. I've always stayed very open. You constantly become inspired and your work is always fresh. You're never like, ''What am I going to do next?? How am I going to do it??'' As an artist, you can't force what's next. It just has to happen.

MW: Then you have the mortgage payments.

BERNHARD: You still have your dates on the books. You go do your gigs. Hopefully, you get that TV show, do this, that, and the other thing. I'm just talking about the naturalistic experience of being a creative person. You can kind of do both. Of course you have to work, but while you're working you can stay open to all sorts of incredible people and experiences.

MW: But are you a little more cautious now that you have your family?

BERNHARD: I think I avoid people I know are going to be totally crazy at this point. Before I had my daughter, I would probably throw myself into situations that were a little more risky. I don't mean like physically harmful, but like people who might waste my time or drain my energy. Now I definitely assess the situation before I jump fully into it. She's my first priority and it takes so much energy to be a mother, and to also be the full financial support of the family. My girlfriend is freelance and somebody has to be here to anchor the place when I'm on the road, so there's a lot of responsibility on her shoulders. We work it out in a way that's healthy for both of us. It's totally co-parenting. Sara is just as much a mom as I am. Sara has been my partner for our entire relationship with Cicely.

Sandra Bernhard

Sandra Bernhard

MW: Aside from the TV, the touring, is there anything else in the works? Maybe another book?

BERNHARD: I will write another book. I've got a lot of material compiled already, but until I'm in some sort of high-profile position, like I'm on one of these shows I want to do on TV, and someone's willing to write me a huge check for the advance, then I'll do a book. I won't throw out an amount, because it will sound pretentious. But until there's a certain amount of money, I won't write a book, because it's simply too hard! Of course, they offered Lena Dunham three-and-a-half million dollars – why the hell wouldn't she write a book? She'll pull a book out of her ass, no kidding. I'm not saying I'm going to get three-and-a-half million dollars, but there's a certain bottom line to writing a book these days, because, simply, books don't sell. If you don't get it up front, you're not going to get it.

MW: You're in a unique position to comment on a feud that interests me. You've been in Playboy. You consider yourself a ''post-feminist,'' right?

BERNHARD: Yeah.

MW: I'd argue Hugh Hefner has done good things for our society. And Gloria Steinem is a hero of mine. Hugh is not a hero of Gloria's.

BERNHARD: Gloria went in and did some background, behind-the-scenes, undercover stuff. I'm sure if I'd had that part of the Playboy experience full-on, I'd feel differently. Taking it and subverting it the way that I did was the perfect platform for me. But I don't live there. When you're just visiting, you might have a different take on it. Also, my work is about irony. My work is taking unexpected venues and doing what I do and then leaving them. For Gloria, she was there doing something very specific and trying to crack open the whole idea that a woman was allowing herself to be used by the patriarchy. That's obviously not an issue for me, so I can have fun with it.

MW: I suppose I'm just non-confrontational, hoping everyone will get along.

BERNHARD: Oh, you're cute. I wish we all could. But without confrontation, there's no evolution or change. Internally and externally, you've got to step up to the plate sometimes and say, ''I don't like this, and I'm willing to fight for it.''

MW: Would you be my life coach?

BERNHARD: I am. I'm everybody's life coach. You just have to choose to come see me.

MW: I'll be there. What's your invitation to everybody else?

BERNHARD: Short of sounding self-serving – but why wouldn't I be self-serving when it's my work? I think I'm really one of the quintessential, consummate performers that, year after year, create new material, have always put themselves on the line, and been very raw and real and incredibly entertaining. I think that, far before anybody, I was sort of a revolutionary in terms of sexuality, and it didn't require me going on a talk show and crying about how I'd been treated unfairly. [Laughs.] I took the shit and I broke the shit down! I still do.

Listen, I don't need the support of all these organizations. I have been self-supporting, and at the same time a reflection of people's fears and inability to be who they are. And I say, ''You've got to be who you are. You've got to strip it down. You've got be fearless in this world. It's up to you.'' You can have all the support in the world, but if you can't stand on your own two feet and be your own revolution, the rest of it doesn't amount to anything. It's up to you to fight the fight, constantly. We all have to get up every day and be the warriors that we need to be, to be who we are, and earn that right to be who we are.

Sandra Bernhard performs I Love Being Me, Don't You? Saturday, March 2, at 8 p.m., at the Howard Theatre, 620 T St. NW. For tickets, $35 advance or $40 day of show, call 202-803-2899 or visit thehowardtheatre.com.


Call 202-638-6830 to advertise here in Marketplace