When she was eight months pregnant, Amber Tamblyn hopped on a train to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. against her doctor’s orders. “I [felt] like, if my water’s going to break, it might as well be in a sea full of doulas,” she recalls, laughing.
In the end, Tamblyn—a writer, activist, and actress, best known for her iconic roles as the titular character on the acclaimed TV series “Joan of Arcadia” and the sweet-hearted rebel Tibby Rollins in “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”—finished the March still pregnant. Now, she’s enjoying motherhood with her first child, 1-year-old daughter Marlow, and her husband, actor and comedian David Cross (whom she married in 2012).
In person, Tamblyn is tough and soft simultaneously: She’ll go from hitting a fierce pose in the studio to munching on barista-recommended pumpkin bread at a cozy coffee shop. One-on-one, she speaks quickly and intently, her words frank and funny: When we touch a more serious topic, her head drops down a bit and the words come out even faster. In half an hour, we cover everything from her C-section to the importance of empathy to poet Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen.”
Citizen: An American Lyric is a magnificently layered 2014 work that intertwines analysis of racial micro-aggressions with unique verse and artwork; though classified as a poetry book or book-length poem, it transcends such definition. As of late, its content has only become more and more relevant to the nation’s ongoing struggles against police brutality, racism, and inequality. Tamblyn calls Rankine a “unique, visionary writer” who isn’t afraid to confront racism and whiteness, and is using her Guggenheim fellowship to examine whiteness further.
“We [as white people] should be proactive in the study of our privileges,” Tamblyn says. As a vocal member of several social justice movements—and also as a white woman who does live with certain privileges—she understands the importance of acknowledging others’ struggles and the equal importance of actively listening to them.
In the year since Tamblyn, 35, gave birth to her daughter, #MeToo and Time’s Up have evolved from whisper networks into full-blown movements, and she’s stood right in the center, providing support to women and educating men. Tamblyn’s political activism—and that of younger generations, like the Parkland teens—is inseparable from her daily life, whether she’s directing, writing, or speaking out on Twitter (check out @ambertamblyn for her thoughts on everything from the Tribeca Film Festival to Stormy Daniels).
Tamblyn has attended several protests in NYC since that first Women’s March; after watching parents push strollers through the streets and protest alongside their kids, she remarks that though she’s lived in NYC for over a decade, she’s “never felt closer to it than I do right now.” During her childhood in L.A., her parents—her father is Academy Award-nominated actor Russ Tamblyn, of “West Side Story” and “Twin Peaks” fame—emphasized racial and ethnic color-blindness, a belief she now knows is faulty (though it was well-intentioned at the time). Tamblyn’s glad that Marlow, as a New York City kid, will be aware of diversity simply by nature of her surroundings.
“[She’ll be] growing up not just around her kind. She will be expected to understand and embrace other cultures,” Tamblyn notes. “That, in and of itself, gives anybody a better worldview.”
In fact, it might be that Marlow will teach Tamblyn about activism, rather than the other way around: As of late, it seems children are the ones paving the way for change. “I do believe that each generation might inspire the next to be stronger and bolder and that this generation, especially this March for Our Lives-generation of kids, can totally be a catapult for future generations to tackle things like climate change and real issues of the degeneration of the entire planet,” Tamblyn says. “It brings me to tears thinking about it, what these kids have done…that we adults couldn’t figure it out on our own and it took a bunch of children, really smart, capable children to do it.” There’s been a massive cultural shift, and the younger generation is at the front lines, whether it’s for gun control or the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.
Now, more than ever, there’s a general kinship among women who are standing up to protest systemic harassment: “When you have a structural change on such a large level like it’s happening now,” Tamblyn says of the rapid unseating of big-name men in Hollywood and across several industries, “it knocks everyone off balance.”
Tamblyn’s interested in educating men in the wake of these movements—she famously sat down with Quentin Tarantino after his longtime collaborator Harvey Weinstein was ousted—though she says many of them aren’t quite interested in listening. “[As women], we have to be so conscious of a country which has endemically pitted us against each other,” Tamblyn says. Part of #MeToo and Time’s Up greatest function is uniting women who might otherwise be forced into competition.
As such, education isn’t limited to men; it’s also about teaching women to be kind to one another, and to be aware of intersectionality and privilege when they have these conversations. There’s a great deal of empathy involved; people must demonstrate “large amounts of humility, especially towards people who are angry and who have felt marginalized or exploited for generations.” Tamblyn also notes that giving birth, in a way, “radicalized” her politically.
“It’s the most profound experience I’ve ever had, and likely will ever have. In the most beautiful way, having a C-section and becoming a mother weaponized me,” Tamblyn explains. “I don’t know how any woman could go through that experience, whether by C-section or vaginally, and not suddenly get this wild, radical periphery that they never had before.”
She can tell her own worldview has certainly expanded since giving birth to her daughter. A poet-in-residence for Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls—an organization that encourages authenticity and self-expression in young women—Tamblyn wrote about her C-section in the poem “Y for YES.” The poem emphasizes the shift she experienced from internal to external awareness after Marlow’s birth: “I was intelligent / but now I am intelligence. I was the water / but now I am the rivers.” The C-section expanded her awareness; she describes the incision in her abdomen as “opened like an eye.”
In her Smart Girls poems, Tamblyn wanted to be sure she covered topics the teen and preteen audience might not talk about; alongside the poem, she shared a photo of her five-week-old Cesarean scar, stretch marks and all, so they could see what it actually looks like. “Teenage and preteen girls are the smartest living mammals on the entire planet,” Tamblyn notes, adding that unfortunately, they often get talked down to: In her poetry for Smart Girls, she didn’t want to do that. “[Girls that age] live in this sort of prescient, nascent, magical world of seeing things in the way that the rest of the world doesn’t see them.” That’s why, she adds, someone like Parkland survivor and student activist Emma Gonzalez can be the face of a movement.
Before she got pregnant, Tamblyn discussed having a child with her therapist (whom she gushes over, and who has children of his own). He couldn’t explain to her just how it would feel emotionally (he compared it to doing peyote or a hallucinogen) but she says he was right about the benefits: Giving birth made her “more grounded in [her] artistic voice.” As she eloquently puts it: “Now there’s no time or space to beat around the bush creatively.” In short, every move she makes needs to be purposeful.
And Tamblyn’s definitely taken that to heart: Between acting and mothering, she’s directed her first film—“Paint it Black,” starring Alia Shawkat of “Arrested Development” fame (“Directing is where my heart lies so much now,” Tamblyn adds)—and written other work soon to be announced as well. Her previous books include self-published chapbooks Of the Dawn and Plenty of Ships and press-published Free Stallion, Bang Ditto, and Dark Sparkler, all of which were poetry collections. Free Stallion actually includes works from her adolescence: Tamblyn started writing poems (and, coincidentally, acting professionally) around age 11. Her new book and first full-length fiction work, a novel called Any Man, is out June 26.
Although Tamblyn started writing Any Man in 2015, its subject matter resonates heavily with the political movements that took off in late 2017 and that she participates in now. Any Man is told in the first person, narrated by male survivors attacked by a female serial rapist. It’s a story that, for Tamblyn, has evolved with the current public discourse as themes of gender equality, rape and sexual harassment, and feminism come ever more to the forefront.
“It grew differently and beautifully [over time] and sort of became this conversation about the culture that we live in, how we demonize survivors, how we manipulate them, how we monetize them, male or female,” Tamblyn says, adding that writing has been a validation of identity for her since she started acting. When she was a kid, she and her mom would head to Kinko’s to make chapbooks of her poetry and she’d sell them for a few dollars. “That early feeling of having something that belongs entirely to you, that you created, that you made, was such a unique feeling for someone who was literally pretending to be other people for a living,” she explains.
Though she writes across all genres, Tamblyn sees poetry as specifically effective in taking something ordinary and—if you’re a good poet—transforming it into the extraordinary. “What makes [poetry] more potent and unique is the fact that you can express something that is universally understood in a wholly unique way, and there’s no other form of writing that can do that,” she says.
Take her C-section poem, for example. For Tamblyn, it was a way to educate young girls about how giving birth expanded her perspective, how it focused love in a secondary location, how it changed how she lived and viewed the world around her. “No matter how hard [being a parent] can get, how exhausted you can get, how emotional you can get, it’s never not worth it,” Tamblyn says.
She’s excited to educate friend and former “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” co-star America Ferrera about motherhood (Ferrera was pregnant with her first child when Tamblyn and I spoke). “My great joy is to share everything that I’ve learned,” she says. “Everything that I’ve learned I learned from Blake [Lively, a fellow “Sisterhood” co-star]…it’s like passing down the torch.”
And, as many fans will agree, it’s great to see how the “Sisterhood” films spurred an actual, well, sisterhood. Tamblyn has held many fantastic roles in the course of her career—Emily Quartermaine in “General Hospital” and Joan Giradi in “Joan of Arcadia,” which made her a household name and garnered nominations for a primetime Emmy and Golden Globe in the early aughts—but the “Sisterhood” storyline singularly stuck with many Millennial Moms. And its stars are still as tightly knit as the characters, now well into adulthood and motherhood. Not long after she announced her pregnancy on Instagram, newest mom Ferrera posted a photo with her three co-stars touching her belly: “Starting the New Year off with blessings from my Sisterhood,” she wrote. “We’ve got work to do for the next generation. Let’s get to it. #TIMESUP.”
With voices like Ferrera’s and Tamblyn’s—friends, mother/a mother-to-be, and sisters in creativity—at the helm of this movement, equally aware of privilege and systemic inequity as they bring children into the world, it’s unlikely the current cultural shifts will go quiet.
“Now there’s a reason, it feels like there’s a reason to speak up, because it’s not just about our lives, it’s about other people’s lives,” Tamblyn says. “It’s about our children’s lives and our children’s future.”
To learn more about Amber Tamblyn and where to find Any Man, visit amtam.com!