It’s jarring to sit down with Rukiya Bernard immediately after binge-watching the entire first season of Van Helsing on Netflix.
As Doc, a human-turned-vampire-turned-human, on SyFy’s hit series, Bernard’s appearance and behaviour befit a post-apocalyptic world where clean threads and empathy are in short supply, and hot blood is always flowing.
“Van Helsing is a gritty, edgy show, and I got to play arguably the grittiest character,” says Bernard, who, over tea in Kitsilano, is as joyful and thus as un-Doc as it gets – or, maybe, the way Doc might have been had the apocalypse not thrust her into a series of untenable situations.
It’s been three years since Reel People first profiled Bernard. At the time, Bernard had recently wrapped on BBC America’s Intruders (in which her scene partner was Millie Bobby Brown, who would go on to reignite society’s love of Eggo waffles thanks to a little show called Stranger Things; also, #Justice4Barb!) and was heading into a play called Good People.
Bernard was admittedly in a good place. Her life was a fairly consistent stream of network tests, callbacks, family, friends, and gratitude – but she wanted more. She wanted to be a regular on a television series.
“I want to see more people who look like me on screen, so I have to be that person,” says Bernard. “That’s a lot of pressure to put on myself, especially now as a mother. My kids need to see people like me on screen.” But part of her didn’t think it was ever going to happen, because, despite the auditions and callbacks and network tests, nothing seemed to be landing.
“I remember having tearful conversations with my husband: ‘Am I crazy to think this is actually going to work? It’s been great up until now, but maybe that will be it and I should just be happy,’” says Bernard. “He’s like, ‘Just keep on smashing at the ceiling. It’ll crack. It’ll break.’”
Bernard held tight to her dream. Fast-forward three years and Bernard is living it via her meaty role in Van Helsing, which returned for its second season on Oct. 5. She’s also got juicy guest roles on upcoming episodes of Supernatural and Travelers, and she’s up for a UBCP/ACTRA Award for her work on Van Helsing (specifically, for a Best Actress Award for the second episode of the series, in which Doc turns from a sardonic human doctor into a snarling, sneering vampire).
Oh, and she’ll also be hosting the awards show on Nov. 18, too.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” she says resolutely. “I found my joy.”
You won’t find any sparkly immortals on Van Helsing. Yes, Van Helsing centers on Vanessa Van Helsing (Kelly Overton), a badass descendant of the famed vampire hunter, but, according to Bernard, the critically acclaimed series is less about neck-biting action than it is about how people in dire circumstances treat (or mistreat) each other.
This can be attributed in large part to Van Helsing’s showrunner, playwright Neil LaBute, Bernard adds.
“If you read any of Neil’s plays, he’s really character driven,” she marvels. “You can have two people at a table for two hours and so much happens. His aesthetic gets into the show that way with these ugly, nasty, ferocious situations, but then you have a real person in these situations, and that has been a dream to do.”
In order to play Doc (especially in those early episodes, when vampire Doc was confined to a cage), Bernard endured a dramatic daily transformation.
“You’d show up to work at some god awful hour in the morning, and the makeup team says, ‘We’re going to clean your face up so you look all fresh,’ and then they had dirt and they put it on your face and they put it on your hair and they put it on your hands and in your nails and say, ‘You’re good to go!’”
In the second season, Doc is “still kicking, but she’s on her own for the first time, in terms of trust, which is so needed when it comes down to survival,” Bernard says.
“She’s earning her character as well as her survival.”
Meant for bigger Things
P.S. Bernard called it on Millie Bobby Brown (a.k.a. Eleven on Stranger Things) three years ago when they worked together on Intruders.
“Millie was on a whole other level,” recalls Bernard. “She was nothing but the sweetest girl to work with. We played charades all night. She was down to earth.
“And she [SPOILER ALERT] killed me. I can see why she was cast on Stranger Things. She was laser focused. I’m sure people who read auras could probably see, ‘This one, she’s going to be a star.’”
• Van Helsing airs Thursdays on SyFy (@SyFyVanHelsing); binge the first season on Netflix. The UBCP/ACTRA Awards take place on Nov. 18 (see the full list of nominees here). The awards aren’t broadcast, but Reel People will live-tweet the results. Follow @sabrinarmf and @RukiyaBernard and @UBCP_ACTRA.
More from Rukiya Bernard
On how her dog inspired part of her performance on Van Helsing: “Actually a huge inspiration for the character [in the early episodes, when Doc was still a vampire] was my dog. She just died this summer: my little Shih Tzu that I got as a graduation present for myself when I graduated college. Her name was Uhuru, which means freedom in Swahili. She had this underbite and was a Shih Tzu, so a really pretty dog, but she’s not afraid to bite you. And she had this growl that sounded like a purr. So I remember times where I was using my jaw and imitating her and I was like, ‘If people only knew how non-ferocious this inspiration is!’”
On her experience at San Diego Comic-Con: “That was bananas. I knew about Comic-Con, but I don’t think anything can prepare you for the magnitude of what that is… It really made me feel humbled that people appreciate storytelling as much as I do, and they are invested in it as much as I am, and they’re counting on it, and they’re very vocal online and in person when I went there about it, so that humbles me.”
On the role that her friends play in her life and career: “I find that if we isolate ourselves in life, it’s a downward spiral. As human beings, we’re meant to have friends, and I’m so blessed with the girlfriends in my life. They’re all fucking rock stars. I’m always like, #myfriendsdocoolshit, because they do, and they’re powerhouses, and they inspire me. Like Ali Liebert: girlfriend is a fucking powerhouse. We still get real with each other. It’s important to surround yourself with people who are who you hope to be in this world. We all just raise each other up that way.”