Amber Tamblyn Talks About The Struggles Of Being A First-Time Female Director

Photo: John Lamparski/WireImage.
If you only know Amber Tamblyn as Tibby in The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants, you are missing out. In addition to acting, she's a poet, a screenwriter, a director, and soon, a novelist.
And yet, it makes sense that the film we love to remember her for contains the word "sisterhood" in its title. In recent months, Tamblyn has been on the front lines of conversation about the toxic culture still surrounding women in Hollywood, first with her open letter to James Woods, followed by an op/ed in The New York Times. Her Twitter feed is a tireless thread of support for the women who have spoken out against Harvey Weinstein. Sisterhood isn't just a pair of pants, no matter how flattering — for Tamblyn, it's a reality.
And so it makes sense that Paint It Black, her directorial debut released earlier this summer, is a beautifully messy look at the possessive, enthralling relationship between two women (Alia Shawkat and Janet McTeer) struggling to cope in the aftermath of a suicide. The film gives a rare look at what female sadness looks like: messy, mascara-streaked, piercing emotion. It has the kind of attention to the details of the female experience that only comes from having a woman behind the camera.
With Paint It Black, which was produced by Wren Arthur, now available to view on VOD and can be purchased on iTunes, Refinery29 caught up with Tamblyn on the phone to talk about the film, her future projects, and what advice she has for women struggling in Hollywood. Read her responses, then watch her recent Facebook Live with R29 below.
What drew you to the story initially?
“I was really taken by the book that was written by Janet Fitch, really captivated by this extremely volatile, codependent, unhealthy relationship between these two women, who are both written in the novel with such complexity. I just thought ‘What an interesting film that would make.’ And even though it’s such a simple premise, two women who are kind of caught in the throes of grief, and through that experience become morbidly obsessed with each other. I feel like that’s a movie I’ve seen before, yet not in the last three decades. I was really compelled by the notion of creating a story that by all intents and purposes is pretty straightforward and common, yet is uncommon to cinema."
One thing I loved about the movie is that it allows its women to get messily emotional. When Alia Shawkat cries, she looks like a real woman crying. Can you tell me a bit about that?
"The best directors that I’ve ever worked with are the ones that cast correctly and they let the actors do the work. You shouldn’t have to cast an actor and then spend a lot of time adjusting them. In my opinion and in my experience. For me, everything was about finding the right actresses for these two roles. As far as Alia Shawkat’s character, Josie, I had to find someone who was really endemically kind of a cool girl, punk rock, doesn’t give a shit about anything or anyone attitude, but who at the core has some naivete, a green quality to her. And with Meredith, I knew that it had to be an actress that was physically statuesque but also emotionally statuesque. It had to be somebody that’s equal part androgynous but also completely sexual, and completely masculine. Those are really hard qualities to find in particular actresses. I was really fortunate, I found these two women, and two me, they are the perfect two women to play these roles."
Did you ever consider starring in the film yourself? What prompted you to make that shift towards directing?
"I actually had written it for myself to act in originally, many many years ago. But I’m 34 now, and I directed it when I was 32, and I think there’s a big difference between a woman in her early 20s and a woman in her early 30s, as far as falling under the spell of somebody. It would not have worked if it was someone in their early 30s. You really needed someone who felt fresh in their womanhood, and able to be taken advantage of."
Did you face any hurdles when you decided to direct?
"The woman who produced the film with me, Wren Arthur, she sort of shepherded this film from the very beginning, I brought the script to her before anybody else. And I remember when I made the decision to direct it, she called me up, [and said]: 'They’re going to balk at this, and they’re going to ask if you’re sure you want to do this, and ask you to reconsider, and to bring on a director with more experience because you don’t have any. What I want you to do is just push through that, and know that you’re the right person to do this.’ She’s a pretty veteran producer, and so I think having the acknowledgment from her, and the support, and the knowledge that not only can I do this, but it’s sort of been integral to my instinct my entire life as an actress. And also as an artist, as a poet, of crafting narrative. So her love and support made me think, ‘You know what, I’m going to take a stab at this.’"
In your New York Times op/ed, you wrote about the fear of asking for things when you're a woman in a man's industry. How has your reaction to such things evolved since you first started your career?
"I think there’s a fundamental difference [for] women in any field between what you imagine you’re capable of, and actually seeing what you’re capable of. And once you get that opportunity, once you have done the things that you imagined you could do, you can’t un-know that truth about yourself. And that’s why I always encourage women to do the things that scare them the most. Often what we’re most afraid of are the things that are truly going to bring us into the greatest part of ourselves, and our creative womanhood. So then when you’re rejected, when people say no to you, when people don’t want to pay you the right amount of money, or what you deserve, those things may still happen, but they affect you differently. Because at least you can make choices based on what you know to be true about yourself rather than what you imagine to be true. "
What prompted you to take a step further after your open letter to James Woods?
"I think the piece speaks for itself. I don’t think we need to ask as women, to be believed anymore. Other people’s opinions or belief in us is irrelevant, as long as we believe in ourselves. Once we start lifting each other up in that way, then other people’s belief in us is moot."
We hear so much about how things are slowly getting better for women in Hollywood. How do you feel about it? What can women do to move the process along?
"Absolutely! Women as a whole have been marginalized throughout time and American history, but if you look at women of color in the business — there was no Shonda Rhimes in the '80s. There was no Shonda Rhimes in the '90s. It’s so incredible to me that there is so much more entertainment, films, and television, not only with women of color, but with women across the board, both in front and behind the camera. Someone recently asked me in an interview if I hated men, which I thought was such an interesting question. I said ‘ No, I don’t hate men. I’m critical of men. And they should be appreciative of that.’ I believe everyone should be critical of themselves. Introspective thinking is not a bad thing. Looking at how we can better ourselves, and be better to other people, and more supportive across many playing fields is so important to this country’s creative world. So to that end, I think it’s important that I express that there are so many amazing men in our business. Directors, producers, writers, actors — you know like an Armie Hammer. After this whole thing happened, this guy Hart Hanson, who created the TV show Bones, who was a writer on a TV show I did many years ago called Joan of Arcadia, who’s one of the most wonderful men — he reached out to me after that op/ed came out, and he just said ‘This is so important to me, it really made me think about a lot of things.’ He was so gracious in his response. That’s actually really common. So, while I think there’s still a huge uphill battle in many regards, I definitely think things are changing for the better, and people are opening their eyes and becoming more curious, and more introspective. "
Did Armie Hammer reach out to you after the op/ed?
“Oh, we texted yeah. I don’t think anybody knows that Armie and I were locked in an elevator together for two hours in Spain many years ago we did a film in Barcelona together. So, he’s an old friend of mine. He’s the best.”
What other things are you working on right now?
“I’ve got a couple of big things coming up. I’m working on my next feature, which I can’t say anything about, but I’m very excited about. It definitely lives in the world of everything we’ve just talked about. But also, I’m just finishing my first novel that’s coming out next year on HarperCollins, about an amorphous serial rapist. Should be a pretty interesting read, I would imagine.”
Do you have any dream people you’d like to work with in future projects?
“If Ruth Bader Ginsberg ever wants to direct me in an adult film, I would star in that for her.”
What advice do you have for women who are entering the entertainment field, trying to get into a space where they might feel marginalized?
"I hate to say that having a thick skin is so important, but I believe that’s true. You need to be able to come to an understanding with the word, ‘no,’ because you’re going to hear it all the time. You need to accept ‘no,’ as your new best friend. Rejection is sort of a part of any experience for women, and whether or not you’re being told it, you also believe it of yourself, because it’s so ingrained in us. And so I think it’s important to push through that, and if you really have a vision and a belief in something, you need to keep seeing it through until it happens. Because only then are you going to know truly what you’re made of. And there will be every obstacle in your way, but you just have to remember how many women have done it before you, and how many will do it after you. And more importantly, as far as looking forward to your own future, don’t forget to sometimes look to your left, and your right. Look at other women that are also looking at their futures and raise them up. I think that’s the most important thing we can do for our own futures — to support the futures of others. "
Read These Stories Next:

More from Movies

R29 Original Series