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EXCLUSIVE: For Amber Tamblyn, Having a Child Is the Ultimate Expression of Art

by Valentina Valentini 8:45 AM PDT, May 19, 2017
Photo: Getty Images

It has been a busy year for actress-director-author Amber Tamblyn. She’s released her feature directorial debut, is starring in a play and just gave birth to her first child.

At 34, Tamblyn is more than used to juggling a personal life and a professional one. She’s been working for over two decades, beginning with General Hospital and then becoming a household face as Joan on the CBS drama Joan of Arcadia before playing Tibby in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. But it’s this new job that’s completely unique to her.

“To have my first Mother's Day as a mother is just wild,” says Tamblyn, who married actor David Cross in 2012. And since her self-ascribed motto is “Never mind, I’ll do it” -- also the same name as her production company -- she’ll most likely be taking to her new and busier schedule as mother, writer, director and actress like a moth to the flame.

MORE: Why Amber Tamblyn Likes Pal Amy Schumer's Balls

“I've always felt a sense of, ‘Nothing's going to get done unless I do it myself,’” she says over the phone from her apartment in New York City. “So often I'll ask someone to do something and then they do it wrong or they don't do it at all.”

Unwittingly proving her point, Tamblyn is pumping milk for her 3-month-old Marlow while also talking to us over the phone as she readies for the opening of Paint It Black, her directorial debut that she co-wrote with Ed Dougherty and adapted from Janet Fitch’s novel of the same name. (The film opens in theaters on Friday, May 19.) In addition, it is her mother's 70th birthday and her own birthday was a day earlier, on her very first Mother's Day. ET gets a few unbridled moments of Tamblyn’s dwindling time to discuss new motherhood, why men get in the way of women’s success and what’s next to add to her busy schedule.

What has being a mom taught you about your own mother?
Oh boy, do you have five or six hours?

I think that I've always appreciated mothers and women, but my appreciation and understanding is at another level now. Women are so incredible, and what we're able to do, even those of us that don't have kids -- because it's not always just about having kids -- is absolutely exceptional. I mean, men are amazing, but they're just not women. Women are on another game-changing level.

[With the timing of everything today] it's interesting you'd ask me that question, because it's certainly been heavily on my mind. Even in the early days of being a mother, it has challenged me in so many ways. It's also made me more sure of my art than I ever was. Before, I would question things, I would wonder and really have to mine for something. Now, I just feel like I'm on fire with ideas and I can't put the fire out; it's just burning up everything in a great way.

So having had a child has made you more creative?
Yes, it has. Perhaps because it feels like the ultimate expression of art; I feel like I have an understanding of my voice and what I want to say more than I ever did before. Much of my life has been on the interior recently -- meaning I've been talking to this person that's growing inside of me and singing to that person at night, and my interior monologue just going all the time. The voice in my head is different [from my exterior voice], and because that’s been able to grow and flourish, it’s made my exterior that much stronger.

Independent filmmakers often describe bringing their first film out into the world as bringing their first child into it. This is usually from women; was that true for you at all?
I would say not for me, but only because I have been acting for 24 years. I had a real understanding of the dynamic that happens on set, what a director does, their purpose, what makes a good performance and what kind of shot tells what needs to be told in the moment. With a baby, I think I’d maybe changed two diapers in my entire life. That learning curve was so steep. Directing was not a steep learning curve at all for me. I would say that [directing and mothering] are both very importantly rooted in your gut instinct, and that is something that women are taught not to listen to from a young age.

Has there been something specific that anyone has told you to do as an actor or director when you knew your gut feeling was right?
Oh God, yes. That is my entire [professional] life's experience. It’s why directing was so important for me to do. In writing my poetry and in acting, people -- and when I say “people,” I mean men, because both industries are predominately male -- have told me to do something different than what I felt was right. And that really is a unique feeling, when it’s a man telling you to change something rather than a woman telling you to change or do something different.

I had a [male] poet once tell me I should write under a pseudonym because people would take me more seriously, which is, like, insanely offensive. You know, I think any time I ever had an idea for something [on set], I was looked down on [for expressing that idea]. And I get it. Who wants a 14-year-old telling them how to direct their scene? But I was never bossy, I just had ideas. I found myself for many years keeping my mouth shut and just doing my best job acting, even though I would know -- I would have this gut feeling that a particular project was not going to be great. I could tell when it was a director painting by numbers or not doing anything interesting or not allowing for the space and the time for us to do our work as actors. It was really nice for me to be able to challenge my own ideas and what I thought would be better and see if they worked or not.

And what about as a mother?
Nothing yet. It really is true what they say -- that you come with a preexisting manual. It's kind of wild. Obviously there's a huge learning curve, and I know that some mothers don’t have this experience or struggle in other ways -- I don’t speak for all women -- but certainly there are these instinctive moments where I know, “Oh, she doesn't like that because that's cold,” or “She needs to be held in this position and that will stop her from crying.” Things like that, you would expect you needed to read up on or have someone tell you, but you don't.

Your sense of humor is still shining through, we see. That stunt you pulled with the announcement of your daughter’s name. Why did you do it?
The question is, “Why not?” I think that celebrities and actors can be so self-absorbed and precious when they're announcing babies. To each their own, but for me, I just had always thought it would be really funny to put out a very long-winded, ridiculous name and take it very seriously and make no mention of it being a joke.

Did you come up with that on your own, or was it part of your husband's handiwork as well?
David and I did it together. We were home one night and I was having my first glass of wine in God only knows how many months and we came up with it together. We had a little writing session.

So do you get some breathing room now?
What is breathing room? I’m in a play, Can You Forgive Her?, that opens next weekend, the same weekend as my movie. We're in previews right now, but we open on May 21. The playwright is this amazing woman, Gina Gionfriddo, who wrote Becky Shaw, for which she was nominated for a Pulitzer.

As for directing, I've got a couple ideas rolling around in my head, but the most important thing I need to do right now is get my publisher two books. I've been writing a novel for about the last two years and I have to get those pages in by July. And my next book of poems -- which will be very political work about my experience campaigning for Hillary Clinton and the experience of being a woman in America, a particular type of hatred and misogyny. I don’t want to preach to the choir, but I want to write something that can open the conversation deeper and further about what misogyny is and how to identify it.

As for breathing room, for the foreseeable future there is none. 

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