While horror flicks may not be everyone’s cup of tea (gory scenes and jump-scares are a big no-no for us), it’s hard to deny good true crime stories. It’s less visceral (thanks to the “based on a true story” approach), but more importantly, it forces the viewer to look into the inherent darkness of the human condition. “The Staircase” does just that.
From being a feature-length Lifetime movie, and then, a docuseries on Netflix, “The Staircase” is a new 8-episode HBO Max original drama that follows the death of Kathleen Peterson in 2011 and the highly publicised court case that followed Michael Peterson (the husband accused of murder). In this interview, Michael Stuhlbarg talks about spending time with the real David Rudolf and spending, becoming Michael Peterson’s defense attorney, and which scene stood out to him.
Q: What appealed to you about “The Staircase”?
MS: Everything. I worked with Antonio Campos several years ago on a film he made called “Afterschool” (2008) and we had a complicated but wonderful time working on that and we became friends. I’d always wanted to work with him again. The combination of him, HBO, the cast he had assembled, and the challenge of this particular role; everything about it was exciting to me.
Q: What was your previous knowledge of the case?
MS: I had seen the documentary before, and I actually started rewatching it again just for fun. I’m not exactly sure why, maybe I had heard the project was happening? I wasn’t attached to it at that point. There is something about the true crime genre that is addictive. I get really absorbed in it. So, I am interested in those stories and this is a good one!
Q: Why do you think the true crime genre is so binge-worthy?
MS: I don’t really know, other than we are fascinated by each other’s lives. I think we’re all naturally voyeurs and when something dramatic happens in someone’s life and someone goes to the trouble of telling that story, there’s something immediately captivating to us.
Q: The genre is pretty saturated these days; what sets “The Staircase” apart from everything else out there?
MS: Our version isn’t even a version of the story, it’s kind of a supplemental companion piece to the documentary in how it sifts through the lives of all the other people involved in the case on the outskirts – the family and the documentarians. It gives us a glance behind the scenes, telling us what was going on in their lives and their personal struggles; all things we didn’t know when we were watching the documentary. Who it was that was constructing it and what happens to these people over the course of the next twenty years, besides Michael Peterson. It also delves deeply into the life of who Kathleen was, which we weren’t privy to during the documentary. Perhaps what is most fascinating is that the case revolves around a mystery that we’ll never know. The prosecution didn’t know, the defence didn’t know; no one really knew what happened, even, apparently, Michael.
Q: It remains unclear whether Michael Peterson is a cold-blooded killer or an innocent man – did you have an opinion before and how did taking part in this project challenge that opinion?
MS: I don’t remember having a strong opinion the first time I saw the documentary, I just went along with it and watched the justice system at work. Getting to walk around in David Rudolf’s shoes and re-examining all those facts, it seems to be that his logical approach to all the circumstances in the case made absolute sense to me. So, if anything, it may have reinforced my philosophy that there was enough reasonable doubt for a jury to acquit Michael and why that didn’t happen is fascinating to me.
Q: How would you describe David Rudolf?
MS: David is going through some personal turmoil. His home life is complicated. We’re not privy to a lot of that information but it’s something that we learn a little bit about during the course of the story. David is an accomplished lawyer educated in New York but has spent a number of years living in the south. He describes himself as an aggressive, dogged lawyer in terms of his pursuit of things, but he told me stories about learning a little bit about what southern charm is. Some of his colleagues down in the south encouraged him to fill his bag of tricks with a bit of gentility and so it’s fascinating to see the juxtaposition of a northerner living in a southern state telling stories and functioning in the justice system; it’s a very diverse combination of things. David is a very logical person, he’s someone I would want on my side if – God forbid – I needed a lawyer, I just can’t say enough wonderful things about him as an individual. He’s devoted most of his time trying to help people who have been harmed by the justice system get exonerated for crimes they didn’t commit and I’m grateful for his existence in the world.
Q: So you spend time with him?
MS: I visited him at his law offices and then he brought me to his home where I got to meet his wife and daughter and we took a long walk. We spent about 12-13 hours together and then he made himself available to the cast during the shoot of this series, so he was always there if we wanted him to answer any of our many questions. He was basically there if we needed him.
Q: What was the most important thing to get right in your portrayal of him?
MS: He said to me that he felt like criminal defence lawyers had got a bad rap over the years, particularly with shows that feature them as being a little worse for wear or not as above board as prosecutors seem to be portrayed. For him, it was important people become privy to what a criminal defence lawyer does and how they do it and how complicated the process is and that they aren’t all ambulance chasers or not good at their job. I think the documentary does a remarkable job of showing what the process is, so I tried to calm him a little bit and say, ‘regardless of how our story turns out, the documentary exists as that thing you’re concerned about, you are that example, David, so you don’t have to worry!’ Our project is more of an exploration of the people scattered throughout this entire case and how the psychological toll of it affected their lives for the next 20 years. He was also a little bit worried that more people might see our show than had seen the documentary to begin with. So, I tried to take that into consideration and honour what it was that he was concerned with.
Q: In what ways did this project push you out of your comfort zone?
MS: I had never sifted through autopsy photos before and I’d never, as an actor, been given so much information, so thoroughly, at the beginning of a process. They plonked a huge stack of information down at the beginning – all real documents of what the lawyers had to sift through – so we could make up our minds for ourselves. I’d never thought about being a lawyer before so the idea of getting up and actually trying to practice law in the way that David practised it, is challenging to me. Knowing you have the burden of someone’s future on your shoulders and that your actions could put them in prison for life or get them out was something weighty to think about. I was very impressed with David’s logic. My thinking process is quite different to his so trying to get inside someone’s head and trying to find out what it’s like to think like them is always challenging.
Q: Are there any scenes that particularly affected you?
MS: I think the profundity of what David articulates in the documentary when the verdict comes during the trial and how shocked he was. He expected a very different outcome and has been quite focal in interviews about how shocked he was and why the jury may have voted the way they did. I tried to make those things real for myself and I tried to feel the things that he must have been feeling – particularly when he eventually had to step away from the case because his life was elsewhere, and he couldn’t necessarily continue to be there the way that he had been there for Michael in the trial.
Catch a new episode of the new Max Original limited series “The Staircase” every Thursday on HBO GO.