Mayim Bialik on Zionism, religion and being a director

I mentioned that I knew she receives many interview requests and I thanked her for agreeing to this one. “I look at two news sites every day: CNN and The Jerusalem Post,” she said.

 ‘I DO tend to revolve in progressive and Modern Orthodox kinds of circles but the issue of Israel is a complicated one and likely will remain so.’ (photo credit: STORM SANTOS)
‘I DO tend to revolve in progressive and Modern Orthodox kinds of circles but the issue of Israel is a complicated one and likely will remain so.’
(photo credit: STORM SANTOS)

Mayim Bialik is a lot of things – one of the stars of the hugely popular sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, which ended its run in 2019, and the current star of the delightfully irreverent series, Call Me Kat; a neuroscientist with a PhD; the creator of the mental health podcast, Mayim Bialik’s Breakdown; one of the hosts of Jeopardy; a rare, outspoken observant Jew and Zionist in Hollywood; a mother of two sons; and, most recently, the writer/director of the acclaimed film, As They Made Us

On the morning of our recent Zoom chat, she gave an answer only she could give to the standard question: What would you be doing right now if you weren’t being interviewed?

“Putting away my Passover dishes, which are piled up in buckets in the corner,” she said, as she moved the web camera to show the dishes, at the beginning of an interview in which she radiated intelligence, humor and warmth throughout. 

“Call Me Kat just finished its second season so I actually have time to do things like change the cat litter – that’s on the docket for today. And I’m going to actually be interviewing Simon Helberg; he’s in my movie and he’s coming to do my podcast and I’m getting ready for that. I have a hard-won hiatus here and I’m very excited for some downtime. I work Jeopardy Thursday and Friday so this is kind of my off day, which is nice.”

Since everything she mentioned was worth a follow-up question – except for the cat litter – I decided to ask her about her most recent accomplishment: going behind the camera to make As They Made Us, which tells the story of a young divorced mother (Dianna Agron of Glee), whose bipolar father (two-time Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman) is dying, and who has to cope with a histrionic mother (Murphy Brown and movie star Candice Bergen) and an estranged brother (Simon Helberg of The Big Bang Theory). 

“I really, really enjoyed the writing. In my heart, I’m a writer by trade as well, but I’ve never written a screenplay and that process was really satisfying. One of the best parts of making a movie is the writing of it; directing is a whole different beast,” she explained. 

“You know, I’ve been joking that I’ve been bossy since I was three years old, so I finally got a job as a director where you’re allowed to be bossy. It actually helps get things done, when you’re definitive and make clear decisions.” The daughter of documentary filmmakers, she said: “I was raised to have a critical eye... and the several decades that I’ve been in the industry learning about what happens behind the camera just by being an observer, that all got to come together in this film.”

TV star Mayim Bialik. (credit: REUTERS)TV star Mayim Bialik. (credit: REUTERS)

She has said that she was inspired to make As They Made Us following her father’s death and that there were aspects of the story that were autobiographical. “It’s a very vulnerable thing to write in general about the kind of things that happen in many, many families, which are typically things we’re told not to talk about. So I did grow up with mental illness, I did grow up with addiction and that’s part of my story that we didn’t talk about. And so to write about it feels very vulnerable. 

“While the movie is not an autobiography and I’m not marketing it as such, I made a commitment to not go scene by scene when asked... but suffice it to say there are things in the movie that never happened,” she said. “It’s not a memoir and there are things that are very close to what it looked like when my father passed away and a lot of the dynamics surrounding that.

“I know so many people – I might say most people I know – have some story in their family of the one they don’t speak to or the one who doesn’t speak to anyone else – or any variety of we walked on eggshells. It didn’t have a name but we knew that they would throw something if they got mad.”

Given the sensitivity of the subject matter, I asked if it was daunting for a first-time director to work with such a stellar cast. Bialik admitted that “it was pretty intimidating. Our actors are a formidable group – I mean, Dustin has won an Oscar twice and Candice is also really a master. These are people who have spent their entire lives perfecting this craft and I was very intimidated, honestly. To be directing Simon Helberg because we were friends and colleagues on The Big Bang Theory for a decade – I’m kind of an adoring fan of his – and to switch into the mode of being his director was also intimidating. 

“Dustin was very, very interested in the way I wanted to tell this story,” she recounted. “He was particularly moved by the script – that’s why he wanted to do it – and so I do really well with the over-70 set and he and I just had a really good rapport. He’s an incredibly consummate professional: He shows up early, looks around the set and sees what’s on the docket for the day. I’m sure he had moments of being frustrated and any other range of emotions, but I never saw him being irritable or frustrated, even working in 100 degree weather with no air conditioning. He was really wonderful, a really inspiring person for our whole crew – and many of our crew members took the job because they wanted to watch him work.”

She particularly enjoyed working with him and Bergen on their scenes together. “He and Candice – their dynamic was so playful and so beautiful, I think those are some of the sweetest moments,” she said. “I think Dianna [Agron] had a very heavy weight to bear in this film – I mean, she had a lot of heavy emotions as an actor that she’s processing, [being] part of and having to be the glue that holds that together. I think that she really does a very beautiful job.”

THE MOVIE does a beautiful job of presenting Jewish ritual in a matter-of-fact way, especially those that involve mourning and grief, including a shiva weeklong mourning period for the deceased. “The Jewishness of it was obviously very important to me [although] I didn’t feel a strong need to write a movie about a Jewish family. I wrote a movie about a family who happens to be Jewish,” Bialik said. 

“For all the things people say Judaism gets wrong, grief and death and the mourning process are things that Jewish people have outlined, for thousands of years, a method that I found very comforting, very healing and very helpful. It was that year of mourning specifically, [that] I said Kaddish for my father. And it was that year that, when it ended, I began to write.” Processing the grief through religious ritual “helped enough with healing and catharsis – and all the work that I had done before really helped me to create something out of that, specifically Jewishly.”

Asked what it was like to be an observant Jew and a Zionist in Hollywood these days, she said, that her support for Israel was more of an issue than her religious observance. “I do tend to revolve in progressive and Modern Orthodox kinds of circles but the issue of Israel is a complicated one and likely will remain so.” 

Having family all over Israel, she said that “I am very clear that my family made aliyah for very specific reasons and they have chosen to build a life there. I have family all across the political spectrum, I have family all across the social spectrum. I have family in the shtachim [the West Bank] and I have family on a kibbutz. I do think there’s a tremendous amount of misunderstanding about Israel and about Zionism, and that’s very frustrating. And that’s true among Jews and non-Jews alike in America. So I’m very clear on the role of Israel in my life,” she emphasized. 

“And, as with any government, I don’t always agree with the policies of the government and I think that people somehow forget a lot of things when they think about Israel because of the politicization of the media attention,” Bialik said. “So yeah, it’s complicated and it’s difficult – and God willing, I’ll be going this summer... I usually go every other year and we missed it because of COVID; for my older son, we did a bar mitzvah trip for him [but] my younger son was bar mitzvahed over COVID so he’s waiting for his trip.”

WHEN SHE was announced as one of the Jeopardy hosts last year, The New York Times ran an article questioning whether she was “neutral” enough for the task, citing the fact that she had donated money to buy bullet-proof vests for IDF troops during the Gaza War. The article didn’t surprise her, she said. 

“That’s been the cause of a lot of attention I’ve gotten,” she said. “What I’ve learned is that for people who don’t believe that the State of Israel has a right to exist, it really doesn’t matter what you say or support or advocate for, and that’s very sad. But that really is the state especially of social-media politics, and I’ve had people protest when I speak on campuses about completely secular things because I’m a person who believes that Israel should exist. 

“So for me, it’s not a conversation about the settlements, it’s not a conversation... about what happens at the Kotel [Western Wall]. In my experience as a public person, it is largely a conversation about people who don’t believe Israel should exist. For me, it doesn’t matter if I advocate for a two-state solution – it doesn’t matter if I don’t go to the West Bank, it doesn’t matter if I do – what matters for me is that I’m a Jewish Zionist,” Bialik said. “I’m a firm believer in freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and I’m a firm believer especially in arenas like public universities for students not being afraid to be Jewish. We can’t really help it, so...” she said, laughing.

The director was equally candid about being an actress who is no longer at the ingénue stage. “I’m 46 and a lot of the stories being told are for younger women. I am no longer a younger woman so I think creating material I hope is meaningful and impacts other people is where I think I’m going to live... 

“I haven’t had any work done on my face and I haven’t colored my hair, so I’m hoping that I can keep those things going so that when it becomes clear that I have to keep my face off of the camera, I will then be able to be behind the camera more.”

A FORMER child actor, who starred in the series Blossom and the Bette Midler movie, Beaches, she said that today’s social-media climate, which tends to create feelings of inadequacy about body image – especially in young people who feel they don’t measure up – would have been difficult for her. “I would have asked my parents to homeschool me... I honestly don’t know that I would be able to maintain my emotional sobriety if as a teenager those platforms had been available to me.”

Bialik said she hopes to continue writing and directing. “I definitely have more stories in me, I have more stories to write. Yes I would definitely like to create in this way again,” she said, adding that for now, she was concentrating on what she calls her “day jobs”: starring in Call Me Kat and hosting Jeopardy.

Since it’s not every day that an entertainment journalist gets to interview a neuroscientist, I asked her why she chose to write her dissertation of Prader-Willi Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. Even on this topic, her commitment to Israel shined through. 

Part of the reason for her choice was her desire, as a vegan, not to work in a lab that does experiments on animals, and also her interest in special needs. “I ended up working in Elizabeth Dykens’ lab and she studies many different syndromes and conditions. But the one that seemed to meet a neuroscientists’ perspective was Prader-Willi Syndrome,” she said. “Some of the most famous research on Prader-Willi syndrome and genomic imprinting comes out of Israel, it’s very strongly connected to the Israeli [branch of] neuroscience and my thesis is strongly connected to Israel as well.” 

I mentioned that I knew she receives many interview requests and I thanked her for agreeing to this one. “I look at two news sites every day: CNN and The Jerusalem Post,” she said. “I can show you on my phone that’s the only two websites I have there.”

She held up the phone and I thanked her – and let her get back to the Passover dishes.