Heroes: Sandra Bernhard
Text: Alexandra Ilyashov
The endlessly versatile Sandra Bernhard—actress, stand-up, radio-show host, cabaret singer—has had just about every sort of gig that showbiz offers. But after decades of creating her own variety pack of a career, her role as Nurse Judy on Pose was one that came ready for the tackling: creator Ryan Murphy tailored a Season 1 bottle episode just for Bernhard’s Judy, a nurse in a New York City AIDS ward circa 1988.
“Anytime somebody creates a role for you in a project, now more than ever, it’s just incredible,” says Bernhard. Season 2, which premiered on June 11, saw Judy become a regular, lending Bernhard the kind of complex character she relishes, but for which she has often had to fight. “It’s a dramatic role, but there are elements of humor and humanity [to it] that a lot of people just have not offered me in roles before,” Bernhard says. “Now, my focus is back on my acting, and I really want that to take off after Pose.”
While nurse is one job title Bernhard hadn’t held, dramatizing the AIDS crisis onscreen wasn’t exactly a stretch. “It had a lot of resonance [for me],” she says. “I was in New York doing my one-woman show then, in the center of what was happening at that time. A lot of my friends were getting sick and starting to fade away.”
After moving to the city in the ’70s, Bernhard earned cult stardom at a clip, inhabiting bohemian performance circles. Having seen New York in all its shades, Bernhard served as a link between Pose’s young cast and the time period it’s set in. “It was a different world [back then] and yet, being around all of these young, fabulous trans actresses on Pose, it was fun to talk about how things were,” she says. And while she has the straight-talking perspective of a longtime LGBTQ-allied advocate and elder, Bernhard is quick to acknowledge the progress she has witnessed first- hand. “It’s very inspiring to see how far culture has come, that there’s a whole show built around a world that was totally marginalized and now is being celebrated in Pose, and in so many other shows and films,” she says.
Even so, as an alumna of the New York’s homegrown art and fashion scenes known for her appearances on Letterman’s Late Show and Isaac Mizrahi’s Unzipped, Bernhard nurtures a healthy case of nostalgia. “The authenticity, the rawness, the ability for people to live in the city, to afford to be right in the thick of it and be creative... Those are all things I really miss,” she says. “It’s a shame. There’s a bank or a nail salon on every corner.”
For all the changes and challenges Bernhard’s community has seen, Hollywood’s ebb and flow is one that doesn’t seem to faze her. “I didn’t go into the business with a plan of attack, and I’ve never had once since. You have your high tides and low tides,” she says (her Sandyland show on SiriusXM, for one, is still going strong). “I’ve always had other things to keep me busy. As you mature, who you are gets more authentic. That’s where I’m at right now.”