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Colin Firth and Toni Collette are stepping into the suspicious real-life case around the death of Kathleen Peterson, alongside Sophie Turner, Patrick Schwarzenegger and Michael Stuhlbarg in HBO Max’s The Staircase (now streaming on Crave in Canada).
Michael Peterson (Firth) was arrested in North Carolina in connection to his wife Kathleen’s death, which occurred in 2001 on the stairs of their home. He maintained that she had fallen down the stairs after having too much to drink and hit her head, which caused her death.
With a slew of ambiguous evidence, Michael agreed to participate in a French documentary series, also titled The Staircase in English, which we see play out in the series alongside Michael's children coming to terms with Kathleen's death, as his lawyers building his case.
We won’t spoil all the twists and turns in the story for those who wants to be surprised in the series, but Michael’s bisexuality and odd circumstances with a family friend in Germany, Elizabeth Ratliff, which resulted in Michael getting custody of Ratliff’s daughters Margaret (Turner) and Martha (Odessa Young), come into question.
“I think [Kathleen’s] husband is somewhat glorified within their family and certainly in the documentary she was objectified and nothing more really than a victim,” Collette said. “So I think this particular version of the story, or this show, is much more balanced in terms of its perspective.”
“I do think I had a little bit more freedom compared to the rest of the cast because everybody else is still very much alive and my character wasn't. It was really nice not to have to be the one kind of grieving like what everybody else went through… Part of what we learn about her is just how sad and bloody stressed she was before she died.”
When it comes to true crime entertainment, there can be a risk of glorifying people who potentially did horrendous things, but The Staircase is able to showcase a number of different perspectives within the series, making it far more comprehensive than most true crime shows and masterfully builds tension.
“I don't think that I ever felt that we were trying to glorify Michael Peterson the whole time, I think what Antonio [Campos] did was show different perspectives or different ways that the death could have happened,” Schwarzenegger, who plays Michael’s son Todd said. “I don't think everything is rosy about him and I think that's depicted in the miniseries.”
“Antonio wanted to find ways to humanize certain aspects about what their life was like, what the relationship was, and maybe there were moments that there was a beautiful family there, there was a father-son relationship, or maybe there was a loving husband and wife. But at other times, there was not.”
Typically, the goal in a series like this is to get to an answer, but that wasn’t the approach from creator Antonio Campos.
“What we wanted to do a bit differently is we wanted to move people closer to feeling comfortable not knowing what happened,” showrunner Maggie Cohn said. “We're actually moving towards the idea that there is no truth in true crime, there is not one singular perspective.”
“I just started obsessing about the case, the way that so many people obsess about it, and looking at the evidence and thinking, the evidence is going to be the key that sort of cracks it and over the years, I just became more and more interested in the people,” Campos added.
“It just felt like, by looking at the people and just examining everything around what we know about that night, we would arrive at something, a deeper understanding of Michael Peterson and the events, and then ultimately, the idea of truth. Hopefully you leave this series being OK with the grey and having a more comfortable relationship with the complexity of the truth.”
'Now or never' for Toni Collette
One interesting component of the story is that the decision was made to actually have Tony Collette depict all the ways Kathleen allegedly died, which really strikes you as a viewer, realizing the horrifying reality of the crime, an aspect that’s sometimes overlooked in true crime stories.
“I thought it was a really great construct, I think it's a really wonderful way of being able to look at each of the possibilities,” Colette said. “In terms of the physicality of actually falling down the stairs, there are certain places that we have very real knowledge about where she hits, where the blood was, which we had to choreograph so that it matched those specific places.”
For these scenes the actor had a stunt woman who did the majority of the falling and then Collette would come in “clawing around” and trying to get up, calling for help, which she sometimes filmed at odd times of the day, which she describes as a circumstance that adds to the strain in the moment.
“I haven't experienced anything like that, it's hard to imagine something like that, so in a way, you just kind of have to give over to something and hope that it goes well,” Collette said. “Because there is blood involved and the way that it was reached,...two of them I only did one take and one of them I managed to do two takes, it was like now or never.”
“To just get it right on behalf of somebody who really, potentially went through something like this, there's a real responsibility to bring a certain amount of truth to it. It's such a crazy story.”
Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Michael Peterson’s lawyer David Rudolf, revealed that he had watched the documentary and hooked onto the fact that the story contained so many unanswered questions, which made him particularly interested in coming on to The Staircase.
“It seemed to be one of those stories that didn't seem to end,” he said. “For me an exploration of what that story was from several different angles, sifting through all the different people who lived through it was fascinating to me.”
Creating bonds was a core component of this series, particularly as it’s focused on a family and their unique dynamic.
For Patrick Schwarzenegger as Todd and Dane DeHaan, who plays Michael’s older son Clayton, frisbee golf is how they bonded on set (with the actors revealing that DeHaan was the better player).
“We wanted to do things to kind of create a brotherly dynamic and we arrived at frisbee golf, and that's the first thing we did,” DeHaan said. “We went out, we played a solid 18 holes of frisbee golf in a park in Atlanta and from [there] we test drove some cars, and we ate some barbecue.”
“We tried to spend as much time as we could with each other, then stay in contact with each other when we weren't working.”
Additionally, Michael Stuhlbarg had to get to know Colin Firth, in the same way David Rudolf was getting to know Michael Peterson.
“The Colin that I met during this process might be a very different version of Colin if the story were different,” Stuhlbarg said. “I imagine he's trying to absorb as much of Michael Peterson as he can, just as I'm trying to absorb as much of David Rudolf.”
“I was fascinated at his process of how he goes about doing what he does, and also how well he knows himself as an actor, and I learned some things watching him that I hope to incorporate into how I go about doing this work… Just trying a number of things over and over again and because he has an idea, a very strong idea of how he wants to tell Michael's story, he's fearless, really, in not censoring himself in front of the camera and just trying things in [the] moment.”
'Editing is as important as the shooting itself'
One of the most interesting aspects of The Staircase was being able to watch the creation of the documentary series throughout the story. In particular, there are some unique scenes where Vincent Vermignon as Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and Frank Feys as producer Denis Poncet, are actually making decisions about how to edit their footage, and how one small change can completely change the point of view and bias in a segment of the series.
“This scene actually happened and at some point, when I spoke with Jean-Xavier, there was so much electricity in the air between him and Denis about how to read it, how to create that documentary,...he told me that at some point they didn't speak to each other for maybe two weeks,” Vermignon revealed. “There was so much footage, they had so many decisions to make about this documentary.”
“It shows that the editing is as important as the shooting itself.”
In a time when true crime content is coming out regularly in both series and movie formats, a successful piece of crime entertainment has to stand out for the pack and for The Staircase, in the words of Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays Kathleen’s sister Candace Zamperini, what makes it stand out is that “it’s good.”
“I think there's a wide variety of true crime back to like the bad reenactments when you're like, ‘those people aren't even actors, what are they doing?’” she said. “It's so artfully done. It's such good filmmaking.”
Olivia DeJonge who plays Kathleen's daughter Caitlin added that the show’s creator Antonio Campos has “pioneered a way of telling true crime that hasn't been done before.”
“I cannot believe not only that he dedicated a decade of his life trying to tell the story, it's so sprawling, but it is so beautifully rendered, what he does with it as a filmmaker, and I'm so proud of him,” DeWitt said.
“As actors we come in, we swoop in, we talk about what it's been like for us in the past six months, and Antonio has sat with this story and with Michael Peterson in his brain for 10 years.”
“And it shows, he's made an incredible show,” DeJonge added.