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Ambyr Childers has kept a secret from her kids for the past decade. “I told them they have to believe in Santa if they want presents,” she says as a Spotify playlist of holiday music blasts in the background. “My mom told me the same thing.” Sitting on a stool on the fifth floor of a high rise on a sunny Wednesday in Los Angeles, Childers, 31, tilts her head as a makeup artist buffs foundation into her skin. She tells the room she can’t lie (“It’s all over my face”), which is hard to believe given that she kept one of the biggest secrets from the first season of You, Netflix’s psychological thriller in which she plays Candace, the assumed-to-be-dead-but-very-much-alive ex-girlfriend of serial stalker Joe.
For the series’ second season, which drops in its entirety on Dec. 26, Childers has an even bigger secret to keep. “There’s this twist,” she says. And much like Santa, she doesn’t intend to tell anyone the truth. As the conversation around the holidays continues, Childers tells the room what her daughters want for Christmas. Her eldest, who’s 9, asked for an iPhone, while her youngest, who’s 6, wants a toy kitchen. She doesn’t specify who the presents will be from, but in the next few minutes, as Santa comes up for a second time, she makes that answer clear. “By the way, we’re just joking around,” she tells the room. “This isn’t an Elf thing. Santa is real, everyone.”
When she was 9, Childers saw an ad in the newspaper for auditions in Los Angeles. “My dad basically made a deal,” she recalls. “He was like, ‘If you make the all-star softball team then we’ll take you up to L.A.’ And I was like, ‘Done.’” Childers tried out that week and made the team. Her parents drove her one and a half hours from their hometown in Murrieta, California, to Hollywood, where she had her first audition for a Saab Automobile commercial. “From day one I decided I wanted to do acting,” she says. “Everyone was like, ‘Well, what’s your plan B?’ I was like, ‘There’s no plan B. This is what I wanted to do.’”
I’m finding my voice for the first time and that feels really good.
For the next eight years, Childers made the trek from Murrieta to L.A. to pursue acting. In her senior year of high school, she was offered a scholarship to play golf for the University of California, Riverside. She didn’t know what she wanted to study, but she planned to attend. Even if college wasn’t for her, at least she would be closer to L.A. so she could continue to act. That plan changed two weeks before her graduation when she booked a role on the ABC soap opera All My Children. She canceled her admission at UC Irvine, and—after a couple weeks of flying back and forth between California and New York for finals and wardrobe fittings—she moved to New York City.
It was an exciting time, but it was also far from the fantasy she expected. “I felt really lonely. But that’s what I wanted,” she says. “That was a big stepping stone for my emotional growth, from a child into a young adult and working. I think I would have gone through that if I went to college.” As she transitioned from a child actor to an adult, she also had to relearn how to act without the self-doubt of young adulthood. “When you’re a kid, you have this natural sensibility about yourself and being able to perform,” she says. “You’re not so much in your head. I think it’s fairly easy for child actors at the beginning.”
I believe in the power of sisterhood.
Childers’ early twenties also marked her first experience with the male-dominated entertainment industry. She found herself in situations where she wanted to voice her opinion but couldn’t in fear of seeming “bitchy” or “not nice.” “I just didn’t know how to speak up,” she says. “I’m finding my voice for the first time and that feels really good.”
After three years cutting her teeth on All My Children, Childers moved back to California, where she met her then-husband, Randall Emmett (who’s now engaged to actress LaLa Kent), and had her first child. She welcomed her second child three years later. Her career simultaneously took off, as she nabbed roles in films such as Gangster Squad and The Master opposite actors like Ryan Gosling and Philip Seymour Hoffman. She booked a recurring role on the Emmy-nominated series Ray Donovan and even auditioned for Margot Robbie’s character in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. “Margot Robbie fucking knocked it out of the park. She’s such a badass,” she says. She also launched a jewelry line inspired by her grandmother. Childers’ career was where she wanted it to be, but with two young children at home, it wasn’t easy to get there. “Being able to juggle being a good mom and having a career is a very difficult thing,” she says. “It’s doable, but for me, I feel like you’re never doing enough.”
When asked if she ever made a sacrifice for her children or her career, Childers was quick to respond, “Never.” “My kids are my life. Without them, I probably wouldn’t have a career,” she says. For Childers, her daughters gave her career meaning that it didn’t have before. “As an actor, you sit around and you wait for someone to say ‘yes’ to you. They tell you you’re not thin enough. Or you don’t have blue eyes. Whatever it is. Whatever you’re not, that’s really hard,” she says. “Being able to come home to my children has given me such a sense of stability that’s enabled me to continue to do what I love. I’m doing it for them.”
I love the strength that Candace has.
After her role on Ray Donovan ended 2016, Childers confesses that she was in a “weird place” in her life. She was in the middle of a divorce, she needed to support her family and her love of acting wasn’t where it used to be. “I was looking for a job. I needed to feel. I needed to make money, for one, and I needed to do something that ignited my passion for acting again,” she says. “Leaving my children is very difficult. I was trying to find something I’d love to do.” That something came in You, a psychological thriller on Netflix in which Childers plays Candace, the ex-girlfriend of a murderer and a serial stalker named Joe. “I asked for it and the universe gave me what I needed at the time,” she says.
The show, which premiered on Lifetime and moved to Netflix in December 2018, was a hit. Entertainment Weekly reported that the series was watched by more than 40 million viewers in its first four weeks, and the show was picked up for a second season before it even premiered. For Childers, You is a snapshot of the danger of the internet. “I loved how it’s a psychological thriller of a deep microscope into where the world is at today,” she says. “We offer up too much information through social media, and you have to figure out where your boundaries are.”
Maybe she goes and does immoral things. But she has no choice.
However, not everyone views You as a cautionary tale. Since its premiere, cast members, including Penn Badgley (who plays Joe), have spoken out against fans who romanticize the character and his history of abuse and violence. “People have to understand that that is not normal behavior,” Childers says. “You cannot act like that in a normal world. I understand that that’s the fantasy of it. But for me, personally, I wouldn’t want someone stalking me. I don’t get off on someone obsessing over me. That’s not a healthy relationship in my opinion.”
You’s season 1 finale saw Candace return from the dead after viewers assumed that Joe had killed her. Season 2, Childers teases, holds an even bigger twist for Candace, whom she described as the “vigilante” of the season. “The whole idea for her is to protect anyone that Joe is coming after,” she says. “Maybe she goes and does immoral things. But she has no choice. This is not a show about unicorns and butterflies. This is a show about Joe Goldberg going after people, murdering them and putting them in crazy situations.”
I’m allowed to say I don’t like something.
For Childers, Candace’s storyline in season 2 mirrors the “sisterhood” among women in the entertainment industry that formed after movements like Time’s Up and #MeToo. “I love the strength that Candace has. I’m meeting Candace at a time in my life where I’m like, ‘OK. I like that. This is what I need,’” she says. “As women, we can all be too hard on ourselves. I believe in the power of sisterhood. If you can be an example for women out there of coming together and supporting one another, I think we can make a better world in the future.”
This moment in Hollywood is also when Childers feels the most confident to use her voice and make her opinions known. “I don’t think I ever really had a voice in my life until now,” she says. “For me, it’s about standing up for what I believe in and knowing that that doesn’t make you an outspoken, bitchy, not-nice person. We need strong women.”
At 31 years old, Childers has been through more than most her age. She’s the mother of two children. She was married, then divorced and now soon-to-be married again. (Childers is now engaged to tech entrepreneur Jeff Tinsley.) Her life has had its ups and downs, but she’s ready for the next decade because, for the first time, she’s found her voice along the way. You go through so many challenges in your life and you grow from each one. Eventually, it builds to something bigger,” she says. “It’s like an Oprah aha moment. ‘Oh. I’m allowed to say I don’t like something. I’m allowed to be kind and respectful, but still be able to voice my opinion.’”
She takes a second to breathe. “For me, it’s been a slow and gradual change,” she says. “Who knows what I’m going to be like when I’m 40?”
Photographer: Michael Buckner
Hair: Emily Zempel
Makeup: Loren Canby
Jewelry: Ambyr Childers
Shopping Editor & Stylist: Mia Maguire
Entertainment Editor: Jason Pham