Becoming Pamela Anderson: Inside Lily James' daily 4-hour transformation on Pam & Tommy
The Downton Abbey alum will be the first to admit that she's not the obvious choice to play the Baywatch star in a retelling of the unbelievable true story of how Anderson and then-husband Tommy Lee's private sex tape was stolen from a safe in their own home and sold and distributed online, becoming the first ever viral video. The 32-year-old English actor tells EW she was "shocked" she was even approached to star in Hulu's limited series as the blond bombshell — and not only because she's naturally a brunette.
But thanks to a highly skilled team on set, the physical transformation (which included a daily four-hour process of hair, makeup, prosthetics, and wardrobe) ended up being the key that unlocked her emotional performance as Anderson in the '90s-set comedic take on the very real, dark drama. "I have to give all the credit to David Williams on the makeup side, and Barry Lee Moe from hair, and the prosthetic team, and my day-to-day makeup artist Abby [Lyle] and Mo [Meinhart], who are the greatest people ever and just so dedicated, so full of love and attention to detail," James says. "And Kami [Lennox], our costume designer, is out of this world."
But James began her metamorphosis into the character long before she stepped on set to get into hair, makeup, and wardrobe for the first episode. Here, she takes EW inside the long, intense process it required to make her become Anderson, which started months before production even began.
There's only so much a fake tan and prosthetics can do to alter a body, so James began working with a physical trainer six months before filming began. "I worked with this amazing trainer, Matt Bevan, who worked with Daisy Ridley as well," James says. "He worked me so hard and I got really fit. I lost a ton of weight." She adds with a laugh, "I've put it all back on again though, unfortunately. But I felt really athletic, which I hadn't done for a long time and there was great confidence that came from that. I feel less self-conscious on a beach now."
Having that newfound confidence in her body helped her discover her own power, which in turn allowed her to portray Anderson's inner strength among the chaos in her life at that moment in time. "It was really wonderful to feel like that, to feel so in my own body," she says. "It was really tough though, but it was rewarding."
Despite the long hours on set, James made sure to keep up with her training all throughout filming. "He would make me do all my work and reading my script on a running machine," she says with a laugh. "And I did boxing with a really cool guy in LA, which I love too, being physically strong like I could literally beat someone up."
When filming began, James would start each 18-hour day in the makeup trailer before the sun had even risen. "I was in the makeup chair at 3:30 a.m., and there would be this four-hour process to get me into the Pamela look," she says, adding that she would always listen to a playlist of '90s music during that time. "Eyes, wig, teeth, there was just a whole process."
After getting her wig cap in place, she'd get her prosthetics applied. And despite how different she looks as Anderson, James reveals there actually wasn't that much prosthetic work needed. "We explored tons of different prosthetics like nose, chin, eyebrows, forehead, but in the end we stripped it back as much as possible," she says, revealing she only ended up needing two pieces. "We didn't want there to be too much of a barrier between me and my expressions. I think they did a really great job. I was really pretty shocked by what they were able to do."
One prosthetic piece did a lot of heavy lifting, however. "The breast piece was amazing," James says. "You would never, never know it wasn't me. It was shocking."
But despite the breasts being a very ... well, large aspect of Anderson's appearance, it wasn't always used during filming. "In the end, because it took so long to put on, I didn't wear it as much as I wanted to," she says. "We sort of cheated with my own boobs and figured out outfits and stuff to camouflage or hide and faked the illusion they're bigger."
There was one massive downside to the chest prosthetic whenever she did wear it, though. "It would be boiling hot — I got really sweaty and my boobs were coming off," James says with a laugh. "I'm English, it's too hot!"
Once a week, James would get a dark spray tan to make her complexion more suited to that of a TV star who spent most of her time filming on a beach in Los Angeles. And every day, she would have additional tan makeup added to even out the color and make sure she was the right shade ... all over her body.
"I just couldn't believe how pale I was before," James says. "I was like, how am I this translucent? I'm so unhealthy. Because I can't tan, no matter how hard I try. I go freckly and a little brown but not really. So I became very good friends with my spray tanner. We were really up close and personal for that job."
While it's not a part of her physical appearance, James knew how important it was for her to find the perfect Anderson voice. "I would watch a lot of interviews of Pamela from that time," she says. "And I have this great dialect coach, Liz Himelstein, and she would do these weird tongue twister exercises with me and we'd work on my voice."
Eventually, James resorted to less proper methods to hone her voice. "Sebastian [Stan, who plays Lee] and I started screaming into pillows because it made our voices huskier," she says with a laugh. "That wasn't such a healthy way to do it but it worked."
The first time James saw herself in the mirror in full hair, makeup, and wardrobe, she was blown away. "I loved it. It was so wild," she says. She ended up going almost fully method on set and stayed in character throughout filming, even talking in Anderson's voice when she would get home each night.
"I used to WhatsApp [call] my friends back home and speak to them about our normal lives but do it in my [Pamela] voice and they were like, holy s---!" James says. "And then I sort of started forgetting what I sounded like because I stayed in the accent the entire time I was here. Only very so often I would start to be British again after drinking a glass of wine. I'd be like, 'Oh, that's me. Hello.'"
She even adopted Anderson's blond hair in her daily life too. "I bought myself a blond wig and I wore it out and about," she says. "I was going to CVS in my blond wig."
After filming ended, James still finds herself adopting some of Anderson's characteristics, like working out and staying strong, in addition to some smaller details. "I still wear my long nails," she says with a laugh, showing off her bedazzled manicure. "They stayed."
Pam & Tommy premieres Feb. 2 on Hulu.
A version of this story appears in the February issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.