Every morning when Toni Collette brushes her teeth, an owl stares at her.
The stoic bird of prey isn’t perched outside her window, but sits artfully on her countertop, contorted into the shape of a ceramic coffee mug into which she places her toothbrush before starting her day.
“It looks at me daily — twice a day if I’m being honest,” says Collette. “Maybe I need a new vessel.”
Though her days are numbered as her morning companion, the mug is a surreal artifact of her recent Emmy-nominated role as Kathleen Peterson, a North Carolina woman who was found dead at the bottom of her stairs in 2001 — a case reported by HBO Max was dramatized in true limited crime series “The Staircase”.
The shocking death made headlines for months as her husband Michael Peterson (played by Colin Firth) was tried and convicted of her murder – all of which was later chronicled in a 2004 French documentary called The Staircase. The genesis of this document was part of the 2022 series.
After years behind bars and later house arrest, Peterson was released in 2017 when he accepted an Alford plea deal, a paradoxical agreement in which he pleaded guilty but maintained his innocence. However, while he was in prison, a now-infamous theory circulated that blamed Kathleen’s death on the claws of an angry neighborhood owl – so someone associated with the series gave her the mug.
Collette has had a hot spate of TV projects lately, producing two Netflix limited series Pieces of Her and Unbelievable, which earned her an Emmy nomination in 2020. She previously won the Emmy for Lead Actress in Comedy for Showtime’s United States of Tara.
But The Staircase presented the Australian actor with an intriguing challenge. Although Kathleen was the life lost at the center of the case, she was largely neglected by the coverage and the ensuing documentary, whose crew was surrounded by Michael and his children, who pleaded his innocence during the trial. This lack of insight into the real Kathleen gave Collette a sense of the role.
“I guess she’s always there in a way because it’s all about the consequences of her loss,” she says. “But telling this story was an opportunity to give Kathleen a voice, to make her real and whole, to allow her to live beyond the notion of ‘victim.'”
This takes many forms throughout the series, primarily through flashbacks to Kathleen’s once adorable but increasingly strained relationship with Michael and her life with her blended family – her daughter Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge) and Michael’s children (played by Dane DeHaan, Sophie Turner , Odessa Young and Patrick Schwarzenegger). She is also given dimension by the presence of her skeptical sisters (portrayed by Rosemarie DeWitt and Maria Dizzia), both of whom quickly turned against Michael after her death.
Few people know this case better than series creator, writer, and director Antonio Campos, who studied it for years after watching the documentary, which resurfaced on Netflix with new episodes in 2018. Most cast members have admitted to poring over these episodes and news stories for a glimpse into their characters and how they have been portrayed in popular culture to date. But Collette relied on Campos’ knowledge and the scripts to prepare for the role rather than venturing down the rabbit hole herself.
But the series does more than flesh out Kathleen’s life before its abrupt end. With Collette on board, Campos also re-enacted the endlessly tested scenarios of her death at the bottom of the stairs – fully acting out the three prevailing theories as if each were true.
First, the series reflects on what would have happened if Michael had been telling the truth and Kathleen had just tripped, breaking her head on the stairs and struggling to get up as blood was pouring over her head. Campos then imagines the scenario in which prosecutors successfully argued against Michael, one in which he brutally killed his wife after she found out about his affairs with men. Finally, later in the season, after the now-mocked owl theory was raised by those campaigning for Michael’s release, Kathleen is ambushed by the menacing nocturnal bird outside the Petersons’ home before driving her insane enough from her claw-induced injuries that she falls down the stairs.
“I have to admit that playing with a nonexistent, aggressive bird was a first for me,” she jokes of the final sequence.
Collette has extensive experience in the gory horror genre, having been nominated for an Oscar for her role in The Sixth Sense and earning praise for her critically acclaimed and masterfully terrifying performance in Hereditary, which also features a memorable death sequence. While there are certainly similarities, as she would ultimately do three times on the title staircase, the
Recreating a real death required more introspection than even she expected.
“Yes, there’s a lot of blood, but it’s a very different kettle of fish, both in our collective intent and in context,” she says.
To add to the pressure, Collette was only given one chance to film each of the three scenes.
With the amount of choreographed blood splatter and movement necessary to match the grisly state in which the real Kathleen was found, Campos, Collette and their stunt double Linda Kessler extensively rehearsed and prepared for the scenes – two of which were included 4 and were filmed at 5 a.m
Although she intended to treat these scenes like everyone else, she surprised herself with what she had to do to mentally prepare for them. “I really had to clear my head and get out of the way on every take,” she recalls. “I remember sitting at the bottom of the stairs before a take, locking everything out and talking to Kathleen in my head. I didn’t expect this to happen, but it did. I know it sounds weird. I think it was about permission and making it right for them.”
Collette’s work commands every second of these pivotal scenes, each powerfully acted yet almost too personal and devastatingly instinctive to watch. On this reconstructed staircase, surrounded by green screen and copious amounts of fake blood, the show stages its own interrogation of the trifecta of possibilities that defined the case and the obsession around it.
In these scenes, Collette became intimately acquainted with the tragedy of the woman she played. But she’s still torn as to which theory is more likely to have happened.
“I really don’t know,” she admits. “It’s like life itself: the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.”
That’s what fascinated her about the project in the first place. In addition to promising to work with Campos, she was as captivated by the twists and turns of the Peterson family as viewers were.
“By nature, the show lacks knowledge of what really happened to Kathleen, because in reality nobody knows, except maybe Michael Peterson,” says Collette. “I was excited to play out a few different ideas about what might have happened. It was also a big responsibility.”
Despite this, she only stares at one of these theories every morning while brushing her teeth. Though perhaps the hardest to swallow, Collette says, “The Staircase” was in no small part an eye opener to the proliferation of owls, the only suspect unable to speak for himself in this complicated true crime saga.
She notes, “They’re really everywhere.”
https://variety.com/2022/tv/awards/toni-collette-the-staircase-death-scenes-kathleen-peterson-1235334715/ Toni Collette talks to Kathleen about Staircase death scenes