Brittany Murphy was found unconscious in her shower, sick with pneumonia, four different drugs in her system. The actress' death in 2009 was sudden and mysterious and ugly, but posthumous magazine covers showed her looking glamorous, her struggles hidden.
The story gnawed at Amber Tamblyn. She'd never met Murphy but felt an odd kinship to her. So she sat down at her kitchen table in Venice and wrote a poem about the late star.
"The Country says good things/about the body," it read. "They print the best photos;/the least bones, the most peach."
So began Tamblyn's poetic exploration into the muddy waters of fame, objectification and mortality. She began researching the tragic circumstances surrounding the deaths of other actresses — Sharon Tate, Marilyn Monroe, Dana Plato — and writing about each one. The result is "Dark Sparkler" (Harper Perennial: 128 pp., $17.99 paper), her third book of poetry.
Tamblyn — known for her roles in the "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" movies as well as television's "Joan of Arcadia" and "Two and a Half Men" — has been writing poetry since she was little, when her dad, Russ (he played the leader of the Jets in the film version of "West Side Story") started bringing home artists he'd met in Topanga Canyon.
"Writing was the antithesis of acting, because it was something physical that I made — that I was solely responsible for — that I could give to other people," says Tamblyn, 31, sitting in the living room of the apartment she shares with her husband, the actor David Cross. There is a picture of them at the Magic Castle on the bookshelf, next to dozens of volumes of Shakespeare and a copy of "Touch Me: The Poems of Suzanne Somers."
Tamblyn sips tea she'd brewed, nestled on her couch underneath a poster of "The Last Movie." Her godfather was Dennis Hopper, and she's always been surrounded by acting. But when she began working on "Dark Sparkler," she started questioning her true feelings about the profession. She'd started acting as a child, appearing on "General Hospital" from age 11 to 17.
"The stuff I was writing was very close to home because I was exploring my own sense of who I was," Tamblyn says. "I was debating: Did I want to go to college? Did I want to act anymore? Did I even have a choice in the matter?"
She saw herself in the actresses she was writing about and for a spell began experimenting with some of the same "coping mechanisms" they did too.
"It was like, 'Seconal? What are these drugs that people would take?' I got my hands on everything I possibly could," she says. But it left her feeling numb. She couldn't write anymore. She wrote haunting e-mails to her friend, the poet Mindy Nettifee, some of which appear in the epilogue of "Dark Sparkler."
"I think I could very possibly be heading toward a full-scale breakdown in the next few months," she wrote to Nettifee in January 2009. "Can I just go the way of Brittany Murphy and say [forget] it, do drugs until I drop and call it a day?"
"We would have these long, disturbing phone calls about the work and where her head was, and it became clear to me that this was a mental health situation," Nettifee recalled by phone. "But I never once believed that what she was expressing was an actual, concrete wish to die. I definitely felt like she was on a precarious edge, but I felt like what she needed in that moment was to be told that it was OK."
Both Nettifee and Tamblyn's husband supported her, she says: "They understood that I was hitting the sweet spot of my own darkness. I was finding out what the real conversation was that I was trying to have — which was not really to research other actresses but to research myself."
Still, Tamblyn's loved ones eventually urged her to take time off from the book. So in 2011 she stopped working on "Dark Sparkler" and ceased acting. She'd been through a rough period. Her dad had just been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Her longtime agent dropped her. She'd even bombed at a big audition for "August: Osage County," forgetting her lines and then hyperventilating in the elevator afterward. Fixating on death wasn't making anything better.
"It was the hardest thing I ever did in my life," she said of the break. "But ultimately, the book led to a shedding of skin. It was a death; Age 11-25 was dying, and I needed to let that part of me go."
Talking about all of this hasn't been easy. About a month after the meeting in Venice, she e-mailed from her apartment in New York saying how rough her book tour had been.
"So many people asking me, 'Did you want to die? Did you think about suicide?'" she wrote. "... Yeah. This book is just the gift that keeps on giving (me grief.)"
Though she lays herself bare in the pages of "Dark Sparkler," those closest to Tamblyn say she rarely talks about her struggles so intimately in daily life.
"She's not someone you meet at a cocktail party who immediately tells you her deepest, darkest secrets," says America Ferrera, Tamblyn's "Sisterhood" co-star. "Which is why this is special. Like, 'I'm going to pull back this little part of my facade and show this thing I might be terrified of people seeing and put it out there because I think somebody will relate to it.'"
Along with Ferrera, Tamblyn is working with Blake Lively and Alexis Bledel on the script for a third "Sisterhood" film, which they will executive produce. She's also set to appear on three episodes of "Inside Amy Schumer" this season and is editing her directorial debut — an adaptation of Janet Fitch's novel "Paint It Black." But after finishing "Dark Sparkler," she's not sure that acting is where her heart is anymore.
"I think the days of me being an auditioning, sad person who is like, 'I know I'm really talented, but I don't know how to put that to use' — that's over," she said. "That's sad, and that's scary, giving your power over to somebody else."