Many people know Amber Tamblyn best from her roles in TV’s Joan of Arcadia and the film The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, but the Emmy-winning actress is also a prolific poet with three published collections to her name. Her latest, Dark Sparkler, explores the lives and untimely deaths of more than 25 actresses, from Brittany Murphy to Marilyn Monroe. We caught up with Tamblyn before her March 29 visit to the Cambridge Public Library, where she’ll read her poetry and share a conversation about her work with Harvard professor Stephen Burt.
Where did you get the idea for this collection? I think it was an endemic topic, just by way of the fact that I’ve been an actress since I was 11 years old. So I had some understanding about these women from the standpoint of what it was like to very literally grow up in a business where you’re playing other people for a living. The book was sort of launched when Brittany Murphy died, because she was the only one who was a contemporary of mine; we went on the same auditions and all those sorts of things. Even though I didn’t know her at all, I would see her at the same award shows or parties, things like that in Los Angeles. And I just remember there was such a weird juxtaposition when she died, between how she was immortalized, and how everyone was printing these beautiful photos of her, and the truth of it, which was that she was very, very ill, on a lot of different drugs … and then died crumpled over like a dead spider—like I say in the poem—in her shower. And it just seems to be a repeated theme with people.
Was there a feeling of “Wow, that could have been me”? No, I never felt that way because I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and I’m a third generation from there, so my relationship with the city is, by default, different. People move there with stars in their eyes, and if they make it, what a wonderful thing. But when you inevitably have the time in which you’re not making it, or you’re not the hot thing of the moment, what happens then? What happens to your id, to your ego, to your you? My father was an actor, my grandfather was in vaudeville, I came from a history of those letdowns, that type of a life of being rejected for a living. So my relationship with rejection is different. Certainly, though, I think that there’s a lot I can identify with [in the poems’ subjects] and if I wasn’t identifying, I was filling in the blanks, which is part of the great thing about poetry, that you can do that with your own experience. So it was kind of nice to be able to say, “I wonder how she was feeling when this was happening? I wonder what she wasn’t allowing herself to feel?”
HOW DID YOU PICK ALL THE POEMS’ SUBJECTS? As far as I can tell—and I’ve yet to meet someone who knows of someone who’s not in this book—every single actress, including the long list in the back of the book, which are just sort of memorial pages, every actress who died under the age of 40 is in this book—in the history of recorded time, anywhere in the world. We really searched very, very far and wide to make sure they were all there, even the ones who didn’t have poems. The ones who have poems are just sort of immediate ones I could find, which means over maybe four or five years just Googling…. The list in the back sort of shows you the process of how I would find them, and how sort of my own ego would get involved with it and how it was sort of in its own way a sort of self-centered adventure. Because no matter what, you’re sort of searching these opinions of what people thought of them. And sometimes you’re searching about these stalkers who had killed some of these women—I had three restraining orders before I was 18 years old. So the experience of reliving versions of that was really intense. And sometimes there were people who were hinged between two worlds, like Savannah Smiles, who was a very famous porn star who was trying to get into acting. Or Li Tobler, who was more of a model/artist for H.R. Geiger who then also did some experimental film work for him. So sort of looking at the far reaches of these many different women’s lives.
God, there are so many of them. But there were also so many with strange connections I found along the way. I just mentioned Savannah Smiles, whose real name was Shannon Michelle Wilsey, and one of the poems I wrote was for a young actress named Bridgett Anderson. She starred very famously in a movie called Savannah Smiles, when she was a very little girl. And she grew up into her teens, did a couple things, didn’t really make it, and then ended up dying of a drug overdose on Santa Monica Boulevard in her early 20s. So in all of my research of Shannon Michelle Wilsey, who struggled with mental illness, and then ended up shooting herself in the head in her late 20s, I found this weird biography about her, and there was this random quote where they asked, “Where’d you get your screen name?” and she said “I got it from my favorite movie ever, Savannah Smiles.” And she basically talked about the theme of that and how she identified with the character, who runs away from home and gets kidnapped by these bad men, and her family comes looking for her, and eventually saves her. It was pretty crazy for her not to know, or for Bridgett Anderson not to know, that the character that she’d played had directly informed her stage name. And both of them died in those similar ways.
HOW DO WRITING AND ACTING COMPARE FOR YOU; DO YOU FIND THAT ONE SERVICES THE OTHER? I think they now service each other, but for a while they were separate, a little bit. But I think they’re both very different. Acting, you don’t have full control over, meaning that you can give your best work and then it’s up to the writers, producers, distributors, to make sure that film gets out there and that it’s good. It’s so funny, every time I see a good film, the first thing that goes through my head is how hard it was for that movie to get where it, to even get seen. Because there are also so many amazing films that get made every year that no one ever sees. And with writing, at least, you’re totally in control. You control what’s on the page, minus some editing stuff or whatever, but it’s really solely your voice. In that way, though, I’m able to have an ownership over acting and my experience, in the way that others don’t.
It’s hard to say. I think writing is more fulfilling, but that is only because acting is so incredibly fulfilling, except for when you have to deal with the bullshit of acting. That means the business side of it, the double standards, the objectification, all of that stuff. But the actual work itself, I mean any actor will tell you, is thrilling. If they love acting, if that’s what they’re really in it for—not just to be famous. But to love the idea of being empathic for a living, and being able to make people feel is a really powerful thing to do. So, I don’t know, it’s kind of a divided line for me.
SO IF YOU COULD ONLY DO ONE THING FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, WHICH WOULD IT BE? Well, shit! Are there any caveats? [Laughs] I guess writing, because I could always act through my writing. I could always make things up and tell stories of people through my writing. Acting will never fully satisfy me—it will satisfy a large part of me—but there’s too much in my head, too much in my imagination, that survives and thrives there. I wouldn’t ever be able to let that go.