‘The Staircase': How Michael Stuhlbarg Came to Understand the Defense in Michael Peterson’s Trial

·3-min read

There’s a fundamental difference between Michael Stuhlbarg and his character in HBO Max’s “The Staircase,” Michael Peterson’s defense attorney David Rudolf.

“I would never put myself in a situation where I would be defending someone for their life,” Stuhlbarg told TheWrap. “So the idea of getting up in it within the justice system and to try to save someone from going to prison for the rest of their life, and the idea of taking on the weight of responsibility that comes with that is quite heavy.”

The limited series follows the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of novelist Michael Peterson’s (Colin Firth) wife, Kathleen Peterson (played by Toni Collette), who was found dead at the bottom of the staircase in her home in December 2001.

It’s assumed that, at some point in their careers, defense attorneys will defend clients who have actually committed the crime they are accused of. But in this case, Rudolf has maintained his belief that Michael was ultimately innocent and, after his murder conviction in 2003, helped him appeal for a re-trial. (Michael eventually took an Alford plea allowing him to accept a sentence and avoid another trial without actually admitting guilt).

In addition to sifting through loads of case information, Stuhlbarg also spent the day with Rudolf and his family to better understand why Rudolf felt so strongly about Michael’s innocence.

“I learned an awful lot about him. I learned about who he was before all this happened, where he grew up, the people he knew at that time, and what his ambitions were as a young person into where it eventually led him to this case,” he said. “I loved his sense of humor about it all. I imagine if you’re dealing with cases of murder all the time, it’s quite helpful to to be able to take your lawyer hat off at the end of the day and also to maintain a sense of balance about what it is you’re trying to do. He seems unflappable that way, in the best possible way. He kept reminding me of the things that were important and the things that mattered, and the things that didn’t.”

Michael’s trial begins in Episode 4 of “The Staircase.” It spans only a few episodes, but in reality the trial went on for three months. And right up to the end, new information arose that changed perceptions of what really happened to Kathleen. In fact, the popular owl theory didn’t even cross anyone’s mind until days before the trial was over — far too late for it to make it into the courtroom.

Stuhlbarg described Rudolf as “a very logical person,” which he said ultimately helped him understand how the attorney remained unwavering during the trial and beyond.

“I found that some things to him didn’t seem to matter so much, because they weren’t relevant to the case,” Stuhlbarg said. “I think he was pretty strong about staying on course, and reminding both himself, his client and the jury what those things were and he raised doubt after reasonable doubt in front of them. He believed Michael from the first moment he started listening to him.”

He continued, “So it makes sense to me that he would stay the course even when new things arose. In some cases, he may have been worried about some of the revelations that came out, but really, in the end, these were things that in his mind didn’t matter. And he’d hoped to be able to convey that to everyone else. In some cases, he succeeded, in some cases he didn’t.”

Episode 4 of “The Staircase is now streaming on HBO Max.