Renée Zellweger Stars in The Thing About Pam

The creative team behind a new fact-based crime drama discusses balancing tragedy and absurdity

The creative team behind a new fact-based crime drama discusses balancing tragedy and absurdity

While true crime as a genre thrives on the premise that truth is stranger than fiction, the fascinating twists and turns of the Pam Hupp incident manage to put most other cases to shame. “This is one of those stories that you couldn’t make up,” says Renée Zellweger, who stars in the six-episode series about Hupp’s scheme to murder co-worker Betsy Faria (Katy Mixon) and pin blame for the deed on Faria’s husband Russ (Glenn Fleshler). “I couldn’t believe it. It was an experience of escalating absurdities, and asking myself, ‘How?’ It felt like it would be something really interesting to explore further.”

The suburban wife from Missouri became one of Dateline‘s most popular subjects after being charged with stabbing her friend to death in 2011, inspiring a 2019 podcast that, to date, has been downloaded 20 million times. The dramatized series sets out to examine the characters’ emotions in a way straightforward journalism could not. “We were able to delve deeper into the mask of normalcy that Pam presents and look at the bonds of the family that was affected by this case and feel what they went through,” says exec producer and writer Jenny Klein. “There’s a fulfilling of an emotional promise in a way that the podcast could only touch on.”

For Zellweger, who also serves as an executive producer, the limited series is a rare but exciting foray into TV. “It suits me,” says the two-time Academy Award winner. “I like the pace. I love that it’s quick, and you have to think fast on your feet.”

Although Zellweger and Hupp bear almost no physical resemblance, the show’s creators were eager to find a solution to the problem. “When a two-time Oscar winner calls and says, ‘I’m obsessed with this story, and I want to play Pam, and I want to produce,’ you say, ‘Yes, yes, yes and yes,’” says fellow producer Chris McCumber. “Our job, at that point, is to provide Renée, and the rest of the cast, with all the tools that they need to embody these characters.”

On that note, rounding out the cast are Josh Duhamel as Russ Faria’s attorney, Joel Schwartz, and Judy Greer as Lincoln County prosecutor Leah Askey.

To transform into Hupp, Zellweger relied on prosthetics, wigs and makeup, which took two to four hours to apply. Performing in a so-called “fat suit” was a skill Zellweger previously hadn’t possessed, but losing herself in someone else’s physicality opened the actress up to the character. “I think all actors agree that that’s a part of your toolkit that makes it easier to achieve what it is that you’re trying to, in terms of telling someone else’s story,” she says. “The further you are away from yourself, the safer you feel to explore.”

Zellweger found that despite playing a lesser-known real-life person, the pressure of nailing Hupp’s essence was on par with playing the iconic Judy Garland in the award-winning film Judy. Hupp’s voice, in particular, seemed to elude Zellweger for the longest time. “I was listening to accents from the regions that she had grown up in, and where she lived, and, boy, [Hupp’s accent was] very unique to Pam,” the actress explains. “It’s not necessarily regional. She has a lot of colloquialisms that are uniquely hers. I just listened to it on repeat, really. And I had her voice and my voice notes, and different sentences that would trigger it, and put me in the right cadence for the day.”

Where Klein and the creators were able to really have some fun—if murder can be considered amusing—is in the tone of their adaptation, which evokes memories of Desperate Housewives. “A lot of the absurdity comes from Pam herself,” Klein muses. “You have this story that’s so tragic and disturbing, and then, on the other side of the very same coin, you have these absurd details that Pam really did or said. I’ve never seen a character like Pam, who’s just completely unfazed when caught in a lie, and changing her story. It almost creates a game for the viewer, where they’re the only ones tracking Pam’s lies through her world because they’re the only ones taking in the show, as a whole.”

Indeed, what makes Hupp’s story stand out is in part the combination of humour and horror. “There’s this palpable strangeness,” says Klein. “It’s a true crime story that, in some ways, won’t leave you feeling depressed, but will keep you on the edge of your seat because there’s so many twists and turns.” Yet what Klein wants the viewer to remember is that, absurd or not, at the centre of Hupp’s saga is a real-life atrocity. “You want [viewers] to be able to recognize the absurdity when it’s taking place. But—and it sounds so simple—you also want people to feel heartbroken.” 

The Thing About Pam airs Tuesdays at 10:01 p.m. on Global & NBC