Interview Date: 11/15/2010
Run Date: 11/17/2010
You may think it’s naïve to believe that the world at large will one day look at Mayim Bialik without first thinking of the five seasons she spent as the title character of NBC’s “Blossom,” but it’s amazing what CBS sitcoms can do to help actors escape from potential pop culture albatrosses. I never would’ve believed that I’d be able to look at Jon Cryer and Neil Patrick Harris without thinking, “Hey, look, it’s Ducky and Doogie!” After their work on “Two and a Half Men” and “How I Met Your Mother,” however, I’d bet I’m not the only one who’s come to see them in an alternate light. Given Bialik’s work this season on “The Big Bang Theory” as Dr. Sheldon Cooper’s new girlfriend, Amy Farrah Fowler, there’s every reason to believe that she’s currently in the process of making the same transition. Bullz-Eye chatted with Bialik about her “Big Bang” work in conjunction with the TV Power Rankings, also touching on her appearances on another Power Rankings stalwart, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” And, okay, fine, we asked her about “Blossom,” too. But not ‘til near the end.
Bullz-Eye: I’m a big fan of “The Big Bang Theory” as well, but Ross Ruediger, the writer who handled the write-up of the show for our TV Power Rankings, is a big fan of what you’ve been doing on the series.
Mayim Bialik: Oh, okay! Thank you!
BE: You came aboard the show during the season finale of last year. At that time, did they give you an idea that it was going to be more than just a one-off gig?
MB: When I got the audition…it usually tells you if it’s a guest star or a series regular, depending on what the producers think. What it said was, “Possibly recurring.” But when I did that episode, since it was such a sort kind of cliffhanger, I was pretty hopeful. (Laughs) And then they said there would probably be one or two more this season, but obviously that’s turned into more, which is great.
BE: Had you been a fan of the show prior to getting this gig?
MB: Um, I had never seen the show, to be honest. (Laughs) Not before I got the audition. I have a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old, and I don’t really watch TV! So, yeah, I knew that it was super popular, but… (Hesitates) Hold on one second. (Leans slightly away from the phone) Miles, what…? Okay, Daddy can get them for you when I’m done, okay? Okay. (Returns to the phone, laughing) Sorry.
BE: I’ve got a 5-year-old. I’m sympathetic.
MB: (Laughs) I was secluded in a room, but it obviously wasn’t impenetrable.
BE: (Laughs) Yeah, that trick never works.
MB: What was I saying? Oh, so, anyway, I hadn’t heard about it, but I Googled Jim Parsons the night before the audition because, you know, I was told, “We want a female Jim Parsons,” and I had no idea who he was! (Laughs) So that is the true story! I know I was mentioned on the show, though. Me, the person Mayim Bialik. It was a couple of years ago…I can’t remember if it was first or second season…but they mentioned something like, “Doesn’t that girl from ‘Blossom’ have a PhD in Neuroscience?”
BE: So do you think they’ll make reference to it again in the future, or would that be too meta?
MB: Well, for now, I’m pretty much Amy Farrah Fowler. But I think that would be hysterical. That would be very post-modern for my character to talk about the actress Mayim Bialik. (Laughs)
BE: By the way, I think it’s funny that your Wikipedia page actually has “neuroscientist” listed prior to “actress” in your description.
MB: That’s funny! I’ve tried making corrections for some things, but maybe I’ll try and flip those around. (Laughs) No, I actually prefer it that way!
BE: So how much direction did they give you on how to play the character when you first got there?
MB: A lot. You know, I will say Chuck Lorre knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s not Chuck Lorre because he doesn’t know what he’s doing, so…it’s the kind of show where, you know, especially when you’re coming into a well-oiled machine and everybody kind of knows what they’re doing, I always err on the side of listening to the people who seem to know what’s up. (Laughs) So I did, you know, allow them to give me a lot of direction. But when we started this season, they made sure to tell me that they want the character to also kind of grow, and that we don’t have to be married to the way that one scene went in the season finale. And I don’t mean to make it sound so utterly pretentious… (Laughs) …but it’s a pretty cerebral bunch of producers, and it’s a pretty cerebral bunch of actors, so we do take those things seriously, even if it’s just one or two lines that my character was established as. There actually are subtle differences that the actors and the producers can tell, even if the general public thinks it kind of looks the same. There’s a lot of stuff that we work on to make it feel really right.
BE: I’ve talked to both Jim and Johnny in the past about how they’re geeks in their own way, if not necessarily as geeky as their characters. What level of geekdom do you yourself possess?
MB: Oh, gee, I mean, I don’t know if there’s more geeky than I come. (Laughs) I mean, a PhD in Neuroscience? A lot of people think that just gives me the geek card, anyway! Yeah, I mean, I’m pretty…you know, I went to a very fine public university, I went to UCLA, and I was trained in the fine art of debate and scientific inquiry, and that’s sort of where I live. I’m really bad with pop culture, and I’m really pretty bad with politics, but every other topic, my husband and I like to sort of go at. So, yeah, I’d say I’m pretty geeky in general. (Laughs)
BE: With that comment about pop culture, I take it you have to have some of the references explained to you, then? Or does it even matter to you when you’re delivering the joke?
MB: No, it’s pretty awkward. And, also, a lot of things that happen on the show that are running jokes… (Starts to laugh) …I just don’t know them! Like, I didn’t know that Sheldon has a seat, and that no one else is allowed to sit in his seat. Things like that. Yes, I could watch every single episode of the past seasons, but, you know, I haven’t, so I just kind of do my best in catching up. But in general, yes, if there’s ever a pop culture reference, even in other auditions for other things, I either ask my husband, or I have a girlfriend, and she’s kind of my pop culture everything.
BE: How excited were you when they decided that they were going to keep the character going? I mean, I take it that it’s been an enjoyable experience for you.
MB: Yeah, I mean, you know, obviously, this is my job. This is how I get health insurance and all that stuff, so it’s wonderful to be employed. It’s bizarre having a career as a performer. It’s a really weird thing. But that is my job, so it’s rewarding when you have work. It’s what makes the day go, y’know? But I think also, on a personal level, sitcom in general is not known to be typically very challenging intellectually, and this show would be the exception to that. Of course, I’ve worked on a lot of shows and a lot of films…drama stuff, too…but this is a really challenging set in a really positive, creative way. They really will refine things up until the last minute. They’ll try things out for the first time in front of a live studio audience. It’s very creative and very spontaneous, and you feel a lot like you’re in the writer’s room even when we’re performing, because they’re really just kind of trying things out. It’s really challenging. You really have to be on your toes and be able to memorize things quickly. But if you can roll with it, it’s a really cool group to be in.
BE: This past week’s episode, with you, Melissa, and Kaley getting the chance at a girls’ night, was really fantastic.
MB: (Laughs) Yeah, well, you know, I don’t have much objectivity. It’s very hard for me to watch myself, especially when, y’know, I look so different than I would ever want to look on television! She’s a weird character, so it’s hard for me to watch!
BE: Well, you three have a unique chemistry…which, obviously, is necessary, given that they’re so different in their personality types. Is it fun to try and find that kind of off-center chemistry?
MB: Yeah. Also, as an actress who’s…I’m in my 30s, and parts for women are really difficult. The standards in Hollywood, I think, have shifted more back to what it was when I started acting, when I was a kid, which is a very traditional heterosexual-generated vision of women. I think the uniqueness of being on this show is that, first of all, Kaley is immensely skilled as a comic actress. In addition to being beautiful, she’s really, really skilled. I think to have Melissa and me not be…I don’t mean competitive in the traditional sense, but the fact that we all serve a different purpose and we meet a different need in the story and also in the show, I think that’s really exceptional, and I think that’s what people are picking up on. Even if you don’t like Amy Farrah Fowler, ‘cause I know some people don’t, or even if you don’t like the plotline, which I know some people may not, the chemistry of these three women, who are so different but each have their own value, I think it’s amazing, and I think it’s incredible to see on television when a lot of what you see is just either pretty faces or the nerd girl.
BE: Actually, you touched on something I was just getting ready to bring up: not everyone loves Amy Farrah Fowler.
MB: No. Some people don’t like me. (Laughs)
BE: And this is certainly one of those shows where the fanbase is going to be extremely verbal about their feelings online. Does it bounce off you, or does it bother you?
MB: You know, not every actor is sensitive, but I am. I’m one of those sensitive people who has a hard time with rejection, and I always have. Even if I wasn’t an actor, I’d have a hard time with rejection, in school or whatever it was. You know, I shouldn’t read mean things. (Laughs) But, also, when I started acting, the internet didn’t exist! We didn’t have the internet, there was not a forum for this kind of interchange. Also, the culture that I grew up in, in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and even the ‘90s, was not one where being mean or snarky or insulting was a recreational pastime. So I try and take everything with that grain of salt, that the internet has become this forum for anonymous nastiness if you’re feeling nasty, so that it doesn’t necessarily express something that someone is going to come up to me and say to me on the street. And, fortunately, no one has said anything mean to me on the street. But I think that once you take a beloved show and once you take a beloved character, there’s going to be a portion of people who don’t want this kind of interruption of who he is. You know, for me, I like to say that I was originally told to be a female Sheldon, but now I think that my character has just gotten much weirder than even Sheldon. (Laughs) You know, I know that I’m not for everyone. I’m even amazed that…you know, on my 52” screen, it sometimes seems really broad, the kind of strokes that they’re painting with this character. But, you know, my feeling is that you can’t please everyone all of the time. I guess when they’re done using me, I’ll be done on the show, but for now, if I’m told to show up for work, that’s what I do! (Laughs)
BE: Well, I think that, because of your character, we can look back at the earlier seasons of the series and see how far Sheldon has come with his social indoctrination.
MB: Right. And I think that’s part of it, too. Part of the specialness is that we’re not changing Sheldon. We’re really keeping him exactly the way he is, and my character has to fit into his world with him as he is. And I think that’s something that even the more skeptical…or angry… (Laughs) …fans will see. Again, you may not like a Wolowicz plot, you may not like a Kuthrapali plot. Everybody’s allowed their flavor. I will say that the ratings have been really strong, even with this last episode, which had previews showing that it was a girls’ night plot. So it’s good. I think the show has to grow and change, and this is what they’re doing this season.
BE: I’d think that the angriest fans would probably be the ones from the “Shenny” contingent, who are still hoping that Sheldon and Penny will together.
MB: Oh, yeah. (Laughs) But, I mean, look, I read a lot of possible permutations. Some people want him asexual. I feel like people don’t like it for different reasons, and that’s okay, too. I haven’t heard anyone say, “I’m never watching it again because of this.” And I’m not in every episode, so don’t worry. If you don’t like me, you don’t have to look at me every week. (Laughs)
BE: I wanted to ask you about your work on another show that regularly turns up on our Power Rankings: “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” How did you fall into their universe, as it were?
MB: “Curb” was actually one of the only shows that I was watching on television at that time. I had an audition in the same building as where the “Curb” casting office was, and I literally walked in and said, “Hey! I would like to audition for anything on ‘Curb’!” (Laughs) And they kind of said, “Oh, okay, we’ll keep you in mind.” And about…oh, I dunno, six months later, I got a call, and they called me in for this audition, and they didn’t tell me anything about the script. They give you one sentence on a slip of paper, and that’s the scenario of your audition. And once I booked the job, that was the only information that I got, even when I showed up to film. I never got more than what was on that little piece of paper.
BE: Was that a fun challenge?
MB: Um…you know, for someone who considers herself pretty bad at improv, the whole thing was very terrifying. (Laughs) You know, I worked with Woody Allen when I was 19. That was terrifying in an exciting way. But, yeah, the whole thing was very difficult. I’m not on air a lot. And, you know, a lot of that show ends up being edited, because they sort of just do it a million different ways, and it is improv, so you kind of see what happens and just move the plot along. I’m amazed that he kept calling me back for my other two episodes. It’s nice to be cast into part of a family, because then I had kind of a built-in reason to be there. But, yeah, that was a nerve-wracking set, because, you know, you’re with some of the greatest comedy people and the most skilled improv people. I did a bunch of the commentaries for the TV Guide Channel that they’ve done along with the “Curb” episodes, with Susie Essman hosting. That was much more comfortable for me. And it’s nice to be liked by a person like Susie. On the set, she’s very intimidating! She’s so funny and she’s so quick. It doesn’t come naturally to me, that kind of thing.
BE: Who was more challenging to work up against, Larry David or Bob Einstein?
MB: (Laughs) Well, the problem with Bob is he’s so funny off-camera. Honestly, he was the show for me. Like, I felt like I was watching him more than even being in the scene. He is very, very…his sense of humor is very unusual, but I will say that it’s the kind of sense of humor that my husband and I and our group of friends in college enjoy. Very bright, very, very caustic. You know, really sharp-tongued, but hysterical. I really felt like I was hanging out with a 20-year-old, and he’s, you know, a full grown-up. It was very distracting, he’s so funny. There was one scene where we had to be on the dance floor, and we were kind of in the background, so he could mumble and nobody would hear what he was saying. And he was describing the personalities of every extra, every person who was part of the atmosphere, just making up these ridiculous stories off the top of his head, like, “Oh, this one’s wife cheated on him with a plumber…” And he went through the whole room! It was ridiculous, but very funny.
BE: Well, I haven’t brought up “Blossom,” mostly because it wasn’t why I wanted to talk to you today, but I do have to mention that my review of the Season 1 & Season 2 box set resulted in me getting a virtual sit-down from my editor, saying, “Look, you know we’re a guys’ site, right? You spent way too much time writing a review of ‘Blossom: Season 1 & 2.’”
MB: (Bursts out laughing) That’s funny!
BE: At the time, I described it by saying, “Most of the girls like to watch ‘Blossom,’ but only some of the boys do.”
MB: Well, yeah, but, you know, what we like to say is that you don’t get to be a top-25 show for five years from just girls watching you. This was actually one of the challenges when we first started the show. The saying was, “Girls will watch boys and girls will watch girls, but boys will only watch boys.” And, obviously, a lot of the trying to really bump up the Joey Lawrence kind of plots, bringing in Playboy bunnies every other week, and guest stars and fantasy things…I mean, those were all ploys to get boys to watch us. So we had to work hard, but we did eventually get a fair amount of boys. And, you know, there’s someone for everyone. A lot of weird boys would write to me and say that they had crushes on me. So they were watching. (Laughs)
BE: And to tie this back into “The Big Bang Theory,” when I went back and read my review again, I’d forgotten that Johnny Galecki actually appeared on an early episode of “Blossom.”
MB: He was! I believe I was his first onscreen kiss. (Laughs) Yes, he announced that when we sat down at our first table read for this season. Sara Gilbert was also at the table, and she was his second onscreen kiss.
BE: Did you remember the kiss as fondly as he did?
MB: (Laughs) No, and he actually gave me a hard time for saying that I didn’t really remember it. But he and I had the same agent when we were kids. We kind of ran in the same circles. I’m sure he was at my 16th birthday party, but I don’t really remember. But, anyway, we definitely knew each other personally besides just his guest spot on “Blossom.”
BE: You’ve gotten to turn your academic career into TV work as well, both with “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” and “’Til Death.”
MB: That’s true. And in my not-working time, I actually tutor with my science degree. I teach chemistry and biology this year, and I taught neuroscience last year. But it’s funny now when people ask, “What are you really doing with your degree?” I can say, “Well, I play a neurobiologist on TV!” (Laughs)
BE: What’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
MB: Um…gosh, that’s a hard question. I’m trying to think. (Long pause) My three lines on “Bones” were killer. (Laughs) I’m kidding. But that was actually my first job after having my second son. Um…I did an independent film called “The Chicago 8,” which is actually playing at the International Film Festival at the Museum of Tolerance this week here in Los Angeles, and it’s a film based on the transcripts of the trial of the Chicago 8 from 1969. Tell me you know what I’m talking about…?
BE: I do. I actually have a copy of “Chicago 10” at arm’s length.
MB: (Laughs) Oh, okay, got it! I didn’t know how old you were or what your political knowledge was. Okay, so, look, we did a little independent film…and lots of people have done films…but I played Nancy Kurshan, which was really incredible, and it was just a really neat project. There were some great actors in it. Orlando Jones played Bobby Seale. It was just really incredible, and…I don’t know if it’s going to come out. We’re playing at little film festivals. But it’s just the kind of project where, even if you’re not politically into it, it’s a really interesting examination of what the justice system looks like and what it’s like to see that crumble in public.
BE: Do you have any favorite TV appearances that you did during the pre-“Blossom” era?
MB: Well, I loved “MacGyver.” (Laughs) I did three episodes of “MacGyver,” and, you know, it was like filming a movie, even when you were just doing a little episode. We filmed in Canada on location, and Richard Dean Anderson was just amazing, a really, really generous and gentle man. It was just an incredible experience. It was amazing. It was “MacGyver”! (Laughs)
BE: Lastly, what was the experience of working on “Beaches” like for you?
MB: I think a lot of “Beaches” is kind of a blur. I don’t think that I realized the impact that it would have on my career. I didn’t have a career. I had just started acting a year before that, and my parents always told me I looked like Bette Midler, and I vaguely knew who she was, but… (Trails off) Working with Garry Marshall was incredible. He was very nice. But I don’t think I really knew or understood the full impact. I’m not a trained actor, so it was really just kind of flying by the seat of my pants. I look back on it fondly. It came out the week of my bat mitzvah, so I remember that! (Laughs) But a lot of it was kind of like…I feel like I closed my eyes and woke up and had my own show.
BE: So was “Beaches” first, or was it “Pumpkinhead”?
MB: (Laughs) “Pumpkinhead” was my very first job. I was 11. “Beaches” was about a year later.
BE: Well, I think that’s pretty much it. It’s been a pleasure talking to you, and, as I said, I’m really enjoying what you’re doing on the show.MB: Thank you so much!