After a couple of false starts, when I finally connect with Rukiya Bernard one Sunday afternoon in November, the beautiful chaos of her life is audible through the phone.
Her 11-month-old – the source of a steady stream of high-pitched squeals throughout our conversation – is playing with pots and pans at her feet. Her four-and-a-half-year-old is watching The Lion King nearby. And Bernard isn’t missing a beat, tending to them both while answering my questions.
That’s what 2014 has been for Bernard: A non-stop juggling act. The Vancouver actress has logged some impressive gigs in 2014, including a guest arc on BBC America’s super-spooky Intruders, and appearances on Witches of East End, The Returned, and the upcoming television movie Sorority Murder.
And somewhere between her personal and on-screen obligations, she’s also found time to rehearse for the stage with Good People, a humour-filled drama from Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire, on now until Nov. 29 at Studio 1398.
It truly is an actor’s life for Bernard, but it’s a path she would have given up altogether were it not for a life-changing road trip during the seventh month of her first pregnancy.
Bernard was raised in Toronto by immigrant parents, from Jamaica and Kenya, who’d come to Canada for a better life. “Acting is not really considered the better life,” she laughs. “I think they were hoping for a doctor or lawyer.”
But Bernard, who’d always had a dramatic flare, was determined to explore her passion. She sailed through the theatre arts program at Ryerson University and landed an agent upon graduation.
Her first paid role was in a Movie of the Week called Our America, directed by Spike Lee’s famed cinematographer, Ernest Dickerson, and starring Josh Charles, Mykelti Williamson, and Vanessa Williams.
“It was a fantastic experience,” says Bernard. “I was like, ‘Wow, I just graduated, and here I am playing with these incredible people.’”
Romance brought her to Vancouver, and when the relationship fizzled, she stayed for the work: in Eureka, Sanctuary, The L Word, The Stagers, and dozens of other comedic and dramatic roles in TV series, shorts, and feature films.
Being a working actor in this city can be a tough slog. Sometimes the phone doesn’t ring, or when it does, it’s for roles that are less than palatable.
Such trying times took their toll on Bernard’s spirit. “There’ve been a couple instances where I didn’t work for a really long period and what I was booking were roles that I had no interest in playing, and because I am my product, it affects me,” she says. “It’s not like I can put the product on the shelf and say, ‘Okay, that’s it for that thing.’ It’s me. That’s what I’m selling.”
So five years ago, when her good friend Ali Liebert (star of Bomb Girls and Afterparty) asked the pregnant Bernard to accompany her on the long drive down to LA for pilot season, she was in the right headspace to take a hard look at who she was and what she wanted from her career and her life.
“I’ll never forget the drive down. We talked a lot and she really believed in me, especially at that time when I didn’t really believe in myself,” says Bernard. “We talked so much and I told her about how I felt really vulnerable and she had so many suggestions. I think she’s the reason I’m still acting right now, because of that conversation, because of that drive.”
Now she’s busier than ever, with an attitude that rolls with whatever punches the industry throws her way. “I think there’s a certain level of self-acceptance that I now understand and have implemented into my life,” she adds.
Motherhood has changed things, too. Bernard doesn’t have time to sweat the small stuff (“Kids keep you very busy, so I don’t have a lot of time to indulge my neuroses”), and she’s cognizant of the role she plays in her children’s lives.
“My daughter, I know, I’m her number one role model right now, so I need to be the thing that I’d like to see in her,” she says.
In Good People – about a down-on-her-luck woman in Boston – Bernard plays the current wife of the protagonist’s ex. “It’s a riot of a play,” raves Bernard. “It’s one of those plays where the tone of it is very real life, and through that real life we find the comedy.” The production is directed by Vancouver powerhouse actress Jennifer Copping.
“With stage, you’ve got to set it all, and then you’ve got to do it, and there’s no do-overs,” adds Bernard. “It’s do or die.”
Good People runs until Nov. 29 at Studio 1398. For tickets and show times, visit BrownPaperTickets.com/event/906272.