Colin Firth and Toni Collette Tackle True Crime on Crave

Oscar-winner Colin Firth discusses his new miniseries, which probes the possibilities of an infamously mysterious murder

Oscar-winner Colin Firth discusses his new miniseries, which probes the possibilities of an infamously mysterious murder

In 2003, American novelist Michael Peterson was convicted of murdering his second wife, Kathleen, whom he claimed had fallen down the stairs in a tragic accident. The curious case, where theories range from Peterson bludgeoning his wife to death to a mysterious owl attack, became world-famous when French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade made a Netflix docuseries about Peterson’s trial, returning periodically to his subject until Peterson in 2017 entered an Alford plea—wherein the accused asserts innocence but acknowledges that the evidence says otherwise—and was freed.  

While the docuseries is most likely done, speculation about the events of that night persists. Now, an HBO Max miniseries starring Oscar-winner Colin Firth and Emmy-winner Toni Collette as the Petersons explores what might have happened, and the sordid circumstances that led up to it.  The StaircaseCrave

Though many Netflix faithful have devoured The Staircase over the years, the King’s Speech actor admits he was not one of them, which is why his own interest in the project came as a surprise. “It wasn’t initially what I thought I was looking for. True crime isn’t where I go for my entertainment, particularly,” says Firth. “I just was struck by the quality of the writing and I found the whole thing very intriguing. This came out of nowhere, as far as I was concerned, and hooked me.” 

The 61-year-old Brit, whose father was a historian, soon became eager to expand on what he learned from the research material. “My father always used to remind me that however much you try, there’s no such thing as just cold, factual journalism. Because there is always a perspective,” says Firth. “Even a photograph, which is inarguably a picture of what it is, might be a very different story if that photographer was standing two inches to the left.”  

In crafting a fictionalized version of an exhaustively documented story, writer Maggie Cohn was less interested in recreating what had already been said than in exploring alternative perspectives. “We’ve entered a time in society where we feel that things are black-and-white and that there’s only one way to see something,” says Cohn. “What’s interesting about this is the opportunity to show multiple perspectives of the same incident and to make people comfortable, ultimately, with the grey.” The StaircaseCrave

To convincingly portray the nuances of this story, Firth decided not to communicate with Peterson or his family. “These are created characters. We all know that these characters have names of living people, but it’s very carefully calibrated to tell the story in a certain way,” he explains. “I felt that that could have been skewed in some way if I had personal connections during the shooting with Michael Peterson or the people concerned. If I’d had a personal response to the meeting, it might have prevented me from tuning in to this world of varying possibilities that had been created.”   

Just as important was for the leading man not to judge his character, in order to aid the storytelling. “What’s interesting about the approach here is it deftly avoids taking up a single position,” says Firth. “The nature of the exercise here is to keep doubt alive, to mess with your expectations, to tease you with a potential resolution into thinking perhaps you now can find some certainty, and then it subverts that constantly.” 

The StaircaseCraveSo, to really get into the mindset of Peterson, Firth tried less to inhabit his mannerisms, and looked for codes that his character would use through use of language. “I was wondering what you can find out about a person by the way they speak, by the way they phrase things, by means of body language,” says Firth. “I was very focused on that.” 

While series creator Antonio Campos tried hard not to recreate the documentary, one of the few reproductions of a familiar scene is when Peterson gives the documentary crew his own account of what happened, which was of particular interest to Firth. “What you don’t see in the documentary is the crew following him, and if you’re telling a story—particularly if it’s the first moment you’ve ever been interviewed and you’ve got a camera on you and a boom mic and all the rest of it—you’ll get a different perspective on what was going on while he was telling that story. We weren’t trying to point to anything or create an interpretation out of it. It’s just saying, now we’re going to see it from another perspective.”  

Though it may feel like a story that has been told before, Campos believes there are steps on the staircase that haven’t been trodden yet. “There’s so much of the story that hasn’t been explored, particularly who was Kathleen Peterson?” says Campos. “Exploring the events leading up to that night and after that night, in some way, felt like we were getting closer to something like the truth. There’s just so many different facets of this story and, as the years go on, there’s more and more to know about it.” 

The Staircase debuts Thursday, May 5th at 8:50 p.m. on Crave1