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In gray area, there's gold

Amber Tamblyn earns fresh acclaim with the story of a troubled teen.

April 26, 2007|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

AMBER TAMBLYN admits she was a "completely overly hyperactive child" who was a "wild stray hair on the head of the world" before she became an actress.

"Acting solved my OCD and ADD," she said, sipping on a cappuccino at the Rose Cafe in Venice. "I was just crazy. I had a pet rat. I would create little tiny plays we would put on in school that would be for our English class. I was sort of directionless and wild."

Until she appeared in her grade school's production of "Pippi Longstocking."

Her father, former actor Russ Tamblyn ("West Side Story," "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers"), had invited his agent, "as a family friend," his daughter says, to see the play. "There were all of these timid kids, and I came out and was crazy."

The agent told her father that Amber had to become an actress. But Dad didn't want to her to, for many reasons, says Tamblyn, including the fact that he didn't want her to feel obligated to go into the family business.

"My grandmother said to him, 'She has to [act].' My mother said, 'She has to.' All the women sort of rallied to say, 'Let's give her direction.' "

So not only did her father relent, he quit acting and became her manager. And Tamblyn, now 23, hasn't stopped working.

She grew up in front of the camera on ABC's "General Hospital," where she stayed for nearly seven years. She won an Emmy nomination for her first season on the CBS series "Joan of Arcadia." And she's appeared in several films, including "The Ring," "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" and "The Grudge 2."

Tamblyn received a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination earlier this year for best supporting actress for her latest film, "Stephanie Daley," which opens Friday.

She gives a poignant performance as a quiet 16-year-old living with her mother and father in a small country town who is accused of murdering her newborn. Stephanie claims she didn't know she was pregnant and the baby was stillborn.

Tilda Swinton plays a pregnant forensic psychologist with a troubled marriage who is hired to find out if Stephanie is telling the truth.

Writer-director Hilary Brougher had been impressed with Tamblyn on the few episodes she saw of "Joan of Arcadia." But it was their meeting at the Rose Cafe that clinched the part for Tamblyn.

"There is nothing self-conscious about Amber," Brougher said. "She has no problem accessing the parts of being a teenager that is awkward. She's an old soul, but she has great young energy. Amber is really strong in a very laid-back kind of way."

Brougher found Tamblyn to be a director's dream. "She is so easy," she said. "She comes fully prepared and then she is also happy to do variations and to explore, which is sort of the perfect mix. The strength of her preparation is just wonderful."

TAMBLYN said she could relate to the character. "I feel like it's been a friend of mine or a little sister of a friend of mine or myself or my mother," she said. "I don't mean that in a 'there's a little Stephanie Daley in all of us' way. But I think there is quiet vulnerability that we all have to allow us to shift in and out of the gray areas of what is right and what is wrong and what is moral and not moral. This for me was a way to look at gray areas in our lives, at the things that we were terrified of."

During the production two years ago, Tamblyn said, "I was going through a tough personal time" -- all of which helped her create Stephanie.

"I was in a strange relationship," she said, without going into detail. "And we shot the film in upstate New York in the Catskills on Hunter Mountain."

The production company rented a big house in the middle of nowhere for Tamblyn to stay in. "It was very lonely," she said. "There was no phone service or Internet service. But I wanted that isolation, and I got it."

Still, she said, "it almost drove me crazy."

So did the house.

"I believed, and my mom believed when she came out, that there might be a spirit living in the house," Tamblyn explained. "I don't believe in ghosts at all. I am barely believing in God these days, but there was something that inhabited that house. I don't know if it was my own spirit walking around and getting outside of me."

The actress said that costar Swinton also felt "something was there. She came over and did a cleansing of the house."

Though the house was "clean," Tamblyn found herself not wanting to sleep there. She ended up crashing in Swinton's guest bedroom, the producer's couch and even the production office sofa. "I got lost and I enjoyed feeling lost," she said. "I am sure that contributed at times [to my performance]."

In addition to being an actress, Tamblyn is a poet. Simon & Schuster published her first book of poems, "Free Stallion," in September.

"I have been writing poetry longer than I have been acting professionally," said Tamblyn, who frequently gives poetry readings. "My mentor is a poet named Jack Hirschman, who is the poet laureate of San Francisco. My dad has been friends with Jack [for years]. I didn't write for a while and suddenly, in the last couple of years, I was completely inspired."

She's working on a second book. "I want to make this one a real gem," Tamblyn said.

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