The Thing About Pam

Renée Zellweger as Pam Hupp

Skip Bolen/NBC
The Thing About Pam

Josh Duhamel as Joel Schwartz

Skip Bolen/NBC
The Thing About Pam

Glenn Fleshler as Russ Faria

Skip Bolen/NBC
The Thing About Pam

Zellweger and Judy Greer as Leah Askey

Skip Bolen/NBC
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Fill 1
June 06, 2022

Renée Zellweger Retells the Truth

Fans of true crime — like Renée Zellweger — can't get enough of that soda-slurping slayer, Pam Hupp. The star got so hooked on the podcast, she jumped into the NBC show, The Thing About Pam.

Margy Rochlin

It was early morning when Renée Zellweger found herself driving from her southern California home to UC Davis so that her rescue dog, a German shepherd named Chester, could get hip surgery. With six-and-a-half hours of road time ahead, she started listening to "The Thing About Pam," the first longform podcast from NBC's true-crime magazine Dateline.

As narrated by correspondent Keith Morrison, "Pam" starts with the 2011 stabbing murder of Betsy Faria in the tiny hamlet of Troy, Missouri. Though her husband, Russ Faria, swears he is innocent, he's arrested, convicted and sent to prison. Then, three years later, he's exonerated. After that, police turn their attention to Betsy's friend Pam Hupp, one of the first to cooperate with the investigation. There's also a second murder Hupp pulls off by impersonating a real-life Dateline producer, allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and too many bald-faced Hupp lies to tally.

"It's like when you're wishing for traffic, for more red lights," says Zellweger, who burned through all six episodes before arriving in Davis. "It was a series of escalating absurdities. You're listening and thinking, 'How could this happen?'"

Zellweger was so hooked that she and her producing partner, Carmella Casinelli, tried to secure the rights to Hupp's weird story, but to no avail. Zellweger and Casinelli were still feeling defeated when, during a general Zoom meeting with Blumhouse CEO Jason Blum, the topic turned to the recent partnership between Blumhouse Television and NBC News Studios, the network's developing/producing division, which meant that crimes featured on Dateline could be spun into other TV formats.

"Someone mentioned Pam," Zellweger says. "Carmella and I said, [in a hopeful voice] 'Pam Hupp?' And we went from there."

Where they ended up — some three years later — was with The Thing About Pam, a six-episode limited series that debuted on NBC in March and, at press time, was the network's numberone new show of the season in the eighteen-to-forty-nine demo. And if you're wondering what new take a scripted series could have on a strange saga that had been covered in five Dateline segments and a podcast downloaded more than 20 million times, Blumhouse's president of television, Chris McCumber, would tell you you're looking at the situation from the wrong angle.

"True-crime fans want to know every aspect of what happens in a case — they want to revisit it," says McCumber, who thinks of everyone glued to those Dateline episodes and the podcast as a built-in viewer base, ripe for expansion. "We just thought, 'There's a lot of story to mine here.'"

So a showrunner was hired. Jenny Klein (The Witcher, Sacred Lies) had never heard of Pam Hupp, but once she was informed about the wreckage this seemingly ordinary, middle-aged small-town woman had left in her path, Klein was all in. "It's such a bizarre Midwestern story that I was like, 'Hell, yeah!'" says Klein, who grew up in Skokie, Illinois, and admits to a natural affinity for wild misdeeds that take place in flyover country.

During preproduction, Klein discovered how much she had to draw from: the teaming of Blumhouse and NBC News Studios meant access to all things Dateline — not only the research, background interviews, thousands of pages of court documents and cutting-room-floor footage, but also the preestablished relationships with Betsy Faria's friends and family, law enforcement officers who'd worked the case and fringe subjects.

"One thing that was really interesting about this show was that before we even could put pen to paper, there was a heavy journalistic [investigation] phase," Klein says. Along with associate producer Miranda Divozzo, she conducted interviews with many of the people who'd end up portrayed in the series, including Russ Faria (played by Glenn Fleshler); Faria's pugnacious defense attorney, Joel Schwartz (Josh Duhamel); and Betsy Faria's daughter Mariah (Gideon Adlon).

"If they were willing to talk to us, we wanted to hear their accounts," Klein explains. "We were even able to secure a four-hour interview with someone close to Pam Hupp, which [revealed] her history in ways that the podcast could only touch on. So it was very illuminating to be able to talk to all these people and to tell a deeper story than I ever imagined."

The series began to find its way. Zellweger, who'd recently won an Oscar for playing a real person — the legendary Judy Garland in Judy — started what she called "a dynamic exploration of human behavior," trying to make sense of an outwardly conventional former life insurance administrator who committed multiple homicides and, for a while, flew under the radar.

"People's projections worked in her favor," Zellweger decided. "We see her as she presents herself with the choices that she makes, and we draw certain conclusions based on our own experiences with a woman who seems very familiar. We know her from church, from the PTA; she's the lady who will give you a ride. She was available, she was charming. She was witty and, seemingly, a good friend."

By poring over clips of court appearances and interviews with police, Zellweger began to pick up on Hupp's tells — the speech patterns and gestures that changed when she strayed from the truth. "There's a lot of speed when she speaks, her hand movements, her brisk gait," Zellweger says. "She'd wave her hands a lot and say 'blah blah blah' just to fill in the blanks. It was smoke and mirrors. She'd change the conversation."

There are lies, and then there are whoppers. For Klein — who wanted to show respect for Betsy Faria's loved ones, who are still processing a huge loss — Hupp's outrageous fabrications presented a question about the series' tone. "On one hand, you have a true story that's so tragic and disturbing," Klein says. "On the other hand, you have these absurd details that bring in this undeniable comedic edge, more often than not coming from Pam herself."

For example, Klein cites Hupp's out-of-the-blue declaration that she and Betsy Faria were lovers. "She was telling an absurd tale, which no one had heard before," Klein says. "It was totally new to police at the time. When you're reading this, or watching a video, it's like, 'What is happening? Am I hearing this correctly?'"

Klein settled on a balance of funny and sad, similar to the tone director Craig Gillespie achieved in his dark comedy I, Tonya, which chronicled figure skater Tonya Harding's link to the assault on Nancy Kerrigan. Klein can't remember exactly who came up with the device of using Dateline host Keith Morrison as an unseen character who walks the viewer through events as they unfold, dropping casual asides in his dry, iconic baritone.

"On Dateline, he's on camera. But on our show, he's the omniscient narrator with a perspective of his own," Klein says. "It lent a meta aspect to the storytelling that was really compelling."

As a regular viewer of Dateline, she found writing Morrison's voiceover an unexpectedly gratifying part of her job. "It was often Keith illuminating certain moments or transitions in a humorous way," says Klein, who'd send Morrison dialogue that he'd occasionally tweak. "He'd say, 'Is it okay if I put it in my own voice sometimes?'

And I'd be like, 'You're Keith Morrison! No one knows who talks like Keith Morrison better than Keith Morrison. So go for it!'"

If Klein's more seasoned showrunner friends have told her, "Jenny, you've earned a lot of stripes on this one," that's because filming the series during a pandemic — while navigating the legal constraints that come with a true-crime project — were only part of the journey. Roughly seven days after production started in New Orleans last year, Hurricane Ida made landfall, knocking out all the power and closing the set for three weeks.

Once Pam was back up and running, another storm hit: paparazzi photos surfaced of Zellweger in full Pam Hupp gear — stone-washed mom jeans, a thirty-ounce cup of soda in hand, an enhanced nose and neck-to-ankle prosthetics that expanded her sylph-like silhouette to a curvy plus size. The body-positivity community lit up Twitter.

Later, when asked about the controversy, Zellweger characterized the padding as an intrinsic part of an actor's "toolkit that makes it easier to achieve what you're trying to, in terms of someone else's story," she said. "The further away you are from yourself, the safer you feel to explore."

Meanwhile, Judy Greer's likeness to her character — Lincoln County prosecutor Leah Askey — was also making waves, or a wavelet, to be more precise. Greer recounts that once she donned her short, severe wig and contact lenses, Faria's real-world lawyer, Joel Schwartz (who has a cameo as a bartender in the series), told the actress her resemblance to Askey "was slightly upsetting to him."

In 2017, an investigation into allegations of criminal and ethical misconduct against Askey was launched, due in part to her handling of the Faria case and how it resulted in Russ Faria's wrongful conviction. "The first trial was really hard on [Joel]," Greer says. "I think that he was reliving it [being on set]. He felt like [Russ] was a real life on the line and did not deserve to be prosecuted for this crime. And I think that was really emotional for Joel."

Pam Hupp's future is still in flux. While awaiting trial for the murder of Betsy Faria, she is serving a life sentence at Missouri's Chillicothe Correctional Center for the murder of Louis Gumpenberger, a mentally impaired man whom she lured into her home and then shot five times. There's also the suspicious demise of Hupp's mother, who fell from the third floor of her senior-living apartment building.

In other words, there's plenty more story for a The Thing About Pam sequel. But there are also many heavily reported, thoroughly researched Dateline episodes about other lurid crimes, still untapped and beckoning.

"The mission of NBC News Studios is to not let that opportunity go to waste," says Noah Oppenheim, president of NBC News. "We've got not just The Thing About Pam, but years and years and years of incredible true-crime stories under the Dateline umbrella — not to mention all of the stories in various genres that NBC News has covered. It's a rich repository of IP, to borrow a popular Hollywood term. The appeal of true crime over the years is a constant. I think everyone loves a mystery."

Spin Cycle

As hosts of the Dateline-obsessed podcast "A Date with Dateline," Kimberly Arnold and Katie Mitchell watch episodes of NBC's true-crime magazine on repeat before delivering a weekly recap that manages to be witty, smart, meandering and deeply observational, all at the same time. So while Pam Hupp has yet to comment on her life being turned into an NBC scripted drama, these two self-styled Dateline buffs have their theories.

"I think she was really pumped that Renée Zellweger was going to play her and was probably bragging to everyone in prison," Arnold says. "But I think when she sees how she is portrayed — dare I say, her frumpiness — she might be a little bit angry."

"Absolutely," Mitchell agrees. "I think she pictured 'Roxie Hart' Renée, like Renée in Chicago. Instead she got much closer to Renée as Kathy Bates in Misery."

For this pair, the tale of a soda-sucking predator from the Midwest remains fresh as a limited series, even after multiple Dateline tellings and a longform podcast. "She's a middle-aged woman with a fairly average background who seemed to get a notion that life could be better — and to make it better, she was going to kill someone," Mitchell says. "That was her plan. And it seemed totally reasonable to her."

When it comes to Blumhouse and NBC News Studios spinning Dateline episodes into TV dramas, Arnold and Mitchell believe The Thing About Pam is just the beginning.

"There are a ton of Dateline stories that are crazier than any movie, stories that have twists and turns a writer couldn't come up with," Arnold says. For one, she suggests "Twisted Faith," a Dateline installment about a charming pastor from Bainbridge Island, Washington, who wooed four of his congregants and bumped off his wife in a house fire. "I think there's unlimited potential." — M.R.

The executive producers of The Thing About Pam are Renée Zellweger, Carmella Casinelli, showrunner Jenny Klein, Mary-Margaret Kunze, Scott Winant, Jessika Borsiczky, Liz Cole, Noah Oppenheim, Jason Blum, Chris McCumber, Jeremy Gold and Mary Lisio. The series, available on Peacock, is a production of Blumhouse Television, NBC News Studios and Big Picture Co.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #5, 2022, under the title, "Truth Retold."

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