Every morning, while Toni Collette is brushing her teeth, an owl stares at her.
The stoic bird of prey is not perched in front of her window but rather sitting on her counter, distorted into the shape of a ceramic coffee cup in which she places her toothbrush before starting her day.
“It’s there that looks at me every day – twice a day if I’m dentally honest,” says Collette. “Maybe I need a new vessel.”
Though her days as a morning companion are numbered, the mug is a surreal artifact of her newly Emmy-nominated turn as Kathleen Peterson, a North Carolina woman found dead at the bottom of her stairs in 2001 – a case dramatized by HBO Max’s true crime limited series “The Staircase”.
The shocking death made headlines for months as her husband, Michael Peterson (played by Colin Firth), was tried and found guilty of her murder – all later chronicled in a 2004 French documentary also called ” The Staircase”. The production of this doc was part of the 2022 series.
After years behind bars and later house arrest, Peterson was released in 2017 when he accepted a plea from Alford, a paradoxical deal in which he pleaded guilty but maintained his innocence. While he was in prison, however, a now infamous theory circulated that blamed Kathleen’s death on the talons of an angry neighborhood owl – hence why someone linked to the show told her offered the cup.
Collette has recently been involved in a slew of TV projects, coming off two Netflix limited series “Pieces of Her” and “Unbelievable,” which earned her a 2020 Emmy Award nomination for States of Tara.
But ‘The Staircase’ posed an intriguing challenge for the Aussie actor. Despite being the life lost at the center of the case, Kathleen was largely overlooked by the media coverage and subsequent documentary, whose team was embedded with Michael and his children who maintained her innocence during the trial. . This lack of insight into the real Kathleen gave Collette purpose with the role.
“I guess she’s still kind of there because it’s all about the fallout from her loss,” she says. “But this telling of 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’.”
It takes many forms on the show, mostly through flashbacks to Kathleen’s once-charmed but increasingly strained relationship with Michael, and her life with their blended family — her daughter Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge) and Michael’s children. (played by Dane DeHaan, Sophie Turner, Odessa Young and Patrick Schwarzenegger). She also takes on dimension by the presence of her skeptical sisters (portrayed by Rosemarie DeWitt and Maria Dizzia), who both quickly turned on Michael after his death.
Few know this case better than series creator, writer and director Antonio Campos, who pored over it for years after seeing the documentary, which resurfaced with new episodes on Netflix in 2018. actors have acknowledged having looked into these episodes and reports. to get a glimpse of their characters and how they’ve been portrayed in popular culture so far. But Collette relied on Campos’ knowledge and the scripts to prepare for the role instead of venturing down the rabbit hole herself.
But the series does more than just flesh out Kathleen’s life before her abrupt end. With Collette on board, Campos also intricately recreated the ever-examined scenarios of his death at the bottom of the stairs – playing out the three dominant theories in their entirety, as if each were true.
First, the series wonders what would have happened if Michael had told the truth and Kathleen had simply tripped, broken her head on the stairs and struggled to stand as the blood poured out. on his head. Next, Campos imagines the scenario the prosecution successfully argued against Michael, one in which he brutally killed his wife after she learned of his affairs with men. Finally, later in the season, after the now-derided owl theory is raised by those fighting for Michael’s release, Kathleen is ambushed by the menacing Night Bird outside the Petersons’ home. before she becomes delusional enough from her talon-induced injuries to fall. stairs.
“I have to admit that playing with a non-existent, aggressive bird was a first for me,” she jokes about the final sequence.
Collette has plenty of experience in the gory horror genre, having been nominated for an Oscar for her role in ‘The Sixth Sense’ and earning accolades for her critically adored and masterfully terrifying performance in ‘Hereditary,’ which features also a memorable death sequence. While there were certainly similarities in what she would ultimately do three times on the titular staircase, the
piecing together a real death required more soul-searching than even she expected.
“Yes, there’s a lot of blood, but it’s a very different story, both in our collective intent and in context,” she says.
Adding to the pressure, Collette only had one chance to film each of the three scenes.
With the amount of choreographed blood splatter and movement necessary to match the grisly state the real Kathleen was found in, Campos, Collette and his stunt double, Linda Kessler, rehearsed and prepared extensively for the scenes. – two of which were shot at 4 and 5 a.m.
While she intended to treat these scenes like any other, she even surprised herself at what she needed to do to mentally prepare herself. “I really had to clear my mind and walk away with every take,” she recalls. “I remember sitting at the bottom of the stairs before a take, shutting everything down and talking to Kathleen in my head. I didn’t expect this to happen, but it did. I know that sounds strange. I think it was about permission and getting it right for her.
Collette’s work commands every second of these pivotal scenes, each powerfully acted and yet almost too personal and viscerally devastating 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 have defined the case and the obsession surrounding it.
In these scenes, Collette becomes intimately familiar with the tragedy of the woman she plays. But she’s still torn over which theory was most 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 intrigued her about the project in the first place. Along with the promise of working with Campos, she was just as enthralled by the twists and turns of the Peterson family as the viewers.
“By nature, the show lacks knowledge about what really happened to Kathleen because in reality no one knows, except maybe Michael Peterson,” says Collette. “I was excited to play a few different ideas of what could have happened. It was also a big responsibility.”
Yet only one of these theories stares at her every morning as she brushes her teeth. While perhaps the hardest to swallow, Collette says ‘The Staircase’ has, if nothing else, opened our eyes to the prevalence of owls, the only suspect unable to speak for themselves in this complicated saga. true crime.
She notes, “They really are popping up everywhere.”