Having your identity stolen or being locked out of your social media accounts is a very real possibility in 2018. Cam, a new psychological thriller starring Madeline Brewer, shows just how dark that experience can be.
In the film, Brewer plays a 20-something girl named Alice who lives a double life as a cam girl, performing sexualized acts via webcam for money from anonymous sources on the other side of the screen. Online, she goes by the name of Lola, filming herself in her plush pink bedroom, and having full conversations with her “fans” on the cam girl service. The more money she earns, the more popular she becomes, and the higher up she climbs in the ranks of popular cam girls men pay to watch. But one day, Alice notices something off—her account has been not only hacked into, but a doppelgänger has taken her place. Alice’s identity has been stolen, and so have her “points” and the money she has earned from performing as Lola online.
Cam is the combined effort of Netflix and the horror production studio Blumhouse (which is responsible for the distribution of a string of high-impact, low-budget thrillers like Get Out, Happy Death Day, and Game Night). Directed by Daniel Goldhaber and written by Isa Mazzei, the psychological thriller draws from some of Mazzei’s prior experience as a cam girl, but its themes of identity theft, techno-paranoia, and invasion of privacy are universal. Brewer, who has starred in a handful of critical television series, with roles on Black Mirror, The Handmaid’s Tale, and the upcoming Captive State, spoke to W about both the drawbacks and positive aspects of social media, and how she keeps her own identity in check despite being addicted to her phone like the rest of us.
Between your performances on Black Mirror, The Handmaid’s Tale, and now Cam, I have to ask, what draws you to roles that live at the intersection of technology and terror?
We live in such an online age now, and there’s really no going back from that. I’ve always enjoyed stories about the supernatural, and with horror elements. I’ve always found them to be enjoyable and entertaining, but they also make you think, and I really enjoy being a part of projects that when you leave the theater or when you finish an episode, you don’t move on to the next one, you sit with it for a second because it forces you to take a look at something in a way that you maybe haven’t quite yet. I was madly in love with Black Mirror long before I was on the show. I’d thought to myself while watching, If they ever opened this up to American actors, I have to be a part of this! Cam takes something that is so universal—everyone is online, there isn’t a person nowadays who doesn’t represent themselves online in one way or another. That idea of being locked out of an account, or to feel that you’ve lost control on this thing that is the Internet, that truly we all use but I don’t think anybody really understands, we all just know that it works.
That’s true, we put so much of our trust into this entity that ends up having so much control over us, and in the case of Cam, I think you make a good point about the universal nature of experiencing that moment of being locked out from your account and subsequently your identity.
Yeah. I think we’ll see this more with the younger generation, the 12-year-olds, what they will be like as 28-year-olds, growing up online and creating their entire personalities and identities online. It seems like losing a part of yourself, or like you no longer have control over this part of yourself, but it’s not. It’s separate and fabricated.
You mentioned loving the horror genre, and the way that this film opens really draws you right into Alice’s world, shocking the viewer with violence and tension fairly immediately. How difficult was that opening scene—the staged suicide—to film?
That was actually my audition scene. I think that they really had to be sure that someone could understand what is happening in the scene and understand the drive to do something that crazy, for lack of a better word. Alice is completely driven by the response that she gets, and climbing that ladder. You have to understand what she’s willing to go through, and what she’s willing to put herself through and subject herself to, and you have to be able to show that she’s kind of naked, emotionally. She’s letting these people who she’s come to have friendships with online allow her to pretend to kill herself, and to egg her on. When I read the script, it was this brilliant portrayal of trolling online. If you have someone actually saying, “I’m going to go through with this, I’m going to do it,” there are people in this world who would say, “Yeah, we want to see this girl kill herself online.” We’re all so desensitized, I think, and we don’t realize that there is a whole, complex human being on the other side of that screen, and we will say horrible things. Right off the bat, it shows that the way we’ve been desensitized and the way we speak to each other online has become subhuman. I love that that’s the big grab in the beginning.
As an actor, how did you approach telling a story that exists at the nexus of both the performative nature of sex work, which is an occupation, and the performance of sharing yourself online, either through social media or other avenues?
You can replace Alice being a sex worker with being an Instagram model, or YouTube star, or Twitch streamer, and the plot line is still the same. Someone is locked out of their account that houses their online identity, and there’s someone else pretending to be them and doing things that don’t represent them. That’s something we can all relate to. We’re all online, we’re all putting cultivated and curated versions of ourselves online.
What was it like on set to film these extremely vulnerable and sometimes sexually explicit scenes? How much of a priority was safety and comfort for the actors?
If there was any element, any brief glimmer of creepiness, I would not have done this movie because ultimately I’m playing a cam girl, but I’m not a cam girl. That’s not my occupation. That’s not what I’ve chosen to do. I have chosen and I have also been chosen to tell the story of a cam girl, but I think that we confuse that for a minute, and think, Oh, you’re playing a cam girl so you’re totally comfortable doing all of this stuff. No, if I were, I’d probably make a lot of money being a cam girl and I could go do that. If there was even a hint of any sort of creepy vibe I wouldn’t have done it because I needed to be absolutely safe and comfortable on this set, and I was at every turn. It was important to me, obviously, but it was also of the utmost importance to all of our producers and our whole crew that I felt safe to do this job. It’s a heavy lift, and we shot it in, like, 20 days, and I’m in every frame. It was emotionally very taxing.
What were those conversations like between you, the screenwriter, and the director?
There was so much collaboration. We sat down and went through the entire script together, and we talked about where nudity was written and if I felt comfortable doing it the way it was written, or did I think there needed to be less, did I think there needed to be more. All of those decisions were based on my comfort level and my decisions for Alice, and Alice’s comfort level, and honoring that and doing her justice. Often times, I was written fully clothed and I was like, “No, I think she should be in a bra,” or something.
How do you, personally, handle juggling your identity between your public persona and the characters that you play?
That is something that, especially after doing Cam, I’m recognizing my own presence online and who I am online. I have my real Instagram, and I have a finstagram, where I post the stupid stuff that I wouldn’t post on my regular Instagram because no one would get it or like it. It’s difficult because now that I’m at a level where I get recognized on the street, young girls specifically will be like, “I love your Instagram,” and I’m like, “What are you talking about?” [Laughs] They’re like, “Yeah, you just post so much stuff, you’re so glamorous.” I was like, “Dude, what you’re seeing right now, this is actually me. That is a very specific version of myself that is performative and that I pay a decent amount of money to look like because I have to pay people to make me look like that! I’m not a glamorous person.” It’s all part of a game. Hollywood is a game! If you play it right, and you listen to the right people, and surround yourself with the right people who understand who you are and will enhance that and help you make a living out of it, that’s a wonderful thing.
Do you find playing “the game” to be difficult at all?
It’s difficult because you can sometimes get lost in it, and you can lose yourself in it. If I were younger and didn’t have such incredible people around me, I think I would get lost in it. It’s consuming and it’s enticing, and you can get drunk on it, honestly, on thinking that you’re this person everyone else thinks you might be. You have to have a very real and strong support system and a strong sense of self to not be consumed by it, and be chewed up and spit out. That’s how you, in my opinion, stay away from getting lost in the, “Oh, I’m so glamorous, wait, people think I’m glamorous, maybe I’ll try to be more in my everyday life like the person I present myself to be online.” If that’s a better person, that’s great. To me, it’s not a comfortable person.
What do you find to be the good or positive aspects of social media?
There are people that I’ve connected with on social media that I’ve never met, who, especially in this age of everything is available to you online but also people’s opinions on things—people just write their opinions or Instagram Story themselves, and if you follow those people you see that, and there are people in this world who don’t look like you, and if you listen to someone who doesn’t look like you, you will get a good experience. You will see someone who thinks about the world in a way that is completely different from the way you do. I am a petite white woman from South Jersey, and I follow some beautiful, black, full-figured women from the opposite coast who are experiencing life in a way that I will never know and I will never understand. I can empathize and learn and listen, but I will truly never experience that. And that’s the best thing that social media has brought me, is into their world as much as they’ll allow. Into the world of another human being whose experience is different from my own.
In the film, Alice meets up with some of the men she’s communicated with online. Have you ever become real-life friends with anyone you’ve met online?
I mean, I don’t know how much of an actual friendship is a friendship when you’ve never met. You know what, I do feel like, for example, being a fan of people’s work—I follow plenty of actors and actresses online because I appreciate their careers. And all of the sudden, they’re following me, and I send them a message like, “Yo, what’s up! I just saw you followed me. Wanna be friends?” [Laughs] And replying to people’s Instagram Stories. I do that with some of the girls from Dear White People, like Antoinette Robinson, Ashley Blaine Featherson, and Logan Brown. I met them on Instagram before I met them in person. I was just a fan of the show so I followed them all, but I guess they had all seen either Orange Is the New Black or Handmaid’s Tale or something, and we became friends. Netflix family. It also makes it much better that you have friends at parties and events because you’re like, “I know you! We’re friends on the Internet!”
You mentioned having a finsta, and I would guess finstas are still popular because many of us are still finding a need to splinter ourselves off into multiple online identities, which reminds me of the end of Cam, where an entirely new identity is developed for Alice because she needs a job, and despite the horrors she has endured, she continues to work as a cam girl. How do you interpret that ending? Why do you think she keeps going?
I think that, in a very real way, the way I relate to Alice’s ambition is that if somebody told me not to be an actor and not to pursue acting, I’d just be like, “No, you’re wrong. I’m going to keep doing this, and this is my job, and this is what I love, this is my creative outlet. It’s how I make money, this is how I come for a peace of mind. Throwing myself into this makes me a better person.” Those are all true of Alice. I think that you want to say, “Well, she only goes back to this because she’s addicted to being online, she’s addicted to that thrill.” No, she enjoys her work. She enjoys what she does, and she’s passionate about it. She feels like a better, more complete person for doing it, so that’s why she goes back, and that’s why you watch the movie and you don’t want to touch your phone for a few minutes and eventually you’re like, “Well I’ll just hop right back on and talk to people and connect with people.”
We all have a bit of an addiction to being online, I think, but how do you unplug?
How do I unplug? I don’t know that I ever have. [Laughs] Just kidding, I totally have. Often times my boyfriend and I will go up and hike in the Angelina National Forest, like, two hours outside of L.A., and there’s no service there. We kind of unplug and talk to each other. Being in nature is mostly how I unplug. I put my phone on airplane mode and leave it in the car and go out for a hike and just get some fresh air, view some things with my eyes instead of through a screen or camera.