Lily is featured on Net-a-Porter to promote her upcoming show Pam & Tommy! This is her first interview talking about the show, and we get to learn how she prepared for the role, the misogyny in Hollywood during the 90s and her similarities with Pamela. Our gallery has been updated with her gorgeous cover photoshoot, and you can read the full interview below.

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NET-A-PORTER — Best known for playing Disney princess Cinderella, the effervescent Lady Rose in Downton Abbey and a free-spirited Donna in Mamma Mia 2, LILY JAMES was not the obvious choice to play Pamela Anderson in Hulu’s Pam & Tommy – as the British actor herself would agree. Here, she talks to EVA WISEMAN about misogyny, privacy and why playing the ’90s Baywatch star has been her most challenging – and refreshingly transformative – role to date

After watching eight episodes of Lily James as Pamela Anderson back to back, it takes me a minute to reaccustom myself with her when we meet. “Hello, hi – how are you?” she asks politely, and suddenly there she is, with all her gentle English rose-ness. Her latest project, Hulu’s Pam &Tommy, follows the fall-out after Anderson and Tommy Lee’s electrician stole their safe and released the private home video locked inside – and ideas of sex, celebrity and privacy were altered forever. Now, almost 25 years later, James has climbed into a prosthetic body suit to tell the story.

The transformation was extreme. This is the actor, of course, best known for playing princesses and the girl next door, always with a certain naive mischief. “I remember once going to the Berlin Film Festival in this amazing pink dress with all these diamonds, but I had an awful urine infection so had to leave the convoy of cars to run over to a petrol-station toilet,” she groans. “That’s my glamorous reality.” When the casting for Pam & Tommy was announced, James’s ability to not just embody the role of a ’90s ‘sex bomb’ but embody her body as well led to outrage in certain areas of the internet. But nobody was more doubting than James herself. “I just had no idea if I could do it,” she considers. And then the photos leaked – and, overnight, the outrage dissolved into disbelief. James, it seemed, had shed Surrey (the English county where she was born), shed her sweetness, slipped into a red swimsuit and become Anderson. For eight episodes at least.

“I’ve never worked so hard,” says James. “I read the books [Anderson] has written, I read her poetry, I can parrot along to all her interviews.” It’s clear from her performance, which veers sensitively from breathless kittening to controlled rage, that James grew to love her. “And then, of course, there was the physical transformation. Slowly, our incredible team found a balance where I resembled Pamela but also felt like I could act through it.” James would be in makeup from 3.30am, putting on the wig, the chest plate, the tan, emerging as Anderson four hours later. “I’ve never done anything where I look very different from myself before. And I’d really like to continue in this vein, because I felt there was something very freeing and liberating in it. There was a bravery that came from that. A courage that came from… disappearing.” What was it like returning to Lily? “I hated it.” She giggles suddenly, surprised at herself. “It was like being stripped of all these superpowers! I’d really enjoyed the physicality and the sensuality, even down to the long fingernails. There was just so much character to hold on to – it was really thrilling.”

The extremity of the transformation meant that leaving Pamela behind after filming took longer than usual. “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. My therapist said that when her husband watches a rugby match, by the end he’s exhausted – your nervous system doesn’t really know the difference, whether it’s him winning a goal or watching it happen. And I think the same happens when you live through someone.”

Whenever James takes a new role, she starts exploring the ways in which she’s similar to the character. Now 32, she’s been working consistently since drama school, making headlines both for her acting (in Downton Abbey, Mamma Mia 2 and Cinderella) and her relationships. But despite both having been wrung through the tabloids, it’s not immediately obvious where the similarities with Anderson might lie. “I love that about acting; you fit into a character, and you realize you’re not as different as you might have thought. You lean in to things in yourself, and discard parts of you that aren’t useful. We were exploring a particular moment in Pamela and Tommy’s life in the ’90s, this absolute lust for love.” She clutches her chest. “This open-hearted, falling into something.” She leans back on her sofa and smiles. Behind her on the wall is a large pink canvas scrawled with the message: ‘The trouble with love is that it lasts forever’.

“It was exciting, thinking about what it meant to be a young woman at the height of her fame.” How has celebrity changed since then? She pauses. “When you look back at some of her interviews from the 1990s, the misogyny is so striking. I mean, it’s changed so much, but…” She lowers her voice, and I wonder if she’s thinking of the week in 2020 when a paparazzi photo of her with actor Dominic West led to James’s friends highlighting the media’s ‘slut-shaming’ of her. “I think it’s more hidden now, perhaps? Anyway,” she adds brightly, “there was a lot in it that I found I could relate to.”

The series joins a new genre of critical histories, from documentaries about Britney Spears to the recent drama about Monica Lewinsky – cultural moments retold as reckonings. “It felt like a challenge. And kind of essential,” she says of the series. “The shaming was so extreme.” She looks at me, quizzically. “Unfortunately, that’s still the case, don’t you think? Women are held to much higher standards and attacked in ways that feel so vicious. Pamela had such wit and grace in the way that she held herself. I admire that strength.” Does she feel she learned anything about how to be a famous woman today? “I suppose that there’s a way of deflecting attention for more worthy purposes?” She shrugs, seeming uncomfortable suddenly. Sorry, she says, she’s nervous.

“This is the first interview I’ve done about this project, and I care a lot about it.” The series has prompted debate online, as it was made without Anderson’s involvement. “I was really hopeful that she would be involved. I wish it had been different,” James sighs. “My sole intention was to take care of the story and to play Pamela authentically.” Did she reach out to Anderson independently? “Yes. And I was very hopeful that we would be in touch right up until we started filming.”

“When you recreate any character, you’re taking on another person’s life without necessarily having all the information, so I really have to put huge trust in the director. But I want to provoke a conversation, and I want to be part of these attempts at change. I realize a lot of it’s 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.” How does that feel? “Scary!”

That ‘conversation’ is centered around the first celebrity sex tape, its ripples having shaped a world where violations of privacy are not simply a problem for actors and rock stars – today, the internet leaves everybody vulnerable to similar exposure. “It provoked an internet and celebrity culture that, now, I believe is just way out of hand,” James whispers. “There is no such thing as privacy now.” Instead of our videos being stolen from safes, “we’re handing them out, constantly sharing our lives – with an audience that doesn’t really care about you. And giving away information to corporations using it for profit. I know a time before that happened, but there are young girls who have no idea. This was a trigger moment that unintentionally sparked a new time… I hope a lot has changed. But sometimes it doesn’t feel like it’s changed quite enough.”

She takes a breath. It’s only recently that James has learned how to slow down. “I’m such a fast person,” she says, apologetically. Before the pandemic, she was going straight from one job to the next, but realized suddenly, “that there are great sacrifices to that. And so strangely, at the start of lockdown, there was a kind of peace.” It led to a pause, and the decision that she wants to take more control over the work she makes – producing The Pursuit of Love reassured her that she’s “really good at it”, and she realized, “I hate doing something and then just handing it over – you get very disenfranchised as an actor in that process.” Control has become important to her. “Especially looking at the state of the world. The total loss of faith in the people leading us is pretty despairing and frightening.”

After James’s late father became a Buddhist, he would take her to a Tibetan monastery in Scotland: “And recently I found spirituality is a good way to come back to yourself.” She has just returned from a retreat in Somerset. “It was about getting into your true, authentic spiritual self, and reintegrating with nature as a way to shed the anxiety and stop feeling overwhelmed. Taking solace, understanding that everyone experiences these things, and we’re all part of,” she waves her hands, “this”.

The other day, she was thinking about what advice she’d give her younger self. “Don’t take yourself so seriously,” she grins. “Try caring less about what people think of you.” Is that a problem for her? She groans theatrically. “Well, sometimes I feel really feisty, like I can take on anything, and other days I feel very fragile.” But, she stresses, that vulnerability is good. “Because it helps me choose work like this.” Work about the things she cares about, like sex and sexism, work that liberates her from her own body. “Work that I find,” and she pauses for a moment, searching for the feeling, “frightening”.

Pam & Tommy is available to stream on Hulu (in the US) and Disney+ (internationally) from February 2


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