Sandra Bernhard: interview

Sandra Bernhard Sandra Bernhard
Posted: Fri Feb 11 2011

She's renowened for her caustic critiques, but, as Time Out discovers, Sandra Bernhard turns out to be a thoroughly lovely interviewee.

As I arrive to interview actress, comedian, singer and all-round icon Sandra Bernhard, I'm met by her press representative. He's a little flustered.
'What a day! Everyone wants a piece of Sandra. We did radio interviews first thing this morning, then “Loose Women” and now it's the print guys.' He smiles wearily: these are nice problems for a PR to have. 'It's all go. I'm also trying to track down a synagogue for her to visit in between the madness. She's very spiritual.'
As I'm led through the hotel to meet the great woman, for some reason I have Barbra Streisand's 'Papa, Can You Hear Me?' from 'Yentl' running through my head.
On stage and on film, Bernhard is larger than life, and her reputation more than precedes her, it almost defines her - her legendary bitchy and abrasive humour, her high-profile celebrity relationships - but what will she be like in person?
Her fulsome, voluptuous lips enter the room before the rest of her and they break into a stunning smile. She looks as good now at 55 as she ever has done, and seems comfortable and relaxed.

What do you think the 15-year-old Sandra Bernhard growing up in Scottsdale, Arizona, would make of your 55-year-old self?
'Well I think my 15-year-old self wanted to do everything that I did and I am going to do. I don't think she'd be disappointed. I was a free spirit, I had my own very iconoclastic view of the world, of culture, and always wanted to do things my own way, and that's what I've done.'

You were a very driven teenager…
'Oh, I was driven way before that. I've known I wanted to be a performer since I was five. I used to tell my parents' friends, “I'm gonna be a comedienne. I'm gonna sing.” I was just this crazy little kid. I used to lay in bed and have fantasies about being on Broadway. It was really weird.'

Over the years you've worked with some of the biggest names in entertainment. Given that childhood certainty of your place at the top table, have you ever felt out of your depth?
'I never feel out of my depth when I'm working with people that are more talented or bigger than me, people like Richard Pryor, De Niro or Scorsese. I felt more at home with them than I do with people who are a little more my contemporaries and less talented than I am. It's the little people who try to bring you down, because they still feel like they've got to prove themselves. The people who are already there, they embrace everybody, they don't care.'

Have you always had the inner confidence to make your dreams a reality, or were there ever periods of doubt?
'Of course. There's moments where I feel under pressure, you know, just like, “Oh God, can I do a new show? Can I pull a load of new material together?” But I think questioning yourself is all part of the process. And so far, Insha'Allah, I've managed to keep climbing up my own personal ladder, transcending some of my own personal limitations.'

How has your artistic voice changed over the years as you've developed personally?
'Well, I think the only thing that has really changed is my ability to step back and look at something with a more worldly eye. I have a deeper understanding spiritually of who I am, but I still look at things with a very humorous and suspicious slant like I always have.'

So you wouldn't say age has tempered you at all?
'No. People kept saying, “Oh, she'll soften when she's had a kid,” and I was like, no, never. I may have softened as a person. In my day-to-day life I'm more focused on somebody else, my daughter Cicely, who's now 12, and making sure she's okay, but that has nothing to do with my work. If anything, I think you should take the love and introspection that comes with being a parent and use that to make your work better. It doesn't mean you suddenly fall apart at the seams.'

You seem to have concentrated more on live work over the last few years than on your film or television careers…
'Well, I've had to, because it's been harder to get TV and film stuff.'

Harder because you're not getting as many offers, or because the offers you are getting aren't for things you really want to do?
'It's a little bit of both. I have a nice young manager who's very hungry. He's opened a lot of doors for me, and it's coming together again. Luckily, age isn't really a huge factor. When it comes to comedy I think it's a little less age-oriented, you know? Comedy is like a fine wine: people don't want to just throw out the bottle just because it isn't a new one, they want the vintage of somebody who has the perspective that comes with age.'

And you still enjoy performing?
'It's wonderful. It's an ongoing adventure.'