'Big Bang Theory's' Mayim Bialik: There's Not Just One Way to Be Cool (INTERVIEW)

From child actor to mom to neuroscientist, Mayim Bialik tells us how she's stayed tenaciously grounded, hilarious, and nerdy after all these years.
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Todd Aaron Jensen
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From child actor to mom to neuroscientist, Mayim Bialik tells us how she's stayed tenaciously grounded, hilarious, and nerdy after all these years.
Mayim Bialik Big Bang Theory Photo

Mayim Bialik (as Amy Farrah Fowler) in The Big Bang Theory. (Photo: CBS)

Like Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler, her alter ego on CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, the top-rated comedy on network television, Mayim Bialik is smart, beautiful, jocular, plays the harp, and has a PhD in neuroscience. Which begs the question: is the 38-year old actress, thrice Emmy-nominated for her work on the smash series, even acting? “Well, I don’t have a lab full of coked-up monkeys with nothing to lose,” she quips, deadpan. “So yeah, I’m probably acting a little bit.” 

Bialik’s witty retort, hardboiled without a trace of jest (and therefore twice as funny), is one her trademarks, well honed on NBC’s early-‘90s sitcom Blossom, where she played the adolescent voice of pragmatism in a home overrun by deeply flawed, but endearing male family members. Bialik’s proficiency at tickling the nation’s collective nerve is, she says, “a gift” from her extended family, many of them Jewish immigrants, who understood “the power and protection humor conveys.” 

In her regular column at Kveller.com, Bialik shares intimate, frequently hilarious stories about her eccentric bloodline, raising her two young sons, as well as vegan recipes, progressive parenting tips, “second-wave feminist ideas,” she cracks, and helpful hints for detoxing your favorite simian after his latest blow binge. Okay, we might have made up that last one. As Big Bang enjoys an eighth season that is more-watched (and, arguably, funnier) than its first several, Bialik — who proudly identifies as “a character actress” — seems to have the world on a string. Even if her monkeys are out of control.

If history has taught us anything, it’s that the future is usually not bright for child actors. You were in the Bette Midler film Beaches when you were 12, on a hit TV show when you were 14. How is it you avoided becoming another child actor casualty? 

I come from kind of an old-fashioned family. My father always reminded me that all of my so-called fame could end in a heartbeat, so I’d better have other stuff that I was working on. After a few years of doing television when I was a kid, I knew I needed to take a break, that there must be a lot more to life. I wanted to go to college. I wanted to see the world.

Was acting something you always wanted to do? 

Well, I'm actually considered a late bloomer for the entertainment industry, because I didn't start at 2 or 3. My parents weren't putting me in commercials when I was in diapers. But I come from a family that is very strong in its faith, and there was always a very strong sense of storytelling, a lot of humor. Comedy is tragedy plus time, right? We had that down, like a lot of close Jewish families do. When I was in elementary school, I was an awkward kid, kind of a weirdo, and my English teacher was a very stern and strict teacher, but she was also the Drama teacher. I love to make strict people like me, so I basically became really interested in Drama. I don’t know that I was all that quote-unquote talented as a kid, but I was fearless. I wasn’t hammy. I wasn’t good at stealing the spotlight. But I had a very strange sense of humor and a very keen sense of being able to work a crowd, which must come from growing up in my very crazy, amazing family.

Johnny Galecki Mayim Bialik Photo

Johnny Galecki (as Leonard Hofstadter) and Mayim Bialik (as Amy Farrah Fowler) in the Big Bang Theory. (Photo: CBS)

How is success different for you today than it was on Blossom, two decades ago? 

First of all, I feel incredibly blessed. I had some lucky shots when I was a kid, and then I took some time off to travel and study and I became a mother, and when I auditioned for Big Bang Theory, I wasn’t looking to be a full-time actress again; I just wanted to make enough money, literally, to pay for health insurance. Now I’m in this situation where I really love my job. It’s relaxing. I’m a part of this incredible ensemble of actors with really great writing, and I’m as happy with one joke as I am with 20. That kind of perspective comes with what I’d like to believe is maturity of some kind. But the biggest changes are the off-camera ones. The publicity machine, the whole celebrity scene, that’s really different today than it was 20 or 25 years ago. 

Back then, if you were in Tiger Beat, that was a big deal, but now young women in the entertainment industry are expected to walk all of the red carpets and look a certain way – put on designer clothing, have plastic surgery, wear Spanx, and all that stuff. I think that would have been incredibly overwhelming and very stressful for me when I was a teenager. I mean, Seventeen refused to have me on their cover back then because I was too “unusual looking,” even though I was on this very popular kids’ show. Also, social media – the Internet, Twitter, Instagram, all that stuff – it’s really changed the way people feel they relate to public figures. I think you need to be very aware these days of how much of yourself you show and in which ways. Its just part of the job now.

You’ve referred to yourself many times as a “character actress,” which is often, at least historically, a euphemism for someone who is not classically “perfect” in appearance. What does that mean to you in terms of being a young woman in Hollywood? 

Well, once you become aware that you don’t look like a leading lady and maybe your voice doesn't sound like a leading lady, you learn to kind of go with it — if you're looking to get paid to perform. You learn to go after the cool, funky character parts, which is something I’ve always loved anyway. I was a weird kid. I was a weird teenager. I'm a weird adult. It’s funny because in some sense I feel like maybe I'm less of an impressive actor, because I'm strange in real life. But yeah, “character actor” works for me.

I think it takes all types of actors. When I think of the character actresses that inspired me — and I mean in no way to compare myself — but they didn't look like most leading actresses and didn't act like them. Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Tracey Ullman, Bette Midler, those were the women that I really looked up to. And they got a lot of the best lines, too.

Jim Parsons Mayim Bialik Big Bang Theory Photo

Nerd love? Jim Parsons (as Sheldon Cooper) with Mayim Bialik (as Amy). (Photo: CBS)

Beyond being very, very funny, Big Bang Theory has really normalized the cultural ideas of “nerds” and “geeks.” That’s a huge shift – that smart people, quirky people can also be kind of cool, that arguing string theory versus loop quantum gravity or obsessing over Leonard Nimoy doesn’t mean you’re somehow less-than. 

Right. Absolutely! You know, I am a neuroscientist, so on a deeper level, I also think it's remarkable that we have a TV show that does not talk about diagnoses. Big Bang Theory does not talk about fixing or correcting people. It’s a show about people who live with each other’s quirks. Sometimes they’re annoyed by them and sometimes they exploit them in ways that are funny as entertainment, but it doesn’t really judge them, and that is a cool thing. Especially in the characters of Amy and Sheldon (the show’s will-they-ever-couple, portrayed by Bialik and Emmy-winner Jim Parsons), we have a couple that is making a very significant and intimate relationship work on their terms. It’s really interesting. I would argue it might be the longest running non-sexual relationship we've seen on television.

Except for Crockett and Tubbs, of course.

Of course!

On the show, your character has described Sheldon, her paramour, as “handsome, lanky, brilliant, with skin that has a pale, waxy quality.” 

And he’s still lovable. I think that what we do with our show is we show how the other half really lives. I think many of us grew up with shows about beautiful people “hooking up” in various permutations. That's not most people's experience. And we also have a group of characters that, despite being teased, despite all of their difficulties, they have productive careers, they have a thriving set of friendships, they have a social life, they have girlfriends sometimes, and sometimes they don't. They have activities they enjoy and they’re able to enjoy and share those activities. No one's telling them that they can't, and I think that's so important today. I know plenty of adults who play video games and Dungeons & Dragons. Those are good people. They're productive people and I think the notion that there's only one way to be cool… I just don't think it's even relevant any more, and I’m pretty happy about that.