Lily James Has Enormous Empathy for Pamela Anderson

The actress opens up about shooting the harrowing 'Pam & Tommy' episode, "Pamela in Wonderland."

pam & tommy, lily james
Lily James as Pamela Anderson in 'Pam & Tommy' | Hulu
Lily James as Pamela Anderson in 'Pam & Tommy' | Hulu

Lily James knew that Pam & Tommy was going to pull the rug out from under its viewers attracted by the promise of '90s kitsch and wild parties at Señor Frogs. "The show really starts out as one thing and it lures the audience in, and then as it goes on, I think it's really asking us to hold a mirror up and to look at our own culpability in this very unhealthy celebrity or media or internet culture that we have," she tells Thrillist over the phone on the day the Hulu series' sixth episode, "Pamela in Wonderland," drops.

It's a brutal half hour—shorter than most of the other installments, but no less captivating—chronicling Pam's invasive interrogation at the hands of Penthouse magazine lawyers, who want to establish that it is their First Amendment right of free speech to publish photos from her stolen sex tape with Tommy Lee after the couple filed a highly publicized lawsuit that catapulted the video from an early internet and word-of-mouth phenomena to the punchline of jokes on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The opposing attorney's strategy in the deposition: Slut shame Pam for appearing in Playboy.

As James' Pamela endures the traumatic questioning, the action jumps back in time showing her fairytale-like origin story, plucked from small-town Canadian obscurity at a football game and granted an audience with Hugh Hefner. It's a showcase for James, who has been proving all season that her work goes far beyond the heavy prosthetics she's wearing for the role. Here, she discusses the experience with Thrillist.

pam & tommy, pam anderson deposition, lily james

Thrillist: What was your reaction when you got the script for "Pamela in Wonderland?"
Lily James: I was so—I guess excited is the word, but maybe not—just so eager, is a better word, to read the script. I knew the plan and I knew that this was the episode that was really going to frame [Pam Anderson's] experience and what that was like. And so I thought they did such a great job in the writing of it, I really did. And we wanted to handle it with such sensitivity and love and represent the truth of what happened and what that kind of violation was, and with the trauma of that. I spent so long with the writers and the director Hannah [Fidell] talking about it and making sure we were all on the same page. It was a heavy one.

Speaking largely through other people, Pamela has been very upfront about not watching the show and not wanting to engage with the story you're telling because it was such a traumatic time for her. What was the process of talking with the writers and making sure that you were representing the trauma, but also representing it in a way that you felt was respectful?
First of all, I really had hoped that she was going to be involved, and I wish she had been. I felt really confident I was surrounded by people who were focused on telling the story honestly, but also with total empathy. We admired her and we felt very protective of her and so every choice we made operated from that place. In the end, I felt I had to relate just as a woman and as a human and I feel like that's when it becomes universal and beyond what happened to her. It felt so necessary to explore this. Not enough has changed since she went through [that]—the double standards, the abuse that takes place by the media, the society as a whole. I just felt like I had to handle it with love and with empathy.

This episode goes back in time before Pamela was the Pamela we know from Baywatch. How did it affect your performance to play her without all the prosthetics and makeup you'd been using?
I spent so long watching her and reading about her and from her own words. My biggest source was from her semi-autobiographical books and her poetry. But in the book Star, there's a throughline which seems incredibly similar to Pam where she talked about her experiences growing up in a small town and what that was like. She really was like that movie star thing: Plucked from total obscurity on a screen at a football game. It's like what Hollywood stories are made of. You can't believe it's true. And it feels so rare now. I know she goes through a huge change and transformation in herself, but it all just felt part of the research of who she is, and so I really enjoyed going back. I really enjoyed remembering what it was like for me before I'd done any work in this industry or before anyone has any idea who you are and what your dreams are and your aspirations before you've been jaded by what it's like.

As body positive as the world is now, it hasn't changed all that much. Women are still held to a different standard. How did you relate to that in these interrogation scenes?
It just felt so unfair, and it does to me every day when you see it play out as a woman or feel it play out as a woman, these sort of double standards or the ways you are described. I feel like we're so eager to reduce women to one thing, one narrative. Society sorts of demands sexuality from women and then it's weaponized against them. There's just so much in it that felt so important to look at and worth provoking a conversation about. It's still just in a very male-dominated space. It can be so cruel. It all makes me feel angry, and particularly exploring what happened to Pamela, it's so heartbreaking. No one should have to go through that. No one should have to sit in that room full of men and defend their choices and be completely and utterly diminished. And it's the fact that it wasn't even just the media, it was the judicial system that wasn't supporting her. It was such uncharted territory. It has never happened before.

What was the process of working with Hannah Fidell on those scenes?
In the deposition, we were there for two and a half days. It was really intense and it's a really hot room built on stilts in the studio and it was really grueling. But Hannah is just the most, again, empathetic, personal director. She's so connected to what's happening in the story and she was so connected to me and I felt like she was supporting me the whole way through. And she would give me little ideas or times when to hold back or to let it [out]. Because Pamela was so strong, we really wanted to portray that toughness and that ability to withstand so much. It was a balancing act of how to navigate all that.

pam & tommy lily james flashback

Let's go back a little bit, because it was surprising when it was announced that you were cast. What were your experiences learning about Pamela and becoming connected to her even though she wasn't involved?
I was as surprised as anyone else when I was cast. But I was so hungry for an opportunity to do something different. When it came to Pamela, I've never worked harder on anything in my whole entire life. I did my best every second of every day and continued to in the edit. I was trying to make sure that we were doing right by her. I spent like five months not breaking out of the accent. I trained for six months to try and make my body even a tiny bit close to her magnificence, which is impossible. But I really committed wholeheartedly and we felt like custodians. Sebastian [Stan] was the same. We both worked so hard together, so we felt by the time we got there, we just watched every clip on YouTube of every interview they've ever done and read everything so that when we got to the day, we could be really playful with each other. And in a weird way, I only met him once before we started shooting and I saw him every day as Tommy and it felt like he was familiar to me because of all the work we'd done. He was such a great support and we were able to be spontaneous and still have fun while trying to hold onto the characters.

How did the makeup and the prosthetics figure into your performance?
I would spend so long, like 15 hours a day, as Pamela and then I would go home and go to sleep, so that I really began to be so used to myself as Pamela. I really stopped seeing it as a transformation and just started seeing it as how I looked and so it was kind of weirder talking like me again. It was letting go of her that was the harder bit in the end. But yeah, there's a time where you have to adjust to everything and you have to be able to act through it. Like, I had to really practice with the teeth in, and the contact lenses mean that your vision isn't quite as good. And so there were definitely huge challenges in just getting used to the technicality of everything. But eventually it just became really ordinary and it all looked so real. I mean, honestly, the work they did was incredible.

You mentioned earlier that the show draws you in with the '90s nostalgia and then confronted with what this crime meant to Pamela. How did you think about that transition?
There was a really great discussion between myself and the writers. We were talking and rewriting and making edits every single day. We knew the shift that was going to happen. That was obviously the most important thing to shift the perspective, and we were holding this mirror for everyone watching and going, "Ha ha ha. You thought it was this? Now take accountability." Look at what really, really happened, the untold story, and a reckoning like we found with Britney Spears. Look at these people where you look back and go, "Holy fuck, I can't believe that we didn't see what was really going on."

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.