How Renée Zellweger and ‘The Thing About Pam’ Showrunner Harnessed the ‘Inherent Absurdity’ of True Crime

The story "makes you keep asking, ‘Why, why, why?,'" Zellweger said of the twisted true-crime saga.
THE THING ABOUT PAM -- "She's a Good Friend" Episode 101 -- Pictured: Renée Zellweger as Pam Hupp  -- (Photo by: Skip Bolen/NBC)
Renée Zellweger, "The Thing About Pam"
Skip Bolen / NBC

Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction, and in the case of unsuspecting convicted murderer Pam Hupp, the “truth” is just a web of fictions to begin with.

The twisted tale of two best friends in Troy, Missouri — that ended in the ultimate backstabbing for insurance money — is at the heart of NBC’s new limited series “The Thing About Pam,” premiering March 8. Two-time Oscar winner Renée Zellweger made headlines for her head-turning transformation into Hupp thanks to layers of prosthetics, and the star-studded ensemble cast including Judy Greer, Josh Duhamel, Katy Mixon, and Glenn Fleshler round out the very “Fargo”-esque series.

And all that quirky fourth-wall breaking is an intentional nod towards the Coen Brothers, showrunner Jenny Klein explained to the audience during a special advance screening and Q&A with fellow executive producer Zellweger Monday night in NYC, moderated by Happy Sad Confused podcast host Josh Horowitz.

Based on a series of “Dateline” episodes and the podcast of the same name, the six-episode limited series “The Thing About Pam” leans into the “absurdity” of the Hupp case. Hupp was the key testimony against Russ Faria (Fleshler) in the 2011 murder trial for killing his wife, and Hupp’s former best friend, Betsy Faria (Mixon). Yet after further investigation, Faria’s conviction was overturned and Hupp was charged. She is currently serving a life sentence.

Zellweger explained her producing partner Carmella Casinelli first sent her the “Dateline” podcast, which she binged while driving to UC Davis to get her German Shepherd rescue’s hip replaced.

“I couldn’t stop listening,” Zellweger said. “It just raises so many questions. It makes you keep asking, ‘Why, why, why?'”

Always a “fan first,” Zellweger set out to adapt the head-scratching true story for the small screen. “Probably one of my favorite things about being an actor is the research,” said Zellweger, explaining she has an inner journalist alter-ego. “I love digging around and one of the really cool things about being an actor is suddenly it’s your mission to explore something that you wouldn’t have occasion to dig into otherwise.”

“You go to the public record, whatever the IP is — the podcast and the ‘Dateline’ episodes — and there was this wonderful treasure trove of footage that was out there, from testimony in trial, anything she wanted on public record when she did interviews with the police,” she continued. “And then you guys took it a step further and did a whole bunch of phone calls and private interviews with people who are directly involved and family members.”

Enter Blumhouse TV executive Klein, who signed on as showrunner and executive producer after learning about the “craziest story” of Hupp. “It definitely originated with Renée and Carmella,” Klein stated. “Then we reached out to anyone willing to speak to us, people involved in the Faria case, people who knew Pam Hupp, so we could have all the perspectives for this story.”

THE THING ABOUT PAM -- "She's a Good Friend" Episode 101 -- Pictured: Renée Zellweger as Pam Hupp -- (Photo by: Skip Bolen/NBC)
Renée Zellweger, “The Thing About Pam”Skip Bolen / NBC

Those POVs similarly lent themselves to a rich fabric of truths, mistruths, and lies surrounding the Hupp-Faria case. Klein knew she wanted to include direct quotes from trial transcripts, and the tone of the series presented itself just from the outrageous “characters” of Hupp and the Troy legal system. “Fargo” and “I, Tonya” proved to be cornerstones of inspiration.

“There was so much inherent absurdity to this case,” Klein said. “And then at its base, it’s this completely heartbreaking story with this grounded emotional center of Russ, his wrongful conviction, and Betsy and their family who was so horribly affected by this tragedy. We always wanted to stay true to that and find the absurdity that came from Pam’s actions herself from what she said or did on record.”

Zellweger agreed, saying, “We didn’t want to forget at the center of this case was a woman who tragically lost her life and her family suffered deeply, consequentially. […] Also the absurdity of it is what is so remarkable about it. You start asking yourself, ‘How is it even possible something like this happened where there was a pile of evidence away from the accused and why [did] no one [think] to explore it?’ And underneath that, there’s so many socially relevant topics to discuss and we felt the case illuminated some of those things, and in order to properly approach that, it seemed important to introduce levity because you can’t properly appreciate the absurdity of it unless you can see how ridiculous it is onscreen.”

Zellweger noted that it’s an ongoing case “so there are things you have to be careful about because legally it’s inappropriate, and just as a storyteller it’s inappropriate to speculate in certain respects.”

The “Judy” Academy Award winner added, “We were very careful and tied to the public record in the narrative and what was actually on record from the trials and whatever it was Pam herself wanted on public record.”

And the public record lent itself to most of the series’ memorable dialogue, as Klein pointed out. “This stuff just got crazier,” Klein said. “It’s like the dialogue you want to write and it was just naturally there.”

From Hupp’s made up words like “ridiculousness” to “double heresy,” the quirky tone of “The Thing About Pam,” was, well, thanks to Pam herself.

“She’s very animated and it’s a great tool, but it’s also very alluring,” Zellweger said of the real-life Hupp. “She has this very charismatic way of bringing you in with her. The way that she speaks and her mouth, it’s amazing. It’s really rare to see someone so busy, either smacking their lips or pulling on their cheeks or kind of sniffing. She sniffs quite a bit. I think all of these are triggers and are telling, these mannerisms.”

Renée Zellweger, Josh Horowitz, and Jenny Klein, The Thing About Pam
Renée Zellweger, Josh Horowitz, and Jenny KleinNBCUniversal

Zellweger dug into the “psychological aspect” of turning into Hupp, as well as the practical elements to “recreate an approximation of the physical appearance: Wow does she speak? How does she move? How does she walk?  How is she received by people in the world, what’s her physical presence like?”

“The Thing About Pam” is supposed to “feel like old school event television,” according to Zellweger. The series also tapped “Dateline” host Keith Morrison as a narrator for a “meta layer” to the dramatic retelling of an epic true crime tale.

“[It’s] so rare these days,” Zellweger said of the week-to-week rollout. “It’s all streaming and bespoke. I’m of a generation where if you weren’t home to see ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ too bad for you, and too bad for you if you missed ‘The Sound of Music.’ It seemed like a really cool opportunity to do something that would be celebrated in a different way in a time where television is sort of evolving in a different direction.”

“One of the biggest challenges, which is a great problem as a writer, is we’ve got too much story here,” Klein concluded. “It felt like it can be this really nice appointment viewing and experience for the audience and really have the chance, especially for me, to just know that you’re going to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. It really gives you a north star to go to when you’re telling the story” — a story that shows us all the things about Pam, with all the “ridiculousness” to boot.

“The Thing About Pam” premieres Tuesday, March 8 on NBC. 

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