Times Will Tell

Podcast: Mayim Bialik on her debut film, being a Jew in Hollywood & missing Israel

With the release of ‘As They Made Us,’ Bialik she wrote and directed, ‘The Big Bang Theory’ alumna has just added the credit ‘filmmaker’ to her already unbelievable resume

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Mere mortals (such as myself) may wonder: Is there anything Mayim Bialik can’t do? The longtime Hollywood actor has just released “As They Made Us,” her first feature film that she wrote and directed.

Bialik, 46, is most known for “Blossom,” “Beaches” and “The Big Bang Theory.” She is currently starring in a Fox series, “Call Me Kat.” While working on the series — and finishing up her film during the coronavirus pandemic — Bialik also decided to begin hosting both a popular podcast and America’s favorite nerdy game show, “Jeopardy!” (This is, of course, the same underachiever who picked up a PhD in neuroscience between sitcom takes in 2007.)

“As They Made Us” is a huge departure from the rosy world of sitcoms, however. While there are funny moments — it is an insanely Jewish film, after all — it focuses on painful, somber themes and is an unflinching look at tense family relations as the patriarch’s life is winding to a close.

“As They Made Us” stars Dustin Hoffman as the dying father and Candice Bergen as the overbearing mother. Simon Helberg is the estranged older brother and Dianna Agron plays the anchor of the family, Jewish journalist Abigail, a divorced mother of two.

Times Will Tell spoke with Bialik this week about the new film, as well as what it’s like to be an overtly practicing Jew and Zionist in Hollywood.

Abigail, says Bialik, “has two very complicated parents and she’s very involved in their life. She’s very involved in taking care of them, which I think would resonate with a lot of people, especially depending on your ethnic or cultural background. It often does fall on the daughter.”

Abigail’s brother, Nathan, is called upon to come back to the family as their father is dying. It is not at all clear if he will and reasons why are spilled out in a series of amber-tinted flashbacks.

“The idea is that it’s a movie about memory and how pervasive the experiences we had as a child are, and that we’re kind of constantly in this process of remembering and forgetting. And obviously, even two children growing up in the same house can have a very different perspective,” explains Bialik.

It is a shattering film for anyone who has experienced parental death and doesn’t follow the typical all-is-forgiven Hollywood ending. Bialik says she began writing it following the end of the year-long period of Jewish mourning following her father’s death seven years ago and sees it as part of a “cathartic process.”

“This is a movie about a woman in that sandwich generation of taking care of her parents with all of the memory and pain in many cases that is involved with it and also trying to function in her present life with her own children and her own mental health and her own things,” says Bialik.

From left: Actors Simon Helberg, Candice Bergen, Dustin Hoffman, writer-director Mayim Bialik and actor Dianna Agron, on the set of Bialik’s feature directorial debut, ‘As They Made Us.’ (Screen Media/JTA)

That description could also aptly frame Bialik, a divorced mother-of-two herself, who has made no secret of her search for better health overall. Speaking openly about mental health and what has and has not helped her and her co-host Jonathan Cohen was the impetus for Bialik’s pandemic-era podcast, “Mayim Bialik’s Breakdown.” Among the recent guests were “As They Made Us” stars Hoffman and Agron, as well as experts in the field.

“As a person who grew up living with mental illness and having my own challenges, really my whole life, I realized that, boy, a global pandemic will sure get your anxiety spiked up and lots of other things. And especially a lot of us had anticipatory anxiety. We didn’t know what was going to happen, and a lot of us are still feeling that. So we started this podcast to try and really just give people a bit of a basic vocabulary about what mental health is and what it can look like,” says Bialik.

Defining her own Jewish observance is a little more nuanced. Bialik says that these days she calls herself “observant-ish” and that she is “halachically organized” with her work schedule, taping on Tuesday nights versus Fridays, for example.

Dustin Hoffman and Mayim Bialik on the set of ‘As They Made Us.’ (Courtesy)

“I tend to not have as many problems with food as meat or dairy eaters might if they were kosher. I’m a vegan, and so that makes a lot of my life simpler,” she says.

As an openly “observant-ish Jew,” for some in Hollywood, Bialik serves as a kind of Jewish poster child. The fact that she’s made a series of Judaism explainer videos probably adds to that perception.

“I definitely meet people who don’t know a lot about Judaism or observant Judaism, both Jews and non-Jews alike. And also I meet a lot of people who are very interested in the way that I choose to practice and study and also raise my kids,” she says.

Being an overt Zionist can sometimes be a little tricky, however.

“It’s just a part of who I am. I have family there on all sides of the spectrum and both sides of all borders. And, you know, it’s been that way my whole life. My family made Aliya, really after the Yom Kippur war. So I didn’t meet most of my cousins until I was 16,” her age on her first trip to Israel.

“I run into a lot of people who don’t know a lot about Israel, about the foundations of Israel, what it means, what the media can portray versus what it’s actually like. I encourage people to go there because I think it’s very different to see it,” she says.

At the same time, Bialik is cognizant that there are those who will be prejudiced against Israel, regardless of logic. “There are people who, whether in the industry or not, there are people who don’t like Jews. And it kind of doesn’t matter what your politics are, is what I’ve learned. Being a liberal Zionist doesn’t matter more to certain people than being a conservative Zionist,” she says.

Actress Mayim Bialik meets former president Reuven Rivlin at his residence in Jerusalem, on March 18, 2018. (Mark Neiman/GPO)

“If people don’t believe that Jews have a right to an autonomous and free state in those borders, it really doesn’t matter. And that’s sad. And it also, in some ways, makes me feel like I don’t need to convince anyone. If your fundamental problem with me, whoever you are, is that I am Jewish, then it doesn’t really matter for me to try and engage in dialogue on Facebook, which is where a lot of these things and Twitter are kind of getting played out.

“So for me, I’m very clear that I don’t have to agree with all the policies of this country that I live in, or Israel, which I consider my spiritual historical homeland. There are many times that I’m very frustrated with things that go on, and I’m also very frustrated with the way it is presented in the media. Both those things can be true. And I love Israel. I love visiting. I love seeing my family and being there. There are things that I enjoy doing there that you can’t do anywhere else in the world. And I miss it. I miss it when I can’t go and look forward to going, God willing, soon,” says Bialik.

Hear more from Mayim Bialik in the full Times Will Tell episode here.

Times Will Tell podcasts are available for download on iTunesTuneIn, Pocket CastsStitcher, PlayerFM or wherever you get your podcasts.

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