Every morning while Toni Collette was brushing her teeth, she would stare at an owl.
The bird of prey is not perched outside her window but is artfully perched on its roof, twisted into the shape of a ceramic coffee mug into which she pops her toothbrush before starting her day.
“She looks at me every day — twice a day, if I’m honest about dentistry,” says Collette. “Maybe I need a new pot.”
Even though her morning pal’s days are numbered, The Cup is a surreal artifact for her newly Emmy-nominated role of Kathleen Peterson, a North Carolina woman found dead at the bottom of her stairs in 2001 – a case dramatized by HBO Max became. 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 later chronicled in the 2004 French documentary The Staircase. The creation of this document was part of the 2022 series.
After years behind bars and later house arrest, Peterson was released in 2017 after agreeing to Alford’s plea, a conflicting agreement in which he pleaded guilty but maintained his innocence. There was a notorious theory circulating around the prison that attributed Kathleen’s death to the claws of an angry neighborhood owl – which is why someone linked to the chain gave her the cup.
Colette has been involved in a slew of hot TV projects lately, spawning from two Netflix limited series Pieces of Her and Unbelievable, for which she received an Emmy nomination in 2020. She previously won an Emmy for Leading Comedy Actress for Showtime’s United States of Tara.
But The Staircase presented the Australian actor with an interesting challenge. Although Kathleen died at the center of the case, she was largely neglected by the media coverage and subsequent documentary, the crew of which, with Michael and his children, pleaded his innocence during the trial. This lack of insight into the real Kathleen gave Colette purpose for the role.
“I think she’s kind of always there 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 behind the idea of ”sacrifice.”
This takes many forms throughout the series, primarily through flashbacks to Kathleen’s once charming but increasingly strained relationship with Michael and her life with her blended family – her daughter Caitlin (Olivia Dejung) and Michael’s children (played by Dane DeHaan, Sophie Turner ). Odessa Young and Patrick Schwarzenegger). It was also given a dimension by the presence of her skeptical sisters (portrayed by Rosemary DeWitt and Maria Dezia), 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 of the actors admitted that they fill out these episodes and news reports to learn more about their characters and how they’re still being portrayed in popular culture. But Colette relied on Campos’ knowledge and scenarios to prepare for the role rather than venturing down the rabbit hole himself.
But the series does more than flesh out Kathleen’s life before its abrupt end. With Colette on board, Campos also reconstructs the endless proving of the scenarios for 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 with blood running down her head. Campos then imagined the scenario in which prosecutors successfully argued against Michael, one in which he brutally murders his wife after she finds out about his affairs with the men. Finally, later in the season, after campaigners for Michael’s release sparked the now-mocked owl theory, Kathleen was ambushed outside Peterson’s home by a menacing nocturnal bird before raging from her claw injuries enough to fall. the stairs.
“I have to admit that playing with a non-existent aggressive bird was a first for me,” she joked of the ending sequence.
Collette is so adept at the gory horror genre that she was nominated for an Oscar for her role in The Sixth Sense and garnered praise for her terrifying and deeply loved performance in Hereditary, which also features a memorable death sequence. While there are certainly similarities to what you’ll eventually do three times on the Staircase of Honor, this is
Summoning real death required more thought than she had anticipated.
“Yes, there’s a lot of blood, but it’s a completely different kettle of fish, both in our collective intent and in context,” she says.
To add to the pressure, Collette only had one chance to shoot each of the three scenes.
With the amount of blood splatter and movement required to match the horrific condition the real Kathleen was found in, Campos, Colette and their sexy double Linda Kessler worked out extensively and prepared for the scenes – two of which were about 4 and 5 were filmed am
While she intended to treat these scenes like any other, she surprised herself with what she had to do to mentally prepare. “I really had to clear my head and get out of the way with every shot,” she recalls. “I remember sitting at the bottom of the stairs before dinner, turning everything off and talking to Kathleen in my head. I didn’t expect it to happen, but it did. I know it sounds weird. I think it was about the permission and getting it appropriate for her.
Colette’s work demands every second of these pivotal scenes, each powerfully acted yet almost too personal and startling to watch. On this reconstructed staircase, flanked by a green screen and copious amounts of fake blood, the show questions him from the trilogy of possibilities that defined the condition and the obsession that surrounds him.
In these scenes, Colette learns intimately about the tragedy of the woman who played her. But she’s still torn as to which theory will come true.
“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 sparked her interest in the project in the first place. As well as promising to work with Campos, as a viewer she was equally captivated by the ups and downs of the Peterson family.
“Inherently, the show lacks knowledge of what really happened to Kathleen, because in reality nobody knows, except maybe Michael Peterson,” says Colette. “I was excited to come up with some different ideas about what might happen. It was also a big responsibility.”
However, there is only one of those theories that they stare at every morning while brushing their teeth. Though perhaps the hardest to swallow, Collette says “The Staircase” was not the least of her eye-openers to the proliferation of Owl, the lone suspect unable to speak for himself in this complex true-crime epic.
She notes, “It’s really popping up everywhere.”