Toni Collette on ‘Staircase’ Dying Scenes, Talking to Kathleen
Every morning as Toni Collette brushes her tooth, an owl stares again at her.
The stoic chicken of prey isn’t perched exterior her window however moderately ornately sitting on her countertop, contorted into the form of a ceramic espresso mug that she locations her toothbrush into earlier than she begins her day.
“It’s there me each day — twice a day if I’m dentally sincere,” Collette says. “Possibly I want a brand new receptacle.”
Even when its days as her morning companion are numbered, the mug is a surreal artifact of her newly Emmy-nominated flip as Kathleen Peterson, a North Carolina girl discovered lifeless on the backside of her stairs in 2001 — a case dramatized by HBO Max’s true crime restricted sequence “The Staircase.”
The stunning demise occupied headlines for months as her husband, Michael Peterson (performed by Colin Firth), was tried and convicted of her homicide — all of it later chronicled in a 2004 French documentary additionally referred to as “The Staircase.” The making of that doc was a part of the 2022 sequence.
After years behind bars and later home arrest, Peterson was launched in 2017 when he accepted an Alford plea, a paradoxical settlement wherein he pleaded responsible however maintained his innocence. Whereas he was in jail, nonetheless, a now-infamous concept circulated that positioned the blame for Kathleen’s demise on the talons of an indignant neighborhood owl — therefore why somebody related to the sequence gifted her the mug.
Collette has been on a sizzling streak of TV initiatives these days, coming off two Netflix restricted sequence “Items of Her” and “Unbelievable,” which scored her an Emmy nomination in 2020. She beforehand received the Emmy for lead comedy actress for Showtime’s “United States of Tara.”
However “The Staircase” posed an intriguing problem for the Australian actor. Regardless of being the life misplaced on the middle of the case, Kathleen was largely uncared for by the information protection and the following documentary, the crew of which was embedded with Michael and his kids who maintained his innocence in the course of the trial. That lack of perception into the true Kathleen gave Collette a goal with the function.
“I suppose she is at all times form of there as a result of it’s all concerning the fallout from the lack of her,” she says. “However this telling of this story was a chance to present Kathleen a voice, to make her actual and entire, to permit her to dwell past the notion of ‘sufferer.’”
This takes many kinds within the sequence, primarily via flashbacks to Kathleen’s once-charmed however more and more fraught relationship with Michael, and her life with their blended household — her daughter Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge) and Michael’s kids (performed by Dane DeHaan, Sophie Turner, Odessa Younger and Patrick Schwarzenegger). She can be given dimension by the presence of her skeptical sisters (portrayed by Rosemarie DeWitt and Maria Dizzia), each of whom shortly turned on Michael after her demise.
Few folks know this case higher than sequence creator, author and director Antonio Campos, who studied it for years after seeing the documentary, which resurfaced with new episodes on Netflix in 2018. A lot of the forged has acknowledged they pored over these episodes and information reviews for perception into their characters and the way they’ve been portrayed to date in common tradition. However Collette relied on Campos’ information and the scripts to arrange for the function as an alternative of venturing down the rabbit gap herself.
However the sequence does extra than simply flesh out Kathleen’s life earlier than its abrupt finish. With Collette on board, Campos additionally intricately re-created the endlessly scrutinized scenarios of her death on the backside of the steps — enjoying out the three dominant theories in full, as if every had been true.
First, the sequence ponders what would have occurred if Michael had been telling the reality and Kathleen merely tripped, cracked her head on the steps and struggled to face as blood poured down her head. Then, Campos imagines the situation the prosecution efficiently argued in opposition to Michael, one wherein he brutally killed his spouse after she discovered of his affairs with males. Lastly, later within the season, after the now-ridiculed owl concept is raised by these preventing for Michael’s launch, Kathleen is ambushed by the menacing nocturnal chicken exterior the Petersons’ dwelling earlier than she turns into delirious sufficient from her talon-induced accidents to fall down the steps.
“I have to admit, appearing with a non-existent, aggressive chicken was a primary for me,” she quips of the ultimate sequence.
Collette has loads of expertise within the bloody horror style, having been Oscar-nominated for her function in “The Sixth Sense” and incomes reward for her critically adored and masterfully terrifying efficiency in “Hereditary,” which additionally contains a memorable demise sequence. Whereas there are actually similarities in what she would finally do thrice on the titular staircase, the
recreation of an actual demise required extra introspection than even she anticipated.
“Sure, there’s a number of blood, however it’s a very totally different kettle of fish, each in our collective intention and the context,” she says.
Including to the stress, Collette solely had one probability to movie every of the three scenes.
With the quantity of choreographed blood spatter and actions essential to match the grisly situation wherein the true Kathleen was discovered, Campos, Collette and her stunt double, Linda Kessler, extensively rehearsed and ready for the scenes — two of which had been shot at 4 and 5 a.m.
Whereas she meant to deal with these scenes as some other, she shocked even herself with what she needed to do to mentally put together. “I needed to actually clear my thoughts and get out of the best way for every take,” she remembers. “I keep in mind sitting on the backside of the steps earlier than a take, shutting every thing out and speaking to Kathleen in my head. I didn’t count on this to occur but it surely did. I do know it sounds bizarre. I feel it was about permission and getting it proper for her.”
Collette’s work instructions each second of these essential scenes, every one powerfully acted and but, virtually too private and devastatingly visceral to look at. On that reconstructed staircase, surrounded by inexperienced display and copious quantities of pretend blood, the present levels its personal interrogation of the trifecta of prospects which have outlined the case and the obsession round it.
In these scenes, Collette grew to become intimately conversant in the tragedy of the lady she was enjoying. However she’s nonetheless torn on which theory is more likely to have happened.
“I actually don’t know,” she admits. “It’s like life itself: The extra you already know, the extra you notice you don’t know.”
That’s what intrigued her concerning the challenge within the first place. Together with the promise of attending to work with Campos, she was simply as fascinated by the twists and turns of the Peterson household because the viewers.
“By nature, the present lacks information about what actually occurred to Kathleen as a result of in actuality no one is aware of, besides perhaps Michael Peterson,” says Collette. “I used to be enthusiastic about enjoying out a number of totally different concepts of what could have occurred. It was additionally a giant accountability.”
Nonetheless, solely a kind of theories is staring again at her each morning as she brushes her tooth. Whereas it may be the toughest one to swallow, Collette says “The Staircase” has, if nothing else, opened her eyes to the prevalence of owls, the one suspect unable to talk for itself on this sophisticated true-crime saga.
She notes, “They actually do seem in every single place.”