In The Staircase, Colin Firth and Toni Collette Find Life in Death
The decorated stars talk playing the unthinkable—and unknowable—in HBO Max’s wild, innovative true-crime limited series.
It was four or five in the morning, the set had reverted to its bloody basics, and Toni Collette was tasked to die—again. She’d already acted out several ways that her character, Kathleen Peterson, could have met her grisly demise, but returning to the scene of the crime (or accident) for another freshly devised scenario struck her anew. “It just became so surreal,” she recalls. “This woman died. We don’t know how she died, but there’s a big responsibility that comes with bringing a truthful quality not only to that experience, but to her life.”
It might sound sensationalistic for The Staircase, HBO Max’s upcoming limited series, to literally reenact popular theories on how (or whether) Kathleen fell down a flight of stairs to her death. But that’s the core of showrunners Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn’s empathic vision—and of Collette’s vivacious performance: to finally give agency to a woman whose fate has been the stuff of true-crime legend for decades. After all, each death is preceded by a vivid glimpse of her own world. “What we knew of her was this tragic ending at the bottom of a staircase,” Cohn says. “But what we didn’t see was this big, complicated, and beautiful life that she had before that.”
The Staircase’s story was previously chronicled in a 2004 French series. Over eight initial episodes, it followed Michael Peterson, a successful crime novelist mulling a political career, as he stood trial and was ultimately convicted in his city of Durham, North Carolina, for the murder of his wife, Kathleen. The series significantly influenced the last decade’s true-crime boom, capturing a local media circus that grew more confounding, fascinating, and ludicrous with each development. By trial’s end, everything from lurid details of Michael’s sexual history to theories of death-by-owl were incessantly picked apart.
Campos (The Sinner) first received DVDs of the documentary 13 years ago and was hooked. “I felt like I knew everything about this guy by the end, because everything had come out about him, but at the same time I still didn’t know who he was,” he says. He spent years developing a feature, befriending the doc’s filmmakers, and visiting Durham as the drama evolved. A ninth episode of the doc was released in 2013, after Michael was granted a new trial due to a witness’s misleading testimony, and Campos is actually present in its courtroom scenes. This tells you how immersed he was: “I was like, ‘This isn’t just a movie.’” (The documentary ended up running 13 episodes long and is now on Netflix.)
As they got to mapping out an eight-episode series, Campos and Cohn (an American Crime Story alum who came aboard as executive producer) faced two big hurdles: the lack of resolution in the case—whether Michael is a cold-blooded killer or a total innocent remains generally, perplexingly unclear—and the sheer volume of true crime in today’s popular culture. In “exploring an established genre with a novel approach,” says Cohn, they focused on “taking a seminal true-crime piece, and using that to explore the actual genre that it’s helped to establish.”
Anchored by Collette and Colin Firth as Michael, The Staircase operates in three timelines: the days leading up to Kathleen’s death, the immediate aftermath and trial surrounding it, and the present day. Michael’s efforts to prove his innocence take on an absurdist, meta sheen as the French film crew lands in Durham and follows their indignant subject’s every move. The contemporary segments are teased out in gradual, revealing snippets, with Michael now a free man. Finally, the most imagined—and wrenching—part of the series follows Kathleen, as she unknowingly lives out her final days.
It’s an awfully ambitious construct for a story that hinges on an unknowable incident. But then, that’s the whole point.
Colin Firth is not drawn, generally, to true-crime shows. He tends to scroll right past them whenever he browses Netflix. And he knew nothing about Michael Peterson when The Staircase scripts were sent his way. “I found it all hard to fathom,” he says of the story. “But it was so alive, and that’s a rather elusive notion. When you read as many scripts as one has done by my age, it’s life you’re looking for, something that’s animated, that moves, that interweaves different concepts—that doesn’t resolve itself in any way that’s ever facile.”
It’s a rare treat to watch the Oscar winner immerse himself in such particular skin over several hours of storytelling, chewing on material that reveals everything and nothing about his character. Indeed, it’s Firth’s first TV series role in 25 years, and he relishes it. “I’ve not had an experience like this,” he tells me. The Staircase made him question his past performances—judgments and answers he came to about his roles and “whether I was wrong.” Of this part, he says, “It just had this way of poking at questions…and it’s not as if we were hovering in some gray area. It would lead you down a path where you thought you were finding a resolution, and then it would mess with you.”
An exciting challenge, maybe, but working with few facts, competing theories, and the beats of episodic TV—with which Firth was quite unfamiliar—proved “very, very hard.” Firth hadn’t been given every episode’s script by the time he started filming, and so relied on Cohn and Campos (who directs six of the eight episodes) to keep him apprised of the “architecture,” to know which small moments could resonate four, five episodes later. “Quite frankly, if I’d read all eight episodes before I started this job, I still wouldn’t have been able to fully contain it in my head,” he says. “I didn’t always know how to orientate myself.” As Campos puts it, “He was trying to play a character whose core he couldn’t quite grasp—and it would inspire us.”
Firth has played many real-life figures before, with approaches ranging from exacting approximations to looser portrayals. Though he captures Michael’s brash voice and big ego, this one, by necessity, ranged more toward the latter: “I very much wanted to err toward finding my own interpretation,” the actor says. “That’s partly because I don’t really feel I have answers.”
He wasn’t alone. From the writers room to the crew to the ensemble of actors, debates over what actually happened to Kathleen were constant in the making of The Staircase. Every theory functioned as its own kind of truth, a way to dig into what made the series’ set of characters and relationships tick. “The multiple perspectives were helpful thematically because that is what our show is about—that there is no one single truth,” Cohn says. Kathleen’s grieving sister Candace (the great Rosemarie DeWitt), Southern-drawled prosecutor Freda (Parker Posey, having a ball), the various Peterson children (played by the likes of Sophie Turner, Dane DeHaan, and Odessa Young), and even owl-theory proponent Larry (Joel McKinnon Miller) all get their moment. Such perspectives not only drive the mystery, but enhance the human drama.
“It was fascinating just working with fellow actors and crew members, because I would hear people change their minds,” Firth says. “How hard it is to live with doubt, the preference to believe in something—it doesn’t really make it true.”
“We’re telling a story that is as much fiction as it is fact,” Cohn says. That notion fuels the most impassioned strand of The Staircase, which details the life and death of Kathleen Peterson.
Campos combined his decade-plus of independent research and interviews about Kathleen with his and Cohn’s imagination of her heart and mind. Collette embodies all of that in a tricky, galvanizing act of reclamation. She had hesitations about joining—“The one thing that perturbed me was the idea of bringing attention to someone who potentially did something very bad, fanning his flame yet again”—but was compelled by the rich opportunity to rewrite a voiceless victim’s narrative. She fell hard for Kathleen: “She’s making everything happen. She’s an exhausted, gorgeous person who just gives and gives and gives. And [Michael] is a person who takes and takes and takes.”
In Firth, Collette found a career-favorite scene partner. “Nothing was difficult, nothing was precious. We just clicked,” the Emmy winner (United States of Tara) tells me. “There was a very easy flow; it felt very sad, and kind of magnificent.” Firth shares the sentiment: “I envy [Toni] tremendously as an actor because she has all the depth that could be required of an artist. She’s got unlimited courage, but she can also do whatever you ask of her at the drop of a hat. I can’t do that.”
This show asked one especially unusual thing of Collette, in effectively dying over and over. “It’s a very weird thing to have to do because, (a) it’s horrible; (b) it really happened; and (c) these are all the things that people don’t like to think about in life, actually coming to the fore—and I have to bring some honesty to it,” Collette says. But she held admiration for such innovative risk: “I found myself giving over to something else. I just had to kind of let go of any kind of control.” She filmed these scenes early on, getting right into her most intense work with Firth, including her favorite moment to play—a particularly brutal two-hander that builds toward tragedy. That goes for their dynamic as a whole too.
Campos and Cohn decided on the reenactment conceit early on, to nod to their genre and explore Kathleen’s multitudes, with various aspects of her life leading to various possible ends. They didn’t figure out the filming style until later, finding the initial idea to capture the impact head-on was too “sensational.” “We wanted to create the feeling of a fly on the wall,” Campos says. “The things you could never imagine that she does in the moment really surprise you—you go, oh, my God, maybe it was that. Or that. Or that must have been what it was like for her to be in that stairwell by herself.”
Collette found much of the job here to be like “choreography,” balancing raw emotion with technical precision on where to fall or yell or simply stand. It took a kind of toll. “You’ve just got to shake it off at the end of the day,” she says now. Listening to her, it’s clear the mission behind the role mattered a great deal to her. “Kathleen’s death is so gruesome and incomprehensible,” Collette tells me. “I just want her to be seen for all she was, as a person, prior to when she left her body. She had spunk and spirit, and she really lived and loved.” In The Staircase, death is only where one’s story begins.