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, Toni Collette explains why it wasn’t hard to play Kathleen at all and which part of Kathleen she wants to highlight.
Q: What appealed to you about “The Staircase”?
TC: It was clearly a fantastic project. The writing was amazing. Antonio Campos is incredibly talented. Colin Firth was attached. I had some concerns. I had heard of the documentary, but I hadn’t seen it. My concern was Michael Peterson is a bit of a narcissist and I didn’t want to fan his flame. In the documentary it’s all very much about him and what he’s going through, and Kathleen is so objectified. I think the opportunity to find out a bit more about who she was before she died was really important in terms of the balance of their relationship and her life, which did end tragically – not that we have all the information – but no matter what happened, it’s still tragic. She was young and she was vibrant, and she was a force of nature. She was an incredible matriarch and an amazing, compassionate leader at work. She just had a big life and then it was gone. If it was an accident, it’s a very healthy reminder of just how fragile life is and if it wasn’t an accident then it’s just hideous.
Q: How did you gain a sense of who Kathleen was? You had the hardest job of all…
TC: No, I disagree, because there was a certain freedom in playing her. Obviously, there was a responsibility but there was a freedom because she was no longer there. There was a lot of video footage and information and obviously the scripts were so well informed because Antonio had been so passionate for years. He’s in the documentary, which is crazy! I had a lot to work with and it was very easy. Being sandwiched between Antonio and Colin was a total pleasure. Despite the tragedy, it was a positive experience for me. It was such a brilliant job; everything about it.
Q: What was the most important thing for you in your portrayal of her?
TC: What I love about it is it’s not just about her death, it’s about the breakdown of a marriage prior to that. There were certain lies. We don’t know what information Kathleen had or didn’t have; what she was, or wasn’t, aware of. But the imbalance in their relationship was crazy. She gave so much, and she worked so hard. She was the emotional anchor for all those kids, she was so connected to everyone at work, and she really cared. She had this big, passionate life and he had written a couple of so-so books and didn’t really do anything. He really did kind of swan around. He wasn’t really there for the kids in the way she was. I don’t think he’s as emotionally aware or connected as she was, but she was definitely the worker bee. It may well have been an accident because she was just so bloody exhausted and stressed. Even if she was aware of Michael’s bisexuality, I don’t know if she was entirely aware of what he was doing on the side of their relationship. There was so much that just wasn’t sitting right with her. Being able to bring all of those things to their shared reality to shed a bit more light is revealing in terms of what really could have happened because it wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops between them. It was difficult and she was feeling disgruntled and disenchanted.
Q: What was it like reenacting the different scenarios of how she could have died?
TC: It’s so funny because dying once in a story is full on – I was like, ‘I die thrice in this one!’ It was kind of weird to wrap my head around but like any other scene you just get very inside it and try to bring a certain amount of truth. To be honest, with the physicality of it, there was a lot of pressure because we could only do one take. Given the blood and the rig that we had it wasn’t like we could do it over and over again. We’d rehearse and rehearse and then we’d get ready, and they’d rig me up with all the blood and there was a lot of choreography involved because of where the splatters or marks were on the wall. We shot some of these scenes at 4am or 5am unnecessarily just because of the schedule but these things happen as they’re meant to. I think as I get older, I’m realising your mind can’t really decipher if something is real or not. So, if I’m really feeling something and putting myself through it, I just take better care of myself now. I wish I’d started doing that earlier, but I know how to do it now (laughs).
Q: The true crime genre is pretty saturated these days – what sets “The Staircase” apart from everything else out there?
TC: I’m not drawn to the genre at all. It’s not something that I’m interested in or follow. But I think Antonio and Maggie created something so honest and beautiful about a family and it’s about love and it’s complicated and grounded. That feeling of being at home. That domestic, slightly weird vibe is so real that you can’t help but be sucked into it. It’s a funny word to use but there’s a safe feeling about it which is why I think it’s so tragic. The family feels so bonded. That was really important to Antonio. He had us over to his house almost every weekend. We really did spend a lot of time together all of us and I think you feel that on camera. It didn’t feel forced. Sometimes when you work on something and you’re trying to get everyone together, it’s like, ‘just leave it,’ but it happened so organically, it was just a total pleasure. Everyone wanted the best for the show. I think it starts with the people and Antonio just created the most incredible atmosphere for everyone. It wasn’t just actors at his house, it was the whole crew. It was just a really special experience.
Q: What response do you hope the show gets; what should people take away from it?
TC: I watched the first couple of episodes with a couple of good friends and at the end of them, none of us could stop thinking about it and we were just looking at each other like, ‘can you believe it?’ I don’t want to sound like I’m a bragging actor, but it just feels like next-level good; it just feels so special. I can’t identify exactly why but sometimes things just take on their own energy. The thing with a documentary is you imagine you’re getting something real but Antonio has created something more realistic in a partially fictional version of it. That’s pretty amazing.
Catch a new episode of the new Max Original limited series “The Staircase” every Thursday on HBO GO.