On a foggy morning in the Hollywood Hills, Pamela Anderson casually name-drops Louis Malle, Ai Weiwei, and Werner Herzog into a wide-ranging conversation about her past, present, and future.
We’ve been talking aging, femininity, and her surprisingly evocative turn in the meditative sci-fi short film Connected, in which she plays an alternate-future version of herself: a burned out fitness instructor who enters a wellness cult desperate to regain some semblance of her former beauty and self-worth.
Even American politics manage to meander into the discussion with America’s favorite Baywatch babe and Playboy icon, who’s been quietly championing environmental causes for decades.
“Hopefully, Obama will grant clemency to Leonard Peltier at the end of his term since that’s what presidents are supposed to do,” the blonde bombshell says, pointedly. It’s 9 a.m. and her makeup is impeccable, her golden locks swept into an updo. Perched in a midcentury armchair, swathed in a white robe, she smiles and leans in to my recorder for emphasis. “That would be really wonderful, and I think it’d be a really smart move.”
The British Columbia-born Anderson, 48, has lived a few lifetimes worth of pin-up fame and tabloid drama in her decades as an international sex symbol. She’s survived celebrity, a hepatitis scare, the world’s most famous sex tape, and four marriages to (and a few ugly splits from) three celebrity husbands.
But, she says, only her closest friends knew the real Pamela was capable of doing more than filling out a red bathing suit and simmering for the camera. And after stepping away from acting for 15 years to raise her two sons, Brandon and Dylan, Anderson found herself at a crossroads.
“My kids were getting older—they’re almost both graduated from high school—and I thought, ‘Am I going home? Am I going back to Canada? Am I going to disappear?’”
A few years back, Anderson says, she was battling a bad marriage (to film producer Rick Salomon, whom she officially divorced last April) and contemplating leaving L.A. when she began getting surprise messages from filmmakers.
One of the first, she recalls, was a letter out of the blue from Werner Herzog. “He said, ‘I’ve always wanted to work with you, I’ve been watching you, and I would love to get you in my hands to do something, if you could trust me. I think you should be on the big screen.’ So I had a lot of conversations with him at Chateau Marmont and still, who knows, maybe something will come to fruition.”
Another cold call came from fashion and art world filmmaker Luke Gilford, who reached out to Anderson for what would eventually turn into Connected, which premieres online at Vice on Feb. 8.
“I was curious about what lies beneath,” says Gilford, 29, who shares a warm rapport with his star and collaborator. “With sex symbols it’s always very much about surface. We talked about Herzog, we talked about Woody Allen, we talked about old movies and new movies.”
They also discussed Anderson’s own feelings on growing older in an industry that tends to discard women after the age of 30, her distrust of social media, and the kind of fixation on wellness and self-improvement that’s inescapable in both Hollywood and Malibu, her longtime home.
It all filtered down into Anderson’s Connected character Jackie, for whom the duo conjured a backstory of parallels: a divorce, increasingly distant kids, even a new girlfriend for the ex “who takes her kids to Coachella, so they love her and hate Jackie,” Gilford and Anderson laugh.
Together they spent a year raising money to shoot the short in spite of financiers who wanted more-proven actresses than Anderson in the lead. Anderson took acting classes to prepare for the role she considers her first bona fide acting gig, despite all those years on Baywatch (which, incidentally, she claims to have never seen).
She candidly confides that her escape from her “abusive” marriage to Salomon also fueled her somber performance.
“I look at old pictures and I look at me now and I feel, like they say, it just slowly catches up on you—like if you’re in a bad relationship that makes you feel awful about yourself,” she says. “I was drawing a lot from that, too. Thinking about when people try and control you and put you down, and tell you you’re crazy—you start believing those things.”
“Ever since breaking up with him,” adds Gilford, seated next to Anderson, “she looks 10 years younger.”
“Bitterness and scariness… it does age you,” she laughs in agreement. “It’s whatever zone you’re in. A lot of it is psychological. You can make yourself younger just by being happy. I wasn’t happy. I knew I couldn’t do this film while I was married. And I knew I had to take that leap of faith. It was very therapeutic to do this film, at that time.”
Anderson remembers feeling beaten down about her self-worth during that period of personal tumult. “I was feeling very unsexy, and lied to, and betrayed, and confused about who I am,” she says. “Aren’t I supposed to be this hot, fun girl? Why am I sitting in bed, not leaving my house, not knowing who I am anymore?”
“It really didn’t take long to bamboozle me into that state. People are powerful. People can be very manipulative. Just trying to get my groove back… trying to drink the shakes, and take the vitamins, exercise, get out there—do what everybody else is doing. That’s kind of what I was drawing from.”
The newly re-energized Anderson reflects on previous chapters in her life when she was much more fearful of branching out. There was the time, she shakes her head, when Quentin Tarantino wanted to meet with her to offer her a plum role in his and Robert Rodriguez’s exploitation flick Grindhouse. She pulled up to the meeting, was greeted by paparazzi flashes, and never got out of the car.
“I didn’t even call him to tell him I wasn’t coming,” she says. “I stood him up! And I haven’t seen him since. I couldn’t believe Tarantino wanted to meet me. I just freaked out and ran away. But I was looking for any excuse not to go in there. It was self-sabotage; I just wasn’t ready.”
She waxes nostalgic for the golden age of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy, for whom she posed for the most spreads out of anyone on the planet. She says “garbage” social media and the internalizing self-scrutiny it fosters is so scary by comparison to those more genteel times that she once took a six-month break from cellphones and computers.
“We’re so desensitized,” she laments. “People are creating their own image. You’re texting and Instagramming and basically ordering from a catalog who you want to be with and who you want to be around. It’s whoever takes the best pictures. You retouch yourself.”
Partying at the Playboy Mansion, on the other hand, was how Anderson first rubbed elbows with the intellectual and artistic elite. It’s where the PETA and Sea Shepherd fixture says she first learned about philanthropy and activism.
“It was a bunch of cute girls and these really interesting men. I loved being at the Playboy Mansion. Intellectuals were at the Playboy Mansion. You were talking to the best artists and musicians and actors and politicians. We were these young girls, having these kinds of conversations that we’re having now.”
Two years ago at the Cannes Film Festival Anderson unveiled her own namesake charity foundation, revealing at its launch the childhood sexual abuses that shaped her philanthropic impulses. Since then, she’s been busy developing a tenure program to fund 10 activists for 10 years each that she says she’s discussed with Julian Assange, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, and other supporters. Later in the day, after our chat, she’ll fly straight to Paris to urge the French Assembly to stop the practice of foie gras farming. Her appearance alone will spark global headlines when photographers begin brawling while taking her picture.
I ask Anderson about rumors she might want to segue into politics one day. “No, I don’t!” she laughs. “Politicians are evil. No, no, no, no, no. Just look at some of Vivienne Westwood’s blogs. Politicians are criminals.”
“Artists are the freedom fighters of the world,” Anderson says. She previously threw her support behind President Obama, but hints at her frustrations as she looks toward November’s election. “I think politicians’ hands are tied a lot of the time,” she says. “I’m a Democrat. You have to vote. I love Bernie, but I don’t think he’ll get the nomination. I still think Hillary has a better shot. I think she’s going to be the president. A female president would be pretty awesome. We need that kind of energy in the world.”
Politics, however, “are probably the worst way to get things done,” she continues. “You have to have a relationship with governments and people to get things done, that’s part of it, and then you have to have the people on the frontlines. And I’m very much with the people on the frontlines.”
Many of her fans may not know that Anderson also chairs the board of directors of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in her spare time, one of the causes that has her constantly globe-trotting. After Paris she’s heading to Turks and Caicos to meet with lobbyists about deploying some of the organization’s anti-poaching vessels before she heads back to L.A. and to her newly burgeoning acting career.
“It is a job. I put the agenda together, I talk about litigation, I talk about all the different campaigns we’re on, I set the meetings,” she says, her voice picking up. “And I like that I’m getting more into the nuts and bolts of how foundations work, how to be more effective.”
Recently, right before she graced the cover of Playboy’s end-of-an-era January/February 2016 issue, Anderson fired her agents.
“I fired everybody! I fire everybody all the time, but this time I meant it,” she grins. “I find there is this formula that everybody wants people to follow, and I really go with my gut. I felt like I was arguing with people all the time about where to go, what to do, how to look. You know, I’m 48 years old—don’t tell me what to wear! Don’t tell me not to wear lip gloss.
“I think people are smart enough to know you can be a glamorous woman and play another role, which I think is actually more interesting than having to walk around like this decrepit, beat-up woman,” Anderson continues. “I just got out of an abusive relationship, I really didn’t want someone else telling me…” she trails off.
“This has got to be about fun,” she says. “Luckily for me, if people want to find me, they know how to find me through friends. I don’t need an agent. [Or an agent] who wants to save me from my image. I’ve already made all the mistakes, if you’re calling them mistakes. I’ve already done it, and it is part of me.”
Anderson is visibly excited about the newfound opportunities she’s getting in film, a second career she describes as “the beginning.”
At home, she constantly plays the films of Federico Fellini or Russ Meyer—two auteurs who knew the power of a voluptuous, sensual, powerful woman. She raves about classics like Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, even if her kids keep asking why she doesn’t get into the blockbuster game.
“Sure, I’ll just call the blockbuster people,” she exclaims. “Brandon just thinks I can be in any movie I want. My kids are like, ‘Why aren’t you in X-Men?’”
Lately, she says, La Dolce Vita and Sunset Blvd.—two iconic films about the cinema and its stars—have gotten her thinking about her image and career. “What’s real, what isn’t, what does all this attention really mean? Does it really define me? Is this really me, or am I just a normal girl like everybody else?” she says.
She issues yet another winking, self-deprecating laugh. “I just want to be the girl with big boobs breaking things. You’ve got to use everything you’ve got. Every woman does. When people say they don’t, they’re lying.”