In the summer of her 35th year, Amber Tamblyn is modeling female provocation. Also self-acceptance. Which is why she wants to show me the whisker on her chin. For more than half her life, Tamblyn — featured in Joan of Arcadia, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants — traded on her angsty-teen-girlishness: the super-relatable friend who might be gorgeous if she would just lose five pounds. “A Valerie Bertinelli for the new millennium,” said the Washington Post. “So appealing, and by the way so ordinary. I mean that as a compliment,” said Les Moonves. But after a couple of flops and a snub in this magazine, in which she was compared to Hilary Duff, Tamblyn realized she was on a path to nowhere and righted herself. Over the past year, she has reemerged in public, all lactating boobs and nerd glasses and potty mouth, the well-connected #MeToo warrior who maybe oxymoronically remains steadfastly married to the supercilious comedian David Cross and who in the wake of the grotesque revelations about Harvey Weinstein persuaded her old friend Quentin Tarantino to renounce him. As she hurtles toward middle age, she is giving her former patronizing critics and handlers her zaftig ass to kiss.
The chin hair is a microsymbol, then, of Tamblyn’s reawakening. She has spoken and written a lot in public about refusing to capitulate to Hollywood’s impossible standards of beauty for women, and so when we meet in a Brooklyn café near her home, I ask her for an example. Which beauty convention is she rejecting right now? “I have one hair. Here,” she says. Her fingertips travel to the lone whisker and then caress it like a fetish. At a photo shoot the previous day, “my publicist was like, ‘Please, let me pluck that!’ ” Tamblyn tells me. “And I was like, ‘No! This is how I think. I just lightly tug on this little hair. You cannot remove this hair.’ ”
The female body — in particular the predicament of having to be acceptably pretty while also engaged in the primal business of reproduction — preoccupies Tamblyn, who says that motherhood “weaponized” her. (Last year, she and Cross had a daughter, Marlow.) In her reboot, Tamblyn flirts with an aggressive stance; at a recent New York City reading, she used the word cunt as easily as she piled her auburn hair into a carefree bird’s nest. In May 2017, she disarmingly bullied the late-night host Andy Cohen into drinking her breast milk, which she had pumped into a small bottle backstage.
Now Tamblyn has published her debut novel, Any Man, which pushes the idea of female physical aggression to its furthest edge, centering on a female serial rapist named Maude who randomly preys on men. As a thought experiment, it is on point, gender-flipping the usual victim tropes so that the men are the ones who, after the assault, suffer for years from shame and self-loathing while female anchors and experts on TV speculate on how they drew the rapist’s attention. “The American public wants to know why a guy with that kind of physical build, who did kettlebell tournaments, could be subdued by — by a WOMAN,” says a guest on a talk show modeled on Nancy Grace.
The best thing about Any Man is the uncompromising cruelty of its predator. Maude isn’t motivated by anything but the act itself. Each rape is a work of performance art, with costumes and props (including, in one unforgettable case, a dead cat) leaving the victims forever reliving the horrors inflicted on them and helpless to understand. “We talk about women as having horse faces,” explains Tamblyn, “and they’re ugly and wrinkled, and their vaginas smell. They have claws. They’re harpies, they’re monsters, they’re bitches, they’re dogs. And I said, Okay, I’m going to actually create that woman.”
Tamblyn was raised in Santa Monica, in a small apartment, the only child of her parents’ marriage. She slept in a bunk bed, alone. Her mother, Bonnie, a singer who’d toured with Stevie Nicks, taught art at her elementary school. Her father is the actor Russ Tamblyn, who grew up in the studio system in the ’40s and ’50s, played Riff in West Side Story in 1961, and by the time Amber was born, in 1983, hadn’t worked regularly in decades and was making ends meet painting houses. When he landed a role on Twin Peaks in 1990, it was huge for the family. “I remember the sight of him going off to work in the mornings, dramatically lifted out of depression,” says Tamblyn. Even so, Amber wasn’t allowed to watch the show, and on Thursday nights, “I would pretend to sleep and I would get up and take a Hello Kitty mirror and stick it out of the bedroom door and I would watch Twin Peaks on my mirror,” she remembers.
It was an unconventional childhood. Russ was “deep in the Semina art movement in Topanga and, like, doing peyote with Dennis Hopper,” she says. Neil Young was hanging around the house as one of her informal godfathers. “I grew up around poets with three teeth who smoked joints,” she says. “There was none of the fancy stuff.”
By 11, Amber was a regular on General Hospital, her acting career the result of a fluke. An agent had spotted her at a fourth-grade performance of Pippi Longstocking — she was the lead — and encouraged her parents to let her go out on auditions. “My parents were not stage parents in any kind of way, and my dad was triggered and horrified at the thought that his daughter would follow down his path.”
What strikes her now is the degree to which the acting life is not a choice for a child. “When you’re that young and every adult around you is patting you on the head and saying, ‘You’re so good at this,’ that’s the choice. The choice is to please adults.” Amber was asked to lose weight innumerable times, and she did, eating just the deli meat off sandwiches. She blames especially the agent she had for 15 years, who urged her to keep playing the “relatable” girl — instead of exploring different sides of herself. As a teenager, Tamblyn started writing angry poems that “understood that the world was slanted against women, even myself, of knowing there was something wrong but not understanding that this is what objectification looks like,” she says. “I started to feel a rejection of the trajectory I was on.”
Tamblyn never had eating disorders or periods of substance abuse, except for a time around 2009, when she was writing Dark Sparkler, a book of poems about dead actresses — Sharon Tate, Marilyn Monroe, Brittany Murphy — published in 2015. Murphy’s death, from a combination of pneumonia and prescription drugs (her body was discovered in the shower), was a kind of inspiration for her, because she, too, was feeling that she wanted to die. Not literally. But in her late 20s, after some failures, Tamblyn was in the throes of an existential crisis, obsessed with wanting to kill off her acquiescent-child persona in order to liberate a more realized self. She lived with the cautionary example of her own father: “My father’s pain is my pain,” she says.
On her own initiative, Tamblyn tapered off Xanax, which she’d been taking to get into the heads of the actresses she was writing about. “It took me like two days, and I remember having to self-medicate the self-medicating to get off of it because the withdrawal was so severe. I would take little sips of NyQuil all day long. Really little sips, I mean, like, tiny, because it will make you fall asleep, but at least it gave me the sense that I didn’t want to stick my hand in my mouth and rip my own teeth out, which is how I constantly felt.”
In her most complex real-life role to date, Tamblyn has over the past year become a self-appointed old-white-dude whisperer, a member of the feminist sisterhood willing to instruct the men in her life in the new woke politics of gender (and to hold others, like the actor James Woods, who she says hit on her when she was underage, to account). Tamblyn takes credit for flipping Tarantino, who, after the revelations about Weinstein were published in October, faced a chorus of calls to renounce the man who had made his career. The two met at Soho House in L.A. and “had a very long conversation and dinner, just the two of us. We had some bourbon.” It wasn’t just that Weinstein had funded all eight of Tarantino’s movies. It was a much bigger emotional deal. “Quentin has a very — I won’t go into it because it’s his personal life — unhealthy past relationship with his own father. And so Harvey filled in a lot of those areas for him. So this, for him, was a larger psychological reckoning than just the guy who financed his movies. And he had to own that.”
Sometime around midnight, Tarantino came around. Tamblyn convinced him, she says, that he had to talk to the New York Times about Weinstein, because in doing so he was speaking up for all the women in his life, including her. “Don’t not do this because of your ego,” she told him. “If you care enough, not only about your legacy, but about the women that he harmed directly that you love, do it for them. Do it for me. If you care about me, do it for me. He knew about Uma [Thurman] and Mira Sorvino, and he talked a lot about that. And that’s when he really said, ‘You’re right.’ ”
But running interference for her husband, David Cross, is like playing whack-a-mole. The 54-year-old comedian falls over feminist tripwires on a regular basis, and there are those on Twitter who maintain that Tamblyn can’t be a credible advocate for women if she persists in her marriage, comparing her to Camille Cosby and Melania Trump. Tamblyn, obviously, disagrees. Someone has to show the men where the lines are, she says. “If you’re good at it, you do it because that’s how change happens. That’s part of the responsibility. It’s not enough to say, ‘You guys have to figure it out, because — ’ ” Here she pauses and leans in. “They very. Literally. Can’t.”
In October, the actress Charlyne Yi accused Cross on Twitter of having made racist comments in a long-ago meeting. (“What’s a matter? You don’t speak English? Ching-chong-ching-chong.”) Cross defended himself and then apologized while Twitter debated whether Tamblyn was also racist (a debate that was reignited last week when Tamblyn critiqued Representative Maxine Waters, then apologized and deleted the tweet). Tamblyn reached out to Yi privately, then lectured her critics. “Do not hold women accountable for the actions, decisions, or words of their partners,” she tweeted. “Don’t. Do it.”
Then in May, during a Times interview with the cast of Arrested Development (on which Cross plays Tobias Fünke), the conversation turned to the actor Jeffrey Tambor’s violent verbal abuse of his co-star Jessica Walter. Cross defended Tambor while trying to convince Walter that it wasn’t such a big deal. The interview was published, Twitter blew up, and Tamblyn advised her husband to stay off social media for a while. But to me she says it was an understandable fuck-up, in the category of fuck-ups by successful white men “who are not used to being told that their opinions don’t matter and there are consequences for the things that they say.”
Tamblyn warms to her subject. “There are different types of fucking-up,” she says. “There’s David Cross handling an interview really poorly with his friend Jessica of 15 years. When I read it, I rolled my eyes and reached out to Jessica. I didn’t check in with David. And I just went, ‘What a dummy. What a stupid thing to do. You just couldn’t keep your mouth shut.’ But there’s another kind of fuck-up that’s not acceptable. And that is, like, Matt Lauer locking a door with a button behind his desk.”
For all her defiance, Tamblyn persists in the belief that Tarantino and Cross and the other irascible old men she loves are good of heart and willing to take the time in private to learn from their mistakes. It’s a sunny perspective, a brave hope of overcoming, that sounds a little like the relatable teen heroines Tamblyn used to play. “As tough as David is, he’s one of the most sensitive and empathic people I’ve ever met. I think about that constantly. How lucky I am, even in the most difficult moments of marriage, that you have someone on the other side who’s willing to learn.” She looks at me earnestly. “However slowly.”
An excerpt from ‘Any Man,’ by Amber Tamblyn
Donald Ellis, one of Maude’s victims, who has been genitally mutilated, leaves the hospital. Accounts of his attack have dominated the news.
“I’m sorry … are you … Donald Ellis?”
No, ma’am, but I get that all the time.
You must’ve mistaken me for a butcher’s block.
You must’ve mistaken me for a skinned deer.
You must’ve mistaken me for some coward.
Donald is no longer with us.
Donald died reading a poem to a bullfighter.
Donald was scratched to death by a peacock.
Donald passed away trying to make love two hundred meters under the ocean.
Donald left this world chiseling turquoise out of rock with his bare hands.
Donald’s fingers bled to death.
Donald swallowed one hundred matches and rubbed his body against a volcano.
He died instantly.
Donald got into an argument with the moon and died instantly.
Donald revealed how much he could love and died instantly.
Donald met his friend for a beer after work and died instantly.
Donald had to explain to his children what happened and died instantly.
Donald will touch his wife’s thigh and die instantly.
“I just want to say it’s so awful what happened to you—you’re all over the news!—but just, like, know that everyone is on your side and sending you prayers …”
Donald dies instantly.
“I”m so sorry to ask, but would you mind if I got a selfie with you?”
Copyright © 2018 by Amber Tamblyn. Published by Harper Perennial.
Production credits: Hair and makeup by Nicole Blais for Exclusive Artists using CHANEL Palette Essentielle and Phyto Paris. Styling assistance by Graylen Gatewood.
*This article appears in the July 9, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!