Pamela Anderson Had One Big Rule for ‘Pamela: A Love Story’ Director: “Don’t Show Me Anything”

Pamela Anderson Had One Big Rule for ‘Pamela: A Love Story’ Director: “Don’t Show Me Anything”
May 2023

Anderson and Ryan White discuss the complete trust and random curveballs that went into the making of the raw and vulnerable documentary: "It was like open heart surgery in public."

Nearly everybody knows the name Pamela Anderson, but viewers of Ryan White's Netflix doc Pamela: A Love Story may have a new grasp of the human behind the persona. White -- whose acclaimed work varies in subject matter from robots trapped on foreign planets with Good Night Oppy to murder and sexual abuse scandals within the church in The Keepers -- captures a different version of Anderson than the sex symbol image for which she's known, using hours of previously unseen footage from home video tapes as well as excerpts from Anderson's detailed diaries. Over the course of filming the doc, the Hulu series Pam & Tommy -- chronicling Anderson's relationship with her ex-husband, Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee -- was released, to her surprise and dismay. She then booked her first role on Broadway in Chicago as Roxie Hart, and White's camera captures her every step of that journey. What follows is a conversation between the documentary's subject and director about their filmmaking process.

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How did you first became aware of each other?

RYAN WHITE Two and a half years ago, I had lunch with Brandon, Pamela's son. The idea had been run by me about a documentary about Pamela [before]. Honestly, I said, "No, thank you," which I do to almost all celebrity documentaries because I hate ending up in the position where you're sitting down with a celebrity, and you're saying, "I'm going to pass," and it sounds like you're evaluating someone's life. My base level was very ground zero. I didn't even know Pamela was Canadian. I was a teenager in the '90s. Pamela was one of the most famous people in the world when I was coming of age, but I didn't know a lot about her past. Everything that Brandon was telling me, that she was back on this island where she grew up, was really intriguing. I remember the exact sentence [Brandon] said: "I think you guys are going to find each other really funny." The next day, we popped on a Zoom, and it probably lasted two hours. I left thinking, "If she wants to do this, I absolutely want to do this with her." Everything about her blew up all my preconceived notions of who Pamela Anderson, the cultural icon and larger-than-life figure, was.

PAMELA ANDERSON Brandon said, "Mom, I'm just so sick of people not knowing who you are; you should really do a documentary," and I was like, "No. Let's just leave it alone. I'm in the woods. I'm just licking my wounds. I'm happy with my dogs." [Brandon] knew I always wanted to write my memoirs, and I was like, "I'm really curious about writing my book, but then I want to put it in a safe and when I die, you can put it out." He was like, "No, we're doing this now." He was talking to different directors. He had a couple come by, and then he introduced Ryan to me, and I was like, "I love Ryan, I will do whatever he wants." I don't know how he seduced me into doing this. But between him and Brandon, I was like, "I feel safe." We just vibe together really well. I only had one request: Don't show me anything. It has to be out in the world before I even see it.

What were each of your goals going into this, and did the film come out much different from how you expected it to?

ANDERSON I still really haven't seen it. I can't sit through it. Netflix held a screening for me and [my other son] Dylan because Dylan hadn't seen it, either. And we sat there, and I just remember the whole time covering Dylan's eyes. Then another time, I tried to sit in my bed in a hotel room, and I started watching it and just was sobbing. Like a relief. I didn't really have any endgame. I just wanted to see what happened. When I saw some of Ryan's work, and I saw his storytelling, I was really impressed. It just felt right. It was really scary. But I like scary.

WHITE The things that Pamela is saying right now are very rare in any documentary subject, but especially for a celebrity. That was what appealed so much to me about Pamela -- that the endgame meant nothing to her. She didn't have a team of people on the call, it was just her. I'm old enough in my career to know I can never have an endgame in my films. If the film that you set out to make is what you end up with in your final cut, I think you did something wrong. I did think there was this beautiful three-act structure story arc of this island girl who lived this crazy life and then returned to the island, and of course that all got blown up while we were making the film. We didn't know that the Hulu series was going to come out, or that Pamela was going to get a role on Broadway. I just had to be OK being along for that completely unpredictable ride. That's what I love about my job. That makes it fun to me. I hate the term "subject" because they're real people. But when you have someone whose life you're following, and they don't care that much about the final product, it's a dream documentary subject.

I'm curious to hear more about the actual process of making this film and how it ends with your Chicago performance.

ANDERSON When I got Broadway, I just thought: "I need to do this for my soul." I still don't know what I'm capable of. I live every day like that. Am I a painter? Am I a writer? I just don't know. I get chills even thinking about it. Those leaps of faith -- and learning how to believe in yourself despite what people have said about you, what people think about you. I thought, "I have nothing to lose." But to walk onstage, and to see my kids, front row ... when I came out at the end, for there to be this standing ovation, and to see my kids look at me with such pride, I was in this alternate universe because I've never seen that with my kids, because I've always had this crazy life. I just think you have to be fearless and have courage. [Producer Barry Weissler] called me [to offer the part], and I was watching that Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse show [Fosse/Verdon], and it was at the point where she was trying to get Fosse to do Chicago. I was so happy Ryan was there to film it in real time. It was annoying sometimes. But then I'd calm down. If I'm going to do this, I need to show me at my rawest. I'm glad it's over. It was like open heart surgery in public. I don't feel different. I feel the same. But I do feel like people are almost rooting for you. I'm not used to that feeling -- even when I came off the stage on Broadway, and I would go outside, and there'd be all these people out there going: "We did it!" I said, "We did it?!" Tears, flowers ... I thought, "Gosh, I really lived my whole life to get to this moment. I did it. I survived it."

WHITE The thing about Pamela that's so unique, and I've seen people responding to in the film a lot, is this vulnerability that she's showing right now, and allowing that vulnerability on camera is incredibly rare. You didn't ever ask me to leave the room. She was letting me [film] day one of singing lessons, day one of dance lessons. Pamela was like that the entire process. Documentary 101, and I don't believe in this, but when you're in film school, you learn to be objective, fly on the wall, do not impact your narrative as a film crew. That was impossible with Pamela from the moment we arrived and she's popping in tapes. The memories would be flooding back. The mere fact that we were making the film and putting her through this process was totally causing a hurricane that was changing the trajectory of her life. So we just had to embrace that chaos.

How has the response been for each of you?

ANDERSON It's been really positive, I feel, because it's not manufactured to be anything other than what it is. No one wants to rehash things -- living life twice is one too many times. It really brought up all this childhood stuff for me, where I really wanted to embrace that little girl in me again, and so with Broadway, I put a picture of me at 5 years old; I taped it to my dressing room, and I just got out of the way. I wasn't going to ruin it for her this time. It was such an emotional thing. But it was so important. I took this year to be alone. I always say the capacity to be alone is the capacity to love. I feel like I'm venturing out in the world as a whole person now. And I do feel like when people look at me, they look at me a little differently. It's not so judgmental. It could have been a disaster, but it wasn't.

WHITE I've made a lot of docs, quite a few popular ones. I haven't ever felt this type of reaction to a documentary. There's a real relatability factor to Pamela that I think almost no celebrities have. People feel connected to her, and they want her to succeed. You feel like we, the public, are less judgmental of Pamela now. This woman isn't a punchline anymore. She's someone to be appreciated, and respected and listened to.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a May stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.