If time permitted, you could do a full-length interview with Mayim Bialik on any number of topics: neuroscience, a field in which she has a PhD.; attachment parenting and the theories behind it; her religious faith; or her return to show business after building a family and immersing herself in academia.
But after an Aug. 15 auto accident, the first question that comes to mind is “How’s your hand?” Bialik has been very forthcoming about the accident, how the surgery went on her hand and how she’s dealt with it on the set of “The Big Bang Theory,” discussing it in interviews and on her blog at Kveller.com. On “Big Bang,” she plays Amy Farrah Fowler, the “girlfriend” of Sheldon Copper (Jim Parsons), who’s been spending the last two seasons coming out of her cloistered shell and discovering her late-blossoming womanhood.
Last week, Bialik talked to Zap2It about how her hand is doing, the Emmy nomination she got for playing Amy, finding an Emmy dress that will accommodate a splint, her faith, and why she’s so happy she left show business after her starring turn in the classic NBC sitcom “Blossom.”
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Zap2It: Up bright and early at 8 in the morning, huh?
Mayim Bialik: Oh, I’ve been up for hours. [laughs] I have small children.
That’s true. Everyone I know with small children just tells me 8 o’clock is late.
Oh, that’s late. Yes. I’m ready for my second breakfast.
How’s the hand doing?
It’s all right. [laughs] It’s still there. It’s still impaired. I go back to the surgeon today and I start hand therapy again this week. I had off last week from hand therapy. I flew to New York twice last week and I don’t think the pressure helped.
Any time frame that the doctors have given you?
Sure. At least probably another month like this. And then, you know, more recovery and kind of learning to drive again and stuff like that. As the surgeon told me, a break is a predictable thing that you put back where it should be and rehabilitate it. Yeah, there’s a lot of unpredictability to my injury so that’s kind of what we’re dealing with.
How has it affected what’s been going on with you at work?
Well, we’ve been able to hide it. Mark Cendrowski is a very competent director, and it’s been an extra challenge to block all of my scenes with the hand upstage and behind things. Episodes 2 and 3 are the ones that we’ve filmed since the accident. So the season opener is fine, and then episodes 2 and 3 and then probably for the next, I would say, the next probably three or four. But yeah, we’ve been hiding it pretty cleverly in some of the scenes. I think pretty cleverly. There was a movie theater scene, so that was easy to hide. You know, it’s down by my side. The last episode, we did have a lot of physical comedy for me, which was very difficult to have to really block my arm upstage. And it was kind of crazy.
Was there a particular scene that proved especially difficult?
It would be in the third episode. Like I say, I don’t want to give away too much but there’s a lot of physical comedy of me trying to spread my scent, as it were, in Sheldon’s office. And there’s not a lot of ways to block around the hand in an open office where I have to be walking. Walking is difficult because it’s very heavy and I normally wear it in the sling. So that’s actually been kind of the hardest is when we tape, I can’t take it in and out of a sling between takes. So that’s actually been the hardest is scenes where I have to be walking around. Because then when you film it, it takes about an hour to do one long scene like that. So that’s actually the hardest.
Right. And obviously you have to keep it elevated and immobilized.
Well, I’m supposed to, right. But when you’re doing a scene it has to be out of sight and it doesn’t really hang normally [laughs], it kind of feels like a fake limb is what it looks like to me.
You were back on set later that week, right? After the accident?
No, I went back the next day. I had my surgery. I was back 12 hours after I got home from surgery, I went to work. They give you a nerve block. During surgery I was knocked out. I was asleep for surgery. So yeah, I went to work the next day. It was a light day. … So I really just kind of wanted to get my feet under me. I wanted to hug Jim Parsons and Melissa Rauch, who I am very close with. I told my husband they feed me better at work than he feeds me at home.
And then Friday [Aug. 17] was kind of my hardest day. That was, you know, two days after the accident. But again, it was a very light day and I just came in for a run-through. But I really wanted to give our writers the opportunity to kind of see what it looked like. To see, Do we need to write this in or do we not? Because they might have had to modify also in the weeks going on. So I also wanted to give them an opportunity to see it. So Friday was a light day and then I had the weekend. But yeah, we’ve made it work.
One of the things I noticed when I was reading in your blog about the accident is that a lot of what carried you through the day of the accident and after that is your faith. How much did it help?
I point to two things that I called upon. The first was the techniques I use for pain management, which I used for both of my labors, with both of our sons. Because I didn’t take drugs in either labor as well. That was kind of the first thing that I knew to do. I knew that the higher my blood pressure, the more blood I would lose and the more I experienced pain the more my body would start shutting down. So that was the first thing.
And yeah, the other thing is I’m a person of religious faith. Although I don’t particularly advocate for religious observance for other people, for me it’s a tremendous source of comfort, of grounding, and also of meditative properties. One of the reasons that the Jewish tradition has psalms is to use them as mantras, and that’s exactly what I did. I actually just wrote a quite extensive piece about the role of both religious imagery and ritual throughout this process. So we’re hoping to publish it kind of publicly to be excerpted or reprinted. But Kveller is editing it right now.
I don’t tend to hear Jewish people publicly talking about their faith like you have.
They don’t. [laughs] I mean, you will hear, not in the industry at least. I mean, I study with David Sacks, someone who wasn’t raised religious, and he is an Emmy winner for “The Simpsons” and he was in the industry and is a very observant Jew. I recently served on a panel with Aton Cohen, the writer, who is also modern Orthodox. But yeah, I’ve chosen, I think also because of my relationship with Kveller, where I write and which houses my blog, I’ve chosen to try and show some
of the more complicated aspects of observance in Hollywood. Meaning, it’s not sunshine and roses and it’s very complicated and difficult. But I guess that’s what I need to hear. So I hope that other people need to hear it as well.
Considering you’re a big proponent of attachment parenting, how has the injury affected that?
Well, you don’t have to have two working hands to be an attachment parent. But, you know, my husband is home with our boys, which is fantastic. And thankfully they are past the age where they need to be carried a lot. But I like to point out that even if I was using expensive strollers, I couldn’t lift them into one anyway. So I absolutely have been able to finally put them to sleep. Meaning, I couldn’t even lay really with them comfortably, but I’m able to put them to sleep again, which is great. And I’m still not hitting them and we’re still sleeping together, so… [laughs]
Right. Because whacking them with the cast would probably not be a good thing.
Right. And we’re past the stage of baby wearing. So I think that covers the main tenets of attachment parenting we can absolutely still do with me and my one arm. There are actually still plenty of disabled parents or people of different limited function who also do attachment parenting.
You’re still going to be wearing the cast at the Emmys?
Well, it’s a splint. We’ve been upgraded from cast to splint now. It is my assumption that we’re hopefully going to get the whole contraption in black so that at least it blends in more. But, yeah, that I will be in some form of modified splint for the Emmys.
How surprising was the nomination when you heard about it?
Extremely. I think on a scale of one to 10, it was a 10. I was not expecting to be nominated. It was not on my radar. I knew that announcements were being made, but I was actually on a phone interview. I was staying with my best friend in Atlanta. We were, after my phone interview, getting the boys into the car to go to the Legoland Atlanta Discovery Center. It was not on our radar that I might get nominated. So I went, after I got off the phone with my interview, I said, Oh they’ve probably made the announcements. … And I went to go to the Internet on my phone and instead it rang and it was my publicist from Los Angeles.
Was it not on your radar because no one expects to get nominated?
I don’t know if it’s that I don’t think I’m worthy, but there are such incredible women in this category and there were so many women up for this nomination. I just — it was completely unexpected. And yeah, I don’t even know why. I’ll have to ask my therapist.
What do you think it was about Amy this year that got the academy’s attention?
Gosh. You know, I’ve enjoyed all the time that I’ve been on “Big Bang.” And I feel that the writing was as strong in my first year as it was in the second. But I think the writing in the second year was a little more, for my character at least, a little more unusual. You know, I think there was a lot of really unusual stuff that I think was really what did it. I totally credit both the story lines and the way our writers write it. So obviously the tiara episode [“The Shiny Trinket Maneuver”] got a lot of notice. But also the harp playing and Sheldon and Amy cuddling. You know, these are kind of big, unusual things for the show. I was very grateful to be part of that.
So when you saw what the writers were doing with Amy’s character, getting her beyond just being a female Sheldon, what was your reaction?
You know, I’ve always had this sort of notion that anything can come out of Amy’s mouth. So there’s always been a really kind of outlandish aspect to the character. Really, all through Season 4 and then into 5. But I think the question is really how much do we want to push that? How vulgar can she be in her naivete and how over the top can she be in her social anxiety, you know? I just feel like if you were to ask [executive producers] Bill Prady or Chuck [Lorre] or Steve Molaro they would probably say that, you know, that they take a lead from me but I really feel like I take the lead from them.
Where did you first start seeing that this isn’t going to be a female Sheldon?
I think when Amy became fascinated with Penny. I think that’s really where it became, “Oh, I’m not just going to be the female foil for Sheldon Cooper.” My character can do more if this works. And I think that’s really what it was, was that seeing that the female version is still a female and still has a very different notion of social competition, social hierarchy, you know, those things are important to Amy in a way that Sheldon doesn’t even want them to be important for him. I think that really is kind of the difference between the male and the female of the characters.
Where do you think that fascination with Penny comes from?
Well, look at her. She’s beautiful.
Is that it? Or is there something more aspirational there?
I think part of it is an aesthetic and I think that really, not to get too deep about it, but I think that reflects a really kind of deep ethic of our western culture, like it or not. We really do praise and value classical beauty like that, and for a character like Amy who was not popular and isn’t the classical model of western beauty, yeah, I think she’s fascinated with the physical aspects of this Penny character.
And I think also to be able to be close to someone who is hip and wears cool clothing and goes drinking and does fun things like that. Those are things that many young women find attractive in other women when they don’t know how to do that. So I think part of it is the physical and part of it is sort of this social competitiveness.
Do you think the show has gotten more popular because they concentrate on the women almost as much as they do on the guys now?
I don’t know. I don’t really know the answer to that. I think that for any show that has a deep cast … the more people and the better writing allows for a lot of flexibility. And I feel like that’s what Melissa and I have been able to add is more plots and more variation in those plots.
And I think also we’ve become much more of a well-rounded, male-to-female ratio cast now in line with some of the great other ensemble shows that people have enjoyed. I’ve heard people refer to us as kind of like the new “Friends.” “Friends” for the other type of people that are not attractive people like they were on “Friends.” So yeah, I think that’s part of it is it’s a really good formula to have a cast that’s deep and flexible with incredible writing.
Because of your scientific background, how much of Amy’s technical dialogue do you know?
Yeah, I pretty much know everything she’s saying. [chuckles] Jim Parsons likes to say I know what everybody’s saying. I mean, I don’t know theoretical physics. But I was trained in physics and chemistry and biology. The stuff that Amy does in her lab I understand and know all that, and I help direct our prop master as to how big the third ventricle should be if we’re doing a dissection. So yeah, we have a lot of really fun discussions. Also, several of our writers have scientific backgrounds and are exceedingly intelligent. Our whole writing staff, I think, looks more like a group of academics than a group of comedy writers. It’s a super-smart group. But yeah, it’s often a discussion about anatomy and physiology on the sidelines.
Are those two groups really all that much different-looking, though?
Nicer clothing in Hollywood. But the same eco, [laughs] same a lot other stuff. Yeah. Not as different as one might think.
You’ve talked about how doing a sitcom is different now than
in the “Blossom” days. Is it because the industry is different or is it because you’re now a mom and you’ve got the Ph.D. and you have a different perspective than you did 20 years ago?
You know, I think it’s both. If I had to vote which more heavily, I would say the former. The industry is very, very different. The internet exists; publicity exists in a different way than it did then. The standards for women, you know, if it could have gotten more difficult, I think [they] have. But then yeah, the other side of it absolutely is that I have a different kind of perspective and purpose in my life. I love my job, but obviously if everything collapsed tomorrow I would sell my hair to be able to support and be with my kids.
What made you put a toe back in? Because I remember seeing you in that “What Not To Wear” and thinking, “what has Mayim Bialik been up to over the years?”
I took 12 years off. But my husband and I had our first son when we were in graduate school, and it was really after that that I realized I did not want the life of a research professor because I wanted to be with my kid more than being a research professor would have allowed. So I finished my Ph.D. I was very happy to finish it. I’m very proud of it and I’ve taught every year since I got it. But I got pregnant with our second son the week I filed my thesis. So I did “What Not to Wear” when he was about nine months and I had been approached to do that. I didn’t really know what to do. But I did. I started auditioning. I figured, actors never work, I’ll be with my kids all the time. My husband was finishing his master’s degree at the time.
And it actually happened pretty quickly. I did an episode of “Bones” and an episode of “Saving Grace,” and then Brenda Hampton cast me in “The Secret Life of The America Teenager” and I did a season, you know, kind of on and off, playing the school counselor. I did a couple of episodes, a handful of episodes of “Til Death” which is Don Reo‘s show; that’s who created “Blossom.” And then “The Big Bang Theory.” So by the time my son was maybe nine months later, I had a recurring role. And by the time he was 2, I had a full contract. So it actually happened pretty quickly, from my perspective.
Are you glad you had the the time away from show business?
Absolutely, yeah. I love the life of a student. I love teaching. I met my husband. I was able to spend a tremendous amount of time with my family. You know, two of my grandparents passed away in that time, and I was able to be by their side for that time. That I could do because of what life looked like. I had a fairly normal, crazy life. And yeah, I love my doctorate. I love being a scientist and I love the research I did. And I believe every experience leads to the next and so I would not be the actor I am without all of the experiences of the past twelve years either.
Do you think more people are capable of getting past that role that defined them when they were kids, like you did?
I think it might be easier for character actors, which is what I am. I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that. I think I am a tremendous advocate for higher education, especially for actors. You know, for people who act when they’re younger. I’m a huge advocate for expanding your mind beyond the industry. But that can look like a lot of different things. You know, college is not for everyone. And yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know that I thought of it like “this was my goal to break out of that role.”
I don’t even mean acting-wise. I just mean life-wise.
Oh yeah. I feel like I was not a born scientist at all. I came to science very late in life. So yeah, I didn’t have the grades to go to med school. So I think you also need to be realistic. As you learn your limits, accept them. But yeah, I think people, and women in particular, have a lot more to them than a lot of people want to think. Actually I’m the spokesperson for Texas Instruments largely because of that. I’m trying to put a positive face on science and on math, especially for young girls. To have a recognizable face and have kids see that as an option too.
What are you looking forward to doing or seeing or doing on Emmy night?
Not tripping over myself. I don’t know. I mean, I’m really grateful that our show was nominated. So I think to be able to be there as a group is going to be really special. I think to be there with Jim Parsons. I think that’s going to be really special. I hope I get to sit near him. But I think that I might not get to, which I am actually kind of nervous about because I would much rather sit with our cast or with Jim than with whatever strangers they put me with. Because I don’t really know who anyone is. So I will have to bring my husband to point out, like “Oh, that’s Julie Bowen, smile!”
Well Mayim, good luck and good luck with the hand. Hopefully we will see Amy playing the harp at some point soon.
Yes. Maybe later this season. [laughs]