When I get actor and director Amber Tamblyn on the phone on Monday morning, she has her hands full. Metaphorically, because the first movie she directed, Paint It Black, is hitting theaters in just a few short days; literally, because she's stocking her fridge with breast milk for her infant daughter, Marlow. In the last 13 months, Tamblyn has somehow managed to finish her first feature film, release her third book of poetry, Dark Sparkler, welcome her first child, and take my call. I am impressed.
Paint It Black revolves around the intimate, tense relationship that forms between Josie (Alia Shawkat) and her boyfriend's mother, Meredith (Janet McTeer), in the wake of his suicide. (Full disclosure: while I'd never met Tamblyn before, I do have a personal connection to this project. Janet Fitch, who wrote the novel Paint It Black, taught in my MFA program and remains a mentor to me.)
The movie itself — which is darkly funny and visually experimental — packs a startling wallop of emotion and seems like a natural confluence of Tamblyn's experiences and outward passions. It's based on a book, which seems to square with her work as a poet. It tells the story of a smart and complicated young woman, so many of which Tamblyn has portrayed herself on shows like Joan of Arcadia. And it levels up her experience as an actor to a director to other actors. But when I ask if it felt like an inevitable thing, I swear I can almost hear her shake her head over the phone. "No way, girl," she insists. "It wasn't until I got the rights to adapt a book, and then the book was adapted, and then we were shopping it around for so long, and trying to attach a director, and so many directors I spoke to had very different visions of the film than what I wanted . . . the more I realized that my version was very much my version." Finally, Tamblyn says, a director who was attached to the project confronted her. "She said to me, 'You need to direct this. You really need to stop making excuses, and you need to direct it.'"
The finished product, several years later, feels weirdly timely in many ways. Tamblyn is now a mother herself, and she admits that telling women's stories feels especially urgent in the current political climate. Read on for more from our conversation:
POPSUGAR: I'm curious to know when you first encountered the book. I heard Amy Poehler actually recommended it to you?
Amber Tamblyn: Yeah, she did. Amy and I have been friends for a very, very long time — over a decade now. She recommended it to me, not with the idea to adapt it at all. She was like, "You have to read this book. It's so great." And so I bought it — just as a Summer read — and was just completely blown away by it, and just really felt so connected to the characters but also Janet Fitch's prose writing. She really is a poet in fiction form. I had such a deep connection with the characters she wrote and what was going on in their minds. The way she wrote about how they thought was so unique to me. I thought, "Boy, what an incredibly difficult but rewarding film that would make if I did it and got it right."
PS: What was your biggest fear as a first-time director?
AT: It wasn't really fear. It was like hyperexcitement and a sense of anxiety. And I think that it's endemic for women to be slightly afraid or slightly fearful of their instincts because we are taught and told that emotional intelligence is wrong, that only rational thought matters. So certainly, I've fallen into that, too. It was scary to think that I could fail with this idea that I had in my head. But I had to take that risk, because I'd rather fail by my own volition and by my own attempt than to let somebody else fail with my own vision.
PS: I know you were shooting the movie in 2015, when a lot of what's going on in our political zeitgeist was really ramping up. Does it feel especially important to you to be creating art by women, about women's stories, in this political climate and under Donald Trump?
AT: Yeah. I mean, I've never known a life without activism, and to me, it [cannot be] mutually exclusive to be a woman and to be political. So there's no choice to do those things. It's just a matter of existence. And for me, it's so important to write poems and write books and make films about dangerous women, about violent women, about imperfect women, about ugly women, about beautiful women; to really show the scope of who women are. And I think until our culture stops policing women and their identities and how they behave in society or in culture, in politics, at home . . . until that stops being policed, I think that all art must touch upon that. It has to be a part of the conversation.
"You want to talk about things that terrify me? How about having a baby right after Trump was elected?"
It doesn't have to be the whole conversation of the art you make, but I refuse to live in the world and not address it constantly. Especially now, as someone who has a daughter. You want to talk about things that terrify me? How about having a baby right after Trump was elected? I constantly get people who go, "Get over it. Hillary [Clinton] lost." It's like, this has nothing to do with Hillary anymore. Let's stop it. Don't make excuses for your president. This has to do with a real, genuine fear that the work we've done as women — to be seen and to get rights for our own bodies and our own lives — will start to reverse. And that's just not acceptable to me. So to me, the loudest and the most important thing I could do is make art, make films, write poems about my own body, about my own experiences. And just keep putting that out there and joining the other voices that are doing the same.
PS: And I know you were thinking about playing Josie at some stage of the game, so what was it like to kind of step back from that and decide this isn't the right thing right now?
AT: I initially wrote it and was interested in the story for myself when I was in my early 20s. I'm 34 now. Once it became very obvious that I was too old, it would tell a very different story with a girl [my age]. That's just not the right way. She had to have a certain level of naivete, of youth, of feeling sort of young and vulnerable to being seduced. I've known Alia for a long time, because she's worked with my husband on Arrested Development, and we have a lot of mutual friends. And I'd always thought about her for the role, and when she came and read, she just blew me away. So much can be read on her face with just a few expressions. I really love that quality about her, and the camera really loves her for that reason, too. So I was just sold immediately as soon as I saw her read.
PS: There's a lot about LA that your movie captures so well, and the book does, too. Was there any place that wasn't maybe explicit in the text that you thought, "We have to shoot there. I have to capture this place?"
AT: Yeah. I mean, I think it was really important to find an old LA house that was really like those LA mansions, the ones that have been there since the 20s, the early place that you could imagine that Humphrey Bogart lived in or something. Just some ridiculous place. And that really is part of the class system in Los Angeles. You've got these big, rich houses up in the hills that look down directly onto Sunset Boulevard and Echo Park and down into these less — extremely less — rich areas where a lot of artists live and you can get a taco for $1. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, so I have a lot of love and understanding of the city outside of just being an actress. And so I really wanted that to be reflected in the movie, at least the two sort of polar-opposite class systems and dynamics in Los Angeles, the two different worlds that exist and often collide there.
PS: There are so many small moments in the movie and in the book that emerge in a very subtle way. I'm really curious to know, as a director, how do you make those things come across? Were there things that you were worried maybe wouldn't be read so clearly off the page?
AT: Well, as you know, those are huge parts of the book. The suicide note is a huge part of the book, and it's something that sort of keeps coming up, like a mantra, almost. He writes the words: "Did we love each other? You'll have to remember for both of us." And that's actually written on the note in the movie, but I made a specific choice not to let the audience be able to read it. A lot of people responded to that — whether they loved it or they absolutely hated it — because they wanted to know what it said. And I would get people at festivals who would ask questions afterward. And almost at every single festival we played at, there would be one person who asked, "So what did the note say that she carried around?" To which my answer always was, "You know what the note said. You really need me to tell you what a suicide note says? You think he spelled out what happened? No."
PS: I do think there's been a lot of conversation lately, specifically around 13 Reasons Why, which, obviously, is a show for young adults, but —
AT: People keep bringing this up! I have to see it. I haven't seen it, so I'm kind of clueless.
PS: I'd love to know what you think of it. But I think, generally, 13 Reasons has opened up a conversation about the responsibility of portraying suicide on screen and how to do it realistically and sensitively. Was that something that you had conversations about or that you were thinking about?
AT: Not really. I mean, I had a producer and a financier who has experienced someone very near and dear to her taking their life, and so I definitely listened to her a lot. And one of the things that made her so attracted to the script was the fact that it didn't really have answers — and that that's a real thing. Certainly, in her experience with grief, you know why, but you also don't know why. You don't understand why it couldn't have been fixed, why you couldn't have helped, why you couldn't have been more to them. There are a lot of feelings that surround it. And so it was important for me to make a film that didn't have a lot of answers, because I think that's true to life, and to make it more about what really does happen in the aftermath of somebody being gone, how we sort of fill in the blanks of truth and we make our own truths in order to feel better and to not feel so alone in the experience of that.
Paint It Black opens in NYC and LA on May 19.