Writer ∙ Author ∙ Journalist

Mayim Bialik Just Wants to Talk

Vanity Fair / September 2023

The Jeopardy! host on getting everyone from Dustin Hoffman to Jodie Sweetin to spill their guts

Mayim Bialik has three decades of steady success on screens big and small, a neuroscience PhD, an adorable family with two teenaged boys, a sweet gig hosting Jeopardy! alongside Ken Jennings, and a hunky Canadian partner—both personal and professional—in Jonathan Cohen, with whom she makes her popular pandemic-born podcast, Mayim Bialik’s Breakdown. She is not, however, actually having a breakdown. (As the catchy theme song by Barenaked Ladies’ Ed Robertson goes, “She’s gonna break it down for you, ’cause you know she knows a thing or two.”)

The podcast is what we’re talking about today since the 47-year-old Blossom and Big Bang Theory star is a strong supporter of the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes—last May, in fact, she was among the first celebrities to take an overt stand by declining to host Jeopardy’s new season until the writers got a fair deal. (Which they did, just this week.)

The four-time Emmy nominee could have put her head down and feet up in the meantime, but instead, she’s doubled down on Breakdown. Bialik’s guests mostly fall into one of two camps: doctors, scientists, and psychologists discussing neurobiology, mindfulness, meditation, and mental health, or Hollywood types she’s invited for a casual chat about “where they are mental health wise.” As Bialik discloses her own anxieties and traumas, so too do her guests. Ricki Lake has dished on her menstrual cycle, Nikki Glaser on losing her virginity, and Chelsea Handler on repressed grief following her brother’s death. Hard science, new age wellness, and celebrity disclosures blend together to make a show that’s like eavesdropping on someone else’s therapy session.

How does Bialik have the nerve to ask Dustin Hoffman about his distant father, or Ben Stiller about the struggles in his marriage? I called her up to discuss the unique perils of being a child actor, her fervent support of the SAG strike, and whether she ever gets starstruck.

Vanity Fair: I’m a bit nervous to chat because of the SAG strike, which I know you’re a big supporter of, so please yell if I break a rule.

Mayim Bialik: There’s a lot of complexity to this, but my general statement is always that I come from a union family. My grandparents were immigrants who worked in sweatshops, and my parents were public school teachers. While it’s not for me to personally judge anyone else’s decision, for me, I am a union supporter—pretty much all unions and what they fight for. I believe in that system even if it’s not perfect. I believe in getting educated about why people strike and what they’re striking for.

Let’s talk about the podcast. Many of your guests are child stars—Jeanette McCurdy, Mara Wilson, Jodie Sweetin, Jenna von Oy. Is this your posse in real life, or are you particularly interested in that journey?

Our initial goal was to have experts and specialists on the show. We started during Covid, when a lot of people were feeling a spike in things like anticipatory anxiety—the entire world, really, to some extent. We initially leaned on people in my circle, like Wil Wheaton, who really inspires me to be open about mental health challenges. We asked people if they’d talk to us about where they came from and where they are in terms of mental wellness. Lots of celebrities have come on the podcast and shared their struggles, which I don’t think they have because they live publicly but because living publicly tends to highlight or exacerbate the issues that we all deal with.

It is hard to convince people to come on and spill their guts?

So far, not really. We’ve had everyone from spiritual psychologist Matthew Singer to Matthew McConaughey to Ben Stiller. Leslie Jordan talked so openly about crystal meth and what it was like to come out as gay. One of the things we most hear people say is, “I’ve never told anyone this!” Maybe there’s something about the way Jonathan and I talk to people that makes them want to talk to us. We’re not trying to get dirt or be gossipy, but I think more and more people are realizing the more we talk about this, the better we’ll all be.

Maybe you missed your calling as a therapist. Is there anyone you really want to get on the podcast but can’t?

Hah, yes! I’ve been trying to get Weird Al. He says he doesn’t have anything to talk about, but my feeling is everyone has something. We’re very happy to talk to people just about their journey. To them, we say, we’re not looking to dredge up dirt or make anyone uncomfortable. But once we start talking, they are comfortable, so they trust us. When I’m vulnerable, when Jonathan’s vulnerable, people seem to open up. I’m not a therapist, but I’ve sure sat in a lot of therapist’s rooms.

Do you have an interview strategy or style? Did you get any training?

To be perfectly honest, no. Jonathan, my co-host, he’s the one who trained me most about how to interview. I’m really shy to ask people sometimes about things that are too personal—especially if they’re public figures. Jonathan is much more skilled at podcasts so he’s given me some general guidelines. Joe Rogan’s had tremendous success, and while I don’t emulate everything he does, his style inspires me. I’m just generally fascinated by people: Where did they come from? How did they become the way they are? There’s almost always something in someone’s family—drama, intensity, alcoholism, death—to be uncovered.

With the SAG strike and the pandemic, you’ve got a bit of a perfect storm happening in terms of getting personal about mental health.

That’s exactly right. Especially during the strike, people have to come on just to want to talk, rather than promote a film or show. That’s a nice change.

Any tips for working with your partner without wanting to smother them with a pillow?

Let’s just say there are many, many episodes that we have not spoken for hours and hours before or after. There’s a lot of good acting—at least on my part—going on in between. One thing is that Jonathan likes to have my mom on way more than I do. It really stresses me out. Jonathan’s the one who missed his calling to be a therapist, I think. He’s done a ton of energy work, so he’s very in tune to a lot of subtleties with my mom. I’m mostly afraid she’ll say something that he and I will have to fight about editing out. If it’s comedy gold, or trauma gold, he’s gonna want to keep it for sure.

How has the podcast changed since it started in 2020?

Gosh, there’s so many ways. Podcasts are a bit of a slow build, so you don’t know what it’s going to be like or how people will take in this information. Now we’re tens of millions of downloads later, so we’re really astounded by the number of people that have been able to get information about mental health in a democratized way—which is exactly why we started the podcast. Healthcare is a human right, for the body and the mind, so what I think has changed since we started is a wider understanding that the mind and body are connected. This is what we originally wanted to lean into, but at the time, it felt too out there, too alternative.

Do you think the medical establishment is coming around to this too?

Oh yeah. I mean, I live in Los Angeles, the land of crystals and acupuncture. That science is legitimately catching up to helping people understand the science behind some of these practices that mystics have been doing for thousands of years is tremendous. It’s tremendous in terms of our understanding as humans of where we’re at, and also our potential, to grow and heal. For those of us who grew up in homes with fear and secrecy, or even terror, you carry that with you and your body keeps a score. Those can be translated into autoimmune disorders and chronic conditions.

That said—and I don’t mean, “tell me now!”—is there anything you don’t or won’t share?

Of course. I wouldn’t be an interesting person if I had nothing in my personal life. There’s a whole part of my life that’s just mine. I talk about my kids, usually comically, but not in a lot of depth. You won’t find details about my relationship with Jonathan. A lot of things are left on the cutting room floor, and there’s a lot of conversations had where we stop recording. My kids don’t listen to the podcast, though; they barely want to listen to me when they have to. I humiliate myself all the time on TikTok, so the podcast is probably the least embarrassing thing I do.

Do you ever get starstruck or intimidated? I realize you’re a neuroscientist, but are you ever nervous to interview super-smart people?

All the time! I tend to cry when I’m nervous, so if you ever see me crying, that’s usually because I’m starstruck. As for the experts, oh yes, those are the episodes that I often feel like we should cancel in the hours before. I’m talking to Dr. Daniel Amen today, who’s Justin Beiber and Miley Cyrus’ psychiatrist, so I’ll say I’m not a practicing neuroscientist and I’m not coming at doctors and scientists from that level. If they even know about my degree, which sometimes people don’t, and they just think I’m an actress.

I also have to ask: Is it true that there’s a Blossom reboot coming?

I’m happy to tell you that, yes, it’s true. All of the cast and the original creator and producers are on board, and we believe a reboot can and should exist once the strike ends. We’re hoping to reboot it not as a sitcom, though. We want to bring back these interesting, deep characters—a child of divorce, a recovering drug addict, an alcoholic—to see them in a whole new way.