As the Zoom window on my laptop flickers to life, I come face-to-face with the pointy, alien head of a hairless cat. This is Esau, Mayim Bialik’s deceased Peterbald; she uses a picture of him as her Zoom profile. Over the next hour, we will discuss Bialik’s new movie “As They Made Us,” which opens in theaters Friday and marks her screenwriting and directorial debut, and how she wrote it to process the death of her father, Barry, from multisymptom aphasia, a debilitating neurological disease that robs the body of basic functions.
We’ll also talk about “Jeopardy!” (which she hosts along with Ken Jennings), her Fox sitcom “Call Me Kat” (in which she plays the owner of a cat café), social media brickbats, what she learned from that controversial 2017 New York Times editorial about Hollywood values, and how she juggles it all. And all the while I will stare at Bialik’s beloved pet, a breed only a dedicated cat person could embrace.
“They’re lovely,” she says. “It’s like having a toddler.”
Taylor Swift may have made cat ladies cool, but Bialik, 46, is comfortable being a Hollywood anomaly. She does not do the Hollywood circuit of awards shows and be-seen lunch spots. When she is on a red carpet, most of her skin is covered. And when she decided to step away from acting at the age of 19, she earned a doctorate in neuroscience. Upon her return, she landed a role on the wildly popular “The Big Bang Theory” — playing a neuroscientist.
“I don’t have an active social life,” she explains. “I am not going away for weekends with the girls or meeting friends for drinks. It just doesn’t happen. It’s just not my life.”
What she does do is work — a lot. And she writes, from deeply personal blog posts about parenting and her Jewish faith, to books about feminism and vegan cooking. But once “Big Bang Theory” ended in 2019, Bialik finally had the mental bandwidth and enough distance to process her dad’s 2015 death. She did not intend to turn the experience into a screenplay. She thought an actual, experienced screenwriter should do that. But a conversation with her friend Jim Rash — an actor and an Oscar-winning screenwriter (“The Descendants”), whom she met through the Los Angeles comedy theater The Groundlings — convinced her that maybe she could.
“I had a rough story that I wanted to put on paper and I essentially asked him if he would write it,” recalls Bialik. “He said, ‘No, this is your story. You’re going to write it.’”
Over lunch at Crossroads Kitchen — Ellen DeGeneres’ vegan restaurant on Melrose Avenue — Rash helped Bialik hash out an outline. Says Bialik: “On a piece of paper, he literally wrote, ‘Here’s act one, here’s act two, here’s act three, based on what you just told me. Now go home and write.’”
“As They Made Us” stars Dianna Agron as a divorced mom of two (like Bialik) dealing with her father’s declining mental and physical condition, while her overbearing mother remains in denial and her estranged brother resists (at first) her attempts at reconciliation. Dustin Hoffman and Candice Bergen star as the parents, while Simon Helberg, Bialik’s erstwhile “Big Bang” castmate, plays the brother. It is a poignant meditation on death and family dysfunction, punctured with gallows humor and featuring memorable performances. Delayed by COVID-19, the movie was shot on a shoestring over a little less than four weeks last summer in New Jersey (in the midst of a brutal heat wave).
“It was a really unbelievable learning curve,” admits Bialik, whose only previous directing experience was a 2019 short film titled “Thankful.” And working with Hoffman and Bergen was particularly intimidating.
“As a director, it all falls on your shoulders,” observes Helberg. “And for someone who has a competitive amount of anxiety with me, she really was at ease, just very loosey goosey. She was happy to discuss dialogue and she was open to changes. She accomplished something that is very difficult to pull off, which is really having a sense of what she wanted it to be while also putting all of her trust in the actors and allowing it to become something else.”
Adds Bergen: “She is the most confident, focused, present, intelligent, capable person I have ever met. So if she was nervous. She hid it from me.”
Bialik credits director of photography David Feeney-Mosier and production designer Jourdan Henderson for helping to guide her through the process. Meanwhile, David Mamet’s 1991 book “On Directing Film” became her on-set talisman. “I touched that book every single day before I went to work,” she says, “I had a list of all of my favorite quotes, which I kept on my clipboard. David Mamet was absolutely with me.”
It also boosted her confidence when Helberg agreed to co-star. “I wrote [the part] with him in mind. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to not have that be Simon’s role. I never told him that because I had to kind of, you know, play it cool.”
Landing Hoffman and Bergen was a little more surreal. She recalls a long meeting with Hoffman and his wife. “I think he vaguely knew who I was, but I don’t think he’s ever seen ‘Big Bang Theory.’ I think all of the actors in this film have their own very specific connection to the story,” she says. “There are families all over the world who experience mental health challenges, alcoholism, trauma, abuse. These are everybody’s stories and even very famous Academy Award winners have something that speaks to them about this kind of story.”
Bialik’s breakout role came in the 1988 Bette Midler-Barbara Hershey weeper “Beaches” when she was cast as the child version of Midler; she was 12 years old. More supporting roles followed (including a 1990 episode of Bergen’s “Murphy Brown”). Then she landed the eponymous role in the NBC sitcom “Blossom,” and her persona as the bubbly, brainy good girl was cemented. That she deftly segued from child star to grown-up actor — avoiding the speed bump of public implosion that plagues many young performers — could be attributed to her upbringing in an observant Jewish household with parents who were inherently skeptical of Hollywood.
Her maternal grandmother and a great aunt came to America as Hungarian refugees fleeing the pogroms prior to World War II. They lost both of their parents and half of their siblings in the Holocaust. Bialik’s father’s family also fled the Holocaust.
“They both come from a lot of generational trauma,” says Bialik of her parents. “They were creative and hilarious and really complicated people. I grew up with a healthy amount of chaos and unpredictability. I was very loved, to the best of my parents’ ability. And there were also a lot of places where I felt not understood, which I think is a lot of people’s experience. As the daughter in a very traditional Eastern European home, I did carry a lot of burdens. I was raised as if we were in the shtetl; to clean and to cook and to serve and be a people pleaser.”
Her books on attachment parenting (“Beyond the Sling”) and feminism (“Girling Up”), can be interpreted as Bialik’s way of working through the constraints of her own upbringing. In person, Bialik is self-deprecating and funny and though she talks freely of her mental health challenges, she is optimistic. Her books and other writing have a humorous, accessible quality. Nevertheless, Bialik’s statements in “Beyond the Sling” about delaying vaccines for her sons created an uproar, forcing her to clarify in a YouTube video several years after the book’s initial publication that she is not “one of those anti-vaxxers.” Yes, she and her children have received the COVID-19 vaccine. And a New York Times op-ed, published days after the first revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s decades of predation, was interpreted as victim shaming, forcing Bialik to apologize.
“When I wrote that op ed, I did not know that the #MeToo movement was imminently launching and becoming such an important and legitimate part of a global conversation,” she says. “We have seen such a reckoning regarding women’s power. It feels very far away in a lot of ways, but that time definitely influenced my decision to stop reading comments, both positive and negative, and really remove myself from a lot of the interacting that I was doing on social media — and in many cases really enjoying.”
Her decision to endorse expensive brain supplements also made her a target of criticism. The $40 billion unregulated dietary supplement industry is rife with specious claims; the company behind the supplement Bialik endorsed settled a lawsuit that challenged the scientific veracity of its claims. “People endorse all sorts of things. There are many supplements that do not claim to be curing Alzheimer’s, and I absolutely don’t think that there are cures for things like that. That was not part of the messaging. My contract with them is over, which is why I’d rather not talk about it because it gives them publicity,” she says, adding, “I feel very confident with my doctorate, with my training and with the things that I get to achieve with it. And I will leave it at that.”
Her stewardship of “Jeopardy!” in the wake of the death of beloved host Alex Trebek in 2020, also has made her a target. There has been the predictable nitpicking of her clothes and hair, while her usage of the term “single Jeopardy!” caused a conflagration among the show’s exacting fan base. But she takes these critiques, as overheated as they may be, in stride.
“I didn’t realize that people would have such strong opinions about everything,” she says. “I know no one can replace Alex. But I consider it a real blessing to be picked apart by ‘Jeopardy!’ fans. I really do. I really enjoy being a communicator of information. And I completely understand that I’m not everyone’s cup of tea,” she laughs. “But I knew that before ‘Jeopardy!,’ I promise. That’s why I go to therapy.”
Currently, she divides her time between “Jeopardy!” and “Call Me Kat,” spending every fourth week taping “Jeopardy!” and the rest of her time on “Kat.” She spends weekends with her sons, Frederick, 16, and Miles, 13, who live with their father during the week.
“It’s hectic, but not impossible,” she says. “The God’s honest truth is that I am a person who does not need a lot of sleep. It’s my mother’s DNA. We wake up early, we stay up late when we need to. We’re really good list makers. And we work very quickly. It doesn’t mean that I do everything perfectly,” she adds, “but a lot more gets done when you do it imperfectly instead of waiting to do it right.”
Her schedule means she has very little time for self-care and spends a lot of time indoors, mostly on windowless sound stages. Now that the pandemic is easing, she hopes to visit extended family in Israel. She would also like to have more time during the week to sleep and go to therapy. “I work so much during the week, I have to squeeze all of my therapy in on weekends, which is really a drag.”
She also wants to take more walks. As we wrap up, she finally turns her video on. “Now you can see where I am,” she says.
She is in the park. And the sun is shining.