If you don’t know who ‘Blossom’ is, then you’re more likely to give her a job. “A lot of casting people are actually younger than me now,” says actress Mayim Bialik, who portrayed Blossom in the 1990’s seminal sitcom of the same name. “Now, its just like ‘Oh, she used to be on that show, but what was it – Punky Brewster?'”
Once simply known as a prominent child actor, Bialik has reintroduced herself to new audiences through shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Fat Actress, and in independent films like the upcoming Chicago 8 where Bialik portrays a protester at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Stepping out of the spotlight in the years since Blossom went off the air in 1995, Bialik has gone on to earn a doctorate in neuroscience (which she currently uses to teach a neuroscience class to 9 year old children in L.A.) and has emerged as somewhat of a Jewish icon due to her strict religious observations as a Jewish actress in a secular industry.
The intersection of youth, religion and Hollywood is one reason why Bialik has come to Washington, DC this week. Appearing tonight at the 6th & I Historic Synagogue, Bialik will speak on the portrayal of Jewish women in Hollywood, and the role that Jewish actresses play in that industry.
BYT sat down with Bialik to preview her talk and to discuss how her faith, sense of style and background in science has dictated her years since Blossom. Oh, and we made sure to talk about the dreaminess that is all-things Joey Lawrence.
Note: For no other reason than that Bialik appeared in the uber-gay icon movie Beaches with uber-gay icon Bette Midler, we opened up our interview questions to include tweets from followers of our awesome, new BYGays twitter account.
Tell us a little bit about the topic you’ll be speaking with audience members about at 6th & I.
Well, I’m a pretty clearly identifiable Jewish actress, meaning I don’t often blend in as leading lady. The question is, ‘what is the perception of Jews in the media?’ Are we portrayed by recognizable Jews, by non-recognizable Jews or by non-Jews? One of the things that I’ll try to address is the question of whether you can you use a positive stereotype versus just dealing with a negative stereotype. If you have a choice, should you err on the side of favoring a stereotype or breaking it?
Favoring the characteristics of a stereotype?
Yes. Not every character who is Jewish has to be cast as Jewish-y. Jews are our neighbors and friends and we’re not always easily identified by our Jewishness. You know, I recently read an article in Newsweek on gay characters in the media. Like Jews, gays are our neighbors and family, and not every gay actor needs to be cast as a gay character because they are gay. I think something similar could be said of Jews as well.
That’s actually a pretty big discussion in the gay community – whether its necessary to “straight-wash” gay characters or actors.
Its definitely a conversation in my mind. I don’t want to say its something that troubles me, but the discussion is important because the image of Jews in the media – just like the image of gays in the media – has changed over the last 50 years. It used to be that Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler were our Jews.
I think for the gays they will always be our Jews.
[Laughs] Well, those were the hip images, but those images are shifting. We have Sarah Jessica Parker and Natalie Portman and representatives who are really, really different than the past. I think in some ways that’s terrific. But, when I hear non-Jews talk about it, its always a little bit “Oh yeah, she’s Jewish but she doesn’t look it, or she doesn’t act it,” and that’s why its palatable.
That’s certainly a familiar conversation in the gay community.
Totally, and I think that’s why that article on gay characters stuck with me. It talked about Neil Patrick Harris, who I grew up with and am still friends with, and his career is fantastic and its not just because he always plays the gay guy.
Bialik mentions the pressure for women in Hollywood to look sexy, and how wanting to dress modestly as a reflection of her faith presents challenges in auditions.
Is that a barrier in Hollywood these days?
[Laughs] Yes. That’s actually a section of what I’m going to be talking about at 6th & I. I’m talking overall about what its like to be Jewish in the media and what’s its like to be me in the media as a Jew. Every actor has particular concerns and for me, that is one of them. Its not like anyone is asking me to be naked anymore, which is nice. But, I think that there is huge pressure on women to be sexy no matter their age and no matter what role they’re playing. I’ve been pretty lucky to be working and to be covered up to the extent that I want to be. But, I do think its interesting that women are still judged by that standard.
Are you being typecast at all by how you dress?
No, I don’t think that. Its not like I’m taking out a huge press release and saying “Don’t cast me in something where I would have to wear a sleeveless dress.” Not that I wouldn’t, but at this point my preference is to be accommodating as much as possible. If you want to be hired, then you need to do – to an extent – what you are being hired to do. I’ve been able to work within that framework pretty well.
To pivot for a moment, its a stereotype that you need a doctor in a Jewish family. You actually went out and got a doctorate in neuroscience.
Well, my grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe and I was raised to believe that even if you become President of the United States out of high school, you’re still going to come back and go to college. My parents were told to become teachers or doctors or lawyers and they became teachers. I’m a very classic, Ashkenazi woman so I went to public college and got my degree.
@BYGays – As a scientist, and as someone who is religious, how do you respond to those who say that science and religion don’t mix?
I wasn’t raised religious, so I myself have had that bias. However, there’s truly no conflict between being a person of religious faith and being a person who understands how the universe works. The Torah was not meant to be a science book, and science books are not meant to be religious. Why the Torah doesn’t describe creation the way that Darwin did doesn’t really bother me.
Bialik mentions that her and her husband are raising their two young sons in a no-media household.
If you’re a no-media household, at what age do you think that your children might become aware of your own media work?
At this point, I don’t know if that information is important for my kids to know. They’re young. My older son knows that I have meetings, and he hears me talking to myself when I’m practicing. But, because he doesn’t have a concept of people acting, I don’t know if that’s relevant for him to hear that that’s what my life is like. He just knows that’s how mommy works. He knows that I teach and I am home with my boys and that’s what mommy does.
What has been your audition experience these days coming out of a prominent role like Blossom?
I don’t know how young you are, but I did Blossom when I was 14 to 19 and I’m 33 now. When Blossom ended it was not very okay to have been on a sitcom. It was really looked down on, and I was encouraged to go to college and get away from it all. And now, it almost seems that if you want a serious career, then you need to start on a sitcom. The industry has changed a lot and the farther I get from 1994, the less people think of me as that character. However, I don’t look significantly different than what I did then and my sense of style is similar.
You don’t still wear the floppy hats, though, do you?
[Laughs] No floppy hats! No. I think appearing on TLC’s What Not To Wear in May sort of put me back in the limelight as a person trying to look like an adult. But, a lot of casting people are younger than me now. A lot of them weren’t old enough to watch me on t.v., so I really get to audition just like everybody else. I think that a lot of people watching t.v. now may not know who I am from Blossom, which I think is helpful. But, I don’t feel the stigma that I did when I was auditioning for things in the late 90’s. Now, its just like “Oh, she used to be on that show, but what was it – Punky Brewster?”
So, you aren’t running from that role?
No. I had a lot more things on my plate to run from. Its funny that now a lot of Jewish groups are wanting me to speak, and I speak to a lot of religious communities where no one is watching t.v.
You’re a person in the media, speaking about the media, to people who don’t engage the media.
Yeah. I’m getting a lot of calls from rabbis who say “So-and-so said you are some sort of person in the media, could you come speak to us? We hear that you have a Jewish story to tell.”
Going back to your appearance on What Not To Wear in May, you mentioned in an interview with People magazine that the show was able to provide you with a framework to put together outfits through the spring and summer. Now that we’re entering winter, where are you now with developing your sense of style?
I have a wonderful girlfriend who is my pop culture guru. She knows everything about everyone and what type of lip gloss should be worn and shouldn’t. She takes me shopping and I’m pretty good. I’ve got some basics. I’ve got some colors, but I’m still pretty much clueless. What Not To Wear didn’t teach me how to be more “clue-full.” It just taught me some rules to live by. I finally purchased boots today! I don’t wear leather, so they’re vegan boots. So, I’ll be wearing my new clothing all throughout Washington, DC.
Now that you have mentioned that on record, a lot of people might be checking out what you’re wearing on Monday. So, no pressure there.
I’ll just layer all of my outfits together and you can see everything on Monday!
The other role you are most recognized in is that of CC Bloom in the movie Beaches. Are you aware of the icon status that character has become in the gay community?
Oh, yes. My parents were young beatniks in New York and it was very scandalous that they had gay friends. So, I grew up with an open understanding of the human experience. The notoriety and love that I have received from the gay community has been very special.
Any particularly memorable interactions you have received because of that role?
Actually, a bittersweet one. When I was teenager in the early 1990s, I went to Jewish camp and had a weekend that was dedicated to AIDS awareness. A man came and spoke and I was so moved by his experience of being HIV positive that I wrote him a thank-you note. All these years later, I just got a letter from someone who is now partners with this man’s widower and he said that this man kept that note where I thanked him for speaking and he mentioned how important that note to him was.
Are you aware that there is a gay bar in Scotland named after your character in Beaches?
[Laughs] No! [Laughs]. That’s awesome. That’s so incredible. I actually just did a photo for the NOH8 campaign here in California with my 21 year old gay cousin.
Does your religious experience dictate at all how you approach gay issues?
Not for me. That is something that my God will never fight with me about. As a rabbi recently said during High Holy Days, ”we speak out against injustice where we find it.”
@BYGays – Like most girls your age in the 1990s, did you ever have a crush on Joey Lawrence?
I did not. I had a crush on Michael Sotyanov, who played my older brother on the show. Joey was not my type, but Michael was dark, brooding, grumpy.
Did he know?
Well, he knows now. We recently reconnected and I told him.
@BYGays – What were the challenges of working on a non-scripted show like Curb Your Enthusiasm?
Its challenging, but I got to work with Woody Allen when I was younger and he helped me develop my improv. Curb Your Enthusiasm is a show with really heavy hitters, but they called me back for more episodes, so that is nice. However, I was terrified.
Blossom is synonomous with the “very special episode” concept of t.v. sitcoms. Do you have a particularly favorite “very special episode?”
Not to be serious, but we did an episode about unwanted sexual advances on a date. We did some heavy episodes. We did a pot episode. We did an episode about condoms where, in the early 1990s, we had to get approval 12 times over. Even then they kept threatening to not let us record. What was “special” then is kind of commonplace now. When I look back, though, I realize why we haven’t been syndicated on the Disney Channel even though we were a Disney show.
Finally, you’ve been working on a film titled the Chicago 8 dealing with the protesters at the 1968 Democratic convention.
Pinchas Perry is an Israeli director who took the transcript from the trial of the Chicago 8 and turned it into a screenplay. I play Nancy Kurshan, who is a real person and one of the creators of the yippie movement. It was a really incredible project for me to be involved with.
Mayim Bialik appears tonight at 7:00pm at the 6th & I Historic Synagogue in Chinatown. She will be speaking about Jewish women in Hollywood and sharing stories of her career. Tickets are $8 at the door. For more information, visit: www.sixthandi.org
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