Sebastian Stan and Lily James in Pam & Tommy
Sebastian Stan and Lily James
Sebastian Stan and Lily James
Sebastian Stan and Lily James
When executive producer-director Craig Gillespie reached out to Sebastian Stan and Lily James about starring in Pam & Tommy, both actors had a similar reaction: Who, me?
"It was so surreal," says Stan, best known as the Winter Soldier in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
"I was surprised they asked me to do it," says James, a dark-haired Londoner who played Lady Rose on Downton Abbey.
The eight-part series, which dropped on Hulu in February, tracks how a private sex tape featuring rock star Tommy Lee and his then-wife Pamela Anderson was stolen from their Malibu home and widely distributed.
After they processed their surprise, the actors accepted and got down to work. The story of how they transformed themselves into two instantly recognizable celebrities involved not just the devouring of red-carpet interviews, talk-show appearances, concert footage and on-the-fly paparazzi clips, but Zoom sessions with acting coaches, eighteen-hour fasts and grueling workouts.
"It was like every day there was a new battle" once production commenced, James says.
"We'd get there on Friday and wrap at three on Saturday morning," Stan adds. "There wasn't much time for anything else. But I wasn't about to have a five-course meal and then show up on Monday morning and be in a thong."
Pam & Tommy has attracted its share of controversy — Pamela Anderson announced on social media a documentary deal with Netflix to tell "the real story." But it's undeniable that the series — a balancing act of drama with dark comedy and an unblinking portrayal of the public's gleeful ridicule of Lee and Anderson — has viewers rethinking how they reacted to the scandal.
Stan and James spoke with emmy contributor Margy Rochlin; the following excerpts of their conversations have been edited for length and clarity.
Talk about being a Romanian émigré cast as a celebrated heavy-metal drummer, and an Englishwoman playing his equally high-profile Baywatch star wife.
Sebastian Stan: Craig Gillespie — who I worked with on I, Tonya — sent me a text in October 2020. It just said, "Hey, I'm working on the show Pam & Tommy. I think you should play Tommy Lee. Love to talk to you about it." I said, "I don't have any tattoos or play drums. I'm from Europe. I wasn't even here when this whole thing was happening." But I trusted Craig. And I was really excited about working with Lily, so I just jumped on board.
Lily James: When I got cast, everyone was literally so outraged, so angry.
Who is everyone?
LJ: [laughs] That's the amazing thing, isn't it? We think Twitter is lots of people, but it's actually just very loud. It was like, "She can't do it." It was terrifying, but it was also fuel for me, like, "This is it. It's do or die." It motivated the hell out of me. I've really truly never worked harder on anything in my life. I read Pamela's books, her autobiography, her poetry. I can speak along to all her interviews. I stayed in the accent for five months. Sometimes I'd slip out of it, and it would feel like an alien was coming out of me.
You left out how you'd tool around town in a blonde wig and acrylic dentures that approximated Anderson's toothy smile.
LJ: I'd go to CVS and out for dinner in my wig. It really looked like a wig, too. It wasn't a great wig. I hated to be annoying and bring my work home, but it was impossible not to. I felt like I had to give it everything. Pamela was always in my mind. We wanted to be great custodians of them. But it felt good when the first images came up and people were really impressed by our physical transformation [thanks to] our amazing makeup and hair team.
Sebastian, the tats! The eyeliner! The upside-down teardrop goatee! Which was most crucial in helping you feel like Tommy Lee?
SS: The tattoos were a costume in itself, particularly because that was often the only [thing I was wearing]. Walking around in a thong is not necessarily my go-to. But the tattoos sort of held the story. They lasted for about three days, and I'd just walk around with them. The eyeliner was also a huge piece to the puzzle. I'd feel weird without it.
And Tommy Lee's vibrating-tuning-fork energy?
SS: His energy is so high at all times. A really good actor friend of mine told me to try this out: I'd put a little mic in my ear and listen to music through the scenes even as I was doing them. A lot of Mötley Crüe, but also a lot of Guns N' Roses, Poison — as long as it was high energy. I had a playlist of every heavy-metal band from that time period. It helped keep the energy going.
You and your acting coach, Larry Moss, took it one step further. Explain.
SS: I said, "Larry, I'm not a rock star. I didn't speak [English] for the first few years I lived here. I sat at the back of the class. How the fuck am I going to feel like I became famous at eighteen and ruled the world?" And Larry said, "Maybe we should throw a couple things in your pocket." And I was like, "Yeah, just the awareness of feeling like, 'Hey, motherfucker. I'm here.'" So I wore a pair of steel balls in a pouch through the shoot. It was really ridiculous, but effective.
Until the first camera test, you kept your transformations hidden not just from each other, but from the crew. What was the big reveal like?
LJ: That first camera test was really exciting, a pretty memorable moment. It was the first time Sebastian and I saw each other in character, having barely met before. It was amazing because we'd both done so much work independently that when we came together, I felt like we knew each other as Tommy and Pamela. There was a clicking into place. It was like a jigsaw. I felt so supported by him.
SS: There was that moment when we walked out, and the reaction of the crew and the people there was, "Whoa!" Lily and I looked at each other like, "Maybe we can fucking get away with this!"
LJ: We tried a few different outfits. This tight little blue mini and a long beige cardigan and knee-high boots. [Laughs] Walking out in my bathing suit for the first time? Just terrifying. [Laughs] I'm so English. I live in London. I'm very rarely in a swimsuit, other than when I'm on holiday once a year. Suddenly to be on a backlot in [L.A.'s San Fernando] Valley, boiling hot, walking in front of a crew in a bathing suit. I was like, "What's happening? Where am I?"
Sebastian, what did you think when you read the script for episode two and discovered that Tommy Lee's genitals could talk to him?
SS: In Tommy's book, Tommyland, his penis is a character. The dialogue here was so clever. It really felt like a conversation that you'd have with a friend. But how were we going to shoot that? Was it going to work? I had questions.
The answer was CGI, puppetry and Jason Mantzoukas's voiceover! Still...
SS: Well, the conversation was always, "Look, we're going to shoot this. Is it going to be too much? We don't know. We're just going to stay open and see how it is in the editing room." It ended up making it [into the show]. It's a turning point in the story to some extent. It's a guy falling in love, and we hadn't seen him vulnerable yet.
More than half of the episodes are directed by women. Thoughts?
LJ: It felt important to have a very female take on what happens to women in these circumstances — the abuse that takes place, the battle of power between men and women. To have Lake [Bell], Hannah [Fidell] and Gwyneth [Horder-Payton] steering the ship? It was such a support and relief. We were on the same page, all of us, about why we were doing it and what we wanted to say and explore. You can feel it in the show.
I love working with female directors. There're times when you feel so seen. You can disconnect in a way where you feel without boundaries. It's just this shorthand ability to get to the heart of things. You don't have to explain and it's very freeing.
SS: It was great because it shook up the energy a bit. There was some added, much-needed perspective. We were entering tricky waters. There was some dramatic license taken. Lily and I were super-conscious of how we were going to treat [Pam and Tommy's story]. It required some sensitivity, a deeper understanding and a different awareness. Men have often tried to tackle those things, and I don't think they get it. I don't think they know how.
Individually, you reached out to your real-life counterparts hoping to get their blessings. What happened?
SS: On I, Tonya, I got in touch with [Tonya Harding's ex-husband] Jeff, as well. Learning to play somebody who is real, I felt like introducing myself was the decent thing to do. To say, "Hey, I'm playing you. I don't know what you've seen. I was in a Marvel movie. Maybe you think that's crazy — or not." Tommy [responded to my email; he] seemed very kind and appreciative that I'd taken the time to do that.
LJ: I thought it was so important to reach out to Pamela. I think everyone involved was hoping she'd want to be involved. But she chose not to and didn't respond. I had to accept that. I really respect her. I wanted to do her justice, and having spent so long watching her and learning from her made that [rejection] super-difficult.
I can imagine, because from the first frame, the series feels like its mission is to humanize a couple subjected to a gauntlet of humiliation.
LJ: Nobody knew what really happened. So you're exploring a story that people think they know. We like to put people in boxes, especially women, and say, "This is who you are." When I watched the Britney [Spears] documentary, I was like, "Oh, my God, this narrative of her was fed to us, and we believed it because we read about it." And it's so sad now, looking back. It made me feel guilty for whatever our part was in that, and I was hoping that this show could do the same thing.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #6, 2022, under the title, "What Lies Beneath."