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, Patrick Schwarzenegger and Dane DeHaan delve into portraying brothers Todd and Clayton Peterson, respecting their real-life portrayals’s privacy, and the most challenging part on this project.
Q: What appealed to you about “The Staircase”?
DD: I’ve been really familiar with the documentary since it first came out and rewatched it when the new episodes came out, so I was pretty obsessed with the story. I’ve known Antonio for several years. We’d never worked together but we both lived in New York and were into similar things so when the opportunity came, it seemed really exciting.
PS: I was extremely excited to be part of this for multiple reasons. I was a fan of the documentary and had watched it with my family at the beginning of Covid. We were just binge watching it and obsessed with it so when I got the email about the audition, I was super excited, and when I learned who else was involved, I became even more excited because there was such a high calibre of actors. To work with people and professionals of this level; to continue to learn and evolve and surround myself with people who are the best, was a dream come true for me.
Q: The true crime genre is pretty saturated these days – what sets “The Staircase” apart from everything else out there?
DD: I don’t think “The Staircase” is just another true crime series. It shows what it’s like to be a family going through a trial while allowing a documentary to be made about what you’re going through. You almost get to see how the sausage is made – what it takes to make a true crime series – so although there is a mystery and a whodunnit aspect to the series, you’re seeing how a lot of the original content was made and I think that’s a really interesting perspective.
Q: Patrick, how would you describe Todd?
PS: It’s hard to describe Todd, or any character, since we evolve so much, for better or worse, over the course of the series. It takes place over multiple years, from when it happened in the early 2000s to when Michael Peterson is let out of prison and a lot can happen in someone’s life during those 15 years especially when you’re going through something like this. My character starts out as one person – the fan favourite, the favourite kid who is the most reliable and by Michael’s side before Kathleen’s death – and as the story continues, the relationship dwindles, and it’s Clayton who steps up and becomes the more reliable and trusted one. Todd then embarks on a downward spiral of drugs and alcohol and tries to make a new life in Cabo but ultimately can’t run away or hide from what’s happened and how it’s impacted him.
Q: What was most the important thing to get right in your portrayal of him?
PS: One of the things Antonio wanted was that you didn’t have to get the portrayal so right. It wasn’t about trying to mimic or copy every single thing that happened in the documentary or in Todd’s life, he wanted to bring other areas of the documentary to light that weren’t shown, what the family dynamic was, and what the relationships were between different siblings. We got to bring to life things that weren’t present in the documentary; it allowed us, as actors, to bring what we wanted to and what we thought was correct and comfortable for the character.
Q: Dane, how would you describe Clayton?
DD: Clayton’s the older son and when we first meet him in the series, he’s had a bit of a troubled past and this really colours his relationship with his family and his relationship with his father, and in a lot of ways it’s why his family and the lawyers don’t want him so involved in the case. Clayton has a real need to be involved but he’s not necessarily wanted so his journey throughout the series is one of earning everyone’s trust and showing he’s a changed person. By the end of the series, he goes on to live a very ‘normal’ life and he’ll end up being the one who is more reliable than Todd, so they definitely have a role reversal, but when we first meet Clayton, he’s really dealing with the ramifications of his troubled past.
Q: What was the most important to get right in your portrayal of him?
DD: I just wanted to honour the Clayton that was on the page and the Clayton that Antonio and Maggie had written. It was pretty clear to me that the real-life Clayton didn’t really want any direct involvement in the series, and it was important for me to respect that. He is a real person who is living today and has a wife and kids and a job; I don’t want to invade on his life any more than he would want to be involved and it seemed clear that he didn’t want to be involved. He had personally moved on so because of that, I wanted to honour how he was written. There was obviously the documentary footage to learn as much as you can about the subject but it was important to me to respect the privacy of Clayton and the distance that he wanted from the project.
Q: In what ways did this project challenge you?
PS: Being challenged pushes you to become better. Just working with someone like Colin Firth, I was a little nervous to work with someone of that calibre, but it ended up being so amazing because he was such a great person and I found myself learning and getting better as an actor and individual. There were definitely challenging scenes. One of my opening scenes was walking through the murder scene and finding my father. Overall, I never felt uncomfortable; Antonio was able to bring out a specific performance in me, which I found comforting. It feels good to have a director who can articulate their words and talk to you on a personal and professional level to try and get what they’re looking for.
DD: The most challenging part for me was the schedule and the ensemble nature of the piece. It meant that we weren’t together every day. It’s hard to show up and do a handful of days, have a handful of days off and then go back. It gave me a whole new respect for people who make a career doing guest appearances or recurring roles. It’s a difficult task to show up on set – where the crew has been working tirelessly – after a week off and slip back into the energy of the set. That was the real challenge of making this for me and something I wasn’t necessarily used to.
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?
PS: My opinion has changed so many times! At the beginning of the documentary, I was like, ‘there’s no way he did it,’ and then by the next episode, I was like, ‘there’s no way he didn’t do it.’ My mind changed a bunch of times and it continued to change as I continued to film this project and I learnt more and more information.
DD: I just don’t know. I’m very comfortable not knowing. I have a reasonable amount of doubt about everything in my life, including this story, and again, what was important was to understand that Clayton really believes his father did not do it and he’ll do anything for his father to prove his innocence. That’s what was important for me in the series and that’s really what I focused on. It wasn’t my job to be a detective. It was my job to understand Clayton’s role in the family. And he clearly does not think his father did it.
Catch a new episode of the new Max Original limited series “The Staircase” every Thursday on HBO GO.
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