Reading autopsy reports and death certificates
Unearthing really terrible experiences and feelings about herself
Contemplating ultimate silence
Amber Tamblyn’s late twenties kicked her mind’s ass. It’s not an uncommon phenomenon: the slightly delayed quarter-life crisis, known to star-worshippers as the Saturn Return, is the period in which one’s life feels like it’s either thrown into total chaos or hitting the skids. Tamblyn, who muscled through the wilds of child acting and came out the other end an accomplished, sardonic, down-to-earth performer and writer, suddenly began to question everything about herself.
Before she began to experience the Fear, Tamblyn had been confident and assured, having already achieved so much by her mid-twenties. The thirty-two-year-old Emmy- and Golden Globe–nominated actress is perhaps best known for having played a teenager who talks to God in the CBS TV series Joan of Arcadia, and for her character, Tibby Tomko-Rollins, in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movies. She has also appeared in the popular hair-raising films The Ring, The Grudge 2, 127 Hours, and the beloved television shows The Unusuals, House, and most recently the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, where she played Charlie Harper’s long-lost lesbian daughter, Jenny.
Yet Tamblyn, who grew up among bohemians (her unofficial godfathers are Neil Young and the late Dennis Hopper), says poetry was her first love, and one of the few areas in her life over which she had full control. It was that agency, perhaps, that pulled her back from the existential brink a couple of years ago. The result was Tamblyn’s third collection of poems, Dark Sparkler. It examines the lives and untimely deaths of young actresses such as Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Sharon Tate, and Brittany Murphy, and features artwork by David Lynch, Marilyn Manson, and Tamblyn’s father, veteran actor Russ Tamblyn (West Side Story, Twin Peaks). She has published two other acclaimed books of poems, 2005’s Free Stallion and 2009’s Bang Ditto, as well as two chapbooks, Of the Dawn and Plenty of Ships, which she made as a teenager. The topic of Dark Sparkler is one that’s not unfamiliar to the Los Angeles native, who began her own professional acting career at age eleven. Tamblyn says the collection is the death of her twenties on paper—“the death of somebody who didn’t believe in herself, who didn’t think her poetry was good enough, who didn’t think she was good enough to direct a film.”
I spoke to Tamblyn, who is very much alive and well, by phone from Los Angeles, where she was on the set of her directorial debut, a film adaptation of Janet Fitch’s novel Paint It Black. She snuck away with her lunch to a quiet hiding spot on the huge, haunted-house property. As she stared out at a skyline of the city, we chatted about the late Brittany Murphy, the appeal of “ultimate silence,” and the importance of shedding one’s skin.
THE BELIEVER: Dark Sparkler is your first thematic collection of poems. Why did you want to take on the subject of dead young actresses?
AMBER TAMBLYN: It started around the time Brittany Murphy died. I don’t know why, but I became very interested in her death. As someone who was born and raised in Los Angeles, I was really interested in this idea of people who move here to get into the business, and some of them do become famous and then oftentimes they fall out of that fame in very terrible ways. So I was obsessed not only with how she died and the mystery surrounding it, but also with humanizing her and knowing who she was as a person outside of that limelight. The first poem [in the book], I wrote for her. And then two poet friends of mine, Rachel McKibbens and Mindy Nettifee, were really the women who said, “This book is sort of a destiny for you and you need to write it,” which was ultimately writing the stories about the mortalities of actresses, not just their mortalities but also who they were outside of being actresses, and what it’s like for anybody to struggle with anything.
BLVR: The poem you wrote about Brittany Murphy begins with “In the shower/ her body dies like a spider’s.” You’ve talked about how you “privately glamorized” her death. Can you expand on that?
AT: I can tell you anything about Brittany Murphy. I’ve read her autopsy report and death certificate. I know that she died in the shower. That was the first visual image I had. I read that she had lost a lot of weight, and I so had this image of what a spider looks like when it dies. Sort of legs-closed like a crumpled, dead flower.
BLVR: What struck you most about Murphy’s end? It seems like you were fascinated by how her body was objectified even in death.
AT: The deaths here are stories in and of themselves. Certainly for Brittany Murphy, who, beyond her fame and failures, was a person who was not taken care of, both by herself and by people around her. That is the part that’s most interesting to me. I remember how, after she died, InTouch magazine put her on the cover in this beautiful sequined dress, immortalizing her as opposed to actually talking about what was really going on and what was happening in her life. And, culturally, that’s something I see all the time. She died so brutally. Still, to this day, we don’t know exactly what happened. But there was the sense of “Oh, let’s just remember her for how beautiful she was. Let’s forget all the terrible, terrible things we wrote about her, about her body, dragging her self- esteem down into the ditches. Let’s forget all of that stuff. Let’s pretend this magazine never published that, and let’s just remember her for this glowing moment.” I feel that poem was trying to shed light on all of that.
BLVR: As you mentioned, unlike Murphy and others, you were born and raised in Los Angeles. You rather fell into acting at a young age. To what extent do these actresses’ stories resonate with your own?
AT: Some of them do. When people ask me what I do for a living, I always say, “I get rejected for a living.” And that’s true. There is a painful process that if any actor or actress says they weren’t going through or hadn’t been through, they are full of shit and are lying to you. Also, part of our business is that you read interviews with these people and they don’t really talk candidly about what’s going on and the struggle—the struggle to do what you love and to maintain body image and to maintain this sort of false stature of who you’re supposed to be as a role model and also who you are supposed to be to yourself personally and privately. And because the role-model pressure becomes so insane, the personal and private takes a backseat to whatever it takes to maintain that fame and to maintain that lifestyle, and before you know it you’re not a human being anymore.
BLVR: So you’ve experienced that struggle? That pressure?
AT: It was interesting—when I started to research these women, there was nothing new to me about their experiences, whether it was suicide, thoughts of suicide, murder-suicide, eating disorders, or drug addiction. The theme through it was, ultimately, that these were stories of people who—if they were not murdered, if it was something self-inflicted that happened to them—struggled. For most women, whether you’re an actress or whatever you do, there is this pressure in society and within the world to look a certain way, dress a certain way, act a certain way, say certain things, and be this idea as opposed to being a person. That was the commonality I had with them: knowing that shame and knowing what that feels like.
BLVR: You began a six-year tenure on General Hospital when you were only eleven years old, but you seem grounded. Did you manage to avoid the dangerous—sometimes lethal—pitfalls that other child stars have fallen into?
AT: I think I did. I also never reached certain levels of fame, like Lindsay Lohan did, or even Brittany Murphy. My career has always been this sort of even-keeled, steady existence. I was also raised by poets, and I’ve been doing poetry as long as I’ve been acting. My first poem was published when I was twelve years old by Jack Hirschman, who was the poet laureate for San Francisco. A small magazine called Cups published a piece that I wrote, called “Kill Me So Much,” which was a real homage to Jack and his political writings. After I saw my first poem published, I became interested in the immortalization of words and the fact that you could put something out there that you felt and that meant something to you, and that it could be interpreted by many different people to mean many different things.
BLVR: What did it feel like when you first saw your words in print?
AT: It was exhilarating. I had this young, profound sense of affecting something. And not in the same way as acting did. It was really something that belonged to me, and it was very personal and very private at the same time. It was something that I could choose to share with the world. With acting, I always feel like you have less choice in it. When I’m acting, I have zero control, and it’s the scariest thing anyone can do in that field because, you know, your face is always the one that’s out there in front of the camera, and any number of things can happen to you once you’ve done your work. It can be edited badly, it can be distributed badly, or it can not be distributed at all. And I’ve certainly experienced that; every actor has. So the poetry when I was a kid felt like something that I could control, and whether it failed or not, whether it was good or not, was totally on me and I could accept that. It was entirely mine.
BLVR: There seems to be a lot of judgment when an actress does something other than acting. Did you feel it was harder to be taken seriously as a poet because of your celebrity?
AT: I think it’s hard to be taken seriously as a poet, period. Recently, I was at the PEN Center awards and I heard Victoria Chang, another poet, explain that poets are the armpit of the literary world.
BLVR: You seem to embrace your imperfections within the context of your poems. How challenging has that been for you, considering you work in an industry that doesn’t allow much room for imperfection?
AT: Just because you grow up in the public eye doesn’t mean that you’re immune to the same sort of issues and feelings that any other woman would go through. There was a period of time while I was writing this book, in my obsession with following these women and their journeys and also their deaths, that I was going through my own kind of death. I hadn’t contemplated dying, but I had contemplated what ultimate silence would be like. And that means not seeing and not doing and not being, and what a wonderful thing that must be. And certainly—again for someone like me, who all day, in my business, everything is about emotion, everything is about putting yourself out there in that way—the idea of ultimate silence was really attractive. The epilogue in the book explores my experience of having to unearth some really terrible experiences and feelings about myself in order to get to the root of it, which was that I was dying, and that the person I was and that I thought was so strong and that, as you just said to me, was so grounded, which was something I’d heard since I was a kid—why didn’t I feel connected to that person? Why didn’t I feel like that person mattered? And what did that mean? It was a really scary epiphany in a certain way, and I didn’t know if that meant that I felt like I wanted to die, and that everything, all of it, was some weird meta circle of me coming back to a realization that I should not live past thirty, and all of these thoughts went through my head. And the more I dug into them, the fact that I felt shame that their stories should even matter in the first place spoke volumes about how much I didn’t believe that my own voice mattered at all because of my privilege. It was sort of this reciprocal terrible situation that I was in, and the ultimate outcome of that was writing the epilogue. It took me six years to write the book. I had to stop for about a year and a half because it was so dark and I was in a very bad place in my own personal life. It was getting a little too close to home for me.
BLVR: In the epilogue, you write, “The author died during the writing of this book.” I understand that spending so much time with those dead actresses in your head was very difficult for you. But was it also healing?
AT: Well, that was part of it. The research I did to learn about them was sometimes just sitting at a computer all day long, and my husband was just trying to get my attention, wanting to know if I wanted lunch, worrying about me just reading about death all day long, death after death after death after death, and how they died. Some of the worst ones, like Dana Plato—just hearing about when they were in their worst moments, how they were kicked down even further. People still held them to some standard, which they couldn’t possibly be held to anymore, no matter what. And it’s not anyone’s fault. It’s not the public’s fault and it’s not the actors’ fault. It’s the way our society is set up, and it just happens to be the particular stories of these women and how they were affected and how that was set up. Researching that for so long took its toll, but I had some really important people around me, and I knew that the work that I had to do to was write about my experience of writing the poems. Just sort of get to the meta-truth of what it’s really like.
BLVR: Do you feel like you ended up in a better place? Did you have a rebirth of sorts?
AT: Oh, yeah! That’s exactly what it was. Dark Sparkler is my death on paper. It is the death of my twenties. It is the death of the person who had no boundaries. It was the death of somebody who didn’t believe in herself, who didn’t think she was good enough, who didn’t think her poetry was good enough, who didn’t think she was good enough to direct a film. That I should just audition for the rest of my life and get plastic surgery and that was the ultimate outcome of anything I had to contribute: this book is the death of that person. That person died. This is sort of the invitation to the funeral. Which to me is a total celebration.
I think we, especially in American culture, are so afraid to talk about death. And I’m not talking about literal death. I’m talking about shedding skin. I’m talking about rebirth, ultimately, and how we continue to change as human beings and continue to grow. There’s that great Henry Miller quote, “All growth is a leap in the dark.” And that is true, and it’s very scary. If you’re doing something that terrifies you, most likely you’re doing the right thing, you know? You’re doing something that’s going to make you grow as a human being. This book terrified me.
BLVR: Perhaps being a poet and being an actress could be seen as very different sides of the creative spectrum. One is about really exposing oneself, while the other is about putting on a mask. Do both come naturally for you, or do you have to work harder at one?
AT: That is very true. I would also say that I don’t know a single poet who doesn’t put on a mask when they write. If they say they don’t, they’re full of shit. You’re putting yourself in a state of self-induced hypnosis no matter how you do it. Even if you’re writing about something only you can understand, like, for instance, with me, writing this book. It’s writing what you know, like the old saying—which I guess isn’t that old—but you write what you know, so even those writers, as they are writing what they know, in order to come up with the metaphors and similes that are the ones that grip, that are the ones that get the readers to stay on the page: to tell the story in that way, you have to put yourself in a certain state of mind. You have to reach beyond the truth of it. So even if you’re telling a story about the truth, what you write about the truth has to be bigger than that. It has to be more. It has to find a way to grip the audience in a way that’s not the literal truth. That’s what’s really important about poetry. How can I describe death in a way that is different than anything else? That’s where I would say poetry is similar to acting—in the actual act of writing.
BLVR: You’re now directing your first film, the adaptation of the novel Paint It Black. What prompted this turn behind the camera?
AT: I read the book eight years ago. Amy Poehler actually gave it to me and said, “You’ve got to read this,” and I did, and I fell in love with it, and it also turned out to be a very cinematic book. And it took a couple years to convince the writer, Janet Fitch, that I was worthy of her words.
BLVR: So how has the experience been?
AT: It’s come naturally. We’ll see when the movie is finished if that means anything whatsoever. I shot the movie that I wanted to shoot, and whether or not that turns out to be appealing to people is yet to be seen. I had so much time to plan and prepare for it and really think about the stylization of it. I actually did an entire drawn storyboard with my mother, who’s an artist, where we did frame by frame what the entire film would look like. That was really fun.
BLVR: I understand the film also touches on themes of death and transcendence. I take it you’re not quite done with death yet?
AT: Well, it’s interesting, because I feel like these two projects strangely came one right after the other. I read Paint It Black, and about two years later I started Dark Sparkler. It’s taken a long time for both of them to come to fruition. I remember when I was at my lowest point: a bunch of personal stuff had gone on, I was really sick that year, so that didn’t help; this was in 2012, I think. I had these two projects. I couldn’t finish my book. I just couldn’t write. I didn’t want to write anymore about these women. I was done even though the book wasn’t even nearly finished. And I think at that point the movie was stuck in the mud and I had parted ways with an agency I had been with for fifteen years. A huge shift was happening. And several times while I was shooting I thought back to that moment and thought, Could I have imagined only a couple of years later that these two things would be coming back-to-back? It’s just wild to me. They both came at the same time.
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