It’s been 25 years since since the infamous stolen sex tape of Pamela Anderson and Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee was released onto the new world of the Internet. Misconceptions still abound about the tape, including the belief that the “Baywatch” star and her ex-husband intentionally released it and/or profited from it. Setting the record straight is at the heart of “Pam & Tommy,” Hulu’s new limited series looking back at that time.
From the minute the first photos dropped of Lily James and Sebastian Stan as the titular couple, social media lit up with shocked reactions about James’ full transformation into the “Baywatch” star. As James, who is primarily known for sweet roles in “Cinderella” and “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again,” told IndieWire, she was “gobsmacked” she would ever have popped into the brains of the creative team for a project like this — though she is drawing raves for her heartfelt, sobering performance.
IndieWire spoke with James over Zoom about our tendency to “romanticize” the 1990s, double standards, and our complicity in perpetuating misconceptions about Anderson. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
INDIEWIRE: What do you remember about the late 1990s, especially with regards to the events depicted in the series?
LILY JAMES: I don’t think I was aware of Pamela and Tommy at that time with the tape. I don’t think as it happened that it reached my awareness level. “Baywatch” did! There is a lot to romanticize about that time and then there’s also a lot to learn. There are other things I feel we’ve actually gotten worse. It’s good to look back on it and see where we are and not through rose-tinted glasses.
Where specifically do you think we’ve gotten worse?
How with the birth of the internet, which we literally see happen like this alien; it’s so crazy to think of the world without our phones. It’s so alien to us now. Now, with social media, there’s just so much more access. There’s this compulsion to be on them, to be sharing, to be oversharing, to give away our privacy, to comment without any consequences. In a way that’s desensitized us much more so now than it was in the ’90s. It is slightly different now. Paparazzi, I don’t think they can actually shoot into your house. I think Pamela and Tommy had a lot to do with changing that because what they had to put with is just unbelievable and relentless, so invasive. How do you live your life with that kind of intrusion?
If Twitter was a thing in the ’90s do you think the response to this would have been better or worse?
I do think everyone has a voice on Twitter and no one is really held accountable, so it’s really dangerous. You can use it to just publicly destroy someone. It can be a really toxic environment. I remember we were talking [about] if it hadn’t been the start of the internet — now you can get any facts you want. Maybe there would have been more information about the fact that this tape was stolen, that it was a crime against a married couple. But then perhaps there wouldn’t have been because the narrative is created by whoever’s writing it, and you get in your own echo chamber and the truth is distorted. Perhaps it wouldn’t actually have helped them because it might have been ignored. It’s just wild that this was the first viral video and how that’s impacted where we’re at today.
Were there elements of Pamela that you could relate to?
You can relate to a lot of things purely as a woman because, unfortunately, whether you’re Pamela Anderson [or not] there are moments of sexism, or misogyny, or double standards where you’re not treated the same as your male co-worker. It’s sort of an age-old story. You’re undermined or you’re patronized. Your sexuality is weaponized. It felt like really huge themes that are so understandable and relatable beyond the exact story of what happened to Pamela Anderson.
As an actor your job is to relate and have empathy, and to understand, and be without judgement. And to inhabit another person’s life, or dreams, or thoughts. It’s a weird feeling and it becomes so all-encompassing. I stayed in an American accent for four months. I walked around in a blonde wig I bought at a store. I knew that this was such a huge challenge and so far from me that I really wanted to stay in it the whole time.
Showrunner Robert Siegel mentioned social media’s response to your casting, especially considering your past role as Cinderella. Do you think there’s still a double standard for actresses?
Women are often categorized as you’re the good girl or you’re this [other thing]. It’s a way of controlling or reducing us to one thing. That’s your job as an actress to try and push the realms of what you do. Of being brave [enough] to take characters [who] are not like you and hoping that people take a chance to cast you. I felt so grateful that they [Siegel and Craig Gillespie] believed that I could do this. I was playing Pamela at this one moment in the ’90s [when] she’s at the height of her fame. She’s been doing “Baywatch,” she’s got “Barb Wire,” this huge movie coming out. She’s an actress. Every single person I’ve spoken to that knows her says that she’s the loveliest person and there was something in all her interviews that felt so open and authentic. There was a lot to go off of to inform me.
The series really does illustrate not necessarily the sexual angle of Pam and Tommy’s relationship, but the romantic side. These two did love each other deeply during this period and lot of people tend to forget that in favor of the sex.
That’s a media narrative they create about people. [It’s] also about your on-camera version versus your private person, which as someone in the public eye can be extremely difficult. We’ve been talking about projection. How you project onto people your own point-of-view, or your own prejudice, or your own ideas, the patriarchy, you can go as deep as you want. [We] don’t know these people and how could we? We had to be sensitive and respectful, with open hearts, trying to understand what that might be for the purposes of our story.
Was it easy to enter into the next project after playing Pamela?
I actually did an audition for a job, which I did not get! I sent it to my agents and I was like, “Oh, shit, am I still being Pamela?” It was totally accidental. She hadn’t left me yet. It was such a privilege to be able to play her. All I wanted to do was attempt to do her justice and I always find it hard to let characters go, particularly if it’s real, just because you spend so long doing a TV show. It was four or five months [of playing her].
Do you think society is ready to admit our culpability in what happened with Pamela Anderson during this time?
I’m glad you use the word “culpability” because that was very much our intention with the show was to hold a mirror up to make people look at their own culpability in perpetuating this unhealthy viral internet behavior. We are all complicit and we have to become more aware and sensitive.
The first three episodes of “Pam & Tommy” are available on Hulu now. New episodes will be released weekly.