The Playlist – Sebastian Stan Transformed Himself Like Never Before For ‘Pam & Tommy’
Sebastian Stan will tell you that in order to play the Winter Soldier he spent years trying to put on “weight” to match the physique of Chris Hemsworth‘s of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’ll also tell you, in his own opinion, he never truly pulled it off. He went in a significantly different direction to play legendary drummer Tommy Lee in “Pam & Tommy.” For that series, Stan spent months learning how to play the drums and used intermittent fasting and exercise to try and duplicate Lee’s skinny and lanky frame. And yes, that physical transformation was just as difficult as trying to gain all that muscle for previous projects.
“It was tough because it required such drastic changes and it was learning new things,” Stan says. “But then once we got there, once I got to April and we had that camera test, it was delayed gratification. Finally, on that day of the camera test, all the work that I’d done and all the ideas I had had about how it was going to look and what was going to happen and the physical stuff, it all clicked and made me feel like it was part of helping me to get the courage to go there. And a lot of that had to do with the tattoos and the physical was a big part of it. But once we were in costume, once we had the hair and makeup and everything else, then it was, O.K. This is more real now. Up until that point, it was 100% anxiety every day.”
The Hulu limited series also saw his co-star Lily James become unrecognizable as Lee’s one-time wife (and, arguably, love of his life), Pamela Anderson. Over the course of our interview, Stan discusses reuniting with his “I, Tonya” director Craig Gillespie, the infamous and outrageous scenes in the program’s second episode, how he researched Lee’s life story, and much, much more.
The Playlist: I saw an interview where you were talking about getting ready for “Pam & Tommy,” and you said you were working on a movie in Canada while you were doing it.
Sebastian Stan: “Fresh.”
In all seriousness, did going on that extreme diet inform your performance for “Fresh”?
Yeah. I mean, it felt like it could work because the guy in “Fresh” was a runner and looked after himself in a way. It fit with that. I mean, it had to. Let’s just say that. Because I was like, “There’s no other way.” We started shooting at the end of January , and we wrapped in the middle of March. And then I basically had a month before we started “Pam & Tommy” in April. So yeah, I was doing drums on the weekends in Canada and then basically, yeah, running in the morning.
Had you ever gotten that skinny before?
No. I loved running. I’ve always loved running. I just wasn’t doing it as much. And then I think in the pandemic when we couldn’t go to the gyms, I started to do it again, and then I got very locked into it. So, by the time we started, it was already in my way of life. But not to this extent. I mean, I’d spent so many years with Marvel trying desperately to even remotely get close to where those guys are, like the Hemsworths, which are on a different level. And I still couldn’t. And so then I was like, “Oh my God, now finally I’m going to have to… I’ve worked so hard for any muscle whatsoever. I’ve got to get rid of it because… ” And I still, I mean, funny enough as you know what “Fresh” is about, I actually stopped eating meat altogether. I would get up in the morning, I’d get 25, 20 to 25,000 steps, do intermittent fasting. And I would try and do 16 to 18-hour fasts every day. And then I’d have a banana and almond butter around 12:00 or 12:30. And then I would basically just have salads and stop eating at 6:00 PM.
I have huge sympathy for actors who are trying to do this while you’re working on something else. If I were to do that, it would knock me out. I’d be so tired. How do you do that? How do you prep for one movie project while you’re trying to lose weight and then go to set every day and try to be energetic?
I mean, it all fed into it. I mean, the weird part is this, when you’re fasting and you’re not eating, you actually have more energy because you’re, not over long periods of time, but you do because your body is in that primal place of it needs to find food. So your adrenaline is higher. It’s just when you prolong it at times that it can get, your blood sugar can go down and then you can get really tired. But trust me when I got to August, and the show was over in August from “Fresh” into the show, I felt it. I was exhausted. And then I actually ended up going into another project a month later in New York. And then I finally collapsed at the end of the year. But I had a nutritionist, I spoke to somebody. I was getting supplements and I was making sure I really wanted to do it the right way as best as I could. So, it was helpful in that way. And then of course, it was COVID, and then that part of it was happening. So fortunately it all worked out.
What was tougher, getting physically ready for the role or learning how to play the drums?
It was all tough in the sense that it was such a, but again, it was helpful. It went hand in hand. It was tough because it required such drastic changes and it was learning new things. But then once we got there, once I got to April and we had that camera test, it was delayed gratification. I finally on that day of the camera test, all the work that I’d done and all the ideas I had had about how it was going to look and what was going to happen and the physical stuff, it all clicked and made me feel like it was part of helping me to get the courage to go there. And a lot of that had to do with the tattoos and the physical was a big part of it. But once we were in costume, once we had the hair and makeup and everything else, then it was O.K.. This is more real now. Up until that point, it was 100% anxiety every day.
But then again, you’d worked with Craig before on “I, Tonya.” So I’m guessing that gives you confidence that “O.K., he believes in this. We’re good.”
Huge confidence. That was a huge part of it because again, yeah, I trusted him. I knew how he worked. I knew we had a good communication between us and I thought that it would be good in his capable hands. He would find that balance and just set us on our way with the show, that balance between humor and where the heart is, and finding a way to not strip away from any of it, from the circumstances and the gravity behind it, but also find another way of telling it that allows us to process it as an audience in a different way. Because that’s what this needed. It needed a retelling. It had happened and you had had facts, but people didn’t know the facts anymore. And the facts got lost in the stories by the media and the way it was portrayed. And nobody took into account what had happened to her and where she was at. And that she was also trying to be a mother and that they were trying to be parents. They had larger-than-life personalities and big spotlights on them. Her more so than him at that point even because “Baywatch” was probably the most popular show in the 90s at that time. And then you needed a really good new take on this to help us re-understand it. And that was the direction and the scripts, which were really great.
Did you find any reference material that helped you inform your performance?
Well, of course. I mean, A, the scripts were really, really great. Every line, the way that he spoke, everything was there. So, there was a very clear map to follow. But then on top of that, of course, his book that he wrote, “Tommyland.” I mean, he talks about everything. He talks so much about what that relationship was and what it meant to him and what had happened. She’s even in the book as well. She actually contributed to it. And she also talks about what happened in that book. And then also extensive interviews that you can find on YouTube. There was particularly this one Fox interview that I watched a lot where you see him really talking about everything. And you learn about how he grew up. And the fact that communication was limited in his house in those formative years. His mom didn’t speak English. His father met his mom and married her in two days, very similar to what he’s going to end up doing years later [with Pamela]. And his mom didn’t really speak English. And so weirdly his parents would communicate with pictures. And so you just read that and you go, “O.K., well, what kind of impact does that have on a child?” And then this is all stuff that he’s filmed talking about it. And then that child finds drumming as a way to express themselves. And how that catapulted him into a whole different stratosphere in the ’80s, which was an entirely different decade, entirely different world, at a very young age. And so you start to look at things and again, you learn as much as you can, and then you come back to the scenes and you go, “O.K. what am I saying here? What could work here? What couldn’t? What applies here? What doesn’t?”
I don’t know if you’d committed to it before you’d read the scripts. But the second episode goes to places that I’ve never even seen in film or television before. When you read those scenes, those sex scenes, were you taken aback? What was your reaction to them?
I think I was just like, “Oh my God, how are we going to do this?” And then I was a little scared. I was a little scared in the sense that, I was scared of how are we going to do this? What’s Craig’s approach to it? But then with Lily and Craig, we ended up discussing every scene and approaching it always from a place [where] we don’t need to recreate anything. Nothing that doesn’t further help us tell the story and what we need to say doesn’t have to be in it. And that’s what the approach to those scenes was. And it was like that on the page. And it’s the way Craig wanted to shoot it. If you do see anything sexual in there, at the heart of it, it’s about establishing the connection, which was so intense, and that it was genuine true love and intensity on another level that maybe you and I wouldn’t have known about. And that’s what the purpose was rather than having anything there for the sake of trying to spice things up or whatever. Even though a very famous scene that I’ve now been asked about for a gazillion [times] as you know what I’m talking about, even in that scene at its core has a real innocent, sweet confessional piece to it, because it’s just about the realization of I’m in love with this person. And we’ve all had that moment at some point somehow. We’ve related it or shared it with a friend or whatever. It just happens that here again, the writers found a way to tell that moment in a creative way that actually makes sense to this guy, because he’s the one that wrote in his blog that he has conversations with his penis. So, it’s almost like you just have to, again, tip your hat to the writers for just finding a clever way of telling a lot of things in that episode, but always from the best intention.
Were you concerned about the reaction to that episode? I don’t know if you’d seen the edits before it came out.
I didn’t. I mean, also, no, I didn’t. But I knew what it was trying to do and what it was trying to say. And when it did come out, it very much completely, exactly proved we were going to be right because that’s all that people talked about. And soon enough, if you stuck with the show and you got further into the episodes, you’ve realized that you’re weirdly complicit in it, as the audience was even back then, in quickly jumping to conclusions and the projections that we make and getting wrapped up in the gossipy, juicy, salacious nature of it. And then really understanding, “Hold on a minute, these are human beings. And we’ve got to look at this in a different way.” We might have just played a part ourselves in the judgment and the crucification that they faced at the hands of A, a crime, and then B, a media narrative that was fun.
Beyond just the everyday need to take a job to pay your bills and live, when you are looking at a prospective role, is it something that you want to challenge you? Do you like the idea of getting scared of what a part could bring?
Yeah. It’s a lot of pieces. I mean, one, who’s doing it? Who’s involved? I think directors and writers and producers are a huge piece of it. I mean, the director’s the captain of the ship. Are the scripts good? Are they trying to say something with this that further inspires us to one, think differently or question things, or leads to a further conversation? Or is it just simply being told for entertainment purposes? We do need to be entertained. Absolutely. By the way, I went to “Top Gun” last night. It was f**king amazing. I mean, I really, there was a scene in there where I almost started to cry. I found myself cheering. I needed that movie. I mean, we all, it was amazing to be in the theater. We need to be entertained. But we also, sometimes there’s another piece to storytelling that is essential that I look for a lot, which is what’s the message? And listen, it comes down to invasion of privacy when it comes down to that we all are basically now susceptible to through social media. It’s no longer celebrities. It’s kids. It’s teenagers. They’re growing up with it. They’re all faced with comments and pictures being taken of them on a daily basis. There’s always a picture that someone’s taking or I catch people videotaping me all the time where I’m just at, I was sitting on mother’s day with my mom and I just see someone just casually pretending that they’re not, but they’re videotaping. I just wave in the camera. But, so my point is, it’s all part of our lives. How does it tie back to this particular event? And especially when they didn’t ask for it.
I mean, of course, as a celebrity, it comes with the job, the territory that you’re in the public eye, and there’s just a lot that comes with it. But when it comes to them and that particular level of intimacy, they didn’t ask for that. And for someone to break into the house and steal this thing and then release it to the world on the birth of the internet, there’s a lot to unpack there. And I guess the point I’m making is it felt timely and important. And the last piece I’ll add to it is that absolutely, for me, fear plays a huge piece of it, because I just think it’s an indicator of sorts that I’m drawn to something because A, I’m scared and that just means that I need to explore it further or understand it. Or I might learn something from it or I might be challenged in a certain way. I don’t want to fall into a pattern [where] I know what I’m doing next all the time or I know what my reaction to something’s going to be. And I don’t know how long that’s going to go because at certain points you go, “Well, what else do I have to offer?” I don’t know. You’re just doing your best. You’re just trying different things. And I think that’s what’s exciting about it. And that’s how I grew up. I grew up with movies. That’s how I learned. I wasn’t born here. I came here and fortunately, during my first few months in America, we lived with this family who are still close friends of my family. And they had this huge television in their basement and just wall-to-wall shelves of VHS tapes of movies. And I just learned everything I could have learned from that. So, I still come from that idea for me. It’s a way of, there’s something about it that I find is important. Sometimes we can draw things like this from stories and in conversations that we might not always be able to have in our own life with our family or our friends or therapists, whatever. So it’s all of that.
Well, I know you just made a movie “Sharper.” Do you know what you’re doing after that? Or are you taking a nice break?
I’m actually about to start this movie now in July that I’m really, really excited about. It’s a very important movie. I mean, I’m going to hold on talking about it extensively because it’s with A24. It’s a company I’ve been very excited to work with for a long, long time. And so I’m going to wait on them to when they’re ready to talk about it. But it’s a very important film, again, which it’s just about inspiring further conversation. I mean, hopefully, you’ll walk out of there and go, “O.K. I didn’t think about that.” And that’s usually how I like to associate with myself, I guess.
“Pam & Tommy” is available on Hulu