The Downton Abbey star will be the first to admit that she is not the obvious choice to play the Baywatch star in a retelling of the incredible 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 viral video.
The 32-year-old English actor tells EW that she was “shocked” to be approached to play the blond bombshell in Hulu's limited series — and not just because she's naturally a brunette.
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 genuine, dark drama, thanks to a highly skilled team on set.
“I have to give all of the credit to David Williams on the makeup side, as well as Barry Lee Moe from hair, and the prosthetic team, and my day-to-day makeup artists 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 our costume designer, Kami [Lennox], is out of this world.”
However, James began transforming into the character long before she arrived on set to do her hair, makeup, and wardrobe for the first episode. Here, she takes EW inside the long, intense process of becoming Anderson, which began months before production.
Because a fake tan and prosthetics can only do so much to alter a body, James began working with a physical trainer six months before filming began. “I worked with this incredible trainer, Matt Bevan, who also worked with Daisy Ridley,” James explains.
“He worked me so hard that I became extremely fit. I lost a significant amount of weight.” She laughs, “Unfortunately, I had to put it all back on again. But I felt athletic, which I hadn't felt in a long time, and it gave me confidence.
On the beach, I'm less self-conscious now.”That newfound confidence in her body helped her discover her power, which allowed her to portray Anderson's inner strength amid the chaos in her life at the time.
“It was wonderful to feel that way, so comfortable in my skin,” she says. “It was difficult, but it was rewarding.”Despite the long hours on set, James made sure she maintained her training throughout the shoot.
“He'd make me do all my work and read my script on a running machine,” she laughs. “I also did boxing with a cool guy in LA, which I love because it makes me physically strong enough to beat someone up.”
James would begin each 18-hour day in the makeup trailer before the sun had even risen when filming began. “I was in the makeup chair at 3:30 a.m., and it was a four-hour process to get me into the Pamela look,” she says, adding that she always listened to a playlist of '90s music.
“There was a whole process with the eyes, wig, and teeth.”She'd get her prosthetics on after her wig cap was in place. And, despite how different she appears from Anderson, James reveals that not much prosthetic work was required.
“We experimented with tonnes of different prosthetics like nose, chin, eyebrows, and forehead, but in the end, we stripped it back as much as possible,” she says, revealing she only needed two pieces.
“We didn't want to put too many barriers between me and my expressions. They did an excellent job, in my opinion. What they were able to accomplish astounded me.”
However, one prosthetic piece did the majority of the heavy lifting. “The breast piece was incredible,” James remarks. “You'd never, ever guess it wasn't me. It was terrifying.”
Although Anderson's breasts are a very… well, large part of her appearance, they weren't always used during filming. “In the end, I didn't wear it as much as I wanted to because it took so long to put on,” she says.
“We kind of cheated with my boobs, figuring out outfits and stuff to camouflage or hide them and give the impression they're bigger.”
When she did wear the chest prosthetic, there was one major disadvantage. “It was boiling — I got sweaty, and my boobs were falling off,” James laughs. “I'm English, and it's far too hot!”
James would get a dark spray tan once a week to make her skin look more like that of a TV star who spent most of her time filming on a beach in Los Angeles. Every day, she'd have more than make up applied to even out the color and ensure she was the right shade.. all over her body.
“I couldn't believe how pale I used to be,” James says. “I wondered, “How am I this translucent?” I'm in such bad shape. Because no matter how hard I try, I can't tan.
I get freckles and a little brown, but not much. So I became very close to my spray tanner. For that job, we had to get up close and personal.”
Although it isn't part of her physical appearance, James understood how important it was for her to find the perfect Anderson voice. “I would watch a lot of Pamela Anderson interviews from that time,” she says.
“And I have this fantastic dialect coach, Liz Himelstein, who would do these weird tongue twister exercises with me while we worked on my voice.”
James eventually resorted to less formal methods to hone her voice. “Sebastian [Stan, who plays Lee] and I started screaming into pillows because it huskier our voices,” she laughs. “It wasn't the healthiest way to do it, but it worked.”
James was astounded the first time she saw herself in the mirror with full hair, makeup, and wardrobe. “It was fantastic. It was insane, “she claims.
She went almost entirely method on set and stayed in character throughout filming, even speaking in Anderson's voice when she got home each night.
“I used to WhatsApp call my friends back home and talked about our normal lives in my [Pamela] voice, and they were like, holy s—-!” According to James. “And then I forgot what I sounded like because I kept the accent the entire time I was here.
After a glass of wine, I would occasionally revert to being British. ‘Oh, that's me,' I'd think. Hello.'”She even started wearing Anderson's blond hair in public. “I bought a blond wig and wore it out and about,” she explains. “I was wearing my blond wig to CVS.”
After filming wrapped, James found herself adopting some of Anderson's characteristics, such as working out and staying strong, as well as some minor details. “I still wear my long nails,” she laughs, displaying her bedazzled manicure. “They remained.”Pam & Tommy premieres on Hulu on February 2nd.