|Photo by Richard Mitchell|
“I’m doing laundry while I talk to you,” Sandra Bernhard explains from her New York home (Chelsea, in case you’re wondering). She’s getting ready to go to Australia for several performances leading up to a two-week L.A. run of her new one-woman show Everything Bad & Beautiful. The Aussies, she explains, love her. “Believe me, I didn’t call them; they called me,” she says. “It’s an odd country, a big weird island. It’s missing something that I can never quite figure out, but I seem to have an audience there.”
Sandra Bernhard may have more of an audience than ever in her 30-year career. Currently, she has recurring roles on The L Word and Crossing Jordan. Of course she’s no stranger to prime time, having been a series regular on Roseanne and a guest on Will & Grace (playing herself) and Ally McBeal, among others. But it was her performance as Masha, an obsessed fan in the 1983 Martin Scorsese film The King of Comedy, that made people take notice of this captivating yet awkward beanpole — a role which made you both scared of and uncomfortably embarrassed for her. For one thing, there’s her look; she can appear stunningly slinky and glamorous or like some exotic long-necked sea creature. And her eyes can chill or reveal an insecure little girl who just wants to fit in.
“I think Hollywood is kind of coming around in a weird way. I think people are saying, ‘Oh God, is she still here? I guess we better start taking advantage of her.’ ” If you were to draw a graph of Sandra Bernhard’s career trajectory it would look more like the trail of a drunk bee than, say, the frantic-squirrel ascent of Eddie Izzard. She has yet to find a role as edgy as Masha, but in her one-woman shows — and she’s written a slew of them — we get to see Bernhard at her most potent, with cuts that take celebrities, politicians and the MTV generation down to size.
These days, her inspiration comes more from The New York Times than People magazine. “You can expect a lot of very topical, political, cultural dissections about where we’re at in the world, which is highly disturbing, especially if you’re a mother,” she says about her new show (daughter Cicely Yasmin is 6). “There are a couple of vintage pieces, plus a lot of material that people in L.A. have never heard,” she explains. “Over 20 years I’ve probably written 10 new shows, so I feel I deserve to draw on my old material.” It’s no harder to rattle people these days, she says. “I’ve always been able to shake people up, which is why I’ve never become mainstream.”
Despite her current high-profile TV roles and extended live L.A. stint, she hasn’t been invited by Jay Leno’s people to be a Tonight Show guest recently. “I’m sure that when I become a regular on some show on NBC, he’ll have me on,” she shrugs. “It’s not like the old days when you would go on these shows because you were funny, like when Johnny Carson used to have people on.” (Early in her career, she was actually on both Leno’s show and David Letterman’s.)
Despite her ability to rattle cages, even Bernhard was shocked that Bush was re-elected. “I really believe that Ohio was manipulated, and once again it’s very hard to prove, but I think there was some coercion and once again he didn’t win, and we’re fucked.”
But she’s not here to complain. “This is what I have to say to the young and to everybody: Get off your lazy, self-indulgent ass. Your job is not to be cynical; it’s to be constantly renewed. We still live in America, and it’s still the best country in the world. We have everything available to us and opportunities that nobody else has, so get it together and work twice as hard next time.”
Bernhard only gets curt when asked — granted, for the billionth time — about her belief in the Jewish mysticism called Kabbalah. She sighs through the phone as she says, “It’s really helped my life and it’s part of my daily ritual, but I kind of put in into my DNA and mixed it up. You can really depend on yourself more than you think.”
As far as the celebrity aspect of Kabbalah’s popularity (see Madonna, Britney), she quietly sums it up, “I don’t think you can sell spirituality.”
One of the reasons fans love their Ms. Bernhard is they want to be her friend, imagining themselves hanging out with her while trying to keep up with her ballsy art of talking trash. “And you know what?” she answers. “I probably would be their friend. Aside from Marianne Faithfull, Chrissie Hynde, Nancy Sinatra and a couple others, my friends aren’t celebrities. You never see me hobnobbing. There’s no bullshit with my friends; you just have to be somebody who I can sit in my pajamas with and just jam with and be real. I fill my days running errands. I find it endless and amusing to run from grocery store to grocery store.”
The bicoastalness of being Sandra Bernhard has become something she’s forced to tolerate. She’s romantically attached, but prefers to keep her relationship private. She used to love L.A. a lot more but is less enchanted these days, though the TV work is here. “The driving, the schlepping and just the isolation, and then there’s the lower interest in things intellectual and things that inspire. There is that problem in L.A. I still have my house in the Valley, and my daughter loves the ocean and wants to learn to surf.”
She’d like to do more movies. “There are some aspects to my personality that would be well-suited to a romantic comedy. I wish Woody Allen was still doing movies the way he used to.”
Good ones, you mean?
“Yeah,” she says. “I don’t know what’s up with him.”
Well, there’s still folding to do and planes to catch, and when the interviewer thanks her interviewee for her graciousness and giving of time, the comeback is trademark to-the-point Bernhard: “Oh honey, I need it more than you.”?
Sandra Bernhard stars in Everything Bad & Beautiful, Silent Movie Theater, 611 Fairfax Ave., March 9–25; $50–$30, (323) 655-2520.