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‘Both Sebastian and Lily did such an amazing job’

Craig Gillespie, director of new Disney+ series Pam & Tommy, tells Esther McCarthy why he and the starry cast sought to relay the infamous story of a stolen sex tape that rocked the world

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Sebastian Stan and Lily James as Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson

Sebastian Stan and Lily James as Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson

Director Craig Gillespie

Director Craig Gillespie

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Sebastian Stan and Lily James as Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson

THEY were the most-talked about couple in the world — she the iconic star of a TV show that had become a global sensation, he the bad-boy rocker with tattoos and attitude.

Baywatch stars Pamela Anderson and Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee had already captured the public imagination - and that was before rumours of the existence of a sex tape.

When the stolen tape of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, shot at the height of their passionate romance while on honeymoon, was made public, it hit headlines all over the world.

Now the director of Pam & Tommy, a new series about the scandal and its aftermath, told how the filmmakers and stars bring an “empathy” to the wild story. And Craig Gillespie adds that if you were blown away by Lily James and Stan Sebastian Stan’s resemblance to the stars in the show’s first images, wait until you see them onscreen.

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Director Craig Gillespie

Director Craig Gillespie

Director Craig Gillespie

“It’s funny, when those images came out we were already shooting at that point,” he tells SW Magazine+. “We were very much in the trenches of performance, and I thought Sebastian and Lily were doing such an amazing job. I was like, if people are happy with the images, wait till they see the acting involved here because the nuance and the empathy that Lily captured and Sebastian as well.”

When you’re dealing with iconic characters, he adds, you can risk being judged by the audience who ask: ‘Do I buy it?’ Anderson’s voice and mannerisms in particular are extremely well known.

“For an actor, that can be terrifying, if you think about this whole other balancing act on top of delivering a good performance that they have to do.

“But she did such an amazing job in the homework in terms of the dialect coach, and the body language and all of that. You get to a point with it, all right, you can certainly impersonate the person.

“But now we need to capture the emotion and that essence. And that’s where it gets really exciting and interesting.

“I knew that, as Pamela, was the most important thing with this character. As we go through this eight-part series with her, we need to be invested in her and we need to be able to access her emotion.”

Anderson in particular became the punchline to jokes throughout TV and the media when the story broke in the mid 1990s, a response that Gillespie finds “shocking” now.

“That is surprising, I think, to look back on it. And obviously through the lens of Me Too, to see the way that she was handled and the way that she was portrayed in the media, on the late night shows, in SNL (Saturday Night Live) and various other platforms, and just how acceptable that was, it’s just shocking.”

The story broke before the internet and social media took full flight. Does he feel it would be handled differently now?

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“I think there’s much more accountability now. I think, sadly, there’s still plenty of avenues that you do get away with it. But there is obviously in the best way now a voice and an accountability that didn’t exist back then.

“There’s also, since the Me Too movement, a really dramatic shift, I think, in perspective, in the best way. So that’s been a really significant change and when you get to look back on this, you can see how far we’ve changed.”

Gillespie feels that story would have played out quite differently in an era of social media. “I think they would be the same divisiveness. But at least there would be a counter argument to what was going on, you know, and I think that’s really constructive. I think there would absolutely be a dialogue happening as opposed to just being fed this information and not really thinking about it.

As well as Disney’s Cruella, the Australian filmmaker previously told the story of ice skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya. Harding had experienced a scandal when a rival skater was attacked. He feels there are comparisons in how the public can judge those involved.

“As viewers, because we know about the story, we’re coming in with a preconceived notion of it and judgment. So I love that - we kind of give them a little bit of that upfront, you get to see them from afar in the first episode, and then you get to meet them, and realise just how wrong we were and how complicit we were in our judgments.”

The focus of Pam & Tommy isn’t solely on the stolen tape. It also looks at other colourful details of their passionate romance. Episode two, for example, focuses on their marriage in Cancun, Mexico, following a four-day romance.

The events took place in the mid-90s which was a very different time in style and fashion but Gillespie said he didn’t want to bow to the fashion mores of the time. “It’s always the tricky part when you’re doing a period piece. There is this desire to take the most iconic moments in that period, but it’s not the reality of that period.

“I think, across the board between production design and fashion, you’ve got to make it look like it’s just a part of the scenery, and we’re not drawing attention to it, because you want to primarily be focused on performance. So it’s always that fine line and staying authentic with not being like: ‘Oh, my God, look at those shorts, or look at that jacket’.”

  • Pam & Tommy now premieres with three episodes on Disney+. New episodes stream weekly.

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