Before we announce the winners of the 2011 My TV Awards, we’re proud to present the My TV Nominee Interview Series.
A 90s TV icon, impressive academic, published author and active blogger, Mayim Bialik is also one of the funniest actresses on TV playing scene-stealer Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory. The Best Supporting Actress My TV Award Nominee took the time to speak with me about her decades-spanning career, her detour into academia and her adventures on Big Bang.
You grew up on Blossom. Do you feel like that shaped you as a person and as an actress?
Blossom was when I was 14 to 19 so I guess I had plenty of years before then… Blossom ended and I started college. But in terms of my career, that was a huge influence on everything else I did.
Do you have a favourite episode?
We did a take off on Madonna’s Truth or Dare documentary. We did a dream sequence where Blossom dreams that she’s in a Madonna movie. We filmed it in black and white and on location, which was really fun.
Was it difficult to leave that show and character behind?
No. After 5 years I was really ready to go to college. I was 2 years out of highschool and really ready to have a normal life.
Your website is littered with photos of you as a kid and teenager with some of the biggest stars in the world- prepping for award shows, posing for photo shoots- and now you’re writing a book on parenting. What did you learn from your own unique childhood that influenced your book and how you’re raising your own kids?
That’s an interesting question, I’ve never been asked that. This book, which is called Beyond the Sling, has very little to do with my acting childhood. Most of the reflections I make are independent of what my career was as a teenager. There was a lot about my parents that would have been the same whether I was acting or not, and that’s kind of where I was coming from.
In between your 2 most famous TV gigs you got a little thing called a PhD. What was it about neuroscience that kept you coming back for more school?
I really kind of fell in love with the brain and nervous system when I started studying in college. My passion for biology started when I had an incredible tutor during my Blossom days who really kind of turned me on to the world of science and I really fell in love with the neuron. That’s the short story. At the time there wasn’t really acting work going on, so I followed the trajectory of academia.
Did you watch The Big Bang Theory before you were on it and catch the shoutout to you when the guys were planning their team for the Physics Bowl?
No, I had never seen The Big Bang Theory when I got the audition. I had to google it to find out who Jim Parsons was and what a female version of him might look like. But I do remember that when they mentioned me- I think it was the first or second season- I remember people told me about it, but I thought it must have been some kind of game show, like Jeopardy or something, where I was an answer. It didn’t sound like a sitcom to me from the line, but now I get it.
How did you end up back on TV in such an apropos role?
Luck. After our second son was born, I started auditioning sporadically, not expecting to work regularly. I did a couple episodes of Secret Life of the American Teenager; I did an episode of Bones and an episode of Saving Grace then got this audition. For the first episode, which was a guest star role with a possible recurring role, Amy didn’t have a profession, so they added one in when I recurred in the fourth season.
Amy’s got such specific mannerisms and speech patterns. What are you drawing from to get all that?
Pretty much Jim Parsons. Obviously, she’s not a clone of him, and she wasn’t meant to be, but I like to say I have the easiest job, at least on our show, because whenever I don’t know how to say something I just wonder how Jim Parsons would say it.
Does your own scientific knowledge help you with such a brainy character?
I think that for some of the specific things they want Amy to do in her neurobiology lab, they definitely have been able to lean on me for that. But, otherwise, as a character actress, this is a character and just like all the other actors on our show are not neuroscientists and play their parts really well, I don’t think you need a PhD to do that.
When did you find out you were becoming a series regular? Did it come as a shock?
I came as a total shock. It came after a series of weeks of me repeatedly asking my manager if they were going to keep using me on the show, maybe they didn’t like me anymore. I was being used kind of sporadically, I had no regular schedule or contract, and I was starting to get really anxious. I really thought “maybe my character’s done”. I found out that Melissa Rauch had become a regular and I was happy for her but I was really upset, I thought that they were gonna make her a regular and kick me off the show. Then, literally, the call came in, it was a Friday night right before Shabbat started and my manager said “have a good Shabbat, they just asked about signing you for a contract!”.
The more time we spend with Amy, the more interesting things we learn. How much did you know about her when you started out? You said she didn’t have a job…
We didn’t really know anything about Amy. The original audition only said that they needed a female Sheldon, and she had about 5 or 6 lines. We did the character a couple different ways, even on the night that we taped it we did a couple different versions- one where she made no eye contact, one where she did make eye contact- and so that’s what we ended up with. Then, in the fourth season, I think it was Bill Prady who said “we really want you to be able to play with this character and really do what you want with her now that we’re giving you more words to play with”.
Amy’s excessive love for and/or admiration of Penny gets more extreme every episode. She’s the only one who doesn’t seem to mind that Penny’s not as smart. Why do you think that is?
I think, from Amy’s perspective, when someone’s as stunning as Penny, it doesn’t matter. I think what’s funny is that that’s something that Sheldon would never encounter- a person who makes him not care that they’re not smart. I think that’s sort of the difference in the male and female versions of this character- the female one is much more susceptible to the social constructs, the social dynamics.
Speaking of Sheldon, Amy’s “relationship contract” with Sheldon is pretty strict. Do you know some of the finer points that haven’t made it into an episode yet?
I do not. There’s been a couple episodes where we made reference to it and then they edited it out- little things here and there- but, I don’t know, it sounds pretty extensive. Based on his “roommate agreement” paradigm, I think it’s probably a pretty stringent document.
Sheldon’s a pretty a-sexual guy but his girlfriend seems to need more than that. Is that gonna cause problems down the line?
I don’t know, I guess, in theory, it might. We’ve seen the episode where we had the cuddle. The episode’s called “The Isolation Permutation” where Amy gets her feelings hurt by the girls who go shopping without her and she craves physical contact. Both the writers and our characters were able to negotiate it pretty nicely, where Sheldon understands that there are certain things that are part of his job description. I think they’re working it out, and the awkwardness with which they do that is what makes it so much fun.
Do you think the relationship between Amy and Sheldon is more likely to evolve or implode?
[laughs] I think it may evolve, but some of the evolution may look like imploding.
My favourite oddball thing Amy does is play TV theme songs on the harp. What are some of your favourite quirks to play?
Oh gosh, I don’t know. I think that part of the fun with the harp is that our writers have a very quirky sense of humour and even to start with “The Girl from Ipanema”, which was the first thing that I played, it’s really interesting that you see some of that quirkiness come out. Our show is like a lot of sitcoms, and it’s not like a lot of sitcoms, and I think that we have a real sense of absurdity, in a healthy way. And I think some of the stuff that I’ve been asked to play shows some of that absurdity.
Amy’s rocking the geek-non-chic and Blossom had those hats, you even had the crazy Bette Midler hair for Beaches– what’s the craziest or most embarrassing thing you’ve ever had to wear for a role?
I don’t know if it’s crazy, but it was funny, I was made over on What Not To Wear about 3 years ago now, and I’d gotten all these nice clothes and they were really form-fitting, it was a way for me to be really competitive in the industry, and the job that I got right after it was playing a Hasidic woman, who obviously had to be very covered up and wearing lose, baggy clothes, on Saving Grace.
Were Stacy and Clinton [the hosts of What Not To Wear] traumatic or fun?
I think more traumatic than fun on a personal level but in terms of the show they’re a lot of fun.
What’s Amy up to for the rest of the season?
I don’t know. We don’t get to know anything about character arcs, or even plot arcs. We’re only a couple episodes ahead of the viewing audience. We find out the night before we start the script, what it’s gonna be for the week. I really have no idea, and I don’t think anyone does, as far as the cast goes.
How long does your contract extend?
I have a year-to-year contract, so mine ends at the end of this season, in April.
Do you ever contemplate giving up acting to put that PhD to use?
My PhD is not worth very much once you leave academia, which I did. I could teach, I could do other things, but in terms of getting a professorship or a post-doc, that’s not gonna happen. But I still teach, I teach neuroscience for middle school and high school in our home school community. So I still use my neuroscience brain, just not in a professional capacity.
Do you have a dream project you’d love to work on or someone you’d like to work with?
There are actors I like; I like the Wes Anderson style of stuff, I like the Cohen brothers- I like quirky directors. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’d love to be in an independent film, as a character actress; so there’s a lot there. I also have a particular passion for projects with a Jewish theme, it’s just something that’s personally relevant.
If you could pick one definitive moment in your career up to this point, what would it be?
It’s hard not to think about Big Bang because it’s been such a sort of coming-out party for me as an adult actor. The cuddle scene that I did with Jim Parsons remains my favourite from the years that I’ve done on Big Bang. I think it’s such a special dynamic and the way that we did it in front of the audience was unique to how we had rehearsed it all week. It was a real eye-opening moment as an actor, to see how different something can be and have it work so well when all week you were struggling with it.
Your book comes out in the spring, do you have any other non-Big Bang projects you want to plug?
No, the book’s the biggest thing and I’m already working on a proposal for a second book. I write for kveller.com, they just gave me my own blog, which is very exciting. I write very actively about being in the industry, being a mom in the industry and also about being Jewish in the industry. But I guess that’s it.