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Lily James hoped to ‘disappear’ into Pamela Anderson. Instead, she saw herself

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A portrait of Lily James.
Lily James plays Pamela Anderson in a new Hulu docuseries, “Pam & Tommy.”
(Ryan Pfluger / For The Times)

When she agreed to play Pamela Anderson, Lily James expected she’d eventually receive the “Baywatch” star’s blessing.

“Pam & Tommy” was, after all, about consent — an exploration of the disturbing privacy violation Anderson and her then-husband, Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee, suffered when their sex tape was stolen in 1995 and subsequently distributed online.

But as the start of production on the Hulu series approached last spring, inquiries to Anderson remained unanswered. Not only did the 54-year-old choose not to be involved with the miniseries but she apparently opposed its existence altogether. Tabloid reports, citing sources close to the actor, claimed she found the series “very painful,” calling it a “cheap knockoff” she’d never watch. A month into production, Courtney Love said on Facebook that the tape had “destroyed my friend Pamela’s life,” arguing the show was “further causing her complex trauma.”

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“And shame on lily James,” Love added, “whoever the f— she is.”

Devastated: That’s who James now was. The 32-year-old had spent the better part of a year transforming into the former Playmate, only to be left wondering: By making a TV program about how Anderson was exploited, was James simply adding to the exploitation?

“I’m really sensitive to it,” she said, trying to rub out a stain from coffee she’d just spilled on her dress. “I just know that my intentions — our intentions — were good. I would never have come on board if I didn’t think it was a worthy story to look at in order to provoke a conversation about how we treat women.”

It’s a thorny topic — one she continues to grapple with. Five days after our interview, James sent an email saying how much the issues raised in the conversation had “been on my mind.” She said she’d only learned that Anderson wouldn’t be involved “quite late in the process,” and though she was “incredibly disappointed,” she’d channeled her feelings into a heightened sense of “responsibility to do absolutely everything I could to try and do her justice.”

An actor plays Pamela Anderson in a miniseries
James, seen here in “Pam & Tommy,” was hopeful that Anderson would speak to her for the miniseries but never heard back from the “Baywatch” star.
(Erin Simkin / Hulu)
James seen as Cinderella in Disney's live-action feature inspired by the classic fairy tale of the 1950 animated masterpiece.
(Disney)
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It’s cast a shadow over what is otherwise the biggest moment in James’ career to date. For the past decade, she has largely played amiable, pleasant types: the lead princess in Kenneth’s Branagh’s live-action “Cinderella,” the younger version of Meryl Streep in the “Mamma Mia!” sequel, the waitress on the run in “Baby Driver.” But though she’s appeared in around 20 films, she’s not uniformly identified with any one performance.

“Pam & Tommy” should change that. As Anderson, James is both sweet and audacious, embodying the wide-eyed, 20-something Canadian who at once relished an invite to the Playboy mansion and fought to make her collaborators on “Baywatch” and the 1996 film “Barb Wire” see her as more than a body to push and prod.

“This is a game-changer for Lily,” said Lake Bell, who directed her in two episodes of the series. “I see her ferociousness. She knows how to exercise restraint, and she knows when to release the storm inside. People don’t know that yet about her.”

James had been mulling a metamorphosis when she was approached about “Pam & Tommy,” which co-stars Sebastian Stan as Lee. She’d recently gone up for a dark, complex character only to be told by the director that she was “too likable.” She took it as a sign that she needed to mix things up.

“I was feeling fed up, like I was repeating myself, or boxed in,” she recalled. “‘You’re so likable’ is diminishing, in some way. That’s not a compliment.”

Portrait of actress Lily James
(Ryan Pfluger / For The Times)
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Lily James.
(Ryan Pfluger / For The Times)

James, who was raised in Surrey, England, about an hour from the home she recently bought in north London, was a prototypical theater kid. At her performing arts high school, she wrote out all the lyrics to the songs while watching “Grease” and had a Marilyn Monroe boxed set. After graduating, she studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, whose alumni include Michaela Coel, Daniel Craig and Jodie Whittaker.

Acting was also in her blood. Her grandmother, Helen Horton, was an American-born actor who voiced the “Mother” ship computer in Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” Her father, Jamie Thomson — who died from cancer in 2008 — was a performer too. In the 1970s, he lived on Sunset Boulevard and made ends meet as a waiter. After a car accident left his face scarred, he found a new niche as a character actor playing gangsters.

“My dad was such an artist — I barely ever heard him speak in his voice. It was always accents, always stories, always songs,” James said. “He was a clown, though. I’m less of a clown. I really want to do a comedy. My dad was freakin’ hilarious. I’m only funny by accident. I feel like when I watch movies I’m in, I’m like, ‘Oh, they cut my joke,’ which can’t be a good sign.”

James is prone to taking casual jabs at herself like this, and those who have worked with her say she is often her own harshest critic. To prepare for “Pam & Tommy,” the actor trained with dialect coach Liz Himelstein for six weeks prior to production. She also requested Himelstein’s presence on-set, and the two would run lines and do tongue twisters or consonant drills in James’ trailer while she was having her hair and makeup done.

“She was very hard on herself,” said Himelstein. “She would say a line and then say, ‘Oh, that doesn’t sound right.’ I said, ‘It actually does.’ And she’d say, ‘Oh, I need it again.’ I said, ‘Fine, let’s do it again.’ But I’d tell her: ‘Oh, my God. My darling, you are nailing it.’”

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A woman holds up a glass of champagne while dancing at a club
James said she was “fed up” with being told how “likable” she was as an actor before taking on “Pam & Tommy.”
(Erin Simkin/Hulu)

James spent hours watching every interview she could find with Anderson on YouTube, notating her pace, tone and inflection. Then on her iPhone, James recorded herself mimicking the interviews and saved the files for reference.

“So like this one,” she said, hitting play on one of the clips, “it’s Pam’s main note. I would use these to find her pitch on the piano.”

During the four months that “Pam & Tommy” filmed, James went full Lady Gaga, speaking only in Anderson’s Malibu-influenced cadence. (“Except when I would get a little drunk. That’s when it was like, ‘Oh, that’s what I sound like. Back to my extremely dry sense of English humor.’”)

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In person, James bears little physical resemblance to Anderson. She’s a brunet with a slight frame who rarely tousles her hair or wears heavy eyeliner. So while she spent six months working out with a personal trainer before sporting the blond’s iconic red swimsuit, much of James’ physical transformation was aided by prosthetics. She was cast without having to do a screen test, and the first time production tried out different looks on her, it didn’t go well.

“I looked Italian,” she said, laughing. “I was panicking, like, ‘I can’t do this.’ I looked nothing like Pamela Anderson.”

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When the team nixed a cheap blond wig and stopped shaving James’ eyebrows, she recalled, things started to improve. She wore two prosthetics on her face, but the majority of the Anderson effect was achieved through makeup: shaving down her nose, using contour and shadow to make her cheeks look fuller, adding liner to plump up her lips. To complete the transformation, she wore long fake nails, colored contacts, fake teeth and a chest prosthetic. She also bleached her eyebrows and got weekly spray tans for the entirety of shooting.

She found the smoke and mirrors to be both a support and a hindrance.

“Sometimes it felt like this amazing armor that you could hide [behind] and disappear inside of,” James said. “And other times all I could think was: ‘No, wait, but that doesn’t sound like her.’”

James also felt conflicted about watching the sex tape — less explicit parts of which are emulated in “Pam & Tommy.” Asked if she’d viewed the tape in her research, James demurred.

“It’s not that I don’t want to say — it just makes me feel really uncomfortable because it’s a really difficult subject to talk about because of the damage it caused to their lives,” she said. “The show does so well at exploring the problems and consequences and repercussions of it, so in a way I want the show to explore that rather than me giving any answers that become tricky and uncomfortable.” (Craig Gillespie, a director and executive producer on the project, clarified that after extensive conversations with James, the team decided only to pull from the tape on an “emotional level” and not use it to guide “anything sexual” in the series’ depiction of Anderson and Lee.)

Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee look affectionately at each other
Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee had a self-recorded sex tape stolen from their private home safe in 1995.
(Steve Granitz/WireImage)

James said she gained the deepest understanding of Anderson through reading her 2015 book of poetry, “Raw,” and letters she wrote in support of animal rights. She also related to the ways Anderson was “minimized and patronized” because of her gender and sexuality.

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As “Pam & Tommy” emphasizes, the dissemination of the sex tape was far more damaging to Anderson’s reputation than to Lee’s. Because Anderson had posed nude in Playboy and wore a bathing suit on television, the tape was used to further characterize her as a sexpot without substance or ambition. Lee, meanwhile, was applauded for his large genitalia and further idolized as a womanizing rock ’n’ roller.

James herself has faced public scandal in her personal life. In October 2020, the Daily Mail published paparazzi photos of her and married actor Dominic West, her co-star in the Amazon series “The Pursuit of Love,” intimately embracing in Rome. Days later, West kissed his wife in front of photographers outside his home in London. “Our marriage is strong and we’re very much still together,” read a note the couple tacked to their home.

At the time, James said nothing about the incident, and she still isn’t ready to talk about it more than a year later. Asked if she felt she’d been slut-shamed by the media in ways similar to Anderson, she tried to avoid any allusions to herself.

“I just feel that, sadly, this question and this conversation is ongoing, because it happens to women all the time,” she said. “There aren’t many women in the public arena who don’t feel like their privacy has been violated. And so that was something I really wanted to look at, because it’s incredibly damaging.”

An actor playing "Baywatch" star Pamela Anderson runs down the beach in a red swimsuit
James worked out for six months, bleached her eyebrows and wore a chest prosthetic to play Anderson.
(Erica Parise/Hulu)
A woman and a man in dark glasses make their way through a throng of press
Lily James, seen here opposite co-star Sebastian Stan as Lee, says she doesn’t think there are many “women in the public arena who don’t feel like their privacy has been violated.”
(Erin Simkin/Hulu)
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So did she take on “Pam & Tommy” in an attempt to explore the issue?

“No, I signed onto this two years ago,” she clarified. “I worry about not articulating myself properly — especially when things get written down and that’s your statement to the world. I would much rather explore what I feel through my work. Like, even now, we’re talking about my private life when I really want to be talking about work and in a way, that’s what we’re exploring in the show.”

Without going into detail, Bell said that she and James — “like most women in our industry” — connected through discussions of the “theft in female image, bodies, and sense of safety and comfort.” In 2014, Bell had nude images of herself stolen and distributed as part of a large-scale celebrity hacking effortreferred to as the Fappening.

To accompany the premiere of Hulu’s ‘Pam & Tommy,’ we’ve compiled a timeline of key developments in the saga, with Times coverage.

Feb. 17, 2022

“Coming into this story, one of the first things I said was that I felt almost like I was being triggered,” she said. “From one perspective, you could say that the creators of this show are cis, white males, but in the same breath understand that there were strong creative forces who were women who’d been through very similar situations. And we had a responsibility not to exploit Pam once again.”

Bell said she and James have a potential collaboration in the works, and the actor said she’s eager to produce more of her own work in the future. She admires performers like Helena Bonham Carter and Amy Adams, who do not display a particular allegiance to any genre. In college, James said, one of her favorite teachers drummed into her head that “repetition is the death of creativity.” The instructor was so insistent upon the lesson that students were never allowed to sit in the same seat twice.

“I never want to rely on certain attributes or characters that feel as if they come more easily to me,” she said. “I am happy with the roles I’ve played to date, but I just want to keep going to the opposite ends of the scale now. I’m hooked.”

An actor poses sensually with her eyes closed
James, 32, had her own privacy invaded in 2020, when paparazzi took photos of her intimately embracing the married actor Dominic West.
(Ryan Pfluger/For The Times)
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She’s also committed to taking care of herself offscreen. Last year, she began meditating and seeing a therapist and a shamanic healer, with whom she consults over Zoom.

One of her main goals was to work on “switching [her] head off,” quieting the voice offering constant criticism. She’s looking for things to root her in a profession where she often feels unmoored — playing someone else, growing close to new people only to leave them, living in a strange place, not seeing friends or family.

That’s part of why talking about Anderson feels so tender. She wouldn’t ever want to betray someone who now feels like a part of her.

“It’s strange and surreal to have spent so long studying and learning from someone and never having met them. I want to be thoughtful and sensitive always,” she said. “However, I’d much rather talk about difficult, nuanced issues in relation to and through my work. That is how I want to express myself.”

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