As we await the entrance of Amber Tamblyn’s character Martha Masters, on House, some of us got a chance to talk to her about her new role on the show and what it was like to join the team for a while.
Amber let us in on what made her eager to join House for a while this season, and just how executive producers David Shore and Katie Jacobs made it an offer she just couldn’t refuse. She also revealed her views about being an author, a TV actress and a movie star. She’s a very bright and interesting woman. Here’s how the converstion went:
Q: What type of medical research did you have to do for the role?
Amber Tamblyn: I didn’t do any medical research. I did episode-by-episode research. So, if something was involving smallpox, then I would look that up. If there was a specific word I didn’t know, which is about 90% of the words, I would look up that and see what it meant.
As far as the on-set training when you’re trying to do something like draw blood and IVs, they have a woman [named Bobbin] there who’s incredible and who was a nurse for many, many years and then retired to come be on the show and help us learn how to do anything that we’re doing on that episode. So, if we’re giving someone a trach, if we’re taking blood, if we’re…anything that we do, she teaches us and shows us how to do it and makes sure it’s the right way. That’s the training. There was no reading anything beforehand.
Q: Are you squeamish around blood?
Tamblyn: No, not at all. I’m not squeamish at all. It’s fun. It’s a lot of fun. It’s very fast-paced. You get very good at doing it. Then, you feel like, “Man, if one of my friends, if something happened to them, I might be able to actually help,” which is dumb and not a smart thing to think but I do think that way. I feel, in an emergency, I could probably give CPR now.
Q: What was your impression of Martha Masters when you first read the script?
Tamblyn: The part of Martha Masters was originally just an idea. David Shore and Katie Jacobs had come to me and said, “We want to write a character for you. Are you interested?” I said, “Yes.” Then, it wasn’t until I had signed on and did a bunch of episodes that I finally got to see a script. It was a very personal thing to me because the character is based on my real life best friend who is a med student. Her real name is Martha Meredith Masters. In fact, they had made her sign a release saying she wouldn’t sue Fox. Pretty hilarious, but she is a med student. She’s very much like this character. I’m not saying anything out of turn or mean about her, but she’s incredibly brilliant, but sometimes she can be very socially awkward.
The fact that David Shore still has never met the real Martha Meredith Masters and has written this character so perfectly, so much like her, is pretty amazing. When they do meet, I think like a giant black hole will form in the sky where all human brains will get sucked up into. What? That didn’t make any sense. Let’s put it in the article though. Let’s just do it. See what happens.
Q: What appealed to you about joining a series like House for a short period of time. What was it about that you were excited about?
Tamblyn: Well, the main thing was, of course, Hugh Laurie. I had never seen the show before, but as soon as they came to me and said they wanted to write something, I went, “Oh, I don’t want to do a medical show. That doesn’t sound very fun to me.” I started asking my friends. They all went, “Are you an idiot? It’s not a medical show. You’ve never seen it?” I went, “No.” I felt very stupid for ever thinking that.
So, I rented a bunch of the seasons. I watched it. I was blown away. It is not just Hugh, though it is him, but it’s the idea that you learn so much about these doctors and about these characters, not through long monologues about their back story or through their life and what they’ve been through, but you learn about them based on how they’re tested in their work environment. So, you put them in a certain environment; it creates a certain kind of person. That’s how you learn who they are.
To me, that’s incredibly interesting and very smart writing. I think that’s a great way to create a character. So, I felt that I was in good hands to have a character written for me by David Shore. So, it was a combination of all of those things, of working with Hugh, of having David write something for me, just all of that. I felt very flattered by the whole thing, and fortunate.
Q: For someone like yourself who was part of launching series like Joan of Arcadia or The Unusuals, what’s it like to join a series that’s already in progress?
Tamblyn: Well, I don’t know if The Unusuals was ever launched. I think like two people watched it.
My poor, beloved Unusuals. It’s just kind of the same thing. I wish I had some crazy story about how mean Jesse Spencer was to me or something, but I just fell right into it naturally with them. Maybe they even were a little relieved because I can imagine, being such a well-oiled machine like that, if you have someone come in and it slows down the machine a little bit, it can be maybe frustrating. I don’t know, but we just clicked instantly, all of us. I’ve always preferred working with large groups of guys. So, it’s a perfect work environment for me. Like, The Unusuals to me was the greatest working experience ever, having Adam Goldberg and Jeremy Renner. It was so fun. I think that’s because I don’t have any brothers. I’m guessing…and I talk like a dude. I cuss a lot, which I’m not doing today. I’m on my good streak. It’s fun. I get to play around with them. That’s enjoyable.
Q: Please share a little bit about what we’ll see and learn about Martha as your episodes unfold.
Tamblyn: I think you’re going to see someone who had been so much in the world of academia and knowledge and accumulating knowledge that she never progressed or matured in a social sense. So, you’re going to see someone that has a hard time communicating on some of the most basic levels, which I think is very common for people who are highly, highly, intelligent functioning people. I think that Martha may even have Asperger’s. It’s something that we’ve talked about. I know that Hugh’s character does.
So, it’s potentially like she’s a young version of him, only she believes so strongly in the ethics of truth telling to the point of a fault. Just in the same way that he believes so much in that lying can help you find the truth to a fault. So, the two of them have distinctive ideas about how to get to the same thing. You’re going to see her try to come into the real world for the first time. It’s going to be pretty intense for her.
Q: You had so many different roles through the years. What part of this character, what aspect, do you enjoy the most?
Tamblyn: I love the fact that she is so filled with non-sequiturs. That, to me, is fun, to try to act the fact that when Martha is not talking about scientific or medical things, when she’s just trying to talk to somebody about their life or her life, that it just comes out in non-sequitur sentences and bad, poorly judged metaphors. I love her awkwardness, how incredibly awkward she is. It just gives the character so much potential to grow.
Q: From what you saw of House versus actually being there and being on the set, what surprised you the most versus the other shows you worked on?
Tamblyn: I think it’s how well oiled they all are. How well everyone works together, and not just the actors, but the producers and the writers. They’ve got it down to a science in how they do things there. It’s nice. I feel a lot of other shows, certainly ones I’ve been on, could take a cue from how well they run their show.
Q: For all your time on being on TV versus film, do you have a favorite now or is it a toss-up for you?
Tamblyn: I like them all. I mean, I have a movie coming out this week, the Danny Boyle film, 127 Hours. That was also incredible, equally as incredible as this experience has been. Actually, Danny Boyle and Hugh Laurie are very similar in a lot of ways in the sense of what powerhouses and geniuses they are, but how humble and interested in what they’re doing they are. That’s always a great thing. There’s a lot of trust going on. So, either one. I mean, as long as you’re doing something fun, it could be an off Broadway play. If you’re having a great experience, and you feel like you’re developing something that people will love, then it doesn’t matter to me. They’re all good.
Q: Do you see yourself wanting to get more into series TV in the future, starting a new show off again, one day soon?
Tamblyn: I’m always open to everything. The only thing that I for sure know I want to do is write a third book. I’m also an author. I write poetry and some short story stuff. So, that’s the thing I know. Everything else, I always leave all my doors open. I never shut them and go, “Well, that was a bad experience. I’ll never do that medium again.” I just leave it open. If an idea pops in my head, I’ll try to develop it, or something will come to me, but I love them all equally. They’re all my children.
Q: I know Martha’s very distinct as a character. How would you compare yourself to her?
Tamblyn: I wouldn’t actually. Maybe that’s a rare time, but because she’s sort of an homage to my very, very good friend, Martha, in real life, I feel like I know— I mean, I don’t feel like I’ve known Meredith/Martha. I’ve known her for my entire life, for 25 years, since we were babies. I think I know her so well that I can put a lot of that into it. She and I are not very similar in certain ways. I’m like more dumb and instinctual. Meredith is hyper-intelligent and not instinctual at all about anything. So, it’s kind of the opposite.
Q: How about the ethical aspects of her?
Tamblyn: I don’t know if I’ve been in a situation like that. I d’ probably go the House route. I would probably try to make whatever the best outcome is, happen, regardless of the truth thing. Truth is objective. I agree that everybody lies.
Q: I can only imagine the hours you guys spend on set. Were there any memorable moments between takes or afterwards?
Tamblyn: There’s so many, but they’re so tiny. I love the fact that Omar Epps is always getting food trucks for everybody. It’s great for our crew. They’re always bringing food on the set with special things. It’s just a very happy and great atmosphere in that way. He’ll always go, “Amber, I’m going to get… from RockSugar. You want something?” We’ll end up getting a huge thing of food for everybody. It’s a very, very friendly crew and cast.
Q: I noticed in doing the research here that you have a new blog, AmTam.com. You mentioned your book that you’ve written. I’m wondering how you see the difference between your acting in film and television and the creative spark you get out of and the thing that feeds your desire to write, the difference between the two and what you get out of writing.
Tamblyn: One informs the other more, but acting and writing both inform each other in certain ways and help to support each other’s purpose in my life. I know that writing has helped me get through the transition from a teenager to a woman, where you are suddenly expected to be a sex symbol of some sort. Suddenly, you’re not this cute thing anymore. You’re supposed to look a certain way. You’re supposed to play these certain parts. I had a really hard time adjusting to that when I was like, maybe about 17 years old. Writing helped me a lot to make fun of that and be angry about it and just get all my frustrations out without doing it in a real public way.
It’s a way for me now I think, as a woman, to write about the things that I’ve seen and just express my own journey in this industry and show the funny side of it and the humbling side of it, which I think is the side that people don’t ever want to admit is there. They always want everything to seem sort of like glossed over, if you will. No one’s ever going to really say to a reporter what’s really going on at any given time. It’s very rare. They shouldn’t because we live in a world where everything and anything is taken out of context. So, for me, writing poems, writing stories, doing it that way is the best and safest medium.
Q: I see that you’re going to be performing poetry at GiRL FeST in Hawaii here in a few days. How is being on stage and doing your poetry— Is that like being on stage, can you imagine, like in a rock band, or is it being on stage like in a play, or is it something that’s completely different for you?
Tamblyn: It’s all of those things, especially because I often— I took four months off last year and I toured for my book that came out, Bang Ditto. I did a big tour for it, which was very fun for me. My mom went with me and played guitar, so we kind of were a band. We were a comedy duo of sorts because a lot of the poems, too, are about family and growing up with a father who was in the business. Just a lot about family. Mom and I would often have a lot of banter onstage. Then, you get … involved and the whole thing turned into a different kind of show, but it’s more of like a variety show, mixed in with poems, with a modern kind of poetry, very loose and easy-going and funny and musical and dark and all of those things together.
That’s probably what we’ll be doing at GiRL FeST as well, I’m guessing. It’s a really fun, exhilarating experience, performing on stage. It’s often interesting to see because the people that come to see me know me as an actress. That’s changed the last couple of years. More people are reading my stuff now, but in the beginning, when I would perform, you could just see the look on people’s faces going, “Why is the girl from Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants using the F-word so much?” It’s very confusing for them to separate it, which is fine for me. I don’t mind them seeing an actress that they think they know and then suddenly realizing they don’t know her.
Q: You’ve been in a lot of great things recently. I just saw 127 Hours. It was fantastic and now, House and Todd Margaret. I know that you were offered House, but how do you go about picking your roles?
Tamblyn: Well, 127 Hours was very easy. It’s a small role, but I feel like an important role in a film where there’s only a couple people, well, really only just James Franco in the movie. So, I felt like that was a cool role to pursue to be the comedic relief of it, to be the dopamine of the film in a very heavy film about someone who cuts his arm off.
Todd Margaret is just the luck of the draw. David Cross is my boyfriend. He said, “Can I write this thing in here for you?” I said, “Yes.” So, that’s how that part was decided.
Q: What’s your advice to actors?
Tamblyn: I try not to give advice because I feel like you can really lead someone astray. All I tell actors is that it’s really a very, very difficult industry. You need to be ready to be rejected 5,000 times, over and over again. The rejection part of it can be rough. I think I often tell people to think about looking at soap operas first, audition for soap operas. It’s one of the best mediums to sort of get your foot in, as long as you don’t start having like soap opera-ish acting. You have to be very careful to stay out of the melodrama of it, but as an exercise, as a way to be on a set every day and exercise your emotional intelligence and do all that, I think it’s a very, very, very good way to start off in the business. They do open casting for that all the time, too. I think getting out of soaps is the hard part, but if I did it, I feel like anybody could do it.
Q: I just wanted to tie together a couple of things you said. You talked fondly of Hugh Laurie and David Cross. You said that you talk like a dude. These guys have the same kind of very perverse and, to me, very, very funny sense of humor. Is there a through-line there to David, Hugh, and maybe some other people, and yourself, as far as the type of humor or the type of person you like, or something?
Tamblyn: Yes. I never thought about that, but yes. I’m a fan of Blackadder. I’d known Hugh before that. Certainly one of the most attractive things about David, to me, was his personality and his humor. Instantly. Years ago, when I heard one of his albums, I went, “That guy is amazing.” I instantly had a crush on him. So, a lot of my poetry is hard-mouthed like that as well, which it needs to be because the subject matter can be intense, but it’s not without humor. In everything, there is always humor. It’s much easier to get across to people how funny it is that some producer asked you to lose five pounds so you could play Scooby-Doo’s girlfriend in this animated thing. It’s much funnier than if you try to beat someone over the head with some crazy, angry, feminist poem about it. It’s a funny story. So, why not just let it be funny? I’ve learned to find the humor in stuff like that.
Q: What was it like working on the House set the very first day?
Tamblyn: The first day was a lot of fun. I don’t know if you’ve watched the show, but they often do where they’re trying to diagnose their case, they sit around the office. They throw ideas around. It’s a lot of dialogue and can be difficult. That was my first couple of days, actually, but it was really fun. Sitting that closely with everybody, you really get to start to meet everybody and get to know them. It was great. It was almost too easy. I wish I had some crazy story for you about how mean somebody was, but it was nothing like that.
Q: Were there any surprises on the cast, I mean, that you were surprised about characters or the people playing the characters, Lisa or Robert Sean Leonard?
Tamblyn: I have not done one scene with Robert Sean Leonard. I did a scene where I pulled House out of his office in which we just looked at each other, which was funny. Then, I’ve only done two scenes with Lisa Edelstein, but individually, each of those actors are their own characters, too. Peter Jacobson and Omar and Jesse, they’re real life characters of themselves. They’re great people, all three of them. And Hugh.
Q: You mentioned Lisa. What surprised me that I found really refreshing to have two strong, interesting women interacting on a show that’s usually more centered on men. The Cuddy/Masters scene, they’re really great. I may see Masters as a young Cuddy in sorts. You seem to have chemistry with Hugh, of course, but also with Lisa. How is the dynamic with her behind the scenes? Will we see more of you guys working together?
Tamblyn: Well, so far, she and I have only had that scene and one other scene that we just shot a couple days ago. So, not really. No, but perhaps that will come up more, but I do think she is sort of a young Cuddy, an extremist version of Cuddy in a certain way, which is probably why Cuddy brought her on. I think House says that I remind her of herself, but yes, Lisa’s amazing. She’s great. She’s very funny. She’s very health-oriented. I’m learning a lot of health things from her. She’s a very interesting woman and incredibly gorgeous. I mean, she’s gorgeous on screen, but in real life, she is the real deal. Her skin is insanely flawless.
Q: I think you do a really great job. I didn’t expect to enjoy your character this much right away. Past characters that were introduced tend to not have that agreement first off. You make it seem so easy and so much fun, especially during the scenes with House. How did you get into the character so easily? It seems to flow so well. I was just wondering, is the character spoke to you right away?
Tamblyn: Well, the character did because it’s based on somebody that I know very well whose real name is Martha Meredith Masters. My friend, Meredith, is similar to this character, but this character is in a very exaggerated version of her, but she is in med school. She often makes jokes that I don’t understand that are about Euler’s Number or something that I bet I, and most people in the room, don’t know what she’s talking about. So, she can be a little socially awkward sometimes, which is what the character, Masters, is like on the show. I feel like I’m very fortunate to have at least the building blocks to create this character. Then, everything else, I just ran with it.
Of course, it’s David Shore’s writing, too, that allows me to play those things. When he actually writes in, “Martha using her period as a metaphor to get someone to donate a kidney to her sister,” the fact that Martha does that kind of stuff, she doesn’t know what’s appropriate and what’s not. She doesn’t really know how to socially integrate herself into society to help herself not look like such a dork. She hasn’t learned that yet. She’s too much in her intellectual brain. She hasn’t socially grown yet. I think that’ll be a great thing to watch her learn how to do and sometimes learn it the hard way in a lot of cases.
Q: I’m used to seeing you as innocent Emily on GH. Now, I see you bare it all and get in …. Do you feel that you’ve matured as an actress? Will we see more of you pushing the envelope [in your career]?
Tamblyn: I hope I’ve pushed them a lot. I hope I’ve come a long way since 10, 15 years ago now, General Hospital, but yes, I try to choose things that are fun and interesting and things that I enjoy doing. I would hate to ever be in a position where I’m going, “Why did I do this? I hate this so much. I’m not having fun. I’m not creating anything.” So, yes, it’s been a really fun experience. I hope I keep getting to push the envelope with it.
Q: What was it like working with TV’s most obnoxious doctor? Will you annoy him throughout the season?
Tamblyn: It was absolutely delicious. I annoy him. I fascinate him. The two characters both annoy and fascinate each other. House probably even sees a little bit of himself in her, except the opposite, except he’s usually mean. She’s usually overly nice. So, both would make for funny television.
Photo: © 2010 FOX Broadcasting Co.