‘THE BRONZE’

Why ‘Big Bang Theory’ Star Melissa Rauch Is Much More Than Bernadette

Melissa Rauch talks fame, The Big Bang Theory, and wild sex as she vaults onto the big screen as a bitter, washed-up gymnast in the indie comedy The Bronze.

AliciAlicia Gbur/Sony Pictures Classics

An improbable amount of significance in Melissa Rauch’s life can be traced back to a pretzel.

Specifically, a Wetzel’s Pretzel.

Purchased at a New Jersey mall.

Back in 2008 Rauch, best known to most of us as sparkplug scientist—and now expectant mother—Bernadette Rostenkowski on The Big Bang Theory, was a panelist on VH1’s pop culture clip show Best Week Ever.

During a visit at the time to her New Jersey hometown, she and her husband, Winston Rauch, discovered a perk of the slightly increased exposure from the VH1 series: a Wetzel’s Pretzels manager who was so impressed by her newfound celebrity that he gave her a pretzel for free.

A few months later, after the show was canceled, Rauch went back to that same Wetzel’s stand and walked up to the manager, her one-time biggest fan. He acted like he had no clue who she was. Her pretzel was $3.

Fame is fleeting. Apparently so are free pretzels.

The couple laughed off the slight. But in the throes of a bit of wallowing, she couldn’t help but take it a little personally.

“It was symbolic of how I was feeling inside,” Rauch tells me. “I remember we paid for the pretzel and sat down and were like, ‘All right, I guess this is what will happen if you hang your hat on that.’ Like, OK, if fame is something you feed into then that’s just such a dangerous road to go down.”

Rauch starts giggling at herself.

“It’s a really heavy pretzel,” she laughs. “That pretzel is filled with a lot of metaphors. More than just gluten. It’s filled with the gluten of fame and celebrity.”

We’re discussing the meaning of life as determined through mall food over coffee near Lincoln Center in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, one stop in a whirlwind press day for Rauch’s leading role in the indie comedy The Bronze, which she co-wrote with her husband.

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When we’re through, she’ll dash off to The View, where her parents are excitedly waiting in the audience. (“My mom got a blowout,” Rauch laughs. “We’re all very excited.”)

The Tragedy of the Pretzel loosely inspired the screenplay for The Bronze, the story of washed-up Olympic gymnast Hope Ann Gregory, who, years after retiring from the sport, still milks remnants of her onetime celebrity for all its worth.

By the time we meet Hope, however, her fame is only worth a free slice of Sbarro’s at the mall food court and a milkshake from the local diner. When even that is threatened by a spritely young gymnast pegged to head to the Olympics herself—and steal all of Hope’s hometown thunder—the embittered former bronze medalist mounts a sabotage mission with all the gusto of an Olympian in training.

The role has Rauch tumbling through arias of cursing, acid-tongued dialogue, and, in one raucous sequence, having wildly gymnastic sex with Captain America: Winter Soldier star Sebastian Stan. (Quite fittingly, it’s been branded “the most R-rated floor exercise ever conceived.”) But it’s in portraying the unlikely relatability of Hope’s situation—a woman reeling when she finds her sense of worth in question—that Rauch’s performance sticks the landing. (Yay, gymnastics wordplay!)

It’s a situation that Rauch has contemplated before, and not only after being slighted by managers at snack kiosks.

She is, after all, a cast member on TV’s most-watched series. She’s also an actress so eager to show what she’s capable of that she wrote herself a worthy showcase. Given those tenets of her job, she’s been forced to reckon with the more existential ideas of celebrity and fame in addition to simply loving her work.

Like we said, that was a damn heavy pretzel.

“It is so fickle and fleeting,” Rauch says. “There’s this mentality in this business of worth being tied up in how many followers you have or what your Starmeter is or how much money you can bring in. And it’s very separate from the art or craft, as douchey as that sounds.”

Rauch has been honing her douchey craft for years.

She worked as a stand-up in New York, occasionally at such glamorous venues as the back of a burger restaurant or a laundromat in Times Square (“Nothing like doing standup and someone being like, ‘Anyone have more detergent?”), before heading to L.A. for more fruitful opportunities. What followed was, as she recalls, “a good two years of just driving around in my car crying.” After a nostalgic chuckle, she says, “There were some dark times in L.A.”

In true can’t-make-this-up fashion, Rauch was at the unemployment office the week before she booked her guest-starring role on the third season of The Big Bang Theory. She had just shot a pilot that she was replaced in, a supporting role as a “tough Italian chick” in a sitcom Sherri Shepherd was developing for Lifetime.

“I was there for a couple of days and I was like, ‘If they don’t fire me, they’re stupid.’ I was so not right for it,” she says. Turns out, they weren’t stupid.

As has become legend in the Land of Bazinga, Rauch was only booked for one episode when she was first hired for The Big Bang Theory. Eventually, her role as a love interest for gregarious geek Howard Wolowitz proved to be a creative boon for the series and a hit with the fans. She was hired full-time.

She remembers writing at a café with her husband a few weeks before she was hired as a series regular, at that point unsure of her future on the show or even what her next gig would be.

“One single tear was dripping down my cheek,” she says. “It seems silly to cry when you don’t have an acting job. But there really is something about not being given the opportunity to do what you love. Just feeling stuck, which sort of ended up being a theme in The Bronze.”

Her breakout role in The Bronze nearly didn’t happen.

When she and Winston started shopping the script around, producers were interested in a more bankable film actress playing the role the couple had written for Rauch. Others were put off by the way Hope spoke to her father in the film, telling Rauch, “I would not allow my daughter to talk to me that way”—a reaction she still rolls her eyes over.

By sticking to their guns, the Rauches faced a smaller budget and a 22-day filming schedule, which is tight for any movie, let alone one that required full gymnastics routines and the most acrobatic sex scene ever committed to film.

About that sex scene.

When The Bronze premiered at Sundance, immediate post-screening conversation buzzed about a Big Bang Theory star and a Captain America superhero completely naked in cartwheeling coitus. To that regard, moviegoers will forever be indebted to Melissa Rauch for casting walking Adonis Sebastian Stan in the role, and to Stan for opting out of the body double to shoot it.

“We were talking to the gymnastics coordinator and he was like, ‘Teach me the whole thing,’” Rauch says. “He learned everything and came in, took off his robe, and was like, ‘Let’s go.’” With a knowing nod, she adds, “You’re welcome.”

Recalling the mechanics of shooting what she calls the film’s “sex ballet,” Rauch says nothing compared to sitting next to the film’s producer as she was on the phone with the MPAA discussing the scene.

“She’s running it by them and is like, ‘OK so he does a pommel horse around her naked body. He’s using her body as the pommel horse and then inserts himself in back of said pommel horse,’” Rauch says. “At one point she’s just like, ‘I guess we’re just going to have to send it to you when it’s done.’”

Suffice it to say, then, that watching Rauch in The Bronze is an experience quite unlike anything you might see her do Thursday nights on CBS on The Big Bang Theory. Perhaps expectedly, that’s been a talking point of this press tour—a fascination that she understands, but doesn’t necessarily agree with.

“The question I’m asked which I find interesting is, ‘Did you do this to shock the Big Bang fans?’ Or ‘Did you do this to show you’re not Bernadette?’ Which is so not the case,” she says. “It wasn’t this deliberate, ‘I’m going to write this so you don’t think of me as Bernadette.’”

There was no such agenda.

“As writers, we were excited to tell this story, and then give myself the opportunity to play a role that, if it were written by someone else, they wouldn’t have necessarily said, ‘Let me cast the girl from The Big Bang Theory.’”

She’s also found herself encountering a sort-of titillated glee when people talk to her about Big Bang’s Bernadette being “raunchy” in this film. Like Rauch is naughtily engaging in some against-type taboo.

“That has an interesting connotation to it, because they don’t necessarily do that for male-driven movies,” she says. “I never hear, ‘The Hangover, that raunchy comedy. Oh, what’s Bradly Cooper doing being so raunchy?! Look at that bad boy!”

But repeatedly and profusely Rauch, though eager to engage in that dialogue, wants to make it clear that she’s not bemoaning anyone who’s starting any kind of conversation about The Bronze—even if those conversations are tinged with sexism.

“We were like maybe we’ll get a DVD to show my mom at some point, or I’ll get footage for my reel,” Rauch says about The Bronze’s release. “I can’t believe it’s in theaters.”

Friday night, she and her husband and parents will watch The Bronze at a theater near their hometown. In fact, the theater they’re considering is one where she and Winston used to splurge their paychecks when they were younger.

The kind of place near where one might buy a pretzel from Wetzel’s.