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When a trailer for the new Hulu series “Pam & Tommy” dropped in November, screenshots of Lily James’ mesmerizing transformation into the “Baywatch” icon Pamela Anderson immediately went viral.
“I don’t know what the actual movie is gonna be like, but the make-up artists should receive a freaking Oscar,” read one top YouTube comment. Others took to Twitter to express their utter disbelief at the likeness: “Lily James EMBODYING Pamela Anderson. The hair and makeup department definitely is getting paid bc woah now!”
Out today, the show – which also stars Sebastian Stan as Anderson’s ex-husband, Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee – chronicles the sex-tape scandal of the late 1990s that turned the then-couple’s lives upside-down. At the time of that infamous invasion of privacy, Anderson’s particular brand of beauty was already unmistakable.
Pencil-thin brows accentuated with pearlescent highlighter, lips plumped by mauve-colored liner and eyes ringed in smoky kohl: This has been the signature look that has come to define her style for decades.
The makeup, the California blonde hair and her famously curvaceous figure is the look of a bombshell – a label some might find outdated, but it’s a term the model and actor has proudly embraced. “It’s all about bringing back the bombshell,” Anderson told Harpers Bazaar in 2016.
“Everyone wants natural beauty, but natural beauty still takes an hour and a half, so you might as well have fun with it. I’m not into the grunge, I-don’t-give-a-crap look. I want to look like a woman.”
“Pam & Tommy” meticulously remakes James in Anderson’s image, even trying to replicate minute details such as Anderson’s hair texture fresh out of the shower. “This is a transformation beyond transformation,” wrote one Twitter user. “Can you believe this is Lily James?”
Stars in silhouette
The metamorphosis was the work of a team led by award-winning visuals experts, including the head of makeup David Williams, hair department head Barry Lee Moe and special makeup effects designer, Jason Collins. “When those first images hit the internet, it was validation for something that we were already feeling was happening,” Williams said in a video interview. “Certain projects have kinetic energy about them. That’s undeniable. And this is one of those shows.”
Research was the foundation of their efforts. The team began by trawling through the extensive collection of paparazzi photos taken of Anderson over the years to nail down Andersons’ “silhouette.”
“The silhouette is everything,” Collins said during the same video call, for which Moe was also present. “You don’t want to do a caricature. That’s the worst thing that you could possibly do. You want to try to find a natural median between the two actresses.”
It took around four hours each day to get James into character, using a combination of 15 pairs of lace eyebrows, four wigs, two rows of hand-sculpted dentures, a breast plate and a prosthetic forehead – and that’s before Williams could even think about recreating Anderson’s makeup.
“Finding the essence of Pam was such a trial and error experience for us,” Moe said. “We did a lot of tests in the beginning, scaling (James’ hair and makeup) down as the day went on to see how little we could get away with. (But) when we removed all of the appliances on the face and just had Lily in a wig and paint, it was Lily in a wig and paint.”
While many know Anderson for her voluptuous physique, it was the prosthetic forehead that turned out to be the bedrock of James’ transformation.
“The forehead was really where we planted our flag,” Collins said. It was the missing piece of the puzzle: Anderson had more “real estate” up there than James, Williams added, meaning everything from Moe’s painstakingly crafted wigs to the wafer-thin eyebrows Williams created sat more convincingly with that addition.
Moe, Collins and Williams believed that production indulging them in all the aesthetic bells and whistles not only made their job easier (“The devil is in the details, and we were three little devils,” Williams said, chuckling.), it had a palpable impact on the actors, too. James kept her custom-made dentures in all day, according to Collins, which improved her grasp of Anderson’s diction. Similarly, a Brazilian straightening treatment on Stan’s real hair allowed him to “live and breathe” Tommy Lee, Moe said.
“From the time he woke up in the morning until he went to sleep at night, he wanted to carry that hair with him,” Moe added.
Devil in the details
For the rest of Stan’s transformation into the Mötley Crüe drummer, research was equally granular. No detail was overlooked, unless the team were contractually obliged to overlook it. “We can’t for legal purposes use (Lee’s) exact tattoos, so we do slight alterations to them,” Williams explained.
To recreate Lee’s extensive body art, the team created a chronological timeline of every tattoo he had ever gotten. “But some of those tattoos are incomplete, they’re being worked on. Like the “Mayhem” on his chest, in the wedding photos, only half of it’s there,” Collins said. “So in the end, you have to get together with everybody and decide what our tattoos are going to be, and what are we going to stick with for the point of storytelling.”
Once the designs were selected, Stan was taken in for a 3D body scan to figure out how they would fit Lee’s 6’2” tattoo proportions on Stan’s 5’11” frame. Overall, it took three hours each morning to transfer around 35 individual temporary tattoos onto the actor’s body.
The final, and somewhat surprising, building block was a hollowed-out prosthetic penis animated by two puppeteers. Early on in the series, Lee and his appendage have an extended conversation, arguing over whether he and Anderson should abstain (days) until marriage.
The surreal interaction was actually lifted from Lee’s 2005 memoir “Tommyland,” writer Robert Siegel told Variety, in which Lee recounts confessing his feelings for Anderson out loud, to his penis.
“When David and I first read the script, I believe I called Dave and I said, ‘You think they’re gonna keep this thing?’” Collins recalled.
“My words were, ‘This could be really great. Or this could be a dumpster fire,’” Williams added.
The writers needed to tread carefully, considering neither Lee nor Anderson gave Hulu their permission to produce the biopic. But by the time they had shot the scene, the team was grateful for the fantasy element offered by the talking penis. “I like the choice of our creators to go in that direction,” Collins said. “As opposed to some salacious version of focusing on what was actually on the (leaked sex) tape. This was a much smarter way to understand this (sexual) element exists.”
While Lee is reportedly “cool” with the adaptation, Anderson has yet to comment on the series.
“I hope that if she does choose to watch or sees pieces of it, she will see the care that was taken by Lily to be the steward of her story,” Williams said.
“If we could say anything to Pam,” Moe added, “it’d be that, we love you, Pam, and we thank you. She changed the landscape in so many ways, from beauty trends to all the work that she does with her animal rights activism. And I think (being able) to honor a woman like Pam was such a blessing. To be a part of telling that story.”
Add to queue: Best biopic transformations
Watch: “Being the Ricardos” (2021)
Nicole Kidman was plastered in a combination of prosthetics, false eyebrows and 1950s-inspired makeup to recreate American actress Lucille Ball in the biopic released on Amazon Prime last December.
Watch: “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018)
Rami Malek was given a prosthetic nose and hand-crafted teeth to convincingly mimic the appearance of Queen front man Freddie Mercury for the 2018 movie. Prosthetic designer Jan Sewell told Variety there were several false mustaches needed for Malek’s version of Mercury, and that she would “clean and tone” them every night.
Watch: “I, Tonya” (2017)
Margot Robbie was slathered in cobalt eyeshadow and intense rouge to help her embody 1980s figure skater Tonya Harding. Makeup department head Deborah La Mia Denaver even used a method called “reverse contouring,” which uses highlight instead of shadow, to make Robbie’s face appear wider and less defined.
Update: An earlier version of this story introduced Jason Collins as a prosthetic coordinator. His official title is special effects makeup designer.