Touching upon everything from Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants to Time’s Up, Debbie celebrates 15 years of Design Matters in a wide-ranging conversation with poet and actress Amber Tamblyn.
Design Matters Live: Amber Tamblyn
POET / AUTHOR / ACTRESS
AMBER TAMBLYN / POETRY / ACTING / ERA OF IGNITION / DARK SPARKLER / BANG DITTO / JACK HIRSCHMAN / WANDA COLEMAN / ROXANE GAY / RUSS TAMBLYN / GENERAL HOSPITAL / JOAN OF ARCADIA / SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS / TWO AND A HALF MEN
A lot of people wait tables so they can pursue their acting dreams. They drive Uber; they tend bar; they telemarket and temp.
One gets the sense that Amber Tamblyn, meanwhile, became an actress so she could pursue an entirely different craft imbued with intense hurdles all its own.
Though her father, Russ Tamblyn, was an actor, Tamblyn never entertained any Hollywood aspirations—until she appeared in the play “Pippi Longstocking” in the fourth grade and soon found herself acting in films and as a regular on “General Hospital.”
Meanwhile, it was clear that her passions extended beyond the set, even on set. As she mourned the death of her television mother on “General Hospital,” Tamblyn’s character was filmed sitting around pensively with a notebook … on which she actually happened to be writing a poem about eyes, which she gave to her co-star after the scene. As both blessing and likely later-in-life curse, thanks to her celebrity her earliest works found their way to Bop magazine. And then, when she was 12, the poet laureate of San Francisco, Jack Hirschman, published one of Tamblyn’s pieces in the magazine Cups.
“It was exhilarating,” she recalled to The Believer. “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.”
Still, she acted, moving from “General Hospital” to the cult hit “Joan of Arcadia” and film roles including The Ring and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
At the age of 22, Simon & Schuster released her first poetry collection, Free Stallion. As she told Buzzfeed, “People always ask me how much acting has informed my activism, or my artistry, or my filmmaking, or my writing. But it is poetry, fundamentally, that has informed those things. I was able to find myself through my ability to speak towards the things I didn’t quite understand yet because I was so young. Things about sexism, and misogyny, about a business that endemically does not care about women.”
Apart from the page, she had a lead role on “House.” “Two and a Half Men.” She directed her first film, Paint It Black.
And more books followed: the poetry collection Bang Ditto. The collection Dark Sparkler, which explores 25 actresses who suffered untimely deaths. The novel Any Man.
Given her acting work, The Believer asked: Do you feel it’s harder to be taken seriously as a poet because of your celebrity?
Her response: “I think it’s hard to be taken seriously as a poet, period.”
Tamblyn’s most recent work is Era of Ignition: Coming of Age in a Time of Rage and Revolution, a powerful memoir and manifesto that captures a dark, turbulent period in her life—and a subsequent cathartic awakening. As a complement to this episode of Design Matters, a short excerpt follows below.
On the bar in front of me, a tea candle meekly flickered at the end of its wick as I sat next to my husband and wondered how I was going to tell him what I had to tell him. We had just gotten married two months before; the mud. A roller-coaster car stuck upside down in midair. I swiveled the ice cubes in my glass full of bourbon and stared down the candle’s croaking ember. That’s me, I thought. That’s me right there in the form of fading fire.
The flame dwindled as I gulped down my bourbon and proceeded to tell my husband that I was pregnant but was planning to terminate the pregnancy. I’ll never forget the look on his face, a shattering I had instantly caused; a spark of joy pummeled into anguish. He was devastated in that moment, destroyed and blindsided. I cannot remember any other time in my life when I had inflicted this type of pain on another person, especially a person who I loved so much and who was—is—my entire world. I didn’t want to hurt him. But I made the choice because I didn’t want to hurt anymore either. I had been experiencing a long-term devastation that was omnipresent; an all-consuming, all-encompassing kind of grief. I had come to the end of one very long chapter of my life as a child actress, and now as an adult I was fully out of inspiration and devoid of direction. I was twenty-nine years old and completely lost, lost in a way that I couldn’t see a future for myself, lost in a way that isolated me from others. Lost in a way that felt permanently perilous.
I had spent so much of my young life in the entertainment business performing the moments of other people’s lives as an actress. The only thing I had ever known how to do was channel someone else’s art, be someone else’s muse, live someone else’s life, speak someone else’s words. I began my career when I was just nine years old, acting in a few low-budget films, and by the time I turned eleven, I landed a major role on the soap opera “General Hospital,” a job that would last seven years. While other teenagers were going to school to get an education, I was going to a film studio to play a heroin-addicted former model whose mother had died of cancer. After I left that show at the age of seventeen, I guest-starred in a few TV shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” then I landed a starring role in the cult TV show “Joan of Arcadia” and didn’t stop working, or stop to think about stopping working, for the next ten years.
This is not to say I had a bad childhood; I just had a confusing one. When you’ve spent your whole life pretending to be other people for a living, it is sometimes hard to know what you are capable of becoming or what you will want once you’ve stopped. So here I was sitting in a bar, a grown woman who owned a house and a car and had a damn good man in my life, and yet I had absolutely no motivation for living anymore. I was in a deep psychic holding pattern with no sense of what was coming next or who I was. I didn’t want to literally die, but I was craving some kind of existential ceasing. I desperately needed to find a way to stop and then to start over again. And I knew that life couldn’t stay the way it had been for me, that I had so much more to offer besides auditioning for acting roles. But what I had been experiencing was a sort of invisible alphabet: I saw my life at A and could see the bright, glowing Z of my potential in the distance but couldn’t manifest the letters in between to get there.
—Excerpted from Era of Ignition: Coming of Age in a Time of Rage and Revolution by Amber Tamblyn © 2019 Amtam Enterprises Inc. Published by Broadway Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. — Debbie Millman