Over the Moon and the Stars With Mayim BialikWritten by Jesse Sposato
Photos by Denise Herrick Borchert
Mayim Bialik may not fit the typical image that comes to mind when thinking classic nonconformist—she probably didn’t skip school to smoke cigarettes in her older boyfriend’s 1969 convertible, or sneak out in the middle of the night to get wasted on Zimas. But that’s kind of the best part about her—Bialik subscribes to her own brand of awesome. She’s a Hollywood actress and an observant Jew; she holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience and is a vegan; she’s an advocate of attachment parenting and a spokeswoman for Texas Instruments. She makes her own rules and stands by them with what seems like little effort. And she has been doing so most legendarily since her amazing TV sitcom Blossom aired in the early to mid nineties.
If you’re a girl and you grew up during that time, or you’re a dedicated fan of throwback, you probably spent countless hours debating with your BFF which one of you was Blossom and which was her partner in crime, Six. (I was totally Six.) Eighteen years after the show ended, Bialik and Jenna von Oy who plays Six on the showare still friends, and Bialik has gone on to star in yet another hit television sitcom, The Big Bang Theory. On Big Bang, Bialik plays Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler, a neuroscientist (just like in real life!) and main character Sheldon Cooper’s girlfriend/non-girlfriend, a role that earned her a 2012 Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.
I recently had the chance to get on the phone with Bialik and talk about her upcoming vegan cookbook, feminism, and the possibility of a Blossom reunion.
Jesse: I wanted to start by talking about your family-friendly vegan cookbook, scheduled to come out this fall. How has that been going?
Mayim: It’s going well. I’m just waiting on edits now on the actual text. There are a couple introductory chapters on why write this book, and what are the benefits of plant-based eating whether you desire to be vegan or vegetarian or not; you know, why do people embrace whole foods? Why is there this huge health interest in eating more whole foods and less processed foods? But the bulk of the book is, at this point, pretty simple in structure—it’s literally the recipes that I most often make. They’re the ones that tend to be the easiest and the most palatable to vegans and non-vegans alike. And I don’t really make special food for my kids; I sort of feed them meals that are appropriate for everyone.
Jesse: Can you share some of the recipes that you include in the book?
Mayim: Well, we’re still in the process of whittling down and specifying recipes. Partially because I love dessert and I seriously could have just done a cookbook of desserts with how many desserts I wanted to include. But, you know, we wanted to present a real variety. I make a Mexican casserole that is always a big winner with adults and children alike. There are classics that a lot of vegans think that they can’t have anymore or don’t know how to make easily, like, I have an amazing mac and cheese recipe that I’ve done. I do a lot of holiday recipes so that we don’t feel like we’re missing out on things like Thanksgiving stuffing and candy bark. You know, things that people assume, “Oh, but I’d miss this if I became vegan or if I became vegetarian. I have the recipe that I’ve adapted for vegan jelly donuts which is a Hanukkah tradition. So, yeah, I’m not a chef—I have a close friend who’s helping me with a couple recipes that I needed help modifying, but otherwise it’s not a terribly elaborate gourmet-style cookbook. It’s much more literally what I make and how I make it.
Jesse: That’s awesome. I’m vegetarian so I’m a really big fan of vegan cooking, as well.
Mayim: Oh, great!
Jesse: Yeah, and I’m also a huge fan of just feeding your kids what you eat.
Jesse: Obviously your kids are vegan then, I guess, right?
Mayim: Yeah, and honestly there are plenty of great books written about how to feed kids and how to feed kids vegan. You know, we never bought baby food, we never even had any expensive utensils or anything for making our own baby food. We just fed our kids mushy, simple whole foods and that served them well. [I] breast-fed for a long time and that’s also nutritional and also a dietary choice we made. But, you know, I don’t think that feeding kids should be as hard as the baby food industry makes us think it is. I don’t think we should have to spend lots of money and use lots of products and resources to feed children.
Jesse: Yeah, totally. I feel like it’s just like everything else where, you know, if they can make a profit off of it, they will try.
Mayim: Right, exactly.
Jesse: Something that really amazes me about you is that you wear so many different hats. You’re a proponent of attachment parenting, obviously you work in Hollywood, you’re vegan, you’re a neuroscientist, an author and soon to be a cookbook author, a blogger, you have strict religious beliefs, and on and on and on. How do you possibly balance it all?
Mayim: Well, I don’t necessarily do all things at once! I appreciate the nice words, but I’m not a super woman; I don’t not need sleep or emotional sustenance. . . . A lot of what I do in my time that I’m not literally working is either stuff related to work or writing or trying to keep my mental and spiritual health intact. So, I don’t have an elaborate social life and that honestly frees up a lot of time. I don’t watch television, which also frees up a lot of my evenings. I mean, there are things that I have watched—I really liked Lost, and I liked Heroes; I’ve been catching up on Fringe through Netflix. But honestly,that’s not the way I like to relax and unwind in the evening. And I will say, I don’t get a lot of sleep. I mean, I get enough sleep, I’m clinically OK on the sleep front, but I definitely don’t sleep in. I often get up before my kids so I can do stuff before they’re up so that when they are up I can make them breakfast and try and be a present mom. So, those are I guess some of the things.
Jesse: Do you feel that your religious, parenting, and dietary beliefs make you stick out from Hollywood and its culture?
Mayim: I think that because I live in L.A. a lot of things are, I don’t want to say easier, but are less noticeable. Meaning, I know plenty of non-actors who are vegan or gluten-free or vegetarian. So there’s a lot of variety, I think, in that sense. It’s definitely not common to find people who are religiously observant or who like to talk about being a happy servant of God in the industry, that’s true, so that does make me stand out. I tend not to rub things in people’s faces like that or, you know, talk about how wonderful my religious day is going or how grateful I am that God created me today. I function as a pretty normal, mainstream person. Jim Parsons was asked by someone if he noticed that I don’t wear pants, I only wear skirts, and he said, “Not really. That’s just how she dresses [laughs].” So, I guess I blend in to a certain extent. In terms of parenting also, in L.A. you’ll hear a lot of variety; even if people don’t parent [the attachment parenting] way, there’s a lot of knowledge about it. Certain aspects, like elimination communication, that’s something that’s still, I guess fringe, even in certain aspects of the attachment parenting community. But for the most part, when I’m at work it’s mostly about work. My kids have come to the set maybe twice and many people have remarked, “Whatever style of parenting you’re doing, your kids are really quiet and nice, so keep going!” So I guess that’s a vote of confidence.
Jesse: So you’re not really worried—or are you ever worried that your beliefs will hurt your career? Have they gotten in the way?
Mayim: Yeah, I think it’s something to be concerned about in theory. I’m really grateful that I have a really amazing group of women that are my agents and my manager and my publicist—they tend to help me more on things like that so certain decisions can be made together and thoughtfully, but it really hasn’t been a huge conflict. I mean if I was the kind of religious person who said I don’t want to touch men on camera then, for example, this week’s episode would be out. I’m not a person who’s making those kinds of statements or drawing those lines in the sand so I guess I’m considered a very liberal, flexible person even in the fact that I’m more observant than other people.
Jesse: The character you play on The Big Bang Theory, Amy, is thought to be sort of the female Sheldon Cooper. I was wondering how you feel about your character being the female version of another character and, of course, of a male character? Or do you not really see it that way?
Mayim: No, I see everything through that lens. You know, I think that not unlike most other shows on television, this is a show that really does focus around men, and has. The fact is they brought on Melissa Rauch who plays Bernadette and then they brought on myself, as girlfriends to lead characters, which, again has been going on since television has been doing situation comedy. I don’t really think of the fact that they wanted a female Sheldon Cooper as any particular assault on feminism, for example, which I’m very sensitive to. I think it was more a statement that there is someone for everyone, and the last person in the world, if not only on this show, that anyone thought there could be someone for would be Sheldon Cooper. So I think part of the comedy of introducing my character was that Sheldon was this sort of asexual [person] not interested at all in emotional or sexual or romantic intensity, and here we kind of had him meet his match. If the show had been about Amy and her girlfriends, we’d see it from her side, but I feel like it’s an equivalent discussion of, “There’s someone for everyone.”
Jesse: Yeah, totally. That makes sense.
Mayim: In general I also feel like Amy has expanded to have her own personality features and I think that’s been really important. And also it’s less annoying. You don’t just want a character that’s a female version of anyone; just like in real life, you don’t want a female version of every guy you know.
Jesse: Totally. And Amy and Penny have such a strong relationship too and that’s kind of its own thing that is definitely feminist.
Mayim: Yeah, and we’re also showing that women of different intellectual backgrounds can be friends. We’re showing that there are certain aspects to classic and mainstream female culture—manicures, waxing, high-heel shopping—these are things that often have a social component to them as well and even [for] women who don’t like to engage in those things, me being one of them, there’s still some beauty to the female bond even if you sometimes have to get at it in ways that aren’t your sensibility.
Jesse: Right, totally, that’s a great point. In a recent interview, you answered a question about how doing a sitcom is different now than in the Blossom days and you said something in your response that really struck a chord: “The standards for women, if it could have gotten more difficult, I think they have.” And I just wondered what you meant by that or in which ways the standards for women have gotten more difficult in show business or in the sitcom world.
Mayim: I think one of the issues is that we’ve had a large influx of models entering the acting world and competing with women who are otherwise actresses. So the fact is that in this industry for men and women, talent is not always the main reason you get a part [laughs]. A lot of times it’s a look, it’s an aesthetic, it’s something that’s highlighted whether you’re male or female, but obviously when you have a culture that tends so strongly towards focusing and unfortunately exploiting that in women, you absolutely are going to see that represented in the entertainment aspects of our world, as well. And I think any time that you have women who may have been considered, you know, I don’t want to say the phrase, “attractive enough,” but when “attractive enough” women are then being asked to compete with women whose job it is to be aesthetically perfect, and reach that kind of aesthetic of perfection, it makes it very difficult for actresses to compete. It simply broadens the pool, for one thing.
I think we’ve also swung back—there was a little bit of sensitivity that we saw coming out in how women were discussed on television, how they were treated, and the kind of clothing that women were encouraged to wear both on camera and off. And I feel like we really swung back—kind of in the name of liberalism, which is very confusing—to this [idea] of, “Everyone should just wear whatever they want and be respected and treated as if they’re not half naked.” And I think it’s hard, I think it’s still a really difficult challenge. And I’ve met feminists on the academic side as well who believe that absolutely women should be entitled to present themselves however they want. I have found that in the industry it generally leads back to the same kind of misogyny that we saw before the women’s movement got started. But I definitely feel like there’s been a swing back to a lot of more traditional patriarchal visions of women and acceptance of jokes about women. I’ve definitely seen that I think in the last ten years.
Jesse: Wow, totally. That’s disappointing especially, like you said, that that kind of comes under the guise of being more liberal.
Mayim: Sure. Well, and it’s very confusing for those of us who are liberal and also feminist. But to me when I look at—and especially with reality TV because we’re seeing a real exaggeration of personalities and of clothing—when I see what the average female either is expected to wear or chooses to wear to industry cocktail parties and things like that, it used to be that you’d see one woman in a micro-mini and now it’s really become the standard to show as much of yourself as possible and really attract that kind of attention. Again, I’m not trying to say that that’s not a woman’s right and that that opens her up to anything that’s inappropriate. I would be the last person to say that but generally when you see a room full of women in short dresses, what usually—what I usually see happen is men being either inappropriate with hands, with words, or other things. That’s usually what I see happen. I don’t see intelligent dialogue around a lot of this. And a lot of people feel like it’s something uptight, conservative feminists are concerned about, and perhaps I am one, I don’t know.
Jesse: No, that’s a good point, and I think you explained it really well. You said that part of that was this sort of influx of models—do you have any idea where that came from?
Mayim: I remember somewhere in the supermodel era of the ’90s, there was a real crossover. Some of it was the George Michael [“Freedom”] video, right, where there was a crossover of supermodels into music videos, and then eventually into kind of more mainstream culture. You saw more models marrying actors and marrying musicians, and, I don’t know, that seemed to be where those lines got blurred. And I’m not saying that was a bad thing, but I think we definitely saw kind of a bleeding over of categories which maybe was inevitable. I love the “Freedom” video. I mean, it was a great video. It was beautiful and I thought really well done, so I have nothing against it.
Jesse: OK, to skip again a bit, in that same interview, you talked about being a spokesperson for Texas Instruments. You had mentioned that you were trying to put a positive face on science and math, especially for young girls—I was wondering, in what ways have you seen this influence young girls and women?
Mayim: This is an experience I had when I was teaching—after I got my degree and before I was acting full time I was tutoring neuroscience in one of the homeschool communities here in Los Angeles and I saw this firsthand. Girls would start on day one saying, “I don’t like science, I’m not good at science, science is dumb.” With the right instruction, with the right resources, with the right enthusiasm by a teacher who wants kids to learn, who wants girls to love science, it can happen. I don’t think that every female needs or wants to be a scientist but that’s kind of what I found on a larger scale with Texas Instruments. Part of it is sort of the publicity angle, right? Literally putting my face to this, doing fun publicity campaigns. Going into schools is really special, I think especially for Texas Instruments, which is a very strong, female-run company. To see me posing with twenty girls of different shapes, sizes, colors, and socio-economic backgrounds, to see them all excited to pose with this calculator, it’s a beautiful image. I think it’s simply exciting for girls to be able to see that. When I was in—where was it?—we were in Connecticut, a girl started crying because she said, “I’m just so excited to meet you. I want to be a scientist too!”
Jesse: I love that. And lastly, I can’t help but ask about Blossom. I read that despite the Old Navy commercial that you and Joey Lawrence did, that Lawrence had no interest in doing a Blossom reunion. I was just wondering if this was something you had thought about or if you wanted to see that happen.
Mayim: At this point The Big Bang Theory owns me for contracts so I don’t think I’m allowed to do something like that. I think Blossom definitely had a very specific following. It wasn’t the success rate of the kind of shows you usually see doing reunions, meaning, although we’re very fondly remembered, we were not a top-ten show. We were kind of a smaller but popular show, specifically with girls. But, you know, we did the Old Navy commercial together, which I thought was really fun. So I feel like that might have been the only nod to a full reunion we get.
Jesse: What is your relationship now to cast members from that show? Are you in touch with them?
Mayim: Yeah, Jenna [von Oy] and I have been in touch more recently. She has a baby, and I’m a lactation education counselor so I’m often called upon to talk about baby things with people. It’s been really nice to reconnect with her. I mean, we’ve spoken sporadically but we’ve talked more I’d say since she had the baby and since she was pregnant. And she does a mommy blog for People Magazine, so I’ve also been enjoying kind of catching up with her through her writing about being a mom. I’ve seen Joey sometimes—we both live in the same area of L.A.—but we weren’t ever socially close. Like Jenna and I, I think were more socially close. Michael Stoyanov who plays the older brother, we’ve been in touch also. He’s kind of been out-of-the-country, back-in-the-country. And Ted Wass is a big fancy director now so I sometimes see him—I’ve auditioned for him over the years.
Jesse: Is there anything else that I didn’t ask that you wanted to add?
Mayim: No. I mean honestly I was very glad to learn about you guys. My earliest pictures of me as a baby are wearing a Ms. Magazine T-shirt—when I was a toddler that’s what my mom put me in. You know, I was raised on Sassy, I was raised on a true generation of a really interesting aspect of feminist culture for American girls, and I just think what you guys are doing is really cool because we’re missing it. And there are people trying to hit the mark but I think we’re still missing and I’m really glad to see that you guys are doing something so brave, so thank you.
Jesse: Amazing. I so appreciate it, and yeah, Sassy was totally what gave us the idea to start Sadie [laughs].
Mayim: I get it!