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, Rosemarie DeWitt talks about providing audiences with a full picture of who Candace Zamperini (Kathleen Peterson’s sister). Meanwhile, Olivia DeJonge also shared about her experience playing Caitlin Atwater (Kathleen Peterson’s daughter from a previous marriage) and the mother-daughter dynamic.
Q: What appealed to you about “The Staircase”?
OD: For me, the ensemble cast was incredible, and I think the opportunity to work with people like Antonio Campos, Colin Firth and Toni Collette; everyone involved. It was huge. That was exciting for me as an actor. Also, the genre of true crime is not something I had ventured into before, let alone a story told in this way; it was really interesting to me.
RD: I’ve known Antonio for a really long time, and I knew he was obsessed with “The Staircase”. He told me to watch it about a decade ago. I waded in, accidentally starting on episode two and couldn’t make sense of it, so I never watched it! When this opportunity came along, I watched it and I got – as anyone would, watching it – sucked in by this really dark tragedy. I found it really compelling, and I was also really scared, which I like to be, as an actor. I like to be scared and not know how to do something, but this was a bit different. This was being scared of playing a real person. These people are very much characters in their own way and there’s an obligation when it’s a real person and it’s their life. You don’t want to dredge up wounds and things that were already the worst moments of peoples’ lives the first time around.
Q: Olivia, were you familiar with the documentary?
OD: I was a little bit. I’m Australian so the case wasn’t as huge [over there] and I was only born in 1998 but I have binged the Netflix documentary. I’ve binged the hell out of it multiple times!
Q: Rosemarie, how would you describe Candace?
RD: Candace is the sister of Kathleen, who died a violent, horrible death. Candace believes she was murdered by her husband Michael. She really devotes the rest of her life to justice and to putting him in prison. What drew me to the project besides my history with Antonio – where I knew that we would be in good hands as actors – was that Toni Colette was going to play Kathleen and she was going to be front and centre of the story, which she isn’t in the documentary. She’s barely a presence. And I thought that would be worth seeing and getting to know. This piece explores truth and what is truth. It is an exploration of who these people were and who this family was before and afterwards and how they were impacted by the event and the justice system.
Q: What was the most important thing to get right in your portrayal of her?
RD: Sometimes it felt important for me to get her accent and mannerisms but more important than that was the fact that I really felt like she was villainised in the documentary. I say that only because I saw about an hour of footage the documentarians didn’t use and she didn’t come across heightened, hysterical, or angry with extreme opinions. Of course, those emotions come up – it’s the murder trial of her beloved sister – but I was hoping to give her a fuller picture. There are so many stories and layers to this so it’s not like Candace even gets a ton of screen time but having watched the first four episodes I appreciated that we really see her love for Kathleen and their relationship. The real-life Candace might not be pleased with any of it – I don’t know if I would ever be pleased with it – but I appreciated that Antonio was going to give Candace a voice and he said to me, ‘I want you to bring heart to her. I want you to bring as much humanity as you can,’ and I thought, ‘well, I can be on board for that.‘
Q: It sounds like playing a real person doesn’t sit well with you. Did you consider meeting her?
RD: It didn’t sit well; it still doesn’t sit well. I think production reached out to her ahead of time. Either they didn’t locate her, or she didn’t respond, and I took that as a sign from the universe. There’s so much footage and interviews with her that I didn’t need to speak to her and have her dredge anything up for an actor to portray her in a movie. Colin Firth and I spoke a lot about this. He didn’t meet Michael Peterson either as he didn’t want to be influenced by him. This is an exploration of these people and these stories. It’s a reimagining and a reframing of true crime. It’s a play within a play.
OD: It’s so meta. It’s such a question of how much of truth is curated, especially in our show, where we’re looking at the documentary being made within a TV show. The documentary is already out there; how is that curated? How do we tell stories as human beings? What are our perspectives on that and how does that shape truth? Things aren’t black and white. What is that grey area? What does it look like and feel like? I think this show ruminates on those ideas and really allows a lot of space for the audience to question as well as explore these people’s lives and the dichotomy of what it means to be human.
Q: Olivia, how would you describe Kathleen’s daughter, Caitlin?
OD: Obviously she’s young when everything happens. She’s in her teens and grapples with what really happened, which side of truth she wants to sit on. I think as an actor that was interesting to portray. Her and her mum were really close and I think that was the other exciting aspect about this – that we got to touch on the relationships outside of the documentary, which was so Michael Peterson based.
Q: What was the most important thing to get right in your portrayal?
OD: I think in the documentary our characters were framed – Candace even more so I think – as the villains of this story. My character was pushed to the side and what was important to me was just bringing a sense of roundedness, as well as presence, and really making sure her relationships with the girls and with Michael and her mother are explored, are relevant and are valid.
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?
OD: I think I’m obviously a bit biassed towards what my character thinks. She believes Michael did it and you kind of need to honour that, I think that’s your job as the actor, you have to step into their shoes.
RD: It’s funny because I watched the documentary before signing onto the project and I did what everyone else did and went down every road saying, ‘I guess it could have been that’ or ‘it’s crazy, it couldn’t be that’. I think the reason it lives on and has a life of its own – the actual court case – is because the truth feels unknowable. Nothing quite fits. Take the crime scene. Nothing quite works and we get to explore a lot of possibilities in the series of what could have happened. But like Olivia says, once you step inside the shoes of a character it’s hard to believe anything else about this story because you live it from your character’s perspective. Colin Firth couldn’t be a lovelier human being but by the time we got to the courtroom scenes I wanted to rip his head off as Candace, I understood it.
Q: In what ways did this project push you out of your comfort zone?
OD: Coming onto any project is always a challenge because it’s a new group of people, a new subject matter and you’re in a new place for a long time but Antonio really put together a beautiful group of people and it made our job a lot easier. Everyone really brought their A game and was really on it and Colin was such a great captain of our ship along with Toni and Antonio. It didn’t feel too challenging given all the support and HBO is a great network and really cared about this project and wanted to do it well.
RD: Antonio – in a good way – likes to ask a lot of his actors. He makes us comfortable as people, he’s a love bug, but he’s rigorous as a filmmaker. In some scenes they would be on take 20 and he’d be like, ‘can she walk down the stairs, and can her feet be sadder?’ And that was just on the feet! He is meticulous. You have to put a lot of faith in him but like Olivia was saying, it wasn’t hard. The story is big enough to hold a lot. I watched the fight with Kathleen and Michael in one of the possible scenarios of what happened and it’s like a masterclass in acting. People really got to do what they do well and that’s always thrilling.
Catch a new episode of the new Max Original limited series “The Staircase” every Thursday on HBO GO.
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