Interview: Actress and Poet Amber Tamblyn Surveys Hollywood's Toll on Women in Dark Sparkler | Arts
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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Interview: Actress and Poet Amber Tamblyn Surveys Hollywood's Toll on Women in Dark Sparkler

Posted by on Tue, Feb 23, 2016 at 12:02 PM

click to enlarge Dark Sparkler
  • Dark Sparkler
Amber Tamblyn
Wednesday, Feb. 24, 7 p.m.
The Regulator Bookshop

You’ve probably seen Amber Tamblyn on TV—as a child actor on General Hospital, on her own show Joan of Arcadia, on the cult cop dramady The Unusuals (with Jeremy Renner), or in supporting roles in House and Two and a Half Men. Or maybe you’ve seen some of the many movies she’s been in, including the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants films.

Tamblyn is also an accomplished poet with several published collections. Her latest, Dark Sparkler (Harper Perennial), was initially inspired by the abrupt death of Brittany Murphy. It’s a series of poems about actresses who died before their time, from Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe to Diff’rent Strokes star Dana Plato. Tamblyn also examines her own feelings in investigating these women’s lives, as well as her acting history, in what she calls a “wake” for her younger self.

Tamblyn will read and sign Dark Sparkler at the Regulator tomorrow while her husband, comedian David Cross, performs at the Carolina Theatre. As she started her tour, Tamblyn was excited to be back in Durham, where she was in the movie Main Street (“Carolina barbecue is awesome!”) and was ready for a frank discussion about poetry, the issues faced by women in Hollywood, and more.

INDY: Dark Sparkler has been out for about a year, and you’ve done some touring for it already. What have you found to be the biggest effect of these poems—both for yourself, and what other people have told you about how they’ve affected them?

AMBER TAMBLYN: Overall, it’s interesting: I don’t think I intended to write a feminist work [Laughs]. It's a word that—well, let’s face it, there’s no one who doesn’t have an opinion about the word “feminism” and what they think it means. I guess I did not intend to write a work that went beyond the stories of actresses and became stories of women in general, in any field, in any business, and double standards and the feeling of being objectified. It was kind of amazing, once the book came out, to have a lot of young women coming up to me and going, “Damn, you touched on how I feel, and I’m still alive.”

That has to feel good.

It’s been great, because in my business, it’s hard to relate to people—it’s hard for them and it’s hard for me. Because that’s what we have in common—you love the movies I’ve been in, the TV shows I’ve been in, but maybe you’re not as interested in poetry. So it’s nice when it draws people in. It’s the art form I’m most comfortable in, and it’s the one I find the most expressive.

Poetry’s taken pretty seriously around here, but in many ways, it’s still an underappreciated medium.

Yeah, I fear it’ll always be that way. There’s a really great poet named Victoria Chang who once said, “Poetry is the armpit of the literary world.” By that, she didn’t mean the form itself, but the way people perceive it. I think that’s true—many people see it as this boring, stuck-up, sort of academic art form. There’s a lot of bad poetry, just like there’s a lot of bad movies and bad fiction. But a good poem can be something fantastic and completely unique unto itself.

A single line of poetry can do for you emotionally what ten pages of fiction can do. Just one sentence can cripple you like a punch to the gut. Other forms of writing can do that, but it takes much longer to get to the punch. I think poetry’s really having a resurgence, and it’s becoming much more playful and relevant to people of my generation than ever before.

I read the article in The Los Angeles Times about the negative feelings you were dealing with when you were writing Dark Sparkler

And I hated that fucking article.

OK! [Laughs] 

It’s fine! There were just a couple people who wanted to interpret the language that I used as me being on the edge, like I didn’t know if I was ever going to act again. That was one of [the articles] that felt like they missed the mark of how I felt. For me—I think it’s a very Western-culture problem—death as a metaphor, and ideas about sin and revival and rebirth, are not really accepted and explored. It always seems like, “Oh God, this person’s on the edge! Let’s put them on drugs and hope they get better!”

For me, the whole experience of writing the poems was really a meditation on my own ending—and by that, I mean a part of me ending that needed to, which was the child actor who had no control over her life, who felt like things were beyond her reach and was incapable of doing anything other than accepting offers and going on auditions. I had no control over my own destiny. The book is like a wake. It’s a celebration of the person who used to be like these women before they died—who used to have those insecurities and feelings.

In doing your research, what was the most surprising or meaningful story you came across?

I came across so many connections among these women that they probably didn’t even know about themselves. There was a young actress named Bridgette Andersen who did a movie called Savannah Smiles. She had done this movie when she was very young, and everyone went, “Oh, she’s so cute!” But then she couldn’t get work as a teen and became a severe drug addict and died at twenty-one. There was also an actress named Shannon Michelle Wilsey, a porn star who went by the name “Savannah.” She wanted to get out of that world, do “regular” acting. She grappled with mental illness and died young as well.

I was reading up on Shannon, and there was this line in one of her bios where someone asked her what her favorite movie was. She said it was Savannah Smiles, and that’s where she got the name from. She could quote the whole movie by heart. The movie is about a young girl who runs away from home, and her family is worried and goes looking for her. There’s a subtext about being wanted by your family, and she talked about having a bad relationship with her own father. It was such a powerful connection that I put the two poems back to back in the book, and I made the poem for Shannon Michelle Wilsey a meta-poem, where she’s writing for Bridgette Andersen, and telling her how they’re the same.

click to enlarge Amber Tamblyn - PHOTO BY KATIE JACOBS
  • photo by Katie Jacobs
  • Amber Tamblyn
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about being a woman in Hollywood at any level—actor, writer, director, crew. How do you see things now versus when you started out, and what direction would you like to see things go?

I’m really lucky to be making films and acting in the age of Amy Schumer and filmmakers like Zoe Cassavetes and Kathryn Bigelow. The conversation is not about, “Can women direct films? Can there be films about women that are not categorized as ‘female movies?’” Women are doing these things, and there are really fantastic things being made.

Now the question is, “How do we get more people to see that it's happening?” You have Amy Schumer, who is, like, the most gorgeous, funny, rad girl, who has a gorgeous body that isn’t a stick figure, and that’s totally acceptable. I think that’s really amazing. It doesn’t mean the battle’s done, or that you can just go, “Great! Everything’s awesome now!” There’s still a disparity between men and women in Hollywood, especially for directors. I think the report came out recently that nine percent of the directors in 2014 were women—nine percent! And that was up from about six percent from the five years or so before that.

For me, it’s just important to keep making the work, trying to push through the gates at all times, and trying not to be angry when things don’t work out. Just know that if you have something to offer, offer it.

I’m curious if you’ve seen that Twitter account where a producer tweets descriptions of female characters from screenplays, and every one of them emphasizes the character as “hot,” “sexy,” “attractive,” and so forth.

Oh yeah. My first poem in the book speaks to that—it’s a call for an actress in a film, and it’s not any one specific film, but there’s plenty of situations like that. “Submission calls for actress mid-to-late 20s; all ethnicities acceptable except Asian-American, Caucasian preferable; must read as teen on screen; lean, but not gaunt; quirky but not unattractive; no brown eyes; weight no greater than 109 …” Those are all real things from casting calls.

The thing I hate the most in scripts is the word “quirky.” I see that all the time, and to me that means “the funny, kind of homely friend.” Don’t forget, one woman who made fun of a description of a woman in a script, Rose McGowan, was shamed for it and dropped by her agency, for basically calling out that they were saying, “Please show your tits.” It just takes one person to speak on something like that. And then it’s a domino effect, where all these women are saying, “Yeah, that’s par for the course.” It’s sad that I have to call what she did “brave,” but it kind of was.

As far as acting goes, what do you want in terms of the types of projects you do and the level of control you have?

I love acting so much. It’s a great art form; I’ve always loved it since I was a kid. I love doing theater, playing a good character, no matter what medium it is, so long as it’s fun. And I know I’ll keep acting as long as people accept me without Botox. If not, that’s all right—I’ll be the one normal woman, who’s like Bigfoot in Hollywood, and when they see her, they go, “What’s a wrinkle?” It’ll happen someday. 

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