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Emmys 2012: 'The Big Bang Theory's' Mayim Bialik -- a Smart Bet (Q&A)

For the former "Blossom" star and current neuroscientist (really!), her first nomination is a career big bang.

Mayim Bialik Jim Parsons Big Bang Theory - H 2012
CBS
"The Big Bang Theory's" Mayim Bialik and Jim Parsons

Since joining CBS' The Big Bang Theory at the end of its third season, Mayim Bialik, 36, has trod carefully as Amy Farrah Fowler, the eventual love interest to Emmy winner Jim Parsons' Dr. Sheldon Cooper.

The first-time Emmy nominee (for supporting actress in a comedy) has boldly gone where nobody has gone before -- getting the notoriously self-obsessed Sheldon to mutter five game-changing words: "Will you be my girlfriend?" Without a seasonlong trajectory to rely on, the former Blossom star says it's the limited knowledge of what lies ahead that keeps the romance fresh.

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The Hollywood Reporter: You've done everything on the show from play the harp to work with a smoking monkey. Is there a scene from this past season that stands out as being particularly challenging?
Mayim Bialik: Two scenes in particular were extremely difficult: The first was the cuddling scene where Amy and Sheldon have the most awkward cuddle on the planet. Figuring out the mechanics of that -- any time there's physical comedy, it's a challenge: Where do we want the laughs? Where will laughs go over the actual meaning in what we're trying to do? The second scene was the one where I'm making dinner for Sheldon. It was really unclear which way the writers wanted Sheldon to go. That's really the complexity that we play with all year: Is he into this relationship, or is he being pulled along? Is he oblivious? All of that came out in both of those scenes. Those scenes are the hardest, where every single thing matters.

THR: How do you prepare to play a character -- and explore romance -- without knowing what the trajectory is?
Bialik: The innocence of not knowing where it's going allows for the innocence of this character; she really lives week to week. We'll see her character kind of swing between really engaging actively with Sheldon and then pulling back. There are weeks when all of us have smaller parts than others. Others are times when our characters also get to retreat emotionally. That's part of the ups and downs of this show.

THR: You and Jim both have spoken frequently about the bond you share as actors and friends -- which is pretty rare.
Bialik: It's a really lucky coincidence. As in any job, there are some people you enjoy working with, and there are some people you admire, and there are some people you think are funny, and there are some people you think are intelligent. Jim is all of those things for me. For all of the interest that we have in Jim Parsons as an actor and as a person, it's nice for fans also to be able to picture him being friends with me.

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THR: You've got a doctorate degree in neuroscience from UCLA. How much does that help you prepare for Amy's technical dialogue?
Bialik: That vernacular comes easily. I memorize things as concepts; whereas, when Johnny Galecki and Jim have science words, they literally memorize them just like words of the English language that are made of letters. There's definitely a difference in how we go about it. But Jim is just as convincing as a physicist as I am as a neurobiologist.

THR: Dr. David Saltzberg assists the show as a science adviser, but do you throw in your two cents when reviewing the science material featured in the scripts?
Bialik: I'm generally intimidated by adults. (Laughs.) When things aren't right, I get a little twitch. Sometimes they'll say: "Is this right? Is something wrong? What's wrong? Can you fix that? Fix it and e-mail it." I'm just a general nerd-ball person. A lot of times on our set there's a lot of nerd discussion and weighing in -- not with the other castmembers because they're all busy being cool -- but between me and executive producer Bill Prady and Dr. Saltzberg. Sometimes we'll have nerd discussions about accuracy.

THR: Is there an example that stands out?
Bialik: There was an episode where Raj [Kunal Nayyar] starts taking anti-anxiety pills. It was supposed to be a sample from a lab, and they had it in a prescription bottle. We had this debate of whether it would read as medication if it's in a tiny bag or if it would look like cocaine. That was a case where, for the purposes of the script, we had to have it in a prescription bottle so that it would read visually. The Amy lab stuff is hardest -- not because Dr. Saltzberg doesn't know neuroscience but for the purposes of things visually working and being funny; there's often a lot of discussion about what activities could we be doing in the lab and what's accurate. Can you count spores in the same lab that you dissect the midbrain?

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THR: Amy gets a lot of laughs from physical comedy, including her lack of fashion and all-around awkwardness. Where does that come from?
Bialik: I was raised on the purest comedy there is: I Love Lucy. I was raised watching Three's Company and sitcoms of the '70s and '80s. I am a physical person anyway, and once you're playing an awkward character, you can't just have them be quiet and mousey; there has to be something physical about a quiet character like that. For a lot of our actors, there has to be a tremendous physicality to the awkwardness of this kind of character.

THR: Do you see your nomination as vindication for critics who may have decried the show's increased focus on female characters?
Bialik: We're showing such a broad variety of the female experience that I really think that diffuses any criticism.

The Big Bang Theory returns at 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27, on CBS. 

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