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Each morning as Toni Collette brushes her teeth, an owl stares back at her.
The stoic bird of prey is not perched outside her window but rather ornately sitting on her countertop, contorted into the shape of a ceramic coffee mug that she places her toothbrush into before she starts her day.
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“It’s there looking at me daily — twice a day if I’m dentally honest,” Collette says. “Maybe I need a new receptacle.”
Even if its days as her 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 occupied headlines for months as her husband, Michael Peterson (played by Colin Firth), was tried and convicted of her murder — all of it later chronicled in a 2004 French documentary also called “The Staircase.” The making of that doc 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, a paradoxical agreement in which he pleaded guilty but maintained his innocence. While he was in prison, however, a now-infamous theory circulated that placed the blame for Kathleen’s death at the talons of an angry neighborhood owl — hence why someone connected to the series gifted her the mug.
Collette has been on a hot streak of TV projects lately, coming off two Netflix limited series “Pieces of Her” and “Unbelievable,” which scored her an Emmy nomination in 2020. She previously won the Emmy for lead comedy actress for Showtime’s “United States of Tara.”
But “The Staircase” posed an intriguing challenge for the Australian actor. Despite being the life lost at the center of the case, Kathleen was largely neglected by the news coverage and the subsequent documentary, the crew of which was embedded with Michael and his children who maintained his innocence during the trial. That lack of insight into the real Kathleen gave Collette a purpose with the role.
“I guess she is always kind of there because it’s all about the fallout from the loss of her,” 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.’”
This takes many forms in the series, primarily through flashbacks to Kathleen’s once-charmed but increasingly fraught 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 is also given dimension by the presence of her skeptical sisters (portrayed by Rosemarie DeWitt and Maria Dizzia), both of whom quickly turned on Michael after her death.
Few people know this case better than series creator, writer and director Antonio Campos, who studied it for years after seeing the documentary, which resurfaced with new episodes on Netflix in 2018. Most of the cast has acknowledged they pored over those episodes and news reports for insight into their characters and how they’ve been portrayed so far in popular culture. 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 its abrupt end. With Collette on board, Campos also intricately re-created the endlessly scrutinized scenarios of her death at the bottom of the stairs — playing out the three dominant theories in full, as if each were true.
First, the series ponders what would have happened if Michael were telling the truth and Kathleen simply tripped, cracked her head on the stairs and struggled to stand as blood poured down her head. Then, 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-ridiculed owl theory is raised by those fighting for Michael’s release, Kathleen is ambushed by the menacing nocturnal bird outside the Petersons’ home before she becomes delirious enough from her talon-induced injuries to fall down the stairs.
“I must admit, acting with a non-existent, aggressive bird was a first for me,” she quips of the final sequence.
Collette has plenty of experience in the bloody horror genre, having been Oscar-nominated for her role in “The Sixth Sense” and earning praise for her critically adored and masterfully terrifying performance in “Hereditary,” which also features a memorable death sequence. While there are certainly similarities in what she would ultimately do three times on the titular staircase, the recreation of a real death required more introspection than even she expected.
“Yes, there is a lot of blood, but it is a very different kettle of fish, both in our collective intention and the 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 spatter and movements necessary to match the grisly condition in which the real Kathleen was found, Campos, Collette and her stunt double, Linda Kessler, extensively rehearsed and prepared for the scenes — two of which were shot at 4 and 5 a.m.
While she intended to treat these scenes as any other, she surprised even herself with what she had to do to mentally prepare. “I had to really clear my mind and get out of the way for each take,” she recalls. “I remember sitting at the bottom of the stairs before a take, shutting everything out and talking to Kathleen in my head. I did not expect this to happen but it did. I know it sounds weird. I think it was about permission and getting it right for her.”
Collette’s work commands every second of those crucial scenes, each one powerfully acted and yet, almost too personal and devastatingly visceral to watch. On that 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 around it.
In these scenes, Collette became intimately familiar with the tragedy of the woman she was playing. But she’s still torn on 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 intrigued her about the project in the first place. Along with the promise of getting to work with Campos, she was just as fascinated 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 nobody knows, except maybe Michael Peterson,” says Collette. “I was excited about playing out a few different ideas of what may have happened. It was also a big responsibility.”
Still, only one of those theories is staring back at her every morning as she brushes her teeth. While it might be the hardest one to swallow, Collette says “The Staircase” has, if nothing else, opened her eyes to the prevalence of owls, the one suspect unable to speak for itself in this complicated true-crime saga.
She notes, “They really do appear everywhere.”
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