Amber Tamblyn recently joined the cast of House, M.D. as Martha Masters a third-year medical student who new to House’s (Hugh Laurie) diagnostic team. No newcomer to series television, Tamblyn has starred in the CBS series Joan of Arcadia (2003-2005) as well as last year’s The Unusuals with Oscar nominee (and former House Patient of the Week) Jeremy Renner. The 27-year-old actress can also currently be seen in the movie 127 Hours. I recently had the opportunity to interview Tamblyn via phone, during which we talked about everything from her new character and working with Hugh Laurie to social media and blogging.
Tamblyn has mentioned in several other interviews that her House character Martha Masters is sort of the alter ego of her friend, a medical student. Creating the character was a “very interesting synchronistic thing,” Tamblyn explained. “When I met with [showrunner] David Shore and Katie Jacobs, they described this very vague idea they had for a character.”
Wanting Tamblyn’s input to “come up with something really cool,” she mentioned a friend “who really reminds me of this character in a lot of ways. And actually reminds me of House in certain ways.” Tamblyn’s friend is “incredibly brilliant” like House, she noted, “but [also] the opposite. She’s not abrasive in the way that House is. She’s also sort of a social recluse in a certain way. And she doesn’t really know how to socially function, so she doesn’t socially function.”
Shore liked the idea. And while writing the script, he wondered if he might use Tamblyn’s friend’s name. “And it turns out that my real-life friend is a huge fan of House, so she was very excited to give her name to the show. I would say that this character is an exaggerated version of her.” Tamblyn doesn’t think her friend is quite as socially awkward as the Martha Masters character. “She probably is this brilliant though. That’s for sure. But I think that, again, it’s kind of an homage to her.”
Martha is like a breath of fresh air into the House mix. She’s completely different than anyone else in the cast of characters, and she brings a different dynamic and sensibility than any of the characters we’ve seen before. There’s a lot of potential to shake things up just by her presence, especially because House doesn’t quite seem to know what to make of her. “When you’re launching a character on an established show,” Tamblyn noted, “you don’t know if it’s going to go over well—especially a show that’s so loved like this. And its fans are very specific about what they like and don’t like.” But she does seem to have struck the right chord with the most of the fans.
Martha Masters is an anomaly on House’s team. “She doesn’t relate to them. She’s not like one of the guys fitting in. I think that they kind of maybe look at her like a little sister; somebody who can be exhausting, but then also someone they’re kind of mildly threatened by in a certain way.”
Tamblyn also thinks that Martha’s insistence on honesty—as annoying to the team (and House) as that may be is also a defense mechanism. “Martha’s need to stick to the truth, her sense of ethics and the power of truth to her is something that she kind of hides behind,” related Tamblyn. “When she’s just telling someone the facts, you know, she doesn’t have to watch out for anyone’s feelings.”
But reaching beyond relaying the simple facts to patients finds Masters outside her comfort level. Tamblyn feels that “when she’s not talking to patients or when she’s being forced to say something that she doesn’t want to say that you really see it come out in her.” She’s not able to bend the truth “the way that you or I might so as to not hurt someone’s feelings. Martha’s incapable of doing that. And she ends up going off on some tirade about, you know, her period [or something like irrelevant like that]. It’s very funny to watch,” Tamblyn suggested.
In the last episode, “Small Sacrifices,” Martha has a bit of a wake-up call when her she realizes that the truth might have really hurt a patient. She confesses to House that “if I had been truthful with this patient he would have died.” I wondered if that moment may have been a wake up call for House’s young protégé. Would she begin to learn that full honesty is not necessarily a virtue?
“In sticking with the truth of human habits and the truth of human developmental habits,” Tamblyn noted, “I think we always make the same mistakes over. It’s pretty rare that somebody completely changes overnight.”
Tamblyn believes that Martha’s backstory includes growing up in an “academic household, with a very academic lifestyle her whole life. It’s very hard to just suddenly reverse everything you’ve been, you’ve taught yourself and that you’ve been able to hold onto.” Tamblyn does feel, however, that Masters “will continue to grow and regress, and grow and regress, as everybody does. And who knows where that will take her? And what that will reveal about her.”
There’s an interesting dynamic going on between House and Masters, something in my opinion we’ve never quite seen before. Tamblyn thinks House is “fascinated by her. She is annoying and exhausting, and she’s also very interesting to him. I would say she’s slightly off. So that is also something he’s aware of. She’s just not a straight shooter. Even when she’s shooting straight, her straight is sideways.”
Seeing definite similarities between House and Masters, Tamblyn noted that, “both of them are at least trying to get the same result, save a patient’s life, except one goes about it however he feels like it, and the other one will not do that. So you’re sort of seeing the meeting of two minds that want the same outcome, but go about it in completely different ways.”
In Tamblyn’s opinion, House is trying to give Masters a taste of real life—away from academia “It’s like he’s saying not to listen to what you learned in academia and in school. Form an opinion of your own. I wouldn’t say he’s trying to nurture her, but I would say that he’s definitely trying to help her get into the real world. Academia is not the real world. It’s studying for the real world. And so to apply everything that you learn in school to the real world is a bad habit and a bad thing to do.”
Despite the character’s quirkiness and social awkwardness–and although she can be quite annoying at times, Tamblyn likes her new character. “Even though she’s incredibly smart, and can be annoying in her smartness,” noted the actress. “There is a vulnerability about her. You feel like you could just say something about her having no friends and it would crush her. She’s actually not strong in the way that maybe other characters on House are. I mean, certainly not like [Dean of Medicine] Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein), who is a powerhouse. And I feel like a lot of the female characters on House have been that way—and are that way. Olivia’s character (Remy Hadley) as well.”
Tamblyn believes, “it’s nice to have somebody [on the show] who is actually crushable and can be hurt. And though you don’t really see it, I think that if you were to get into a personal argument with her, she would lose, because she’s not capable of understanding those [sorts of] things. You get a sense that there’s a backstory to this person that we don’t know yet. And to me, the greatest and most interesting thing about being an actor is when you get to explore that subtext.”
The character stories on House are often told through layers of subtext. If Martha Masters hangs around long enough maybe we’ll learn more of hers. “Maybe you’ll never find out what all that subtext is, but it’s there,” Tamblyn explained. “Which is how it is with [the character of] House as well and the way Hugh Laurie plays him. That’s one of the reasons why his character is so delicious.”
Is House aware of Masters’ vulnerability on some level, and if so, will he abuse it? “I think he presses her,” Tamblyn responded. “But maybe it’s to a limit. I’m not really sure yet, though. And I’m happy to not know.” She’d rather have her character unfold with few preconceived notions. But how long will her character be around? “Contractually I’m here until the end [of season seven], so I would love to stay to the end,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of avenues we could explore and a lot of things we could explore, and it would be very fun.”
Perhaps even beyond season seven? “I just try to think about the work I’m doing now,” Tamblyn explained. “And when it comes to that point then, you know, it’ll be another conversation. But I think that, I think David Shore is just an absolutely scrumptious individual. And the kind of stuff that he writes for television is the kind of thing that, you know, actors look for their whole life.”
Like others I’ve spoken with on the show, Tamblyn feels the writing process is collaborative. “That’s just a rare thing. You don’t always find that.” But she really credits David Shore for developing her character “I definitely feel the blessing of working for David. And the character is great because 50 percent of it is his. The writers on the show in general are great; they’ve picked up a couple of things I’ve put in there, they start writing it into the script. It’s a very like a give and take relationship between myself and the writers.”
Landing into the midst of a long-established hit television series as Tamblyn has can be challenging in and of itself. Most of the cast has been there since the beginning. “It’s a dream come true,” she said. “You’re coming into a situation where everybody knows what they’re playing, who they’re playing. People are still really energetic and excited about who they’re playing because it’s a great show. It’s not like they’re exhausted with the characters. It’s just like a giant well-oiled machine.”
It’s been a far different experience, noted the actress, than when she’s been involved in launching a brand new show. “With new shows you pour your heart and soul into something that’s only got one wheel on it and you’re hoping you’re going to be able to get it down the highway. Who knows if it’s all going to come together? It’s a very nerve-wracking process.” It’s far more the norm to work on a show and see it cancelled in its first year. And it’s difficult to see those projects fail. “Especially when you put so much energy into it and you see it fall to pieces. I think about the shows just this year that are already gone. You think about all the energy that the writers and the producers and the actors, they all put into it, and it’s heartbreaking. It was like that with the Unusuals [Tamblyn’s last series], which I think maybe three people watched.”
So Tamblyn has enjoyed joining the cast of this long-running hit. “For me it was really great to come in and see that everyone knows what they’re doing and that it’s a well-oiled machine, but you’ve also got Hugh Laurie to just throw in the mix.”
Tamblyn has already had a lot of great scenes with the brilliant Laurie. “It’s incredible. He’s humble and funny and sweet,” she noted, confirming what so many others have revealed about working with him. “My favorite thing to do is make him blush,” she confessed. “Seriously, it’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever seen. He’s just…he’s the best.”
Asked where she would like to see her character go, she joked that she’d like it “revealed that Martha is really Chase. The show isn’t really called House. It’s called ‘The Sequel to Inception’—and Suddenly Martha’s speaking in all the accents.” I can only imagine—although it might make on hell of a great hallucinatory episode for House (the character, I mean!).
Tamblyn said that the funniest moments she’s experienced on set have been “any time spent with Omar and Jesse and Peter. “A lot of it,” she noted, “is really just, I think, ‘boy’ humor, unfortunately, which I can’t share with you, other than to tell you that I feel at home working with all guys. That’s my favorite thing.” She recalled a similar situation working on The Unusuals with Jeremy Renner and Harold Perrineau “and all those guys was like the greatest dream for me. Just something about, you know, hanging out with dudes on set and talking dirty talk. It’s funny. So it’s lots of fun with the guys [on House]. They’re very, very funny. And we crack each other up all the time.”
Tamblyn recently began a blog, which, she admitted “is pretty funny, because I’m so against Twitter. I hate it with a visceral—I’m allergic to it.” Although she intensely dislikes social media, she loves to write and blogging is a way to stay with it. “I have written a couple of books of poetry and prose. So in order to maintain that and motivate myself to write, I started a blog.”
So what do you think of House’s new addition? Let me know in the comments section below. House returns with new episodes in January, but in the meantime, we’ll explore some of the oldies and goodies, as well as dive deeper into season seven.
For those of you in the Chicago area, I’ll be doing a book signing at Something’s Brewing in Grayslake, so stop by and chat with me about House and season seven. I’ll also be appearing on December 13 on the FOX News 2 Morning Show in Detroit to talk House and Chasing Zebras.