Only 33 years old, Amber Tamblyn is a 20-year veteran of the film and television business. She began with a two-year stint on General Hospital and became a household face as Joan on the CBS drama, Joan of Arcadia, and as Tibby in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
Now, Tamblyn is making her feature-length directorial debut with Paint It Black, a film she also co-wrote with Ed Dougherty and adapted from Janet Finch’s novel of the same name.
But as the L.A. native admits to ET, she never intended to direct the new movie, which stars Alia Shawkat and Janet McTeer as two women who are brought together by tragedy and premieres on Friday, June 3 at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
"There was someone else attached to direct," Tamblyn explains. "They said to me, 'You have such a strong vision for the type of movie that this should be. I think you need to stop lying to yourself and do it.' And as most women do, I thought, 'No way. I don't have the experience.'"
However, Tamblyn took the lead and ended up with an ambitious first film, highly stylized and reeking of dramatic flair in the best way possible.
"Growing up, I was influenced heavily by [David Lynch]," says Tamblyn, whose mother is a film composer and her father, Russ Tamblyn, played Riff in West Side Story and will reprise his role as Dr. Lawrence Jacoby on the upcoming Twin Peaks reboot with Lynch. "The tone of [my] film is very visually dark. I was influenced by that era of supernatural fairy tales. There's always a monster that no one ever sees, but it's in the human psyche. It's in how people behave towards each other when they are in their most animalistic brain. […] I want to watch a movie that has a heightened sense of what I feel, or what I've experienced."
Ahead of her directorial debut, ET sat down with Tamblyn to talk directing, the constant life-crisis, and why she loves Amy Schumer.
ET: What was the transition like, going from in front of the camera to behind it?
Amber Tamblyn: It was strangely, fairly easy. Certainly there were a lot of nerves and fear, but I think as an actress – and I'm not saying that it is an easy thing to direct at all – but as an actress watching the directorial process – which I love doing – I've [thought] many times [about how] I would do this differently or something they did that was amazing. So, I got to try things in a way that I had always wanted to do them, or imagined I would do them if I had the opportunity. It was scary, but in that good way, in a way in which you know you're challenging yourself and you're doing something that fully supports the art you want to make. That should be scary, always.
Speaking of challenges, you've talked about how you went through a quarter-life crisis. Almost a decade on from that now, what did you learn from that experience?
I feel like I'm constantly still having one. [Laughs.] Recently, a woman at a party said to me, "Women can't tell the difference between instinct and anxiety." That just floored me. I think that's very, very true. Every decision I make to push my creative life further is absolutely terrifying and often manifests as anxiety – aka a life crisis. In my early-to-mid-20s, when I'd been a veteran actor already, life was feeling old and stale in a certain way. Since it was the first time it had happened to me, it felt kind of like a life crisis that was. It really wasn't a life crisis, it was a crisis of art. I deeply believe that it was me sort of feeling stuck. And it continues to happen. This movie is going to come out, and I'm already on to two other projects and I'm already getting that sense of fear again, that anxiety, which is the instinct telling me that that is what I should be doing. No matter how hard it is or how much I don't like it, or how much pushback I'll get.
Last year on Inside Amy Schumer, Amy dealt with sexism in Hollywood with "Last F**kable Day." Have you experienced feelings similar to the characters in that sketch?
I feel like there's a world in which most women are terrified of that idea. And while I haven't experienced that per se, I feel like my life is infused with so much more variety. I'm very fortunate for that. Again, that took a lot of coming to terms with my own creative power, but I think that's a very common thing. In my last book, I talked heavily about that. A lot of the actresses that I researched very much had experienced that, and experienced it young, which sort of starts to happen in your mid-30s or when you have a family. I know plenty of actresses and friends who are having these very scary, awesome questions of beginning your life outside of acting, because then it's like you think that no one will care anymore.
Yes, you have published three books of poetry. The last one, Dark Sparkler, focused on 25 actresses lost before their time. Is there any connection to those women?
The type of art that I'm interested in making looks at the psychologically dark sides of women. I'm interested in women's secrets, in their thoughts of violence – whether it's intrapersonal or interpersonal violence. That doesn't mean literal violence, either. A state of being can be a violent thought. I'm interested in the many ways in which women grieve and affect the world and affect other women in very complicated ways, not in cliché or taboo ways that we're often used to seeing in film and television. Dark Sparkler was a long meditation on that subject, an obsession with my own objectification, and also with the objectification of others. It's a voyeuristic experience about how we project things on to the people that we consider to be our icons, role models or idols, and how we also compare ourselves. Those are stories that are very interesting to me.
You seem more serious in general than an Amy Schumer type, yet you can go and do something so serious and also be in a raunchy comedy sketch. How do you explain that juxtaposition?
I love both things. I've always done them. Most of the roles I've played have been dramedies; I've always infused every character with a sense of humor, even if it was somebody dying of cancer or some awful thing. I think that's very important to place into the context of the world, and it's a great way to reach people. Amy's stuff is so broad, and it's so clearly straightforward comedy, even though she herself is a very fine dramatic actress. I remember when she was writing Trainwreck and we would be, like, Skyping, just hanging out, and she'd tell me she was working on her script. I had no idea that that's what came out of her mind. It's so beautiful.
For me, I would say more than drama versus comedy, I would say that I am geared toward the darkness, like I mentioned earlier. That doesn't necessarily mean sadness. That just means I like the interior violence of women. I'm not interested in cutesy, romantic comedy type of stuff. With that caveat, I will say While You Were Sleeping starring Sandra Bullock is one of my favorite films.
Speaking of Amy, you've appeared in a few episodes of Inside Amy Schumer over the past three seasons. What is it that you like about working with Amy?
I like Amy's balls – both as a person and as a writer. I think she's very funny, smart and I like improvising with her when we do sketches. I did the very first season ever. Questlove connected us, and we did that scene where we made out and we both were just like, "Oh my god, we're friends for life." She's that type of girl. Once you're in her corner, or once she's in your corner, that never changes. She's very loyal. She's a good friend, and she's a good person. She's honest. That's something I really admire about her, and something to be admired. We have so much fun when we do the sketches. They'll just text or call to ask you to do a sketch on Thursday. I'm like, "Yup, I'm in." It's very low-key and friendly like that.
Lastly, were you interested in being a part of the Twin Peaks reboot and working with your father?
Yes, I was. I actually went in and David Lynch had a very specific process as he was doing the TV show, where he just had people come in and tell a story. I wanted to get in to that, for sure. While that would have been awesome, I would never, ever presume that just because David did a piece of art for my book, or he's had my dad in a couple things, that he should also cast me. That guy is the master of knowing exactly who to cast, and for what. I can't wait to see what he came up with. I know what my dad's storyline is, and it's pretty incredible. I can't wait to see it when it comes to fruition.