Set in the world of a specific type of sex work, Netflix’s Blumhouse-produced horror CAM offers plenty of food for thought alongside its unsettling thrills. Written by former camgirl Isa Mazzei and directed by Daniel Goldhaber, the film sees a rising star camgirl, Lola (real name Alice, played by Madeline Brewer), locked out of her account, after it has been taken over by a mysterious entity that looks exactly like her and is near-constantly broadcasting. No one can tell the difference and it seems nothing can be done about this supernatural occurrence. In its portrayal of an identity theft nightmare, the film taps into and escalates real fears for the social media generation.
Although Alice is the centrepiece of the film – one of two, if you count her digital doppelgänger – there are plenty of memorable supporting characters. One of these is a young woman we only get to know as PrincessX, a camgirl rival of sorts to Lola, played by Samantha Robinson, currently best known for her breakthrough lead role in Anna Biller’s The Love Witch.
We met Robinson in London for a discussion of what drew her to the film’s material, the lack of a male gaze in the film thanks to its unique co-vision, what CAM says about our relationship to technology, how her career’s changed since The Love Witch, and her love of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas informing a new creative project.
We also tried to get any information at all about her experience working on Quentin Tarantino’s next movie. Tried.
(Read our interview with directors Isa Mazzei and Daniel Goldhaber here.)
How did you first get involved with CAM and did you know the filmmakers beforehand?
I did not know the filmmakers beforehand, I actually just auditioned for the role. I originally auditioned for Madeline Brewer’s role of Lola, and then I had a coffee and one-on-one with Danny; he wanted to chat about the film. And then I didn’t hear anything back and then they were like, “We want you for PrincessX.” Now, I see wasn’t right for Lola; Danny and I have talked about it. But I was just happy to be involved because I really believed in the project. I liked it just from reading the script, which is rare. It really resonated with me.
This might be the most sex work-positive fiction film I’ve ever encountered. Was this unique spin on the subject matter part of the project’s appeal for you?
I think it definitely was. Like you said, I haven’t really seen a lot of films that feature sex work in such a positive way and it was really refreshing and I really enjoyed that. Never does her mom tell her to change her career choice; she’s just upset that she lied to her. It was refreshing that there wasn’t any morality or any moral tale to it. And I like the competitive aspect between all the camgirls. They’re passionate about it. This is their job, this is what they do. So, I think that was definitely one part of my interest in it, and then just the technology aspects and the dangers of all of that.
Although there is a man in the director’s chair, the extent of the close collaboration with Isa means this is not really a male gazey film when it could so easily have been. On your side of things, how was that in comparison to working with Anna Biller on The Love Witch, where certain matters of gaze were deliberately subverted?
It was similar, because I really felt Isa’s presence on this film and I never thought it was male gazey at all with Danny. Even with my little stripping scene, it was such an intimate crew, almost all women apart from Danny, and I really found Isa just so authentic with telling the story, because of her experience. This felt like a very safe environment. And similar to working with Anna [Biller] , it was from a female point of view and we just had such an intimate relationship. I’m actually now really good friends with Danny and we’ve hung out a lot post-filming. I just have a good close relationship with him. Even though I didn’t have a lot of shoot days, I always felt like it was just a safe environment.
Are you interested in working on Danny’s next film?
Yes, of course. I don’t know what it’s about, but I’m down. I will always love to work with him, and Isa, too.
I understand Daniel spent a week camming to get into that headspace. Were you asked to immerse yourself in that world as research for the part?
I wasn’t, but I had seen a documentary about camming years ago and found it very interesting. I didn’t look at any camming before the film, because I wanted to create my own sense of what PrincessX’s camming would be like. I did a lot of Improv on my own as to what she would do in her chat room. I felt like she was more of a dominating type of camgirl, with maybe whips and all that kind of stuff, so I would explore that. And then after I filmed, I went on set to some rooms and I watched some cam videos.
I presume there wasn’t then a case of asking to reshoot your scenes. “Oh wait, I’ve got it wrong.”
“Yeah, wait, actually…” No, I just wanted to keep it in my imagination of how it would be. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
Did Isa indicate to you that PrincessX was based on any particular cam performers she’d encountered during her own time doing that?
She didn’t, no. I can imagine that there’s some rivalry between different camgirls. It seems realistic.
“I really felt Isa’s presence on this film and I never thought it was male gazey at all.”
Apart from the whole element of career competition, do you see any other factors motivating PrincessX’s mini-rivalry with Lola in the background of the movie?
Yes, I do. I think that she feels threatened by Lola. I think that she feels that Lola has something that she doesn’t, which is this authenticity – this kind of girl-next-door vibe. Very natural, she’s close with her cam room guys and she’s just approachable; much more easily approachable. With PrincessX, it’s just not in her nature to be that way. And so, she sees that and she feels threatened by it and she’s a little jealous that [Lola] can be that way in her room. I think that’s where this comes from. But then there’s an arc and a change when she realises that Lola’s basically not as smart as her. So, she doesn’t feel threatened by her anymore. She like, “Oh, you have to realise that the Internet’s a scary place.”
PrincessX always has a different wig. She already knows that she has to have a disguise to protect her identity. I think she’s just a little bit more experienced than Lola. And so, at that point, she realises she is not a threat to her. She nothing to her. But there is a moment in the beginning where she’s a little jealous.
I read an interview with Anna Biller about The Love Witch where she said the two of you watched some femme fatale films to inspire that performance. Was there anything film-wise that informed PrincessX?
I watched Showgirls.
I was going to say it reminded me of-
Cristal [Gina Gerson’s character] ! Yes, exactly. Danny had told me about Showgirls, that he wanted the vibe to be like that. And so, I watched it and Cristal is definitely an inspiration. I know Whiplash was among a couple of other films on his list. I understood the character pretty much from the inception, so I got her.
What do you feel CAM says about our relationship with technology?
I think it is very elucidating and not a wake-up call but very self-reflective, at least for myself. I was looking into my own social media usage and Internet usage and just realising that the technology is becoming almost bigger than we are, and we don’t really have any way to police it or even realise how big it’s growing. You just have to be careful in putting this identity out into the Internet if you do have Instagram, if you do have Facebook, if you do have those forms of social media. People are going to interpret it the way that they interpret it and it may not be who you really are. It’s scary, almost. You’re putting it out there.
And I know for myself, people think of me as someone very different from who I am just because of maybe the Love Witch role, and then they get to know me and realise I’m nothing like that. Or maybe because of some of the things that I post on my Instagram. [Cam] is very self-reflective about just being careful, really.
Have the sort of roles you’ve been offered radically changed since your leading role in The Love Witch?
Not really. I’m been offered two roles that haven’t filmed yet. One is completely different. It’s more of a comedy and it’s set in the present day. I wanted to do it, because it’s different from anything that I’ve done before and I want to show people that I have range. I got offered that role, but it hasn’t filmed yet. And then, this other director, Oz Perkins, who does more genre-y type of films, he wanted to work with me. That’s a more similar kind of character; one character’s a bit like Elvira. That’s very similar. That fits more into the world of things that I’ve done.
I did just play Abigail Folger in the Quentin Tarantino film [Once Upon a Time in Hollywood] , so that’s period again. I know The Love Witch is actually set in present day, but it is very aesthetically period.
Related to that, are you able to share anything at this stage about working on the Tarantino film?
I’ve signed like five NDAs. [Laughs] All I can say is that it was just an amazing experience and really a dream come true.
In doing some research, I found a YouTube video of you citing Paris, Texas as among your favourite films. It’s actually my own favourite, so I wondered: what it is you love about it?
Wim Wenders is so great and Nastassja Kinski is just such a beauty. And Harry Dean Stanton. The acting, for me, is incredible. I’m a huge Sam Shepard fan, as well. I’ve studied theatre and so I’ve read a lot of his plays.
I actually just finished writing a short. I was advised to write one. I’ve never written, really, just a little bit before. And aesthetically, I’d say [Paris, Texas] is one of my inspirations. That tone of the film. Nastassja Kinski’s character, how she just runs away from her life and creates this barrier between her and these men that she’s encountering… some of those themes that are explored just really interest me.
Since you have an English parent and were raised in London, though born and based in the USA now, do you have any desire to work on British projects?
I do, I would love to. I’d love to do, say, a period drama. I actually just watched The Favourite, the Yorgos Lanthimos movie. It was insane. Insanely amazing. I’m obsessed with his work. That, tonally, aesthetically, content-wise, is something that I would love to do.
I would love to even just do a satire or anything, really. I would love to do a British film.
An Armando Iannucci film, maybe?
I would love to, yes, though that’s completely out of my alley.
CAM is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.