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Madeline Brewer on Trading Her Handmaid Robes for a Flogger in Cam

Madeline Brewer. Photo: Getty Images

In the new movie Cam, Madeline Brewer plays three characters. One is Alice, a casual jeans-and-hoodies kind of girl who is close with her brother and mom, and who is semi-secretly making a good living as a cam girl. The second character is Lola, Alice’s schoolgirl-esque online alter ego, a burgeoning star on the cam scene thanks to her specialization in blood play and performances of extreme violence. Then there’s the third character, the one Brewer calls Lola Two, and she’s the one who makes Cam a horror film. As Lola’s fame rises, Alice becomes obsessed with reaching most-watched performer status in her cam network, but things get twisted when Alice goes to log on one day and her channel is already active — with an exact replica of Lola hijacking her account. Alice must then fight to reclaim both her livelihood and her sense of self after her digital and corporeal lives become dangerously blurred.

The debut feature from director Daniel Goldhaber and screenwriter Isa Mazzei, who built the story based on her own life as a cam girl, scrutinizes the ramifications of losing yourself to an online persona, and is given furious life by a star turn from Brewer. The actress has long had a talent for making an impression that far outweighs her actual screen time in lauded shows like The Handmaid’s Tale and Orange Is the New Black, but with Cam, Brewer proves she has the range to captivate for a marathon stretch. With her movie about to bow on Netflix, Vulture sat down with Brewer to talk about creepy directors, the strains of performative femininity, and the lies that Instagram tells us.

So when did Cam come into your life?
After the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale, I met Danny and Isa, and in my hiatus from season one I did this precious angel, Alice in Cam. And I mean, I’m an actor and I live in Los Angeles, so I go on a million auditions before I get one. I’ve been lucky that the ones I have gotten have been for characters that I connect with deeply. Not only that, they’re just characters that I like and enjoy as human beings. So, yeah, I’m pretty stoked that I didn’t get cast in a really shitty pilot. I got cast in some really good stuff.

How do you get into the mind-set of someone like Janine or Alice, these women who are just so vulnerable to the world?
First of all, they’re beautifully written. They’re whole characters, fully formed, just interesting people. Also, to a fault, I’m an empathetic person. If I see someone walking down the street and they trip, it hurts my stomach. I can’t deal with other people’s hurt or embarrassment or fear. I just feel it for them on like a cellular level. So I think that’s a reason I find those deeper parts of the characters. Then I break down what is similar. What are our likes and dislikes? What is true about me that’s also true about them? But I never assign to any character something that doesn’t do them justice. So many people ask me if Janine is feminist. I think Janine is a feminist, but she doesn’t say it that way, which is so true of so many women. They believe everything that I believe in. They fight for the same things for which I fight, but they don’t call themselves feminists. They’re not comfortable with it. Whatever, we’re all just fighting.

You also tend to play women who are confined by extreme circumstances and are working through pretty deep trauma. Tricia is in prison in Orange Is the New Black. Janine is a handmaid, and then Alice is in this crazy existential war with her digital self. Is that taxing for you?
The weird thing is that I feel so at home and so at peace with them — Janine specifically. I literally put on a second skin. I relate to her and I love her so much, my little J. With Tricia it was like I put on the prison jumpsuit and got the rows in my hair and started adapting to her way of being. Alice was difficult because she looks like me. I couldn’t escape in Alice, and that’s why I think so much of her is imbued with my own intense anxiety. I can escape in Janine and I could escape in Tricia and just move in them freely, and as Janine I’m under six robes. I don’t think about what my body looks like. And let’s face it, I’m an actor in Hollywood and I’m 26. I think about what my body looks like. I think about Oh my God! My arm’s jiggling! I don’t think about that with Janine, and it’s so freeing not to think about all that shit. That’s all I thought about for a lot of the shoot on Cam, but I know in my mind Alice does not think about her body the way that I think about my body. I don’t want to assign any of my bullshit to my characters, so I’m not going to assign my body dysmorphia to Alice. I go to them to escape me. I don’t have to escape them.

So do you take these roles almost in reaction to your anxieties?
I think it’s all growing, truly. My friend Nina Kiri, who’s on The Handmaid’s Tale as well, she plays Alma. I was with her when I read Cam. I was in Toronto. After I auditioned, I came back and told her, “I think I’ve got this role. I don’t know. I’m scared of it.” She’s like, “You have to do this.” And I’m like, “Why?” And she said, “Because you’re scared.” And I wasn’t like, “Oh, no! I don’t want to show my boobs!” I was like, “This is a hard role to play. There’s a lot involved.” It was a lot of work, but I’m not afraid of the work. I love work. I was afraid to fuck it up, truly. I was afraid to not do justice to the story that Danny and Isa wanted to tell. I hate to sound so actory, but I am at the mercy of the character. I care about them so deeply.

I’m very lucky that each and every one of these characters has forced me to confront something about myself. Alice forces me to confront my own feelings about my body, and forces me to confront my own performative femininity in a way. Janine forces me to confront my perpetual pessimism, and I learn through them. I grow through them, and that’s why I feel so blessed to play them. But I also think that’s why I am so connected to them. It’s like they’re a piece of me. You always look so fondly at your formative years where you kind of became who you were meant to be. That’s how I feel about each character I’ve played. They’ve taken me to the next part of my journey as a person.

The battle between the authentic self and the manufactured persona is at the core of Cam, but that seems like it could parallel the experience of being an actress who performs for work, and who also has to perform in the public theater as this glitzy star.
That is definitely in my life, my performative identity and the person that people expect me to be, and sometimes you just don’t want to perform. You just want to lay on the couch and binge watch American Vandal. People think that because you’re on TV you’re a millionaire or that everything you wear is designer or your hair’s always clean. That’s just not true. I’m sorry. I didn’t shower today. When I posted pictures of me at the Emmys and I looked really good, I was actually on the couch just like a gremlin, eating Fruity Pebbles, you know? It’s disorienting because everybody falls into the Facebook, Instagram, Twitter trap of Oh my God, their life is so fucking perfect, and I’m a failure, and I’m fat, and my nose is too big, and my tits are too small, and no one like that will ever love me. It makes me sick, and I think there is definitely an element of that in the Alice/Lola world.

And much like in Cam, it feels like that pressure comes from external sources you have to compete with, but those can be blocked out. The really toxic fight is the one between the real you and this idealized version of yourself you feel like you have to live up to.
Right, and everybody has that internal war. I mean, I do it every day. I fucking hate Instagram. I’m going to delete it as soon as I’m famous! Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t have an Instagram, so I’m not going to have Instagram, and it’s like, no, I just fucking love it. I live for it. It does something to me, fucking pumping that dopamine.

You’re physically exposed a lot in Cam, and Alice is an online sex worker. So how do you enforce the line between positive, artistic boundary-pushing and exploitation?
This is every single woman’s experience in any sort of level of power in any workplace. Where is the line where I’m being disrespected? And everybody has to contend with the fact that someone might call them a bitch for being assertive or a diva for taking what they want. There were many times on set I was like, “I hope I’m not being a diva. Oh, I hope I’m not being the bitch,” but this was a huge learning experience for me. You know, when you’re young you’re like, “Okay, well I’ll do this.” I have a damn good lawyer, and he has saved my life in many different ways. Like, “This is what we will accept. This is what we will not accept,” and every director almost every time in one way or another is like, “But let’s just get a little more.” No! I got it in writing! Especially on larger sets, they think they can move and manipulate young women.

You have experienced that personally?
I’ve definitely felt moments where it’s like, “You’re holding up production!” I’m like, “Well, I haven’t signed anything yet.” So I am in a very lucky position in that I can afford a lawyer who puts me in a position to be like, “Nope! My lawyer said I can’t.” But I know specifically of an actress who was screamed at on the phone by her director because she was like, “You know what, I’m just not comfortable with that.” And he’s all, “I thought we had a deal!” Just gross. Just not right.

That goes past being unprofessional at that point.
You’re a bad person. So this movie specifically took me to a level where I feel comfortable fighting for my body. I feel comfortable fighting for my character. I feel comfortable fighting for my safety. I’ve taken that onto other sets, and I have to ignore that little voice in my head that’s sometimes like, You’re being a diva. No! I need to take care of me because if you give people an inch, they will take a mile. And that’s not saying people are bad. That’s just human nature.

You have to set your boundaries very clearly, but the thing is, I think sometimes in production we lose our sense of humanity. I’ve met some of the greatest people I will ever meet on sets, but we’re all trying to get the job done. And don’t get me wrong: I want to get the job done just as much as anybody else, but I want to get it done in a safe manner and in a way that makes me feel I’m not taken advantage of. On Cam, I truly never once felt like that. Danny and Isa both thought of Lola as a little more vampy, and I was just like, “No.” And maybe that’s just because I’m not capable of being very vampy. I will always be a little weird.

So when you did have scenes as impostor Lola, that’s you playing a character within a character, who is also the one you identify with the least of all three. That’s a lot to manage!
Yeah, it was a free space. Truly. Also, there were so many women on set, which is just always a really valuable thing to me. Our DP, Kate Arizmendi, is a fucking genius, and Danny and I have such a wonderful working collaborative relationship. Isa’s fucking brilliant, too. I felt so comfortable with them on that set. There was not one person who made me feel like, I’ve got to cover up. That person is a perv. There was none of that. It was very supportive, like a family, but those moments playing Lola are very difficult for me.

Why so?
Because I am not an overtly sexual person. I hyperanalyze everything like, What do I look like? What do they think of me? Is this how people are sexy? Who finds this sexy? Would I find this sexy if I saw it?

That’s what’s running through your mind when you’re playing this especially uninhibited version of Lola?
Yeah. I don’t get people like that. Good for them, but I’m not like that. I spent a fuckton of time on cam and took meticulous notes on these girls. I would love to shake their hands because they really just created a lot of this character for me, and I really just kind of did what they did, but in my own way. But it was like, God, how do they do that? They’re just so free, and that is an enigma to me. I am just so self-aware and self-conscious. To be onscreen in that way, I would pee myself! That’s so frightening to me to just put yourself out there, and there’s such a power to that. I’m like, How do people move? How is this? Is this natural? Hello? Act like a person. This is normal. I am fine. I just watch other people.

You’re basically a Westworld host.
Yes! I feel like a Westworld host! So it really was very frightening to me, but that’s why I’m so pleased with how it turned out because I do feel like there is a seamless evolution of Alice and Lola — just a testament to my own talent! No, a testament to our editor. When I’ve watched Cam, and I’ve seen it several times, and I watch Lola Two start showing up, I’m like, Maddie you did that! I don’t know how. Danny and Isa and I talked every single day, every single moment, so it was a fully immersive experience, and I think that’s why it happened. I couldn’t bounce right into Lola now. Sometimes I feel like I can do that with Janine, like I can feel her a little bit more easily. Lola, it takes a lot of preparation, which is why I know it’s narcissistic, but I can’t stop watching the movie. I’m like, I did that. That was me, and I’m just so proud of the film because it’s Danny and Isa’s first feature. It’s Kate Arizmendi’s first feature. It’s my first lead in a feature. We did it! And I’m really happy!

Madeline Brewer on Cam, Handmaid’s Tale, and Social Anxiety