Entertainment

Why Renee Zellweger took on the strange world of a killer

A woman in a red outfit poses in a crouch for a portrait

(Pat Martin / For the Times)

Renée Zellweger finishes a photoshoot at an old Hollywood hotel just up the road from the Ravenswood apartments where she lived when she first came to town 30 years ago. She dressed up for the shoot, but she’s here to talk about one of the least glamorous characters she’s ever played: Pam Hupp.

In “The Thing About Pam,” Zellweger checked her lithe beauty at the door to become the burly, wacky, soda-sipping Missouri woman who was convicted of one murder in 2019 and has since been charged with another. Hupp has been the subject of several “Dateline” episodes and a supplemental podcast that served as source material for the six-part Hulu series.

“It’s my favorite, anti-glamour,” says Zellweger.

It was the first role she took on after winning an Oscar as Judy Garland in Judy. There was nothing calculated about this sequence of events, she just knew that she “wanted to have a job that was of a different intensity. And that was exactly that. It wasn’t fewer intense, just different.”

Much attention was paid to the fat suit and facial prosthetics that transformed Zellweger into an almost unrecognizable doughy Midwestern mom. It’s easy to miss the more subtle changes she’s made: the little sniffles and glaring eyes, the way she pursed her mouth and curled her lips around Hupp’s raunchy accent.

“It seems like it’s a mix of a lot of different places,” says Zellweger, who viewed footage of Hupp’s appearance and testimony in court and recorded clips of herself speaking dialogue in Hupp’s voice, which she listened to repeatedly . “It wasn’t exactly Midwestern or exactly Southern. She spent some time in Florida and sometimes sounded like she was from Wisconsin or Minnesota or something.”

She also noted how Hupp “spoke very quickly when she was trying to sugarcoat something and move on to the next subject, when she didn’t want to elaborate, or when she felt like she was in a corner as far as the story was concerned.” ”

Renee Zellweger as Pam Hupp on NBC's "The thing with Pam."

Renee Zellweger as Pam Hupp in NBC’s The Thing About Pam.

(Skip Bolen/NBC)

In Zellweger’s performance, Hupp is confident, sneaky, passive-aggressive, and often stone-cold in the way she almost gleefully abuses the people in her life. She manipulates her friend Betsy Faria, whose brutal murder initiates the narrative. She manipulates the investigation, which leads to the conviction of Faria’s husband. The character is always herself acting – or is it?

“You have to ask the question of whether she’s aware of it or not,” says Zellweger. “What, is that your truth? Is what she’s saying to her real, you know?”

She identified Hupp as a woman driven by survival and an insatiable love of money. She relied on Hupp’s account of events and the information she volunteered, as well as insights from friends and family members, to create her version of Hupp.

“That felt most respectful,” says Zellweger, “was not straying too far from what she herself brought to the record.”

This also determined the bizarre tone of the series: cheekily told by “Dateline” correspondent Keith Morrison, it plays as a black comedy a little in the style of a film by the Coen brothers. There’s an intentional wideness to Zellweger’s performance, a larger-than-life liar who at times seems almost fourth-wall aware. It was NBC’s best series launch of the season and the network’s best digital launch ever.

The tone was consistent with the inherent bizarreness of Hupp’s account of what happened. The most shocking thing about this story, says Zellweger, “is the series of escalating absurdities that led to the wrong person being convicted. And you ask yourself: How did this happen? And as you begin to peel away the layers of information and what Pam herself has presented as narrative, you realize that it is the absurdity in her telling of the story that makes this case so unusual. Because if you take it literally, it seems impossible that anyone would take it seriously. It was important that the tone allowed for that.”

A quick look at Zellweger’s resume reveals plenty of murder: “A Taste for Killing”, “Murder in the Heartland”, “Deceiver”, “Nurse Betty”, “White Oleander”, “Chicago”…

“What are you getting at?” she says, her whisper-quiet voice exploding in laughter.

A woman with a red sweater and blond hair looks at the camera

The most shocking thing about this story, says Zellweger, “is the series of escalating absurdities that led to the wrong person being convicted. And you ask yourself: How could that happen?…”

(Pat Martin / For the Times)

She admits she has her own “boring tabletop theories” about why we’re so fascinated by the subject, and true crime stories in particular: “We’ve always been fascinated by macabre as humans, right? The truth is stranger than fiction. And then I wonder if it’s more part of an unconscious survival mechanism. Especially when it’s something that deviates from what traditionally defines normality for us, we get fascinated by it and we want to understand it better because maybe we think that if we understand the bad, we can somehow avoid it.”

“Pam” was shot over four months in the winter of 2021. It was only the second “small screen” project the movie star had ever done, and she relished the fast and gritty pace.

The long form meant “you can explore the material a little more fully,” she says. “But you’re doing it in one clip — so you’re running around a lot and don’t have a lot of time to know exactly what you’re trying to achieve. You have very little time to discover anything right now. You have to be really disciplined and know what you want.

“Not to say there’s no room for a little bit of random magic – because there always is.”

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2022-06-15/renee-zellweger-convicted-killer-thing-about-pam Why Renee Zellweger took on the strange world of a killer

Sarah Ridley

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