‘Amy Farrah Fowler’ dishes on books, biology and ‘Big Bang Theory’
When Mayim Bialik gave her family and friends the “silent treatment” over summer, it wasn’t personal. The star of CBS’s hit comedy “The Big Bang Theory,” who plays neuroscientist Amy Farrah Fowler, was advised by doctors to avoid speaking in order to heal strained vocal cords.
“I’m doing all right now,” said Mayim from Warner Bros. studio in Burbank while preparing for the show’s 11th season, set to air later this month. “I still try to use it as little as possible to preserve it for work, but it hasn’t been necessary to cut back my role on the show.”
The timing was still unfortunate. Although the series was on summer hiatus, the vocal moratorium limited personal interviews about her new book, “Girling Up: How to Be Strong, Smart and Spectacular,” one of three she’s authored since joining the “Big Bang” cast in 2010 (see www.mayimbialik.net).
“I’m divorced and have my (two) kids half-time, so I try to write when they’re not with me. I also wake up early and actually don’t watch much television or have a very active social life, so I can get a lot of writing done.”
While her previous books focused on parenting or vegan cooking, the new volume (a bestseller) offers advice to young girls.
“I have a website called GrokNation (see www.groknation.com) so I write a lot there, too, and was approached by different publishers to write a book about science for girls,” said Mayim, who has a real-life doctorate in neuroscience. “Social media didn’t exist when I was a kid, so pressures to be sexually active are very different now, and even the scope of dating and friendship has changed. So I wanted to produce a book about growing up from a science perspective, using my personal experiences and background, including what I’ve gleaned as an adult and what I know about the development of the brain as well as hormones and psychology.”
Mayim says girls between 10 and 18 years old are the target audience for the book, which is quite descriptive about human biology.
“Before 13, it’s probably something girls should read with a parent. My 11-year-old son proofread it along with me so I could make sure it was in the right language. Yeah, he squirmed in a few places, but boys need to know some of these things, too!”
And while she acknowledges that today’s kids, as well as parents, may turn to the Internet for answers, “having a lot of information in a book you can leaf through is very different than the interface we use with a computer. I’m also the child of two English teachers, so I believe in the art of writing and the purpose of books. I have a library at home, so I write and think in chapters.”
Becoming a scientist and then playing one on television was also significant for the actress.
“I was definitely in the minority as a female studying science at UCLA — most of my classes where upwards of 75 percent males,” she recalled. “I was pretty studious, so I can relate to Amy a lot. I was actually a late bloomer to science and became interested when I was 15 while working on ‘Blossom’ and had a tutor with a real passion for science.”
Juggling acting and studying in the 2000s, Mayim completed her doctoral degree in 2007, the first year “The Big Bang Theory” aired. Her graduate studies focused on the Prader-Willi syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes patients to feel constantly hungry, leading to obesity and other medical and psychological complications.
“In genetic and endocrinological circles it’s fairly well-known, although it only affects about one in 15,000 people,” she explained. “The disease is an important example of genomic imprinting (where some genes of one parent are ‘switched off’ or inactivated). I chose the topic for my thesis because I’m a vegan and didn’t want to study an area of biology that involved animal experimentation.”
That may seem to contradict her appearance in one “Big Bang Theory” episode, The Agreement Dissection, where Amy studies Ricky the smoking monkey.
“Typically, I wouldn’t interact with animals like that, but I saw how much she’s loved by her caregivers who actually let her sleep in bed with them. And of course, the monkey wasn’t really smoking!”
Choosing a career of acting over science led to dozens of movie and TV appearances, including “Blossom” for five seasons in the early ’90s. Thirty episodes were directed by Bill Bixby, more widely known as an actor in hit series such as “My Favorite Martian” and “The Incredible Hulk.”
“He was so great — a very sensitive director, very emotional, who liked to act scenes out. He passed away during our time together on the show and was greatly missed by the cast. Any director who has significant experience as an actor has a unique sensibility for directing.”
The same could be said for Woody Allen, who directed and acted with Mayim in the 1994 TV movie version of his 1960s play, “Don’t Drink the Water.”
“Woody is arguably one of the most influential filmmakers — a master of the cinema craft. He made an earlier movie version of the story (in 1969) with Jackie Gleason.”
Mayim is no stranger to Gleason and other Hollywood legends.
“My mom is a huge classic film person, so I was raised with those great films and actors — Hitchcock, Jimmy Stewart, William Holden, all of them. I consider the ‘Wizard of Oz’ one of the greatest films of all time, and Judy Garland really inspired me as a child. As for comedians, I was more familiar with people like Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball growing up.”
In fact, while appearing on “The Big Bang Theory” she worked alongside several TV legend guest-stars, including Bob Newhart and Adam West.
“I also got to meet Stephen Hawking. He’s been on the show several times and usually films from his office, but he did visit our studio, and we all took photos with him. As for actors, it was really special working with Adam West who was my Batman growing up! He was such a kind man and autographed stuff for my kids, which is still on their desks.”
West died this past June, making his role in the season 9 episode one of his last on-screen (rather than voice actor) TV appearances. That season, the cast was still recovering from the previous season’s loss of Carol Ann Susi, the never seen on camera actress who voiced Howard’s mom, Mrs. Wolowitz. She died just a few days after The Prom Equivalency episode — her final “appearance” — aired on Nov. 6, 2014.
“We’re a very close cast, and Carol Ann was a part of our work lives in a very significant way,” said Mayim. “I think the fact that she wasn’t replaced by another actress and the writers worked her passing into the script showed how deeply we were all affected. She was a very special lady, very eccentric, hilarious, and it was incredibly special to have worked with her.”
Also special is Mayim’s on-screen relationship with Jim Parsons, who plays quirky, fastidious theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper. As Sheldon’s longtime, stoic girlfriend, Amy first appeared in the third season finale.
“The original cast had worked together for several years when Melissa Rauch (Bernadette) and I were made regulars. Jim and I had a pretty similar work ethic and acting style, so it went smoothly from the start. He’s very disciplined but playful, and incredibly gifted with a great sense of insight and a fresh take on comedy unlike anyone else.”
In addition to the fine acting — Parsons has won four Emmys and Mayim has been nominated (four times) as have other cast and crew members — fans also seem to appreciate the clever, witty writing. Curiously, however, the show has never been even nominated for a writing Emmy.
“We think the writing is brilliant, too!” said Mayim. “There’s a lot of politics in the whole Emmy universe, so I don’t have an explanation for that.”
But she can provide answers to some intriguing behind-the-scenes production questions, such as what became of the giant painting of her and Penny (Kaley Cuoco) that appeared in The Rothman Disintegration episode? “It’s hanging in the hallway outside my dressing room at Warner’s!”
Another “prop” seen in every episode is the three flights of stairs the characters must constantly ascend to reach their apartments. “Actually, we have only one flight and the crew redresses it every time we need to change floors. They can do it in about 30 seconds now!”
The cast will be navigating those staircases for at least two more years, beginning with the airing of the 11th season on Sept. 25, when Amy will respond to Sheldon’s surprising marriage proposal from the 10th season finale. What will her answer be?
“We don’t know what’s coming until the night before we start rehearsing an episode,” explained Mayim. “So I don’t know what will happen next week, much less the rest of the season. But that’s okay — you don’t know the future in real life, either!”
And while some fans believe the series strayed from its geeky science origin several seasons ago, Mayim remains optimistic.
“The show has become more about relationships, and the science is definitely not as prominent as it used to be,” she says. “But people seem to like it for a lot of reasons, so we hope there’s still something for everybody to enjoy.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Alabama, and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 650 newspapers and magazines. See www.tinseltowntalks.com