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, Tim Guinee and Vincent Vermignon talk about their characters, Bill Peterson (Michael Peterson’s brother) and Oscar-winning documentarian Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, respectively.
Q: What appealed to you about “The Staircase”?
VV: First of all, it was the opportunity to work with this amazing group of actors. It was crazy for me to be in scenes with someone like Colin Firth; that was a dream come true for me. I knew the documentary as well – I loved it – so for me, it was a no brainer. What I liked about the documentary was that you normally know afterwards whether someone is guilty or not. At the end of this, I didn’t know at all. I was completely confused, and I remember having a conversation with my wife who was convinced that he did it while I wasn’t. It was like there was another movie happening in the living room, talking about the movie you just saw!
TG: We live in this period of extraordinary polemics with social media and everyone pointing the finger; this is the world we live in. There’s something in the documentary’s glorious revelation of the impossibility of understanding the truth and the impossibility of some kind of justice and what does it even mean that I think really uplifts the human experience, especially now we’re so into judgement. It’s such a ‘gotcha’ culture and I love that we’re all guilty and we’re all innocent and it’s very hard to know.
Q: Tim, were you familiar with the documentary?
TG: No! I saw that Parker Posey was in it and we had done a couple of movies together, so I called her and was like, ‘Parker, what is this thing?’ and she was like, ‘oh my god, it’s great. You’ve got to look at it!’ and so I auditioned and got the part.
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?
VV: I was really confused before jumping on the project and now I’m even more confused. Everyday we had a new theory. There’s a story Jean-Xavier told me that when he was in Durham, North Carolina, shooting the documentary. The sound guy, the DOP and him were all in the same apartment and after each day of shooting, they’d have this massive argument about whether he did it or not. Every day! So even these guys who experienced it didn’t even know what to think. All these years later, for us, it’s even harder. Every two weeks Tim and I would be like, ‘have you heard about that thing?’ And by the end, we were like, ‘we don’t know what to think!’
TG: I would be fascinated to know if there is a single actor who thinks they know. My guess if none of us do. It was the constant argument. Vincent and I both talked to the people we were playing with, and I think we were as confused as anyone; there was no clarity from that. I’m also not convinced somebody did it. That seems to be the question. Did he do it? I think she could have fallen and slipped; it could have been an accident, I really don’t know. Putting the wife in it as a central character who we spend time with – and having such an attachment to her that you don’t have in the documentary – is really glorious, smart, writing from Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn.
Q: Vincent, how would you describe the documentarian Jean-Xavier?
VV: Jean made a documentary before The Staircase called Murder on A Sunday Morning and he won an Oscar. That documentary explored the life of a young, black male from a poor background who was innocent but accused of murder so he was interested after that in paying attention to another side of society and how the justice system could have an impact on someone. Jean has a very strong sense of justice and he told me that his main objective was to stay objective all the time. What I tried to do was find the right distance between the characters because I had to stay neutral but at the same time inspire trust – at some point I had to ask the family some tricky questions.
Q: How much time did you spend with Jean-Xavier and how did it help you?
VV: He’s an executive producer on the show so I spoke a lot with him on the phone and asked him a lot of questions. I asked him, ‘is there anything you don’t want me to do when I’m portraying you?’ and he told me, ‘Vincent, I tried my best to be neutral.’ He didn’t tell me that he managed to stay neutral but he told me to do my best to stay neutral so that is what I tried to do. It wasn’t about being objective all the time, it was about doing your best to be objective.
TG: That thing Vincent did of hanging back is quite extraordinary and very giving of an actor. There are plenty of actors who would have made sure that the documentary director was at the centre the whole time but instead Vincent helped build the reality of the thing, and it was great.
Q: Tim, how would you describe Bill Peterson, Michael’s brother?
TG: Bill was interesting to me because if you look at the documentary, he seems the most reserved and circumspect. I think he probably understood the danger of the documentary and what it could do legally to his brother’s chances, so I didn’t totally trust Bill in the documentary. I’m very curious about the minute the camera cuts and how Bill behaved and how all of them behaved.
Q: What research or preparation did you find most helpful?
TG: I had the fantastic opportunity to talk with Bill and he was incredibly forthcoming and incredibly straightforward. The thing that amazes me about Bill is he made a decision to defend his brother. There is something about the depth to which he showed up for his brother that is quite extraordinary. He lived in Reno, Nevada, and had a family, but he was there in North Carolina, for Michael. Something I noticed when watching the show was that there is so much love in that family and so much connection – to a degree that is extraordinary – that even I don’t have in my own family.
Q: What was most important to get right in terms of your portrayal of him?
TG: I think there was a steadfastness in his defence of his brother that was important to me. The other thing came from a story Bill told me. He went to Vietnam after his brother and he called his brother the night before he was shipped out and he said, ‘I’m really nervous,’ and Michael said, ‘what are you nervous about?’ and he said, ‘well, I could die out there,’ and Michael said, ‘well, that’s not the worst thing that could happen to you.’ I have two brothers and it’s exactly the stupid stuff we would say to each other. The warmth of a sense of humour like that and the deep intimacy of being able to tell jokes like that, spoke volumes to me. I think Bill was a guy who Michael could say things to that he couldn’t say to anybody else, so I had to find a way into that.
Catch a new episode of the new Max Original limited series “The Staircase” every Thursday on HBO GO.
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