They were rich, famous, good-looking and they lived life in the fast lane. Actress Pamela Anderson and rock star Tommy Lee met on New Year’s Eve, 1994, and Lee became obsessed with Anderson, a global superstar and sex symbol due to her role on the hit television show Baywatch. Lee followed her, without her permission, on a trip to Cancun and three days later they were married. But a leaked sex tape turned everything upside down. The love story between Anderson and Lee was big business. The tabloids fed on their ups and downs but it turned out that all that glittered was not gold; far from it in fact. The Disney+ show Pam & Tommy, the first three episodes of which aired this week, focuses its attention on the circumstances under which the most famous sex tape of the 1990s was recorded and leaked, and the consequences it had on everyone involved in the case.
Beyond the fascination of the recreation of the story, which was present in one way or another in the minds of everyone who was alive during those years, Pam & Tommy opens with a slightly surreal anecdote. A disgruntled electrician working on the renovation of the couple’s mansion orchestrated the robbery of the safe in their garage, in which unbeknown to him the famous tape was stored. And he did so while disguised as a dog. That is the version of events laid out in a 2014 Rolling Stone article by Amanda Chicago Lewis about the events surrounding the emergence of the tape, and which serves as an entry point for the series to ruminate on privacy, the media and social and personal responsibility in cases such as Anderson and Lee’s.
Craig Gillespie, the Australian director of the Oscar-winning biopic I, Tonya, had already employed a curious mixture of drama, black comedy and thriller tropes to tackle the real case of the US ice skater, which also dissected aspects of wider American society, and he used a similar tone behind the camera of the first three episodes of Pam & Tommy. “I liked the idea that we would all be going into this series with some preconceptions, some things that we know. You start to watch it and you think it’s all insane. But then you get hooked and you start to find layers. I think a lot of people will approach it with the feeling that it’s going to be something very shallow, just a bit of entertainment. But you really start to feel for the characters and you set off on an emotional journey with them,” he tells EL PAÍS in a video call.
To embark on this journey from madness to the emotional and reflective, it was necessary to find Pam and Tommy. An almost unrecognizable Lily James (Downton Abbey, Cinderella) and Sebastian Stan, best-known for his role as the Winter Soldier in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and who was also cast in I, Tonya), were transformed by hair, make-up and prosthetic work into the star of Baywatch and the drummer from rock band Mötley Crüe. James spent a minimum of three hours a day being turned into Anderson. Stan had to have Lee’s tattoos repainted every few days, in sessions that would last up to four hours. “I hardly ever saw Lily out of make-up. I saw her at the end of the series and she had always been wearing the make-up, the prosthetics and the blond wig. It was an incredible transformation, you couldn’t see Lily underneath it all,” says Gillespie, who has nothing but praise for the actors.
When he joined the production, James had already been cast as Anderson. “They were looking for an actress who had the ability to completely transform herself and she has done an amazing job. There is a lot of prosthetics, but there is also body language and catching the accent, things she worked very hard on,” he says. Gillespie already knew Stan from I, Tonya. “He is a tremendously versatile actor; he nailed this mixture of comedy and drama that I do.” Gillespie also praised the work of Seth Rogen, who plays Rand Gauthier, the hired electrician who as a response to being belittled by Lee (who threatened him with a shotgun at one point) while working on his Malibu mansion, decided to empty the safe that contained the tape and then set about distributing it, firstly through home-made video copies and later, via the fledgling internet, where it became one of the very first viral sensations.
The insane part of the story that the director makes reference to reaches its climax in the second episode, which covers the beginning of the relationship. At one stage, in between sessions of wild sex, the drummer has a conversation with his own penis, which is voiced by actor Jason Mantzoukas. It is a scene inspired by a passage in Lee’s autobiography, Tommyland. For the shoot, an articulated penis controlled by four puppeteers was employed. “It was an incredibly complicated scene for an actor; it’s not easy to get the viewer to remain invested in the story after that. These kinds of scenes demand everything from you, but I knew that Sebastian would come into the scene with his emotional depth intact, and however weird it was to shoot it, he would do it in the most sensitive way possible,” says Gillespie.
Pam & Tommy has changed how Gillespie views what happened back then. “All of us at that time were aware of it, people were talking about whether they had something do with it… they were everywhere, in the press, on television, on the talk shows, but I never really gave it that much thought. When I started research for the scripts, it was incredible to see how victimized they had been, how they had become lost in the process and how the media took advantage of the story without any concern for their lives.” The director hopes that the change produced in him will extend to viewers as well. “It is a great opportunity to make a comment on complicity as a society, how we consume information, how we have all these media outlets that feed it and how we demand it at the same time.”
Neither Pamela Anderson nor Tommy Lee have been involved with the development of the series and its producers don’t know what Anderson thinks of it. Showrunner D.V. DeVincetis told Entertainment Weekly: “We particularly wanted to let Pamela Anderson know that this portrayal was very much a positive thing and that we cared a great deal about her and wanted her to know that the show loves her. We didn’t get a response.” Other US media have claimed that Anderson is not happy about a traumatic period of her life being dredged up. On the other hand, the show’s producers were not concerned about Lee’s lack of involvement in the show. “Tommy is a public figure and I think we treat him well enough,” DeVincentis told Entertainment Weekly. “And we’ve come to know that he’s excited about the show.”
For Gillespie, showing the most human side of the protagonists was important. “They lived a life of excess at that time, they fell in love in four days in Mexico… as much as possible, I wanted to keep things realistic, down to earth, so that we could understand the humanity and how much they loved each other. That had to come from a real place, even if some of the situations were crazy.”
In some way, the series appears to want to make amends for what Anderson went through and the most emotional part of the story is centered on her. As new episodes are aired in the coming weeks, the effect the leaked tape had on her personal and professional life will be brought to light. “I can’t imagine… I can’t speak for her, but we have tried to approach the subject with empathy. It seemed like this was a good time to take a look back at it,” says Gillespie.