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Flashback Friday: Amber Tamblyn Before She Painted It Black

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BUST’s muti-talented poetry editor Amber Tamblyn has been on a self-actualizing blitz this year. The new mom to three-month-old Marlow Alice (squee!) just made her directing debut with Paint It Black — a dark, daring film adaptation of the novel by Janet Fitch—that has been earning rave reviews since its premiere May 19. On top of all this, Tamblyn also stars in Can You Forgive Her?, an off-Broadway play that opened on May 23. And just this past weekend, Tamblyn paired up with literary rock star Roxane Gay to host “Feminist As Fuck,” a reading series that showcases the most riveting feminist voices writing today, as part of the Vulture Festival in NYC. 

We’re so proud to call Tamblyn an FOB (Friend of BUST). But before we were besties, we were drawn to her gritty, authentic portrayals of American girlhood in movies like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and TV shows like Joan of Arcadia, so we asked her to grace the cover of our Feb/Mar ’09 Issue, back when she was just 25.

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Enjoy this Flashback Friday reprint of that memorable cover story. Then round up your girl gang and support feminist filmmaking by hosting an outing to Paint It Black at a movie palace near you!

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With a new TV show, a new famous boyfriend, and a new home base in the Big Apple, actress Amber Tamblyn is moving at warp speed. Here, she puts on the brakes for a quick breakfast and talks about poetry, politics, and plotting with Amy Poehler.

by Lisa Butterworth // photos by Michael Lavine
styling by Deborah Afshani // makeup by Kristofer Buckle
hair by Matthew Monzon // props by Wil Pierce
dress: Alberta Ferretti; headpiece: Jennifer Behr; earrings: RJ Graziano; gloves: Lacrasia; Dress: J. Mendel; earrings: RJ Graziano; hat: Jennifer Behr; Gloves: lacrasia; top and skirt: Sonia by Sonia Rykiel; crinoline: Vintage; stockings: Wolford; Shoes: Lanvin; earrings: RJ Graziano

It’s 9:30 in the morning, and I’m poring over the menu at a restaurant on New York’s Lower East Side when Amber Tamblyn appears, scanning the small space and looking slightly hurried. I catch her eye and she comes over, setting down a bag of doggie treats with a wry grin. “Here,” she says, “I brought you these.” For a second I think she might be serious, until she tells me she’s brought along her boyfriend’s dog—a perky-eared mutt instantly familiar to anyone who’s seen the paparazzi shots of the 25-year-old actress with her significant other, actor/comedian David Cross. Leaving her oversized sunglasses on the table, she sweeps out to tie her canine charge up closer to the entrance, where she’ll be able to keep an eye on the dog through the windows.

It was Tamblyn’s idea to meet here at Shopsin’s, a tiny restaurant with an eccentric, 800-item menu. I’ve barely familiarized myself with the 50 flavors of French toast when Tamblyn returns, tossing her bag on the floor, shedding her long, hooded sweater, and unwrapping a colorful scarf from around her neck. She’s wearing black leggings, black boots, and a big gray T-shirt that says “Write Bloody” over a bird-on-a-typewriter graphic. I notice her black-painted fingernails as she whips her long brown hair back into a messy ponytail before ordering orange juice and huevos rancheros (“I’m going to be totally boring and get what I always get”). She tells me she flew in from Los Angeles the previous evening and went directly to Williamsburg to see her friends the Cold War Kids play, which explains the neon paper wristband she’s sporting. “I’m literally wearing the same thing I wore last night,” she says. It’s not an apology, just an example of her willingness to tell it like it is.

Tamblyn’s brazenness, coupled with her smart and snarky attitude, sets her apart from her peers in the industry—she is no one but herself. Though born and raised in Venice Beach, CA, she doesn’t subscribe to the Hollywood aesthetic, maintaining a refreshingly normal weight and refusing to “fix” her adorably less-than-perfect teeth. As an actor, Tamblyn takes roles for the challenge they provide or to work with women she admires, not necessarily for exposure or to be “the next big thing.” And whereas many actresses attempt to cross over to pop-singer stardom, Tamblyn has been successfully building a second career as a published poet and spoken-word performer. (At a recent reading in an indie record shop in Nashville, TN, she shared “Hate: A Love Poem,” killing the audience with lines like “I sit in fast-food bathrooms just to remember your smell” and “My fist thinks you’re ugly and would tell you to your face.”) She’s independent and outspoken—a self-proclaimed feminist in a time when many people shy away from the word, especially in the media. And she’s always fighting for the cause, whether it’s as a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood, campaigning on behalf of Hillary Clinton in the presidential primaries, or rocking the mic at Girl Fest in Hawaii, an event dedicated to ending violence against women and providing girls with role models. When I tell her she strikes me as the quintessential BUST girl, she says, “Holla!” then leans into my recorder on the table to add, “You hear that, readers?”

Tamblyn was born into a Hollywood family: her father is Russ Tamblyn, an actor famous in the ’50s and ’60s (he starred in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and West Side Story), and again in the ’90s, when he played Dr. Jacoby on the television series Twin Peaks. David Lynch happens to be a family friend, and Dennis Hopper and Neil Young, both close friends of her father, are Tamblyn’s godparents. “My dad was adamantly against me acting, because he was a child actor,” Tamblyn says. But it was his career choice that led her to inadvertently join the business: her father’s agent came to see a 10-year-old Amber in a school production of Pippi Longstocking and immediately suggested sending her to auditions, helping her to land a role on General Hospital in 1995 that lasted six years. Acting, Tamblyn discovered, was surprisingly grounding. “My mom didn’t put me on any meds when I was younger, even though I was really hyperactive and crazy,” she says. “But she did let me act, and that was a very focus-driven experience for me; it helped me curb all of my energy into one single resource.” She came into her own at 20 with her leading role on the television series Joan of Arcadia, which aired from 2003 to 2005. In it, she nailed the role of a sassy teenager who receives messages from God—an angsty, funny, sympathetic performance that garnered her an Emmy nomination, making her the second-youngest actress ever to be up for the award.

That role also launched her into the realm of girl culture, a position that was solidified in 2005, when she starred (along with America Ferrara, Blake Lively, and Alexis Bledel) in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, that super-rare specimen of a highly successful girl-buddy movie. Now she’s making the move back to television as the lead in a new show on ABC called The Unusuals, about a police unit in New York’s Lower East Side. “She’s a real tough girl with a smart-ass attitude,” Tamblyn says of her character, fresh-to-the-force Detective Casey Shraeger. It suits Tamblyn, and it’s the kind of role she waits for. “It’s very rare that you find anything that’s good for young females. I’ve read a hundred scripts this year. Crap, crap, and more crap.”

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To shoot The Unusuals, Tamblyn is moving to New York, a big change made easier by her blossoming relationship with Cross, who lives here. Her union with the nearly-20-years-her-senior comic instigated countless comments of the “WTF?!” variety in the blogosphere last August, when photographers first snapped the couple together while they were out walking Cross’ dog. But despite the age difference, chatting with Tamblyn makes it clear how much the two have in common. She happens to be hilarious, cracking off-handed jokes about everything: whether it’s the paparazzi (“Oh yeah, love ’em. Every household should have two—one for the kitchen, one for the bathroom”), the random facts I know about her background (“Aww, girl, you done read up on your Wikipedias”), or how she leverages her acting ability (“Sexually? To my disadvantage”). When our food arrives, Tamblyn reveals that Cross introduced her to Shopsin’s—which is as well known for its grumpy, foul-mouthed owner/chef as it is for its culinary offerings—on one of their first dates. “I fell in love after that,” she says with a hint of sarcasm in her voice, “right here at Shopsin’s. As soon as he was like, ‘Oh, you’re gonna like this place, where if you ask for orange juice they say go fuck yourself.’ I knew he was right,” she says, feigning wistfulness. Though she says she wasn’t much of a pooch person before meeting Cross, she’s a doting dog-sitter to Ollie Red Sox, and when she tells me she’s gotten really into cooking recently, she adds, “especially with my boyfriend. We cook a lot together; we’re nesting.” Still, preparing to move east is not without its stress. “I’m trying to move all my stuff from L.A. to New York and I’m like, ‘What should I pack?’” she says. “Should I take this to New York? Am I going to be this person in New York? What if I’m not?”

But it’s hard to believe this represents anything more than a momentary freak-out, because Tamblyn seems completely comfortable in her own skin. It’s this confidence that, even with her kinetic energy, lends her an air of maturity. She seems older than her 25 years, something that not only makes the age gap between her and Cross less shocking, but also explains how she’s managed to avoid the typical pitfalls of young celebrity, like DUIs, stints in rehab, or incriminating photos. “Having parents who are my friends, that’s the main reason,” she says, “but I wasn’t always the greatest of greats. I moved out when I was 17. I had a lot of problems with my dad. We had a really hard time seeing eye to eye,” though she adds that he always let her make her own choices. “My dad’s full of sayings. He’s always like, ‘Go to the edge, take a peek, and then come on back.’ I think I’m still hanging on by two fingers, off the edge, at times.”

It probably helps, too, that Tamblyn makes fast friends with intelligent, creative, inspiring women, and her working relationships go well beyond the final “cut.” Alexis Bledel, Tamblyn’s Sisterhood costar, is one of her besties, and when she receives a text message from Tilda Swinton—with whom she starred in 2006’s Stephanie Daley—during our conversation, it prompts Tamblyn to tell me her nickname for Swinton is “Anam Cara,” Gaelic for “soul friend.” It’s fitting that Tamblyn is our current cover girl, not only because she’s paved her own way in an industry that rewards conformity, but also because it’s like honoring one of our own: “I subscribe to BUST. I’ve bought BUST for years. I’m an avid reader!” she says. In fact, if Tamblyn had her way, the cover of this issue would look very different. “I emailed Amy Poehler, who’s a very dear friend of mine, as soon as I found out about this [story], and I was like, ‘Listen, dude, if that toast ain’t comin’ out of the toaster anytime soon...’” she trails off, miming a pregnant belly. “I wanted to do the cover with her, of us recreating the Janet Jackson album cover, with her holding my boobies from behind, and it would read ‘Women support women—without underwire.’ She was so down! But she was like, ‘Girl, I’m gonna pop. I don’t even know if I’d be able to get my hands around you. Trust me, it’s not easy doing Will doggie style.’”

Tamblyn met Poehler on the set of Spring Breakdown, a comedy they filmed several years ago—along with Parker Posey and Rachel Dratch—that has yet to see the light of day. But for Tamblyn, just shooting the movie, in which she plays a high school student on spring break, was awesome enough, “especially because I went through a really gnarly, very bad breakup at that time,” she says. “Sometimes life just does that for you—it gives you great circumstances,” she says. “I did that film right after this very toxic relationship, and it was so amazing to just laugh all the time with those girls.”

The experience moved Tamblyn to write a poem for Posey, which she plans to include in her next book. Tamblyn’s been writing poetry since she was a kid, putting out two chapbooks on her own (with the help of Kinko’s) before Simon & Schuster published Free Stallion, a collection of her poems, in 2005. But if you’re imagining rudimentary verses scribbled in a journal, think again: Tamblyn counts family friend and San Francisco’s poet laureate Jack Hirschman as a mentor. “Kill Me So Much,” a Hirschman-inspired poem she wrote at age 11, was later published in San Francisco’s Café magazine. Her poems are intimate and raw, but that kind of exposure, she says, “never scared me. Poetry has been a way for me to relate my experiences without any direct repercussions, whereas a magazine quote or something you say on the red carpet directly comes at you.” She furrows her brow. “As I say that, I’m thinking about my new manuscript, which is totally against everything I just said, so basically, I’m a liar.” That book, which she’s editing and shopping to publishers now, will include personal emails, “funny anecdotal shit,” and articles she’s written for Nylon and Interview, along with poetry, she says. If that’s not enough to keep her busy, Tamblyn’s also active in the spoken-word community: she masterminded The Drums Inside Your Chest, a huge event that’s held annually in Los Angeles and features performances by the best contemporary poets in the country, and before our interview, she performed at The Lasers of Sexcellence, a Midwest tour of readings, with her “creative other,” poet Derrick Brown—the man behind Write Bloody, the publishing company her T-shirt extols.

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Tamblyn says she thinks her poetry was the reason she landed her role on General Hospital in the first place. “They did what’s called a cattle call, when the audition is open to anybody. I must’ve come in like five or six times. It was between me and this one other girl, and I totally brought a poem up in that room.” The poem was the aforementioned “Kill Me So Much,” which she casually mocks as a superpolitical, “call-to-arms” piece. “I think they were like, ‘She’s wise beyond her years,’” she says, affecting a deep, “adult” voice. I mention that she probably gets that a lot. “I think I’ve gotten it so much that if I don’t get it, I get worried,” she confesses. “I’m like, ‘Oh, shit! Am I not wise beyond my years anymore? Am I less wise than my actual years?’”

I don’t think she has to worry yet. While many young actresses make their rounds on the club circuit, Tamblyn puts her celebrity to work for the issues she believes in. During the presidential primaries, she, along with Sisterhood costar America Ferrera, were the acting heads of Hillblazers, a youth-oriented organization supporting Hillary Clinton, and Tamblyn’s been an avid promoter of Planned Parenthood for years, most recently helping them lobby to overturn an amendment that prevented college students’ birth control from being covered by insurance. “It’s odd to me how controversial the idea of basic women’s health care is,” she says. “I do not understand the idea of anyone being pro-abortion; I think it is an oxymoronic term. At no time ever is any woman like, ‘Yay, I’m gonna go get this done.’ There is no group of people that want to further the advancement of that experience. It’s about the freedom of your own body; that’s what the argument is about, and I get really irate about it.” Tamblyn took particular offense to the way abortion was discussed by the candidates during the final presidential debate. “Hearing those two dudes talk about abortion, I screamed at the TV, ‘You don’t get to talk until you can push a pineapple through your penis hole!’” she says, passionately, holding up a scolding forefinger. “‘Neither of you! Shush!’”

Tamblyn’s combination of energetic irreverence and unapologetic opinion makes me feel as if I’ve truly gotten to know her, though when the check comes, I still want to know more—it’s easy to feel comfortable around someone who is so obviously at ease with herself. I ask if there’s anything else we should cover before she walks Ollie over to the photo shoot. “I think we need to talk about why I haven’t taken a bite of your French toast yet,” she says, reaching over the table with her fork. “Oh, snap,” she says with her mouth full, then declares my selection “delish” and air-kisses her fingertips. “No, I don’t think there’s anything else. Mayonnaise: not into it. There, we’re done.” 

This story was originally published in BUST Magazine, Feb/March 2009.
To purchase this back issue, click here.
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