Amber Tamblyn on the "difficult" women winning elections now: "I think they represent the future"

Salon talks to the director, writer and actress about her new memoir, Time's Up, women candidates and more

Published March 11, 2019 4:00PM (EDT)

Amber Tamblyn on "Salon Talks" (Matthew Smith - "Salon Talks")
Amber Tamblyn on "Salon Talks" (Matthew Smith - "Salon Talks")

Amber Tamblyn has been reflecting on the swirling rage and anxiety that filled her turbulent 20s. It was one of the scariest times of her life, she admits; she didn't know what the next step would be after acting throughout her teens.

She pulled herself out of that rock bottom, in part, when she stopped asking for permission and pursued what she knew she could do all along, namely writing and directing. Understanding that process has also helped her articulate the current moment in politics, another passion of hers. America right now, Tamblyn says, is enduring its own existential crisis.

“I was trying to figure out a term to describe what comes post this rage that everyone's been feeling, this sense of chaos,” the writer and director shared with me during an episode of “Salon Talks.” Tamblyn landed on the term “era of ignition,” also the name of her new memoir, which combines the story of her personal evolution from child actress to poet, director and mother, with reflections on the 2008 and 2016 elections, fourth wave feminism and how the #MeToo movement has rattled Hollywood.

As one of the Time’s Up initiative's founding members, Tamblyn opens up about how the private meetings she and other actresses had shortly after the initial Harvey Weinstein accusations surfaced ushered in a new era of communication for women in entertainment. “We're not gonna ask for permission anymore. We are going to change this.”

Watch my Salon Talks episode here, or read the Q&A below.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did you come into your era of ignition, as you call it?

I was trying to figure out a term to describe what comes post this rage that everyone's been feeling, this sense of chaos. Things are changing rapidly, and we don't know what to do. We can't control things.

I was trying to find a way to explain what that feeling is afterwards, this momentum that we've all been feeling, as far as personal evolution, national evolution, and this idea of things being really ignited. I do believe that we're in an era of that right now. That's where I think we're existing, in this moment.

When did you begin your writing process?

It's been the last several years. I mean, for me, personally, it's been around since probably the 2008 election, but certainly the 2016 election and the fact that I was pregnant with my daughter then, through that entire election, which was just really surreal to be pregnant with a girl in the face of somebody like Donald Trump. A lot of it began there for me.

At that same time, as I write in the book, in the memoir part of the book, there was a lot of my own personal attempts to break out of the mold that I had created for myself, which was predominantly being an actress, and also a poet, which I love so very much, but to find the other places, the other parts of me that really wanted to be nourished and exist—writing fiction, writing non-fiction, directing movies, producing things. I really didn't know how to quite get there.

With the evolution that I've gone through, there's a similar evolution that's happening for other people in other industries, no matter what it is that they're doing. Even if they're not in entertainment, there's this sense of propelling yourself into what is going on right now, and feeling like that's a really scary idea, but that, ultimately, it's the most important choice that we have right now—to fully engage at our largest capacity.

I'm sure even you personally, though, would you say, in your own life, that, in the last several years, you have began to think about things in a way you never would've thought before, whether it's in activism or maybe in your own career, in something that you wanted, that you felt like you deserved?

Yes, of course.

Then there you go.

This moment is also about women talking to other women in a way that maybe we hadn't done before.

Yes, and especially women like us, white women, listening. There is a secondary conversation that has, for a long time, very much needed to be a very mainstream conversation. Being able to talk about these things now, and being able to have space for all different kinds of people to talk about not only the ways in which they want things to change but also to present ideas. How we can do that, collectively, together, going forward, is so important. The whole message of this book, in particular, is talking about the proactive nature, going forward.

What can we do, proactively, to change things, each one of us, individually, whether you're liberal, Democrat, whatever your gender is, whatever your race is, your class, where you come from, because, fundamentally, it's our differences that make us special? It's our differences that make us powerful, and those things need to be honored, and respected, and really viewed and seen as equal.

I have always seen you as kind of a rebel. You say what you feel.

Yeah, sometimes to my own detriment.

And you’ve been doing that for a while now.

Oh, I've done that my whole life.

You get really personal in this memoir. You talk about your rock bottom. I don't know if you use those words exactly but that’s how I took it. This was a real low point for you, and it wasn't that long ago.

No, it wasn't. It was maybe seven years, six years ago.

From there how did you come into your rebirth, as you write in the book. This feeling that, I’m down here, but I want to be up here in my journey?

I talk in the book about this idea of an invisible alphabet, and that so much of my life, for two decades, being an actress in the entertainment business, has been so much about me feeling like I'm not fulfilling my greatest potential. In this invisible alphabet, where I am right now is I'm at A, and I see this beautiful, amazing, glowing Z in the future, and that Z is everything I know that I am capable of becoming. It is my promise, but I don't know how to manifest the letters in between, to get there.

So much of what I write about, especially in the beginning of the book, is really finding that journey. I terminated a pregnancy at one point. I was drinking heavily. I was very, very out of touch and out of communication with my own instincts and my own needs, what it is that I wanted, where I wanted to go, and I had to pull myself out of that self-recrimination and realize that I had so much more to offer but I was going to have to learn the tools in order to get there.

It was frankly one of the scariest times of my whole life, which is very similar to how I think we're feeling, subconsciously and collectively, right now.

Where is this all gonna go? What is happening with this presidency? Where are things gonna go, especially going into 2020? I think that there is a real fear, but we have to remember that the darkness, that the fear, that the things that scare us the most are often where we find the greater journey, and the greater good, and what we truly want out of the change.

I see that, personally. I saw it for myself, and it rung very true and reminds me very much of where we are right now.

One of the things that got you out of that low point was taking a book that meant so much to you, this book called “Paint It Black” by Janet Finch, and adapting it into a film. And then, once you started that process, you faced all of these things that women face in Hollywood that can pull them back from success. And it’s not just Hollywood, anywhere, let's be honest, anywhere.

My version of that was hard and long. This film, which I'm so proud of, it's called “Paint It Black,” and I believe it is still on Netflix. The journey not only to get that movie made but also to get it sold and get it seen, it felt like an uphill battle that was distinguishably different than the uphill battles that most men go through in the entertainment business, when they're trying to get things made.

There's this really great quote in Hillary Clinton's last book, which I'm kind of paraphrasing, when she talks about being a partner at the law firm she worked at in Arkansas. I believe it was Arkansas, I think it was.

You write in the book that it's Arkansas.

Okay, then it's gotta be Arkansas, but she writes about when she would promote different kinds of people. When she would promote men, they would say, "Thank you so much for this opportunity. I won't let you down," and then when she would promote women, they would say, "Thank you so much for this opportunity. Are you sure?"

That question, that “Are you sure?” is something that is so universally understood by all women. All women have felt unsure, have been made to feel unsure, and that is the part of the instinct that I talk so profusely about in the book, this idea of paying attention to that voice and really pushing through any part of it that tells you not to go after the thing that you want and to put yourself out there, because that is part of the era that we're in.

Culturally, we're doing that. We are changing the foundation and the landscape, and saying that we won't accept these things anymore. This is the new way that things are going to be. I think it's important to also remember to do that for ourselves, individually and personally.

Leading up to the 2020 election, we have a lot of women to choose from on the Democratic side for president. And with that, you have to think about all of the standards and rules that are placed on female candidates that sometimes feel unfair and sometimes do feel fair. I’ll admit, it’s a very hard and layered process for me to assess female candidates.

One of the great things that we're seeing right now is that because we actually have different representations of women, different kinds of women, with different backgrounds, different life stories, different ambitions, that are running for president, now we can have a greater conversation about their policies, and each of us, individually, can pick who we want.

We have choices, whereas we never had that before. Those choices didn't exist. My argument has always been that, while it is, of course, important to have a candidate who chooses policies and wants to create change and support women through legal and legislative policy, it is also equally as important to have physical representation of women in positions of power, so that you see yourself living in that role, each of us, whatever that is.

Whether it's a board director, whether it's as an actress, whether it's as an anchor, a veterinarian, whatever it is you're doing, we wanna see ourselves there, and that has been so much the experience of women.

It has not been the experience of so many women to see themselves in certain positions of power, and I think that is changing. You look at the unprecedented number who have ran for office, and won, and they're there now, and they're not particularly types of women that are likable by patriarchal standards. They're difficult. Love me some Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

They’re raising hell.

They're great. Everything they're doing is amazing. I think they represent the future of this country, and certainly all the ways in which I want to engage and see things change.

Do you feel like some of the candidates, who are from a different generation, are distinguished at all from that young sort of energy in the party?

Well, I think what's interesting is people are gonna have to start to choose to pick a side, in a certain way, and they're gonna have to find a way to exist, both in being able to speak to their generations, older generations, centrists, people who believe and live in those ideals, but also to the sides of the people who are younger, and have different ideas, and want things to be expanded in different ways that may not be in the same way as a centrist.

We're gonna have to find ways in which to find commonality between those beliefs and those ideals, and I don't think that that's hard, because I think, at the end of the day, most people are all fired up, no matter who you are, no matter what you're believing in, especially as far as democrats are concerned. We just have to find someone that unifies that fire and that inspiration.

In the book you write, with humor, about the expectations that are put on women in politics and how they are always compared to men. It’s very funny. Can you just share a little taste of that?

It’s basically a list that says the requirements for women if you want run for the president. It goes through, and I did it on purpose, the most arbitrary, long, confusing, complex series of Roman numerals, and sub-letters, and just all kinds of stuff, talking about everything from how you should hold your hands to how much weight you should be, how your hair should look, to what you should wear, to what your voice should sound like, the literal decibels of your voice, what is an appropriate octave.

It talks about how emotions are illegal, having your period is illegal, having a vagina is illegal. It just goes through this really long, insane list, because I think that that is so true to how we see women who want to be in positions of power.

They are expected to be absolutely everything, at the same time, and absolutely nothing, all at once. We are expected to do all of that, otherwise we're not good enough, we're not seen as the universally perfect candidate, and that has been the problem.

That has been the problem with this deeply ingrained bias, and the lack of representation of different kinds of women in politics, in entertainment, when you see on the movies, in healthcare, whatever that is, because, when you don't have the lack of representation, everyone fails, because you're only looking at the few.

You're looking at one or two, and you're expecting them to be so incredibly perfect, and to exemplify all these different types of beliefs and feelings, pertaining to that particular gender. They become this sort of false model for that, and it's unfair, and it ends up becoming a slanted point of view, where you're only looking, again, sort of through the male gaze and through the point of view of what men want to see as policy, and what men want to see as movies, what men want to see as television, and you're not really getting a broader understanding of what the world wants.

I’m hoping we won't have to hear a lot of that coming up in the next election cycle, about how angry a woman is, about how bad of a boss she is.

Oh, we'll be hearing that for a couple years. People are also talking about this idea of, "Oh, do you think there's a backlash now? Do you think things are calming down? It's getting so quiet. There's no more of these huge Jodi Kantor stories," I'm always like, "Just you wait, wait till next year. It's gonna be intense.”

You have to remember that this is a long burn, a long, slow burn. It’s going to take a really long time for it to spread and to be able to create the new ground that we want to build bigger, better things on.

In terms of Hollywood, you’ve also been outspoken. You haven't shied away from writing about things that have happened to you. You write in the book about some of that. You write about Time's Up and how you and some of your fellow actresses got together around this movement that had already existed prior, but felt like it spoke to you. What was it like being around peers in a setting that maybe you'd never been in before, where you're talking about actual change in the industry?

First of all, just to clarify, always, because I think it's worth doing, the #MeToo movement was started by Tarana Burke, as you know, over two decades ago. 2017's iteration of it, I keep putting the word 2017 in front of it, whenever I say it now, just so I can clarify the difference between those two things, but also to remember that the formation of Time's Up, which only happened a little over a year ago, happened very quickly after those initial Harvey Weinstein accusations came out, and that was created.

We all created that so that no man or woman would ever have to say “me too” again, and that's the difference, is that Time's Up happens to be an organization. Me Too is also an organization, now, but the work that we are doing, I think, so predominantly looks at changing legal and legislative policy and really working from those places to make changes, incrementally, within certain systems, within the power places of those systems, so that there is safe and dignified working places, for all different kinds of people, across industries.

I know that seems like such a huge thing to tackle, but when we were first getting in rooms together, and I chronicled this pretty largely in the book, I really look at how we didn't know what we wanted.

We were just getting in these rooms together, and being angry, and talking about why we were angry, and it was something no woman in the entertainment business has really done before, without having a filter, being able to sit down, privately, and saying not only are we gonna express how we feel and what we've been through, but we are going to push for change. We're not gonna ask for permission anymore, and we are going to change this. We are just taking it over, and people can come along with us, and the business can come along with us, but we're not asking anymore. We're just doing.

Did like that feel was a real sharp turn from the usual climate in Hollywood among actresses?

Oh, it was a huge sharp turn. And I think what you're seeing, now, too, that's come out of that, even though, again, it might feel small, but, incrementally, it's changed, the fact that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes for the Oscars, took in an unprecedented number of new members last year, I believe. I was one of them. They included far more representation, as far as people from the LGBTQ community, women, non-white women, making sure that people of all representations were brought into that voting system, because, while it's just an awards show, awards and awards season are indicative of what succeeds, of what ends up succeeding. It's such a large part of it. It's saying, "Here are our best films."

Not to mention the fundraising for say, your next film.

All of it. It is a total cycle, and so, if women, and especially not white women, are not brought in as part of that creative conversation, and our stories are not seen as part of the more important, larger lens, then we are failing, ultimately, to see the bigger picture and to be able to create work that looks like the world that we live in.

We're only sort of telling a half-truth with our art. That was a big deal, that the Academy did that, and there are many, many other ways in which the entertainment business has been changing for the better.

The last time you and I sat down, we were in the midst of #MeToo stories coming out.  It was a heavy time, and since then, some men have made apologies. You talk in the book about Louis C.K., and how initially you were kind of there for his apology, meaning you were open to reading it, right?

Well, no, what I said was that out of all of the apologies that were happening, that were coming out that time, which they felt very not real, they felt like a publicist put them together, and I didn't really believe they were really sorry or that they really believed that, Louis' sounded, to me, the most real.

It sounded like he wrote it himself, and I really thought it was a thoughtful apology that he put out. The problem is you look at that in retrospect and the thing that he says in there, so specifically, is about how long he's been able to be out there in the world, saying and doing whatever he wants, and now he's going to sit out for a while, I think he says, and be quiet, and just listen to others for a change, something like that.

He did all of those things, except the listening part. The listening part is what I think is being so missed about all of these opportunities, this idea of redemption, this idea of letting these types of men back into the artistic world, as far as the entertainment business is concerned.

But, I'm really not concerned with paying attention to that. That's their work to be done. It's not yours or mine. The fact that we're even sitting here, talking about their redemption, that's for them to figure out how to find their own atonement, and to make amends with a situation like this, and everyone is possible and capable of being forgiven and coming back, with regards to this situation. I think that that's on them, and I'd rather focus on all the amazing artists, and musicians, and comedians, and women who are creating TV shows, and movies, and who are not doing things like that, and not constantly, over and over again, messing up in that certain type of way.

To that point, how do we hold men in our own lives accountable? That's something I think everyone handles, whether it's someone you work with, or within your family. The public apology is a thing, but the work we do at home is different, you know?

Oh, yeah. I write about that, those difficult conversations that happen, again, within marriages, or with our fathers, with the men in our life, and I would be shocked if I met a woman who's not having some version of a conversation like this, and trying to get a man that they love to see why this is so important. That's OK.

Look, that is what the era of ignition is, these conversations, these difficult conversations. Helping men to see how they can be allies, how they can be more supportive, how they can be a part of the process of this large shift and this change, is such an important message, and it's so important that we include men into that fold, because, if we're really talking about large inclusivity, if we're really talking about including everyone, then we really have to include everyone. We really have to do that.

Sometimes that means that we are the teacher, and sometimes that means that we are the learner. We give and take, and we go back and forth between those two roles, and that's what makes us human beings and makes us able to outgrow the last generation that maybe didn't know how to do the things we're doing now.

By Alexandra Clinton

Alexandra (Lexie) Clinton is Salon's Executive Producer.

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