Lily James On Playing An Icon In ‘Pam & Tommy’ And Telling A Bigger Story About Celebrity Culture

Much has been said about how actress Lily James was made to look near exactly like Pamela Anderson to play the former Baywatch star in Hulu’s new limited series Pam & Tommy. And that makes sense — it’s a stunning transformation that helps to blur the line between dramatization and assumed reality when watching the show. But it’s merely one element of an amazing performance that seeks to do more than hit the notes about Anderson’s life that linger in the culture-sphere years after seemingly every move she made became tabloid fodder. James isn’t trying to do a caricature or an impression — that’s abundantly clear when you watch the series or listen to her talk about her level of commitment to the part. She’s aiming to pull off something deeper.

In addition to introducing this story to anyone 25 and under who wasn’t glued to E! or the primordial internet in the mid-90s, James and her on-screen Tommy Lee, Sebastian Stan, go all in while playing out moments mined from Pam and Tommy’s impulsive and electric beginnings as a couple. Moments that none of us were privy to. The emotional nakedness when Pam suffers a miscarriage or endures a deposition/legal stoning, the erosion of control, and eventually the loss of a kind of innocence — all of it put onto a screen for us to see, itself an act of voyeurism when you think about it and the lack of an official Anderson co-sign. But perhaps that’s the point or, at least, the purpose?

Uproxx recently spoke with James about celebrity culture then vs now, fading privacy, the pressures of people-pleasing, finding the character that is Pamela Anderson, and the impact an Anderson read on her performance would have on her own assessment of it.

At the start of this, did you have a sense of how intense this was going to be in terms of not just the preparation, but just people’s interest? Because so many people reacted so passionately when the first pictures dropped. Were you anticipating that or did that all kind of take you by surprise?

Lily James: I think it sort of did take me by surprise. Often it does because when you’re working towards something you’re quite blinkered and I get very focused. So you sometimes are blissfully unaware of the reaction. But with this, it did feel extreme. I mean, obviously, Pamela Anderson is so iconic and Tommy and Pamela’s relationship was hugely in view and public. Because of what happened to them, I suppose. Definitely, there was something that came together in this project that was… It felt big, bigger than anything I’d done before.

You mentioned how she’s an icon, their relationship. What’s the most compelling thing about her and this project?

I thought… this was a huge challenge for me as an actor. I really admire Pamela Anderson. I also felt when I read the scripts, I think our writers D.V. DeVincentis and Rob Siegel did an incredible job of exploring what happened to them, but also thinking of it in a wider context. And the show provokes… I think [it] asks questions of us and our own culpability as a society, as an audience… look at how this moment in time has impacted, with the birth of the internet, how we are now behaving as a culture. And it feels pretty big in scale and essential and timely. So I felt there was a lot more than meets the eye when it came to this project.

How did your opinion, your assessment of Pamela Anderson and her place in media culture over the last 25 years change as you went along with this?

A lot. Obviously when you’re playing any role your job is to sort of investigate completely and fully and go as deep as you possibly can into the character or the person or the time that you are exploring. And so this was no different than any other job. And what happened to them was such an unprecedented situation, and the first of its kind, in that this is the first viral video. So seeing what the internet facilitated and how it spread and the reach, it was sort of this beast that was unleashed. So there were no protections in place. It felt like such uncharted territory. So it was kind of shocking to see that, and then also to see within the media the double standards and the way that women are treated versus men. There was so much to explore and analyze… the ways in which we’ve changed and haven’t changed today in the way that we treat people.

Yeah, exactly. The how we haven’t changed was the thing that I kept thinking about. I think people are going to walk away from this thinking that “wow, things used to be terrible” and it really does a good job of, I think, speaking to culture now.

I think so. Sebastian and I have just been doing interviews together and we were talking about how desensitized we are now, even more so than perhaps we were then. And with the amount of ease in which it is to write something negative or tear someone down, or invade people’s privacy on a very normal level, not even in a celebrity culture, there’s such exploitation everywhere you look and that’s really frightening. And I think we have to think of how we behave towards people and our own culpability and perpetuating that. It’s a great reckoning in a way. And often looking back at those stories from the past or our recent history are very useful in unlocking that.

Pam & Tommy Still

Media culture and privacy — what were your levels of concern before this, specifically with your own career and paparazzi? How present are those things in your life?

Well, there are several different parts of that question, as I see it. I mean, I think you’d be very hard pushed to find any woman, but men and women, particularly women in the public eye that haven’t felt that their privacy has been invaded or haven’t felt that they’ve had that kind of exploitation in that way where your private life becomes sensationalized or whatever. That was something that was interesting to look at. And also with regards to the internet and social media and giving away your privacy or privacy becoming a commodity or something that we use… sort of “look at my life” and “look at me doing my shopping” and da, da, da. And I have younger girls in my friendship group or family, and I really worry about girls in their teens and the impact on their self-esteem and where they’re getting their validation from and how we treat other people, and what sort of sells, as it were. It feels really dangerous to me.

So many moments really stand out, the deposition scene is so off-putting and powerful and just such a brilliant performance there.

Thank you.

There’s another moment though when your character talks about people-pleasing and always feeling that that’s basically what she does constantly. Is that something you can relate to as an actress, even again now, 25 years later?

No, never! I never try to please anyone. [Laughs] No, I’m a massive people pleaser. And I think also in a way girls are taught to be nice and to appease and to behave well. And that’s something that’s very ingrained. And so I think maybe that’s part of growing up, but maybe we just need to change the ways in which we look at femininity or gender or whatever it is. It feels like there’s a power balance, obviously, that needs to shift. And that was definitely not something that was hard for me to unlock in myself, the need for approval, which we all have. I think if we’re honest.

Of course. With regard to the script and how this all came together, I know I’ve read where you said you became very protective of the character. Were there moments where you had to step in and make any kind of course correction or push back on anything that was in the script initially?

Well, I have to say, first of all, the scripts were brilliantly written by D.V. and Rob and all the other writers that were involved. It felt to me they’d really done their due diligence. They’d really worked hard and were exploring this bigger story that we’ve talked about, about privacy and exploitation. And it felt like everyone was on the same page about why we were doing this story now and why it deserved to be looked at and exploring the untold story. But having said that, there was also a great collaboration, which was a huge relief to me and hugely important with this particular story to feel like my voice was heard. Both Sebastian and I felt like real custodians of our characters and wanted to, as best as we could be respectful. And so things did really shift and change as we went on.

I know you had reached out multiple times to try and make contact with Pamela Anderson to talk through the role with her, and unfortunately, you weren’t able to connect with her. When you weren’t able to connect, did you think about whether you still wanted to do this? Were there ever any thoughts to walk away from it without that note of approval?

Well, I’d been in involved with the project for quite a long time and trying to make contact was something that was an ongoing process. And in the end, we had to respect the decision… that of her decision not to be involved. And then it was about really trusting the creative team involved, the directors, the producers, the writers. There was this incredible team of people. And I put my faith in them as an actor and believed in this story and what we were trying to do and tried to play Pam as authentically as I possibly could. And I really admire her, I wanted to try to do her justice.

She hasn’t directly spoken about the project, but there have been rumors and secondhand quotes that have indicated that it may have been a hurtful experience. Again, it’s not a direct quote. Her opinion of this, if she ever does speak out about it, how important is that to you, even in hindsight?

Have to separate, what do you mean?

Your read of what you guys did versus if she comes out and isn’t pleased with it or something like that, do you have to separate that, or is it very important to you that she feels good about this project?

Well, no, of course… I think that Sebastian, I both feel that we really, as I said, we wanted to be hugely respectful and honest. I wanted to take care of this story. And I really felt the people involved were there with great heart and great respect. That was our intention: to look after this story. And I gave my all to this. It was constant conversations to make sure we were all on the same page and doing right by the story. And also, later in the show, there were amazing directors that we had Lake Bell (In A World), Hannah Fidell (A Teacher), different women that came on to direct it. And it really felt there was a great intention from us all.

The first 3 episodes of ‘Pam & Tommy’ are now streaming on Hulu with additional episodes to release weekly