Actress Mayim Bialik grew up on television, but avoided the cliché pitfalls of the Hollywood child star. Not only did she leave acting following her run on the NBC comedy “Blossom” to earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA, she also became religiously observant.
No National Enquirer headlines for her.
Today she stars in the hit comedy “The Big Bang Theory,” in which she plays the hilariously deadpan Amy Farrah Fowler, girlfriend of physicist and uber-nerd Sheldon Cooper.
Though the pair has yet to perform “coitus” — one of the series’ most oft-repeated words — or even touch each other, for that matter, fans hope a little steam will heat up the relationship between Sheldon and Amy (dubbed “Shamy”).
In her four seasons with the show, Bialik, 37, has managed what by any measure is a difficult road: rearing two young sons in the glare of stardom, all while remaining Jewishly observant.
Fortunately, her Amy character wears long skirts and loose sweaters, which help Bialik keep the laws of modesty (tzniut). And the show tapes on Tuesdays, so there is no conflict with Shabbat.
Bialik has been outspoken about her life and life choices. She writes a popular blog at Kveller, published a book about attachment parenting and has spoken at numerous Jewish gatherings.
She will speak in San Rafael on March 17, giving the keynote address at “Free Ranging Communities: Jewish Life in Hollywood and Marin,” a symposium sponsored by Lehrhaus Judaica. Her talk will examine the challenges of being Jewish and observant in Hollywood.
Bialik took time to talk with j. in advance of her appearance.
J: There are not many Jews in Hollywood who balance observance with the demands of network TV.
MB: Well, it’s not easy, I’ll say that! I came late to observance, so I am still learning as I go. I think it’s important to take observance slowly, and to not feel like God will punish you for not being perfect, because that’s not healthy or even true according to our tradition. I find it important to keep learning, and I study with a few different study partners every week to keep my mind still working hard on the big questions of Judaism and observance. Modesty is something that is a very “public” affirmation of my frumkeit, so that’s something I get to work on all the time, at every event I attend.
J: Hollywood seems to be the most immodest of places. Were you ever asked to compromise, or do producers defer to your needs?
MB: Producers in Hollywood do not defer to the needs of an observant actor. I have written for Kveller.com a lot about this. I am asked to and required to attend work functions when most Orthodox people are in synagogue, and that’s a life choice I make for now. I do what I can to not make unnecessary violations, and I know that each mitzvah is independent. So lighting candles, or making Kiddush; those are still respected mitzvot even if you can’t observe how you want to.
J: How was Amy’s character created, given you had certain lines you would not cross?
MB: I gently suggested that Amy wear skirts and fortunately, “Big Bang” characters pretty much wear the same thing every scene, with the exception of Penny. We all wear a “uniform” of costume that changes in color, so I lucked out. Amy is very frumpy, though, and I am about two sizes smaller than the clothes Amy wears, but that’s not because of modesty. Modest dressing doesn’t mean frumpy dressing!
J: You’ve had some unfortunate things happen in the past year — a car accident that seriously injured your right hand, and your impending divorce. How did Judaism help get you through that?
MB: I credit the faith I have in humanity and the ultimate goodness of the universe to buoy me through a tremendously difficult year. I clung to the rituals of Judaism throughout my accident and recovery, and the ethics and middot [virtues] of Judaism have helped me put my sons’ needs first. Not gossiping, guarding your tongue from evil and your lips from deceit: These are the values our tradition has helped me utilize in life this year especially. Shabbat also is the weekly reminder that I am not the world; that all things have a Creator, and that rest rejuvenates the spirit and body.
J: There is a big Jewish contingent on the show, with you, Simon Helberg, Melissa Rauch and Chuck Lorre being the most prominent.
MB: Bill Prady and Chuck Lorre created the show, and both of them have very colorful Jewish experiences and backgrounds. Wolowitz is the only identified Jewish character on the show, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s fun to work with fellow members of the tribe every day!
J: What can you say about the obviously strong chemistry among the “Big Bang Theory” cast?
MB: It’s a fun cast, and we do operate like a family. We are together so much, and Jim Parsons is the brightest part of every single day I go to work. I love Melissa Rauch, too, and we joke that I’m Simon’s biggest fan because I laugh at all of his lines every time. It’s a blessing to be part of this cast.
J: The show is aired in Israel. How’s it doing there? Have you visited Israel since you joined the cast?
MB: I know some of my cousins see it on the Internet, but I have not been in about two years. Time to go back and see if I get recognized there, I guess!
J: You got an Emmy nomination last year. What did that mean to you?
MB: It was the most astounding and shocking experience! I was a nervous wreck, especially since I ended up planning around modesty and eventually a very damaged hand. It was the greatest honor to be nominated, and I think winning cannot ever feel as good and shocking as being nominated.
J: One of the most astonishing aspects to your portrayal of Amy is how you get so much comedy out of a character with relatively little affect. But Amy has changed. Describe how you and the writers allow for Amy’s evolution while keeping the core Amy.
MB: It’s all the writers’ choice. On any given week, they will change our intentions and actions and thoughts throughout a week … the Valentine’s Day episode used to have a very different ending for Shamy, but they changed it halfway through the week. It’s really all up to what we are given. Then it’s our job to play it as best as we can.
J: As a real-life neuroscientist, do you do your own stunts in Amy’s lab? Whose brain is it that you’re always slicing up?
MB: I do my own dissection stunts, yes! The brains are typically made of our prop master’s combination of melted down and refrozen deli meats and cheeses. As a vegan, I’d rather dissect a human brain than what he concocts.
J: What can we expect for the romantic future of Shamy?
MB: Ha, I plead the Fifth!
J: You’ve written extensively about mothering. Now that your kids are older, what new insights have you had since you published your book? Are you thinking about writing another book?
MB: I only wrote a parenting book up to the age my sons were. Now I’m flying without a net. I am working on a vegan cookbook due out February 2014 by Da Capo Press. It will feature some of my favorite veganized but supertasty Jewish recipes, too, like my vegan sufganiyot.
J: What do you get out of writing your blog?
MB: I have honed my voice at Kveller. I have become part of a literary and very smart and wise group of women writers not afraid to be real about being Jewish. I love that we are not sugarcoating anything and that we have become a real community. Most importantly, perhaps, I get to use my experience to help others see the facets of Judaism and being Jewish in Hollywood that they may not have access to otherwise.
Mayim Bialik will give the keynote at Lehrhaus 360’s “Free Ranging Communities” conference on March 17 at the Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. $10. (415) 444-8000 or www.lehrhaus.org