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How Lily James Transformed Into Pamela Anderson For Pam & Tommy

Lily James is a British actress best known for wide-eyed, effervescent roles in "Downton Abbey," Disney's 2015 live-action remake of "Cinderella," and "Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again," where she played a young Meryl Streep. Apart from her talent, nothing in those previous roles would suggest that she was the right actor to play Pamela Anderson, the ultimate female sex symbol of the 1990s. Yet in 2020, she was cast alongside Sebastian Stan in the title roles of the Hulu miniseries "Pam & Tommy."

Directed by "I, Tonya" and "Cruella" helmer Craig Gillespie and written by Robert Siegel ("The Wrestler," "Big Fan"), the miniseries centers around the tumultuous marriage between Anderson and Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee (Stan), and the theft and subsequent release of their private sex tape by a disgruntled electrician (series producer Seth Rogen). The scandal was one of the biggest of the late 1990s, raising legal and ethical issues concerning the emerging realms of internet pornography, privacy in an online world, and celebrity rights in response to largely anonymous bad faith actors — all issues society is still grappling with today.

For James, the role required not just a complete physical transformation to resemble Anderson, but a deep dive into her experience and psyche in order to better understand one of the most recognizable celebrities of the past 30 years.


James has admitted that the enormity of the role, embodying Anderson's well-known outer life as well as her less-understood inner life, left her with no small amount of self-doubt. "I just had no idea if I could do it," she told Porter in a wide-ranging interview ahead of the miniseries' February premiere. "I've never worked so hard."

James wasn't alone in that skepticism; when she and Stan were announced as the show's leads in December 2020, the casting notice left many fans confused and doubtful, with James bearing the brunt of the online skepticism. While some responses focused on her past roles in British period pieces and romantic comedies, making her an odd fit on paper as the "Baywatch" star, others focused on her looks, sometimes taking the opportunity to make lewd and sexist remarks about both James and Anderson. Responses like these are a reminder of how little has changed in the 25 years since the sex tape scandal erupted.

Media Misogyny

As she began researching her role and delving into Anderson's life, James was shocked by the sexist tone of Anderson's media coverage. "When you look back at some of her interviews in the 1990s, the misogyny is so striking."

Indeed, many of Anderson's interviews at the time, even supposedly friendly environments like Jay Leno's "Tonight Show," seem determined to discount her accomplishments, treating the idea that there is in fact a brain powering her body like some sort of novelty. She was often regarded as a body to be lusted after — and sometimes not even a whole body. "I'm not talking about my boobs — that's very 1999," she said in a 2013 interview with London's The Guardian. "You know people project boobs onto me." But even in that interview, the writer cannot help but frame Anderson's 1990s heyday as unmitigated sleaze and treat her intelligence as a parlor trick: "Amazing, I say, here I am expecting to meet pin-up Pam and here she is, renaissance woman."

Pamela Anderson, Author

James' research continued; "I read the books [Anderson] has written, I read her poetry, I can parrot along to all her interviews." It might come as a surprise to casual fans that Anderson has a surprisingly varied body of published work, including two novels and a sex guide for married couples.

In 2004 Anderson and ghostwriter Eric Shaw Quinn wrote "Star," a thinly veiled memoir about a small-town girl swept up in the glitz of Tinseltown; a sequel, "Star Struck" followed in 2006. In 2015 she co-wrote "Raw," a collection of black and white photography by Emma Dunlavey paired with poetic musings about Anderson's life. The 2018 book "Lust for Love," authored by Anderson and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, operates as both an intimacy guide for couples and a screed against pornography.

In a 2019 interview with Porter, Anderson claimed to be working on an as-yet unpublished book called "Saving Feminism from Feminists," a title which would seem to be in line with some of her more controversial views on feminism in a post-#metoo society.

Her Own Experience

James did not have to rely solely on archival material and research on Anderson's life, though; she had her own experiences as a young woman in show business to turn to — specifically, the experience of being hounded by tabloid press. In October 2020 paparazzi caught James and her "The Pursuit of Love" co-star Dominic West enjoying what appeared to be a romantic afternoon sightseeing in Rome; West, 20 years James' senior, has been married to Irish architect Catherine FitzGerald since 2010.

While West and FitzGerald performed damage control in the wake of the scandal, James chose to lay low, only speaking about the incident publicly several months later — and even then, only to say that she wasn't ready to discuss it. Still, the experience was a hard-earned lesson in how the press can treat celebrities, and especially the double-standard in scrutiny and judgment that women face. "Women are held to much higher standards," she said to Porter, "and attacked in ways that feel so vicious."

Hair and Make-up

Mentally preparing for the role was only part of James' job. There was also the physical transformation that needed to take place. Anderson, in the era that the show depicts, was one of the most photographed and recognizable women in the world, appearing in magazines, on calendars, and in countless talk show appearances, not to mention her television work on "Baywatch," in the film "Barb Wire," and other projects.

The task of transforming James into Anderson fell to a team of hair and makeup artists, including wigmaster Barry Lee Moe, who utilized 25 different wigs over the course of the series for James and co-stars Seth Rogen, Taylor Schilling, and Nick Offerman (Sebastian Stan, as Tommy Lee, wore his own hair). James' day would often begin at 3:30am, as Moe and the rest of the makeup team applied her wig, tan, fingernails, and a prosthetic chest piece. The process could take anywhere from three to five hours, after which James still had a full day of filming to complete.

Disappearing Into the Role

The effect of such an involved makeup routine was transformative for James, as if by looking so much like Anderson on the outside she was imbued with a measure of the strength and grace she saw in Anderson, both in the script and in real life. "I've never done anything where I look very different from myself before," she told Porter. "There was a bravery that came from that. A courage that came from ... disappearing."

Likewise, removing the costume and makeup had a flattening effect. "I hated it. It was like being stripped of all these superpowers! I'd really enjoyed the physicality and sensuality, even down to the long fingernails. There was just so much character to hold onto — it was really thrilling."

The transformation amazed her co-stars as well. Sebastian Stan recently told Entertainment Tonight that "the first time [he] saw her [out of costume] was actually at the end of the shoot five months later, and [he] was like, 'Who are you?'"

Looking back, James relished the opportunity for such a full-body transformation and is eager to try the same approach to a new role. "I'd really like to continue in this vein, because I felt there was something very freeing and liberating in it."

Baywatch Recreated

If there were any doubts that James could pull off playing Pamela Anderson, they were put to rest in May 2021 when UK tabloid the Daily Mail published leaked photos of James on set in Malibu, recreating a scene from "Baywatch." Dressed in Anderson's iconic red one-piece bathing suit, the photos show James rehearsing a run on the beach, and as "Baywatch" fans will attest, slow-mo running on the beach was a cornerstone of the show's appeal. The article includes a side-by-side comparison of James and Anderson to show off just how uncanny the recreation is, plus a side-by-side of James on set and James in real life (using a somewhat unflattering candid shot).

Anderson was on "Baywatch" from 1992 to 1997, cast almost by accident when she tagged along with then-boyfriend David Charvet to an audition. The show catapulted Anderson to stardom; at one point in her time as a cast member, it was the most watched program in the entire world. The character, ace lifeguard C.J. Parker, was written around Anderson; her personality and backstory, Anderson would later tell Porter, was "basically me — a hippie kind of bohemian life, a girl who loved animals and wanted to be at the beach."

Pamela Anderson's Involvement

The miniseries is part of a recent spate of films and television shows examining 1990s scandals from a fresh perspective, often reevaluating a woman scorned at the time by public opinion. Gillespie's own "I, Tonya" fits this description, as does "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" starring Jessica Chastain. FX's "American Crime Story: Impeachment" examined the Monica Lewinsky scandal with the participation of Lewinsky herself, who served as an executive producer.

Neither Anderson nor Tommy Lee were involved with the making of "Pam & Tommy," however — a point of contention for some, including James. "I was really hopeful that she would be involved," she said of Anderson. "I wish it had been different." 

James has said that she reached out to Anderson before production began, but Anderson never responded to her inquiry. In the absence of Anderson's participation, James put her trust in the script and her directors. "I realize a lot of it is incredibly sensitive and difficult. And so, as an actor, to a certain extent, what you do is make yourself very open to talk to all of that."

For his part, Lee has given the miniseries his blessing. "It's a really beautiful story."

Lingering Controversies

Despite Tommy Lee's approval, the indie pedigree of its creative team, and the buzz surrounding the performances of James and Stan, not everyone is supportive of the miniseries. An editorial in Vogue published in November 2021, around the time that the show's first teaser trailer was released, takes issue with nearly every element of the show, from the way its comedic tone appears to gloss over Lee's history of domestic abuse against Anderson, to Anderson's lack of participation, to the idea that the show will re-introduce the sex tape to a new audience who may not have even been aware of its existence.

Anderson's lack of involvement is perhaps the most glaring red flag. She has yet to comment publicly on the miniseries, though a "close friend" has claimed that she is deeply offended and has vowed to never watch it.

Though an anonymous report to a tabloid should be taken with a grain of salt, other friends of Anderson's have taken offense on her behalf, most notably rock star Courtney Love, who wrote a scathing public response to the filmmakers' request to use a picture of her in the series. "I am so f***ing disgusted by this," Love wrote in a May 16, 2021 Facebook post that has since been deleted (via Us Weekly). "[The sex tape] destroyed my friend Pamela's life. Utterly." Love also took direct aim at James for her involvement: "And shame on Lily James whoever the f*** she is."

Leaving the Role Behind

In her interview with Porter, James discusses the difficulties of leaving the character of Pamela Anderson behind once filming was complete. "It takes a while to let a character like that leave you. In the past, I maybe felt too modest to believe that I might inhabit a role so greatly that it would impact on me, but it really does." She relates an anecdote told to her by her therapist, about how the therapist's husband becomes vicariously exhausted when watching rugby matches, as if he himself is playing. "I think the same thing happens when you live through someone."

It may have been difficult for James to leave her role behind because her physical transformation into Anderson was so complete, but it may also have been because in many ways we are living in the world that Pam and Tommy's sex tape created. In the 25-plus years since the Lees' electrician stole their safe containing a honeymoon VHS tape, notions of privacy have been upended, with so many people's personal details (sexual or not) posted willingly online for public consumption and corporate gain. "This was a trigger moment that unintentionally sparked a new time," James said. "I hope a lot has changed. But sometimes it doesn't feel like it's changed quite enough."