How Casting Helped ‘The Thing About Pam’ Walk a Tricky Tonal Tightrope

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Renée Zellweger has been justly celebrated for her astonishingly transformative performance as Midwestern murderer Pam Hupp in the NBC series “The Thing About Pam,” but the key to the show’s greatness lies in the fact that the entire supporting cast is worthy of sharing the screen with her. Showrunner Jenny Klein’s vision for the series, which has the breadth of an Altman-esque ensemble piece with the penetrating complexity of a deep-dive character study, demanded that every role from the day players on up be played with precision, empathy, and wit — all while respecting the gravity of the real-life tragedies being depicted.

“I’ve been in this position [of casting true stories] a couple of times, and I do think there are added responsibilities and challenges,” casting director Terri Taylor told IndieWire. “It goes beyond physical resemblance, because you don’t want to just cast a lookalike. You want to be able to capture the essence of the human being, but also stay true to the kind of story the filmmakers are trying to tell.”

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In the case of “The Thing About Pam,” that meant finding actors who could navigate the unusual tonal complexities of Klein’s style, which is part satire, part docudrama, and part devastating tragedy. (The show is a coproduction between NBC News Studios and Blumhouse Television, which gives you an idea of its unusual combination of elements.) “We needed actors who could handle the heavy lifting of that very complex needle that we wanted to thread,” Taylor said. “Actors who could make us feel the trauma and the sadness connected with this absurd story but who also had a sense of humor that they could capitalize on.”

“The Thing About Pam” - Credit: Skip Bolen/NBC
“The Thing About Pam” - Credit: Skip Bolen/NBC

Skip Bolen/NBC

Josh Duhamel, who plays defense attorney Joel Schwartz, perfectly embodies Taylor’s approach; as Schwartz sees his client railroaded by a justice system that inexplicably defers to the truly guilty and psychotic Pam, Duhamel conveys the character’s frustration and bewilderment so palpably that it’s simultaneously hilarious and deeply upsetting. “We needed the kind of charm and charisma Josh has, and we also needed someone who would feel like a fish out of water in Troy, Missouri,” Taylor said. “Josh ticked all those boxes.” In a nice piece of kismet, just as Taylor and Klein were zeroing in on Duhamel, they got an email from NBC suggesting the actor, revealing that everyone was on the same page. “I think it was just meant to be.”

For the part of Leah Askey, a prosecutor who is both completely wrong in her assumptions and completely unyielding in her belief that she is right, Taylor went to frequent collaborator Judy Greer, recently seen in another pair of Blumhouse projects, David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” reboot and its sequel. “Judy is part of our repertory company,” Taylor said. “There’s no hiding our affection for her, she’s just unbelievably talented.” Taylor’s history with Greer goes back to the first film Taylor had a casting director credit on, “13 Going on 30. “When she came in to audition for that movie I just knew she was pure magic. It’s a real gift to be both a great auditioner and then step on set and continue to knock it out of the park. Judy is that actor.”

“The Thing About Pam” - Credit: Skip Bolen/NBC
“The Thing About Pam” - Credit: Skip Bolen/NBC

Skip Bolen/NBC

That contradiction — that auditioning and acting on set are two different skill sets that not all actors have — is something Taylor has had to deal with throughout her career, and she tries to create circumstances in auditions that maximize the usefulness of the process for both her and the actor. “The main thing is trying to create an environment that is as comfortable and nurturing for the actor as possible,” she said. “Sometimes I have the actor to myself and treat it like a work session, taking the time to do several takes and really work through it together. Whether it’s me one on one with the actor or with the filmmaker in the room, we work really hard to provide an environment where the actor can try things and stretch.”

For almost 10 years, Taylor has been the in-house casting director at Blumhouse and worked on all of the production company’s films and several of their TV shows, an unusual position that enables her to take a strong role early on and throughout production. “If you have somebody in-house, you can do long-lead casting and not worry about cramming everything into the four or six weeks that the production can afford to hire a casting director,” Taylor said. “I get to be part of the process even at the script development stage, when they’re trying to decide whether or not to make the movie, and it really deepens my experience as a casting director.”

For “The Thing About Pam,” Taylor’s work began before the script was written, with the “Dateline” episodes and podcast that served as the show’s source material. By the time when the casting process began, she knew the story inside and out in a way that allowed her to find the exact right person for every part, in some cases thinking outside the box and giving actors opportunities they might not ordinarily get. “That combination of actors was the most rewarding part of the journey,” Taylor concluded. “Glenn Fleshler as Russ [the accused murderer], Suanne Spoke who played [Pam’s first murder victim] Betsy’s  mom, Katy Mixon as Betsy… they all got to shine in really juicy roles. I’m so proud of the whole ensemble.”

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