Like the character she plays on “The Big Bang Theory,” Mayim Bialik is a neuroscientist — she earned her Ph.D. from UCLA in 2007. Though as Amy Farrah Fowler she’s won the hearts of millions of fans, not to mention Sheldon Cooper, her fiancé on the hit CBS sitcom, acting wasn’t the career she always intended for herself.
She stumbled onto the industry in 1988, when she was cast as the 11-year-old version of Bette Midler’s C.C. Bloom in the movie “Beaches.” Her no-holds-barred performance drew raves, including in Variety, where she was called “extraordinary.” The reviewer wrote, “She can sing, she can dance, and she seems amazingly like the carrot-topped star as she brazenly bulldozes her way through a musical routine and most real-life situations.”
Although she was “pretty new” in the industry, Bialik was savvy enough to recognize what that rave meant. “It was a very big deal for me to be talked about,” she says. “At the time, and it’s still true now, the trades are kind of it.”
What did the review mean to you?
I was not raised in this industry, so I didn’t have this notion of “I’m going to be a big star.” I literally went from school plays to “Gee, I think it will be really fun to be an actress on TV.” So, even though my parents raised me to not listen to reviews because if you listen to the good ones, you also have to listen to the bad ones, I knew that the kind of attention was very unusual. It’s not an experience you’re used to having, especially when you’re new to the industry.
It was a challenging role. Did you have any apprehensions? Or were you confident?
It’s funny, I didn’t think of it as challenging or not because I just was doing what I naturally thought to do as a person getting a script. I was a kid with very little knowledge of the industry. I knew who Bette Midler was, I knew who [director] Garry Marshall was, but I didn’t have this feeling of, “This is going to be my big breakout moment.” I just read the lines, followed my natural accent. That’s how I talked! For me as an untrained, inexperienced grandchild of immigrants from Eastern Europe, I didn’t understand the impact of it at all. I just said the lines as if it were a school play.
Was there a moment where it actually sank in?
The premiere of “Beaches” was the week of my bat mitzvah. It was very emotional. Seeing myself on the big screen was very overwhelming and I remember crying a lot after. They were tears of overwhelming excitement and confusion about my place in a world. Honestly, I had been gearing toward my place in the Jewish world. The attention that I got was sort of an awakening for me. But it’s still very bizarre to me, even now at 42. This is not the life that my grandparents ever anticipated when they fled Eastern Europe.
Was that the moment you knew you wanted to be an actor?
No. In fact, I left the industry at 19 for 12 years and not only pursued neuroscience but had two children who I was the primary caregiver for. I’ve had a very, very unusual life. A day does not going by when I’m not amazed at the marvels of the universe in general, and my situation in particular is very, very unusual. I credit all of the people — particularly the women around me in this business — who have supported me being myself as an actor and as a person. So as grateful as I am to be acting again, I know that my life could have had a lot of different things, and we all make choices. Women in particular have a lot of choices to make, especially if they want to be a mom.
Do you think walking away from the industry helped you avoid the child actor curse?
I come from a very strict immigrant family, and my parents were very strict with me. I hate to say that if you’re strict with your kids, that’s the answer. Or that the people who have fallen prey to some of the evils of our industry didn’t have parents strict enough. I just know that for me, for my mental health and my mental sanity, I did need to leave and be appreciated for what was inside my brain and that’s given me a lot of prospective.
What made you decide to come back into acting?
Well, the true unglamorous story is that I was running out of health insurance as a graduate student. You only get a certain number of years, and I had never acted as an adult. I had a toddler and a baby. I figured if I could just get a job here or there to get basic SAG insurance that I would have a chance for my kids. I started auditioning for roles where it was just “Girl No. 2” or the sassy secretary. I had never heard of “Big Bang Theory” when I was asked to audition. I was very fortunate to be in this position, but I do acknowledge that it’s an unusual story.
What did you learn from being in “Beaches”?
I don’t know if I could narrow it down to one thing. I guess the most salient is that your life can change in a moment. Because mine did. They could have gone with so many other girls. Maybe they should have. But this became my life story. This became really the architecture of my very existence. In all of our lives, there are those moments. And that was mine.
Have you rewatched “Beaches”?
No, I find it very difficult to watch, mainly because I’m a very sentimental person. I’m cursed and blessed with a very good memory. So a lot of things come up for me otherwise that were going on in my life at the time. I especially don’t like watching myself. I haven’t seen probably 95% of “The Big Bang Theory.” And it’s very painful to watch the movie knowing Garry is no longer with us.