“There is this story about John Lennon that’s often told,” she says in a rapid voice, her fingers near a cup of frothy jasmine tea outside an East Hollywood coffee shop. “He was in school and the teacher asked him what he wanted to be in life and he said ‘happy.’ She said ‘you don’t understand the question’ and he said ‘you don’t understand life.’ I am a lover. I love people. That’s just how I popped out of the womb.”
Love, she adds, begets love. And success. “I think because I love so much, I generally have been quite fortunate, but it always has to start with the truth. I can’t do anything that I don’t really believe in, if I want to succeed.”
Born in Silver Spring, Maryland but raised near Princeton, New Jersey, van den Blink attended Peddie High School, where the student to teacher ratio was 6:1, with three male students to every coed. It was a stable and nurturing environment. And a support system became unexpectedly important to her, when her mother died during her senior year.
She took a year off and then chose the women’s college, Barnard, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where she created a literary society.
“I subscribe to Joseph Campbell’s way of living. He says follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where once there were walls.” When she answered an ad for a place to live in New York City, the woman who had placed the ad introduced van den Blink to her daughter — who worked at the William Morris agency and facilitated an appointment for van den Blink to interview at the agency as a potential actress client.
Before her, that day in 1997, sat a table full of agents, she remembers. “I was there ostensibly for pilot season, but one of them asked if I had done theater. I hadn’t. So, of course, I said yes!”
Van den Blink quickly found herself on Broadway as an understudy in The Diary of Anne Frank. “I’m half Dutch. My dad was in the camps. That play meant something to me.”
She took over the role of Margot in Boston after Rachel Minor was injured. Back in Manhattan, she returned to understudying Margot, Miep and Anne. She appeared 18 times as Margot and five as Miep. Her cast mates included Linda Lavin, George Hearn, Harris Yulin and Natalie Portman.
Van den Blink says she and Portman remain close friends despite living on opposite coasts. “After Anne Frank, I stepped away from theater and from New York City. I think leaving was my saying ‘I don’t think I can do what I need to do for my soul in New York.’ It pushes you to be successful. It shoves you out the door and puts a spotlight on you and says do it.”
Los Angeles, on the other hand, was far more agreeable during the years after her mother died. “LA’s like, it’s okay, we’ll all be 70, so spend some time in the sun. And it lets you breathe a little differently. I need both environments, but at that time in my life, with my mom’s passing, I felt like my skin was unzipped and I didn’t want to be shaking like that in Manhattan.”
When Portman was in Los Angeles to film Anywhere But Here with Susan Sarandon, van den Blink joined her. “I was at the Chateau Marmont with Natalie, reading scripts that weren’t mine. Milk shakes. Ping pong. But I decided to take some years off from acting. I went to a writers’ conference and got a grant from the Ford Foundation to write my first book. I’ve always had a bifurcated existence.”
Over the next 10 years she studied at Oxford and, back in Los Angeles, wrote five children’s books: Boom, Sniff, Ouch, Yum and Ow. “The publisher lost its money. The books are all written. Now I just need someone to come in and get them in print.”
Eventually the urge to return to theater became overwhelming and she became Lulu Brud’s producing partner at Little Bird in 2008. Over the next two years, she and Brud discovered they were becoming competitors more than partners (“We were both actresses”), and they would be better off if they split up and if each of them acquired a more business-minded person as a partner. They parted ways in the fall of 2010, and van den Blink opened Little Beast Theatre Company that December.
“Little Beast because of [the William Golding 1954 novel] Lord of the Flies. Always the English major.”
But while she and Brud were co-producing one-act plays, van den Blink asked Michael Weller, whom she knew in New York, to put her in touch with female playwrights. Bekah Brunstetter was his star student. Van den Blink found Brunstetter’s style especially apt for her own generation of women.
“I really feel that Bekah has her fingers on the pulse of how our generation talks. There’s a distractedness about us. There’s a searching. You might ask how I feel and I might go off into a metaphor that seems silly and gauzy but, to me, it’s edging toward the truth.”
Brunstetter (House of Home at Williamstown; A Long and Happy Life upcoming at Naked Angels) is a New York New Voices Fellow through the Lark Play Development Center and was the 2011 playwright in residence at the Finborough Theater in London. She had studied under Weller at the New School for Drama in Greenwich Village and happened to be in Los Angeles in 2008 when van den Blink was producing one of her one-act plays.
“I got to see it and see Kieren in it,” Brunstetter says by telephone on her way to MTV, where she is writing on Underemployed, a new show created by Craig Wright. “I write a lot about a certain type of young woman who’s very confused about her life and loves language and speaks rapidly before thinking about she’s saying,” Brunstetter says. “Kieren is very good about tapping into that. This lady that pops up in a lot of my plays is essentially me. I put myself into imagined situations that I’ve been terrified of being in or have been in before and I get a chance to say what I wish I’d said.”
Van den Blink looks back to July 2008 — when she first worked with Brunstetter. “We did a one-act of hers (I Have It) in a festival. It was a 20-something couple meeting on a blind date. And the girl is extremely vivacious and quirky and funny. I read it and related to her writing.” She vamps, jumping from one thing to another without any focus and without finishing a sentence.
“It’s very hard to memorize that kind of writing but it’s really beautiful because it’s so much like life. We had a benefit performance in 2008 and one of our playwrights is very close friends with Alec Baldwin. He invited Alec to our show and he came. Natalie Portman had come too and we were outside and my best friend, who was there, runs out and says ‘Alec Baldwin wants to talk to you!’ I couldn’t believe she was saying this.”
Van den Blink tells of going inside and seeing the star of 30 Rock. “He was there holding his satchel, looking very professorial and says to me ‘I love your work.’ I told him we were so happy he was there, how much it meant to us. He asked if I’d ever do Saturday Night Live and I said that I just want to work. He said ‘I think Lorne Michaels would love you.’ I was flown out a week later and tested.
The thing about SNL, she says, is that no one gets on the show unless someone goes off the show. “So it came down to me and one other person. I didn’t get it. In fact, I’d just been released a week and a half before I answered a Craigslist ad for a place to rent. The woman answers the door, and she tells me she’s moving because she got a gig at Rockefeller Center and I said, wow, I just tested there.”
The story slows down, as if van den Blink is still trying to believe it. “You know how you have a beautiful camera lens and it goes from fuzzy to crisp? I thought, ‘she’s the one who got the part instead of me. And I’m in her apartment.’ I’d never looked for a place on Craigslist ever before and I haven’t looked for a place there ever since. I made the connection, and she said that Alec even asked her how she got it and not Kieren?”
Baldwin, she says, has become an angel in her life, professionally and personally. So has Ashton Kutcher. He saw van den Blink in Brunstetter’s Happy Birthday/I’m Dead in 2009 — Sam Daly, who’s co-starring in Mine, was also in it. Kutcher “liked it so much that we’re developing it into a short film with [Kutcher’s production company] Katalyst.”
She met Kutcher about five years ago through a friend of Portman’s. “Natalie was living in New York but her friend was out here, studying Kaballah with [Kutcher’s former wife] Demi Moore. [Portman] asked if I was interested in going and I said I was. Very much so.”
Van den Blink describes the Jewish philosophy as “opening up your head and taking a vacuum cleaner to it.”
As one who “always wants to grow,” she read Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People when she was 16. The step into Judaism, she says, began with a realization she found herself too often apologizing to God.
“I had grown up in a Presbyterian church in the ’80s, so there were still hippies and banjos but I would always be saying I was sorry to God and wondering why. It’s like I was 12 again. I mean, God already knows I’m flawed just by virtue of being born, so why am I apologizing for it? I’m sick of apologizing! At Kabbalah, everyone just wants to get over their ego. Everyone just wants to get better. I work on it every day.”
Like Annie in Mine, van den Blink continues to come of age. Kabbalah, a small movie project, another Brunstetter play, perhaps another TV show (she appeared in the TV series Tyranny in 2010 and provided a voice in Wolverine and the X-Men.)
It is all possible now. “I come from a strong family of women. My sister went to Wellesley, but when I was young I had never been inspired or compelled to express myself and know that I truly could do anything. I’d felt success was buried deep in the pages of The Great Gatsby and saved for Jay Gatsby. I didn’t believe it could be me.”
Mine, presented by Little Beast Theatre Company. Opens Feb.9. Plays Thur-Sat 8 pm; Sun. 7 pm. Through March 11. Tickets: $20. Elephant Lab Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. https://www.plays411.net/mine. 323-960-7788.
***All Mine production photos by Chris A. Peterson