It’s hard to feel sympathy for a celebrity who hates doing interviews. But with Amber Tamblyn, the 31-year-old star of “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and “Joan of Arcadia” who is promoting her new book of poetry about dead actresses — well, it’s hard to blame her.
Hey, a person can take only so much talk about death. Especially Tamblyn, who spent the past six years between her TV roles (“House,” “Two and a Half Men”) and movie roles pouring emotional energy into this book, “Dark Sparkler.” As a former child actress who started on “General Hospital” at age 11, penning poems about the lives and deaths of young stars — including Brittany Murphy, Dana Plato, Sharon Tate and Marilyn Monroe — often hit too close to home, especially as she went through some dark professional and personal times during the writing process.
The whole experience led to an unusual candor about the psychological impact of living your life in the spotlight — Tamblyn says the kind of things you wouldn’t generally expect to hear from anyone in Hollywood.
“I end these interviews, or phone calls, and I go cry,” Tamblyn said in a visit to Washington on Thursday. “And you know, it’s not that you made me cry. It’s the misunderstanding of the work. Or the way in which people communicate with quote-unquote celebrities as opposed to just communicating like a normal f---ing person.”
Tamblyn also has plenty to say about the toxic nature of showbiz, much of which informed the tragic premise of her book. Some of her musings are delivered in lines of poetry, such as one called “Untitled Actress,” a wry take on a traditional casting call. (“Thin but not gaunt. Lean. Quirky but not unattractive.”) Others thoughts are delivered at a coffee shop on Capitol Hill, a few hours before she reads her poems for an audience at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.
When she talks about how much she loves acting, she compares her career to Stockholm Syndrome: “Like, just constantly going back to my abusive captor,” she says. “I love you so much. You want me to weigh 98 pounds? I’m working on it! I’ll totally get a facelift for you!”
Or how surreal it is that one Instagram photo of her having brunch with close friends — Blake Lively, America Ferrera and Alexis Bledel, her co-stars from the “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” franchise — can become a news story. Or how she makes an offhanded comment about a trio of them named as godmothers to Lively and Ryan Reynolds’s new daughter, and it goes viral. (“I retract that,” Tamblyn jokes. “We are like fairy godmothers to her baby.”)
Then there are other frustrations of fame. Like when after her poetry readings, she’s approached by fans who don’t want to buy the book and just want a picture because their grandma was a huge fan of “Joan of Arcadia,” the mystical CBS drama on which Tamblyn starred from 2003 to 2005 as a teenager who communicates with God.
“It’s so offensive to me,” she says. “I know they don’t mean anything by it. But when I’ve just gone on in the show talking about how I’ve been an object my entire life, feeling like I’m in a zoo, and then you do that, it’s like — don’t ask for my picture. Just talk to me! Why don’t you just talk to me as if I am here, like I just stood in front of you and just poured my heart out for 45 minutes?”
Tamblyn stops. “I don’t know what it’s like to be on the other side of that,” she admits. Then she pauses and laughs. “Actually, I do. I met Prince once.”
The modern star-worship culture is a huge presence in her book — it’s something she thought about as she researched various actresses and what influenced her to write in the first place. Deeply shaken by the death of the 32-year-old Murphy in 2009, Tamblyn wrote a poem for her. Tamblyn, who has written two previous poetry books, has a circle of writer friends who convinced her that she should further explore the theme of troubled actresses.
Tamblyn initially resisted sharing her own feelings in the book, worried it would be too narcissistic. “That’s my own protective mechanism from growing up so privileged in the industry I do, where actors are really catered to, and you are really treated like you’re special when you’re not,” she says.
Eventually, her editor convinced her that given that she was exploring the inner lives of other young actresses, she should probably talk about what it felt like to be one of them. Tamblyn realized he had a point. So she took a trip to Upstate New York to a cabin that she owns with her husband, “Arrested Development” actor David Cross, got a bottle of bourbon and knocked out the rest of the book.
Those final pages turned into “Epilogue,” a section about Tamblyn’s personal demons that also contains a love poem to Cross. (The two are on opposite coasts now for different projects, and Tamblyn calls the distance “excruciating.”) The epilogue also shares deeply personal e-mails, like one Tamblyn sent to a friend that reads: “I think I could very possibly be headed toward a full-scale breakdown in the next few months” and “Can I just go the way of Brittany Murphy and say f--- it, do drugs until I drop and call it a day?”
Tamblyn says those pieces of writing are talking about a “metaphorical death.” “I wanted the ‘me’ that existed at that time, that had no power, to die,” she says. “And she did. This book is an invitation to her funeral.”
At the poetry reading at Sixth & I, Tamblyn calls the book an “exorcism of sorts” and a profoundly spiritual journey. She keeps things light between the emotional poems, such as talking about that time she tricked R&B singer Tyrese Gibson into thinking she was model Amber Rose in a mistaken e-mail exchange. But during the readings, it is completely silent. She briefly gets too choked up to continue in one of her “Epilogue” sections when reading the line “I’m trying to write about the deaths that I’ve admired.”
Afterward, Tamblyn thanks the audience for their support. “I have never had an experience like this where people were not treating me like an object, and I don’t blame you,” she says. “I have chosen to be an object for a living and that is the price that I pay and I’m fine with that. But it’s really, really nice to be able to stand up here and to read you things and have you clap and be quiet and feel the things that I felt while I was writing this.”
Directly after the reading, a crush of people line up to get books signed by the headliner of the event, poet Andrea Gibson. With the signing almost over, Tamblyn quietly sneaks in. A woman immediately approaches her — she’s a huge fan of “Joan of Arcadia.” Would Tamblyn mind taking a picture?
Tamblyn agrees, puts her arm around the woman and smiles for the camera.