The Staircase Stars Colin Firth and Toni Collette on Rimming and That Grisly Murder Scene
Spoiler Alert: This interview contains spoilers through Episode 4 of “The Staircase,” which hit HBO Max on May 12.
Despite her death being the catalyst for a highly publicized court case and miniseries, not much is publicly known about Kathleen Peterson’s life and personality. “The Staircase,” HBO Max’s true crime miniseries from Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn, seeks to change that by fleshing out Kathleen as a human being. “I just love that the show on the whole is a more balanced view of their family,” Toni Collette, who plays Kathleen Peterson in the series, tells Variety. “Ultimately, to me, I think it’s about the breakdown of a marriage, and you just see her as a whole person. You see all of them as whole people. People living in this funny little community in the middle of North Carolina, you just can’t imagine the stuff that goes on. But that really humble, normal domestic world that Antonio created, I think is so beautiful.”
Although Colin Firth, who plays Michael Peterson, had a wealth of footage and information to work from, he chose to rely on the script to build his character. “This obviously draws on the story with which we think we’re familiar. But despite that, it’s a construct,” he says. “It’s lovely fiction, and I think I found it more helpful to stay within the parameters of what was written.” One of the script’s most visceral moments comes in the fourth episode, “Common Sense,” when Firth and Collette depict in gruesome detail what may have happened if Michael did, in fact, murder Kathleen at the bottom of the staircase. In an interview with Variety ahead of the show’s premiere, Collette and Firth open up about filming the murder scene, building trust on set and why they’re not sharing whether they believe Michael Peterson is guilty.
Colin, did you contact your real-life counterpart, Michael Peterson, when you thought about tackling this role?
Colin Firth: No, I wasn’t invited to and I wasn’t under any pressure to do so. And I found that there was something so well-calibrated and constructed in the script as it was written, that I didn’t really want to mess with that as my source material. Added to that was the very complex and thoughtful minds of the writers, Maggie and Antonio. It was a hell of a lot for me to try to grasp eight hours of this maze-like trajectory, which was not chronological. It had all sorts of significance, some of which was very apparent, and some which I missed. And I didn’t really think it was going to help me to reach out outside of that.
Speaking of the source material, there isn’t actually much that we know about Kathleen herself. Toni, where did you draw from in building this character and giving a voice to her that we haven’t previously heard?
Toni Collette: The documentary doesn’t really see her as much more than a victim. And she’s quite objectified. So it was a bit of a responsibility to create her from not very much. Before we started, Antonio emailed me just a couple of home videos. I think stuff that Margie had had videoed. There were just a couple of glimpses, and even those tiny moments were very helpful. It was a Christmas Day — she loved Christmas. She loved family. It was so important to her. And there was just this moment of her with her little coffee cup sitting on Michael’s lap, and the energy between them in front of all the other kids just said something very powerful to me. And there was another moment where she was kind of alone, trying to do a daggy little workout in the foyer of their house. And as soon as she saw the camera, she just stopped immediately, and was kind of embarrassed. So really, most of my information, all of my information is — yes, what they say about her in the documentary — but really, it was from the scripts, they were so informative. Antonio had been on this story and so passionate about it for years. And between what he and Maggie had written, Kathleen seemed very clear. In a way, I had an easy job. I had more freedom than any of the other actors because Kathleen is not here.
You must have placed a lot of trust in each other as actors, particularly in Episode 4, during that very graphic scene when you act out what may have happened if Michael did, in fact, murder Kathleen. What was it like approaching that scene?
Collette: Most of our bulky scenes were right at the beginning of the shoot in the first six weeks. So it was kind of off to a flying start. And we didn’t know each other. So it was really a matter of leaping in and a matter of trust. And honestly, Colin’s the most, obviously, talented person, but just a decent, beautiful guy. It was so easy working with him. Honestly, it was a total dream. And some of the material is obviously very difficult. I’ve never felt so comfortable. Honestly, I don’t know if I could have done it with anybody else. And that particular scene you’re talking about is one of my favorite scenes. I think it’s so brilliantly written. It captures something so very real about the pain of a moment of exposure within a relationship, and you can feel all that could happen from that moment. It’s just devastating. And I think it was so smart and brave of Antonio to just keep the camera back and let it move on its own, and not go in and cover the shit out of it. It just happened very organically. We rehearsed it. And we all went, “Yeah, that feels pretty good.” And then we started shooting it.
Firth: I suppose I’d echo quite a lot of that. In terms of what’s interesting, as actors, it’s what precedes a moment like that, as Toni was just describing. Is it really possible that a moment many of us might recognize could escalate into that? We hope not. That’s a chilling prospect. But the most interesting thing to inhabit is what leads to that in a story, and what follows on from it. And I mean that in a very literal way, because the actual violence was enacted by stunt doubles. So our job was the rest of it. And it was hard. I was shocked, actually, by how visceral and real and painful Toni’s depiction of that suffering was. That really knocked me back on my heels. And I had read the script. I knew it would be awful and intense and desperately sad. But I think seeing it portrayed with that emotionality and physicality was hard. It was shocking.
Collette: After the moment with Colin, she’s kind of there on her own struggling. And it’s called “The Staircase,” so there’s a lot of pressure. Also, once Michael leaves, blood is pouring out of her. There were these tubes I was connected to — kind of a bank of blood that was being pumped up and through a wig. I really only had one chance. And that’s a lot of pressure.
Did you work with an intimacy coordinator on this series? I’m thinking particularly of the rimming scene in Episode 3.
Collette: They hired an intimacy coordinator — I didn’t want to talk to her, because I felt, between Antonio and Colin, completely safe. There was a lot of trust. And I knew the crew, and that was my team. Did you talk to her, Colin?
Firth: I did. And she was great. Very understanding and good — human and sensitive. And I think part of that was knowing if it helped not to be there. That was then respected. It wasn’t about, “I’m here. So I have to be used.”
Collette: If I’d been with other people where I didn’t feel as comfortable, I probably would have welcomed her there. But I just I felt so secure in our world that I didn’t feel the need for her presence.
I have to ask you the question at the heart of this. Are you comfortable sharing if you think Michael Peterson killed Kathleen?
Collette: I mean, during the shoot, we changed our minds every second day, and that’s part of the retelling of it. That’s part of why it’s so compelling. We’ll never actually have an answer. I don’t know.
Firth: It’s interesting. Earlier today, somebody said she watched it looking for clues in my interpretation as to what I thought: “There’s this expression, or that moment. Does that deliberately mean that Colin thinks that?” I think it would be a shame to answer that, because I think this thing is specializing in making you question, and being honest with the fact that we can only speculate. We can only guess. You can gravitate towards whatever certainty. But I think that this is playing with varying possibilities. And I think it would be a pity having gone to all that trouble to have the actor say, “I think this happened.” Get back to me in a few years when everyone’s seen it.
The first four episodes of “The Staircase” are available now on HBO Max, with new episodes dropping each week after that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.