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, Sophie Turner and Odessa Young talk about playing Michael Peterson’s adoptive daughters – Margaret and Martha Ratliff – and their love for crime drama.
Q: What appealed to you about The Staircase?
ST: I am completely obsessed with true crime stuff. It’s all I do. My husband hates it because I fall asleep listening to podcasts out loud, so he has to fall asleep to: ‘…and then she slit his throat!’ But I love all that stuff, it’s right up my street, so I was so excited to do a true crime drama.
OY: The face value situation of it… that there’s all these really insane things that happened. You have to stretch your understanding of everything to make sense of it; how she died and other strange coincidences that will be further explored in our show that aren’t necessarily explored in the documentary. It completely defies expectations. But the thing that I was really attracted to about it was that our story goes into the actual personal experiences of the characters involved, as opposed to making them adjacent to the tragedy. That is something I don’t think any other media representation of this story – be it a podcast or documentary – has really done.
Q: How familiar were you with the documentary?
ST: I had watched it. I watched it during the pandemic when all everyone was doing was binging TV shows and I became obsessed like the rest of the world. I was just completely intrigued by the entire thing – and then a few months later we were shooting it! The documentary was the first I’d heard of the case, but then obviously I went down a wormhole and it was like, podcast, book and theories on Reddit; there was a whole world to explore.
Q: The true crime genre is pretty saturated these days – what sets The Staircase apart from everything else out there?
OY: I think because it’s been so digested already, is what sets it apart. The fact that this documentary was made and brought the case into the public eye and people think they know all there is to know about it. But then the documentary itself essentially became part of the cannon of the actual story. What’s interesting is how the documentary impacted people’s understanding of what happened. It is a rare occurrence – at least in my understanding of true crime – to have so much material that the material itself becomes part of the story. What was going on behind the scenes that didn’t make it into the documentary – that maybe should have – is very much a part of our story.
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?
ST: I remember watching the documentary and my opinion completely flipping halfway through. At first, I thought, ‘it’s obvious he’s done this,’ and then halfway through I was like, ‘I don’t know!’ And then shooting this, and getting into the character of Margaret, especially as she’s like, ‘he’s innocent, he’s innocent,’ I was more confused. As Sophie, I was trying to stay as unbiased as possible and coming out of shooting the show I have less of an idea than I did going into it. My brain has gotten more scrambled as time has gone on. I have absolutely no idea!
OY: When I was watching it for the first time I was already watching through the filter of the daughters because I was in the process of auditioning. I was already thinking about it in terms of what the family believes and that set me up to obviously believe steadfastly in his innocence and then similarly to Sophie, the more you find out about this case, the more confounding it is. My initial position was very much affected by the character and now I’m in this period of, ‘did he, didn’t he? Does it really matter? Are we missing the point? I don’t know. And now that I’ve done the show, I’m comfortable with the idea of never knowing.
Q: Odessa, how would you describe Martha?
OY: She is, on the surface, very quiet and reserved; a protective person. I think you can see in the documentary that she really doesn’t like being on camera. Every time she is forced onto camera for an interview or forced to live her life in front of the lens, she feels uncomfortable with it; you can see her actually hiding and shying away from it. There was so much going on with her personal life completely aside from her mother’s death that the documentary never went into, unless it served the purpose of telling the story of Kathleen’s death. I think she’s going through so much self-discovery and those growing pains are awful – especially for someone who was orphaned as Martha and Margaret were, when they were infants. They were passed around a lot between family members until finally they found their place in their family which was settling down with Kathleen and Michael and then that rug is pulled out from underneath them, so I think there’s so much going on there. Both of their facades are very protective, I think. Martha is a very careful person and very scrutinising.
Q: Did you consider meeting her?
OY: No, we talked about it a little with Antonio Campos, whether he wanted us to. He was in conversation a lot with Margaret who was the spokesperson of the family and I think from very early on, I knew Martha didn’t want to talk about it. She gave her blessing but why would you want to keep talking about it? I didn’t particularly feel like I could get any more information. She would only be giving as much as she’s already given to the documentary. I’m not her friend; she has no reason to reveal anymore of herself to me.
Q: What was the most important thing to get right in your portrayal?
OY: I think the change she makes physically and emotionally throughout the trial is massive. Everybody in the family makes this change, but Martha goes from being someone who is so small and hidden and unwilling to give more than she needs to, to the documentary, to accepting it and being comfortable with it and knowing that this camera isn’t going to steal her soul. By the time the documentary resurfaced in 2011, she had been through so much self-discovery, it didn’t take something from her as it once did. I think that kind of self-growth was very important to me.
Q: Sophie, how would you describe Margaret and what was most important to you?
ST: Margaret was the spokesperson for the family with Antonio, but respectfully she did not want to talk directly to me, which I totally understand. I also wouldn’t. She didn’t owe me anything. She was very much giving the facts to Antonio and less of an insight into who she was as a person. She is such a supporter of her father, and it almost seems – especially in the beginning – that she is blindly loyal; it’s almost like a Stockholm syndrome thing.
I think people can get easily disenchanted with someone who is so blindly loyal – who simply takes it at face value and doesn’t do their own research – that I wanted to find and give some humanity to her and this sense of, ‘why is she like that? What have these girls gone through for her to be like that?’ I wanted to give her a bit of justification for that, because watching the documentary I too was frustrated at her. I was like, ‘super dad, really? You’re calling him super dad? This guy is very clearly a sociopath.’ I really wanted to find, ‘well, why is she like that; why is she so fiercely protective of her father?’ and that was the most important thing.
Catch a new episode of the new Max Original limited series “The Staircase” every Thursday on HBO GO.