Renée Zellweger, 52, makes her broadcast TV debut in the six-part series The Thing About Pam (NBC, Tuesdays, 10 p.m. ET). The A-list movie star wore heavy prosthetics to play killer Pamela Hupp in an incredibly twisty true-crime story previously covered in NBC Dateline’s most popular episode ever as well as its 2019 podcast.
Hupp’s accusations helped convict Betsy Faria’s husband, Russell, for her death. But after he won a $2 million lawsuit for wrongful conviction, prosecutors alleged that it was actually Hupp who killed Mrs. Faria — to collect a $150,000 insurance policy — and framed Russ Faria. Hupp is now serving a life sentence for a different murder, in 2016. But the original prosecutors could not imagine Hupp as anything but innocent. Zellweger, who studied the cases, executive produced the series, and hired Breaking Bad veteran Scott Winant to direct it, tells AARP how she got that story onscreen.
Who is Pam Hupp, and why did you want to play her?
Ms. Hupp is currently serving a life sentence in Missouri for the 2016 murder of Louis Gumpenberger.
Our show covers Pam’s role as a witness in the 2011 murder investigation of her best friend, Betsy Faria, through her arrest in 2016, and explores that very question: Who is Pamela Hupp? Like millions of people, I binged The Thing About Pam Dateline podcast in 2020 and the story resonated with me.
Why make your broadcast TV debut in a true-crime story?
I predate on-demand bespoke entertainment, and remember the thrill of waiting for something special to air. The opportunity to make a show in the tradition of old-school “event television,” which is simultaneously available to stream, was exciting to me.
I’m fascinated by this story and its illumination of how social and personal bias, white female privilege and the invisibility of middle-aged women in America come into play in our communities and criminal justice system.
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Why is true crime so popular now — can it serve as a kind of critique of society, or are we all shallow vampires feeding on grisly misfortune? Is there more to it than the lurid murder details?
I think mysteries and stories of true crime and escalating absurdity have always been popular.
When something remarkably peculiar, tragic or horrid occurs within the boundaries of the parameters we’ve established to define normalcy and safety — and by an aggressor who defies conventional prototypes — we’re compelled to examine the events to better understand them. I think our interest is possibly both natural curiosity and a shared subconscious human survivalist mechanism; if we better understand the bad thing, it’s less likely to happen to us.
What is your process for getting inside the mind of a woman like Pam Hupp? What did you learn from it?
I’d never assume to know another person’s mind. So my intention was to study the public record materials from trial depositions, media, witness testimony and first-hand accounts of those involved and then assess patterns and recognize how they are categorized in mental health and medical behavioral psychology studies and publications, and then collaborate with the creative team to establish an interpretation.
Were there any interesting challenges for you as an actress?
Dabbling in negativity certainly has an effect. And prosthetics are greedy scene partners! Focusing on story and creative intention while ignoring the restrictions of the transformational magic of special effects make-up, and the attention it requires in a day, is a skill I didn’t know I didn’t have.
Any other challenges?
It was a hit podcast and there could be a feature film — what can a limited series do with the story that you can’t achieve in other forms, especially shorter ones?
It’s a nice opportunity to include details that wouldn’t make the cut in other formats. More deeply exploring nuance and backstory fosters more comprehensive and satisfying storytelling, and a richer creative experience.
This is a fun one.
Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Amazon, video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, The Village Voice and LA Weekly.