For years people would tap Danica McKellar on the shoulder and ask, “Aren’t you that little girl on The Wonder Years?”
Though she WAS that little girl on The Wonder Years, all that changed in an instant. After six seasons on the popular show, McKellar was ready for college.
“I took four years off to attend UCLA,” she says. “My plan was to be a film major because I loved acting and had been doing it for so long, I thought I should learn the rest of it.
“And I took a maths class as part of my general requirements. It was a calculus course which wasn’t really required, but I’d been in AP calculus (Advance Placement Calculus) in high school, and I was intimidated by the idea for some reason even though I’d done well in high school. I was buying into the stereotype,” she says, seated in a restaurant at Pasadena, California, the clatter of breakfast cutlery in the background.
“But I took the plunge and did it and fell completely in love with mathematics. I was floored at how well I was doing and couldn’t believe that I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it and was at the top of my class from the first test,” she says, ordering eggs without the hash-browns.
“And I really gained an identity for myself and self-worth that was completely separate from Hollywood, which was so important for me.”
She went on to earn the highest score in her class of 163 people on her mid-term. “The scores were on the board. The high score was 22, which was mine, the rest were 15 and below,” she says.
“One day someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Excuse me, aren’t you that girl who got the 22?’ It hit me. ‘Oh, my goodness. This is me. THIS is me, not a combination of sound effects and music and lighting and a great script and all the rest of it. This is really me. And it was intoxicating. I knew I needed to go down that path and take a break from Hollywood and find myself.”
She even managed a coup that rarely happens in the field of mathematics. She contributed to original research that proved a new theorem. “So I have a theorem named after me, which is something you usually do when you’re getting your PhD. After I got my bachelor’s of science, I missed acting and I missed communicating with people.”
While she enjoyed the research, she felt isolated, she says.
“I really missed acting. At that point I’d already joined the Shakespeare group on campus. I was doing plays and stuff and I really wanted to get back to it.”
It took her three years to land a part, a juicy role in The West Wing, but she’s definitely back. McKellar, 41, is starring in her second Hallmark movie, Wedding Bells, part of the network’s June weddings series. And, no, she doesn’t play the bride.
Though she’s been a bride twice (she and her first husband divorced when her five-year-old son was one-and-a-half) McKellar plays the maid of honour who colludes with the best man to save a wedding that is about to go under.
But McKellar hasn’t forgotten Pythagoras. In 2000 she addressed Congress about the importance of women in mathematics, and five years later she was approached about writing a book on the subject.
“I did a lot of research at the time and discovered that sixth grade – middle school – is the time when girls’ confidence in math starts to drop. That was the time when it needed to be targeted, so I thought, ‘Yes, I want to write a book for middle-school girls to show them that they are smart, capable, and they should strive to be these things through mathematics.”
That’s how her first book, Math Doesn’t Suck, was born.
“I recommend to ANY actor: Have something else that you also love that you also do that makes money. For me, it’s math books because it keeps you sane and keeps you from needing the next job to happen at a certain point. And you can choose; you don’t have to take everything that comes to you,” says McKellar, who is wearing a black-and-white print dress, a red shawl draped across her shoulders and red high-heeled pumps.
Two years ago she faced another arduous challenge. She appeared on Dancing With The Stars, breaking a rib in the process.
“It was pretty humiliating because I was sobbing, and that made it on national television. It’s one thing to cry as a character, it’s another one when it’s really me. I was embarrassed and didn’t want to be weak. Didn’t want to lose like that. I kept dancing for two more weeks after that,” she says.
She refused pain killers and tried all manner of holistic treatments. Sighing, she says, “It was very challenging because I was in physical pain. I was afraid. You get up there and are about to dance in front of 15 million people, and it’s live, and you don’t know if your rib’s going to stay with you. I was in so much pain. That was one of the hardest times in my life.” – Tribune News Service/Luaine Lee