Mayim Bialik established herself in the public consciousness at the tender age of 15, when she landed the lead role in the 1990 sitcom Blossom. Initially catching its audience because of a favorable time slot, Blossom became a success on its own merits thanks to its clever format, winning cast, and emphasis—unusual for the time—on two female characters in the lead roles. Bialik guest-starred in a number of the biggest television comedies of the day, worked with Woody Allen before her 21st birthday, and inhabited, in Blossom Russo, a character who became synonymous with the phrase "a very special episode." After largely leaving show business behind to concentrate on her academic career, Bialik staged a mini-comeback in recent years, appearing in Fat Actress and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Blossom is finally seeing a DVD release, as Bialik finds her place in a new Hollywood.
Beauty And The Beast (1987)—"Ellie"
Mayim Bialik: That was done by the same company that produced Blossom. I would have been 11 or 12, I think—right around the time I started acting. I remember… not much. I remember having to wake up early, and I was playing an underground urchin-child, so I had to wear a lot of heavy clothing.
The A.V. Club: Did you get to work with Ron Perlman when he was in costume?
MB: I believe I did, and I remember that was quite frightening, as an 11-year-old.
AVC: You don't have the longest résumé in the business, but it seems like there's a lot of quality on it. You didn't do a huge amount of work, but most of the shows you worked on were very successful.
MB: Well, part of that is just that I wasn't the look that most people were looking for. I don't know what résumé you're looking at, but I've done my share of voiceover work and things like that. A lot of it is more because I was too "ethnic" or "quirky" or whatever you want to call it.
The Facts Of Life (1988)—"Jennifer Cole"
MB: When Facts Of Life was ending, they wanted to do a spin-off to keep it going. There wasn't enough pleasure, obviously, in the years it was on. So me and Seth Green and Juliette Lewis, among others, were all part of what was going to be the new class of Facts Of Life. The pilot didn't get picked up, which is kind of a good thing, for many reasons. I actually auditioned for Beaches during The Facts Of Life.
AVC: Do you ever think about what might have happened if it had gotten picked up?
MB: [Laughs.] I guess Seth Green and Juliette Lewis and I would all have very, very different careers.
Pumpkinhead (1988)—"Wallace Kid"
MB: That was my first job ever! I don't even know if I have seen the whole thing. When it came out, I was pretty young, and wasn't allowed to see totally gory horror films.
AVC: That's a hell of a movie to have for your first role.
MB: Yeah. It was another role where I was required to be very dirty and have torn-up clothes. I think we filmed it in Palmdale or someplace, and it was really hot, and I had like two lines. But it was really great—a good first experience, and a fun thing to have as the first item on your résumé.
AVC: How did you get that job?
MB: When I first got an agent, when I was 11 and a half or so—you really just go out and audition for whatever comes down the pike. [In the movie] I was part of a family that was all blonde, so I guess it helped that I was blonde.
Beaches (1988)—"Cecelia Carol (C.C.) Bloom at Age 11"
AVC: Kind of a step up from Pumpkinhead.
MB: I guess so. When I started auditioning for Beaches, I knew it was a Bette Midler film, and my parents had always said I looked like Bette Midler, so it seemed like it would be a good match, but I never really realized that it would be an actual movie in the theaters. It didn't occur to my juvenile mind at the time. It turned out to be the job that changed my entire life, because from that, I got Blossom, and, you know, here we are now. It was a great experience; it filmed in New York, and that's where all my family is from.
AVC: When you're doing film or television at that age, does it seem sort of abstract?
MB: Absolutely. To be honest, it's considered very late to start acting at 11 and a half, for the industry. Most kids are doing it from toddlerhood on. So I was very, very naïve. I liked acting in school plays—that's really where this whole thing started. I never thought I was going to be in a movie or have my own television show. The whole thing was really, really surreal.
MB: That was the most episodes I did of any show before Blossom. With Webster, it started as a guest spot—I played this sort of super-nerd Church Lady kind of friend of his, and they kept writing me back into episodes, which was really cool. That was also a show I watched at the time, so it was really neat to be able to be on a show that I was already watching.
AVC: Do you think it was a good preparation for having a show of your own?
MB: I don't know—being a guest star is very different. But I do remember watching Emmanuel Lewis, and what his life was like, and I think that was a good lesson. He was a very nice person, a very kind person, and he got a lot of attention; I remember watching how everyone was always all over him, but he was very composed and cool at the time. He was always working on his classwork. I can remember going to the holiday party and eating gumbo with him. I think it was good for me to be able to see him treated as the star of the show. Because at the time, obviously, I wasn't.
Blossom (1990-1995)—"Blossom Russo"
AVC: Blossom really seemed to strike the zeitgeist at the time.
MB: We always thought we were doing something different, first of all, in having a show about a girl, because that wasn't happening at the time.
AVC: Female characters on sitcoms were almost always in support.
MB: Correct. You were usually the bimbo or the nerd, those were your main choices in the early '90s. So what we tried to do was create a show about a girl who was neither, and who was both. She was popular at school, and she was hip, but she was also bright, and she had other interests. We tried to create an experience that was common to a lot of girls, which is that you're both of those things at once, and that was huge for a lot of people. And we weren't doing Shakespeare, but we were absolutely dealing with issues that other shows were not. I think that's what the DVDs will reflect, especially in the first two seasons. People were not talking about condoms and safe sex and drugs and alcoholism on TV in 1990. I think people, when they think about Blossom, tend to forget that there weren't a lot of shows talking about what we were trying to talk about, and aren't aware of how we struggled with the network about what we were allowed to say and what we wanted to show.
AVC: You've worked on Fat Actress and Curb Your Enthusiasm, some of the new sort of postmodern sitcoms, and Blossom was sort of a transitional sitcom. It was structured like a traditional sitcom, but it also had moments of meta-humor, the pseudo-documentary stuff, that seemed to anticipate what was coming.
MB: We really were trying to compete with the classic family sitcom. We were trying to do what Roseanne was doing, a day in the life of a family. And obviously, it centered around the life of a young girl, which was different. But Don Reo, who created the show and wrote some of the strongest episodes in the first two seasons—his feeling was, he was writing stuff that he and his friends thought was funny. So we were making a show that was trying to compete with traditional sitcoms, but especially in the first two seasons, we were doing jokes that even the cast didn't understand. "I've been in traffic longer than Steve Winwood"? We didn't know what these jokes meant. Don said he wrote for us like we were little adults; he wanted to be writing Catcher In The Rye for kids.
Molloy (1990)—"Molloy Martin"
MB: Jennifer Aniston played my sister! After Beaches, I ended up signing a contract with Fox, and that's what Molloy was. The original writer-creator had a fight with the network, and he quit, and it was reworked. That's when Jennifer Aniston was brought in, and it was horrendous. It was the most horrendous show I've ever seen. We did, I think, six episodes, and Blossom was my second-version deal, it was called. There was a guy working on it named David Himmelfarb, and he moved over to the company that ended up doing Blossom; he saw that Molloy wasn't working out and got me over there.
Murphy Brown (1990)—"Natalie"
MB: That, I think I did when I was doing Molloy, so I was working two shows in one week.
AVC: That was the first adult-oriented sitcom you did. Was the atmosphere on the set any different?
MB: It was very interesting—I was filming two shows at once, which was very difficult, and I was a kid. I was, what, 13, 14 years old? And I remember I was playing a miniature version of Candace Bergen, which is kind of funny, because in Beaches, I played a miniature Bette Midler. This episode, they had a whole crew of kids who were mimicking the main characters. Candace Bergen had seen me and liked me in Beaches, which was really cool, but I can't even say I knew who she was. I just know my parents were excited about me getting to work with her on Murphy Brown. I think because I started in the industry so late in kid-time, I approached every job as the same. My purpose in every role was the same. Grab the script and make people laugh. So I think a lot of it was just naïveté —I did it if Bette Midler was in front of me, I did it if Candace Bergen was in front of me, or a bunch of kids, or whoever.
Don't Drink The Water (1994)—"Susan Hollander"
MB: That was, I think, only the second time that Woody Allen had done one of his pieces for television. Michael J. Fox played the character that Woody Allen originally played, and Woody played the part of my father, which was originally played by Jackie Gleason, I believe.
AVC: What was it like?
MB: Well, we filmed it like it was a film, and then, obviously, television cut it up into 24-minute sections, which was not very productive. It had a great cast—Julie Kavner played my mom—but I don't think Woody Allen films lend themselves well to a television format. His whole thing is rhythm and fluidity, and when you're being interrupted by commercials for McDonald's or whatever, it's not really that smooth. He's one of my favorite people, though—at the time, I was over the moon. I don't think I could speak straight when I went in to meet him, it was such a tremendous thrill. I'm really not a very good improv actress at all, and so he would write me improv lines, because I couldn't put two words together. I'm good with a script. But I guess he liked me enough to cast me, and it was just incredible.
The John Larroquette Show (1994-1995)—"Rachel"
MB: I actually did that during Blossom. Don Reo also created that, and produced it.
AVC: It's another show that developed a real cult reputation after it was over.
MB: It was a great show, and actually, Don wrote it to be a lot darker than they eventually let him do. I'm a huge fan of Don Reo—not just because he did Blossom, but because I think he's a really gifted man, and I just thought that show was brilliant.
AVC: Did you look forward to the opportunity to do darker material?
MB: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I got to do a different character—I was playing basically this stoned daughter, with a whole different type of humor. It was great. Matthew Perry was on one of the episodes I was on.
AVC: It wasn't long after that you went on a hiatus, and studied neuroscience at UCLA.
MB: I did. I did my undergraduate and graduate work there.
AVC: That isn't a career path a lot of young actresses take.
MB: [Laughs.] No, I suppose not. I did do some acting work while I was there, but I pretty much just went to classes. I had originally only planned to do an undergraduate degree, but then I enjoyed it so much that I kept going. I enrolled in their graduate program, and I just finished with a Ph D. last year.
AVC: Was that a hard transition to make?
MB: Yes and no. I was always kind of a school person—my parents were teachers, and my grandparents were immigrants, so their big thing was "go to college, go to college, go to college." People would shout my name across the quad, and that was awkward; it was something I had to get used to. But I think it helped me to stay isolated and just focus on my studies.
AVC: Danica McKellar, who played Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years, took a similar path—she studied mathematics, and had a theorem named for her.
MB: She also went to UCLA! I know the whole story about her. People are always asking me about her. She actually went on to write a couple of books—she has a really interesting story. And she's also acting again.
AVC: No rivalry between you, then?
MB: I don't think so. Neuroscience and math are very different. There's not much overlap, and I've never gotten the opportunity to use her theorem. But maybe someday.
Kalamazoo? (2006)—"Maggie Goldman"
MB: I did Kalamazoo? somewhere in the middle of graduate school. I hadn't really done a film as an adult, and it was a very interesting experience. They're having problems getting it out—I don't know if it's going to officially come out—but it was great.
AVC: Are you interested in doing more films?
MB: Absolutely! I think another thing that people don't realize is that when I was doing Blossom, back around 1994, films were not hiring sitcom actors, young or old. And now you see this phenomenon of movie actors being in sitcoms—it's hysterical, because when Blossom ended, I was told people wouldn't touch me with a 10-foot pole to play any kind of drama or a film. So at this point, I don't know. I'm just auditioning for both and seeing where the industry will have me.
AVC: You came back at a time when the industry is very different from when you left it.
MB: Yeah! But now the thing is, "Oh, you've got to get on a series, or you'll never go anywhere." [Laughs.]
Fat Actress (2005)—"Mayim Bialik"
MB: Fat Actress was written and created by one of the Blossom writers, Brenda Hampton, who also did 7th Heaven and The Secret Life Of The American Teenager. She asked me to do this to kind of poke fun at myself, and it was great. Again, I am not really a skilled improv actress—there was enough of a structure that I could work from it, and Kirstie Alley is a trip. I think a lot of industry people liked that show, and a lot of non-industry people didn't get it. It was really out there, but I enjoyed it.
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2007)—"Jodi Funkhouser"
MB: Being a big Woody Allen fan, Larry David is sort of a close second for me in terms of the people that I like and would love to work with. So I just happened upon the audition, and it was crazy. You really know nothing about the show, even if you're a critical part of the plot development, so I knew nothing going in, and just watched everybody work. I had more lines than eventually made it on the air, but it's nice to be appreciated as an unusual actress. It's really not a women's show, with a few exceptions, and it was really nice to be accepted in that circle of talent. I don't feel like I'm anywhere near as talented as the people on that show, but it was a great opportunity to be near them and to be able to watch them.
AVC: You keep saying that improv isn't your strength, and yet a lot of directors and writers who rely on improv have cast you. Maybe you're better at it than you think.
MB: I know! [Laughs.] It must be my model-like appearance. That's why they want me around.