Sophie Turner and Odessa Young took their roles as sisters on HBO Max’s “The Staircase” seriously. “I would feel anxiety if I wasn’t with her on set for a day,” Turner says of her co-star. “Anytime that we were doing a scene together, I’d be like, ‘Oh, thank God.’”
Young and Turner star as sisters Martha and Margaret Ratliff, the adopted daughters of Michael Peterson (Colin Firth). Their biological mother, Elizabeth Ratliff, was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in 1985. Resurfaced evidence from her death played a prominent role in the case against Peterson for the 2001 death of his wife Kathleen (Toni Collette), also discovered at the bottom of a staircase.
The series, created by Antonio Campos with showrunner Maggie Cohn, breathes new life into a highly-publicized true crime case, originally told as a 2004 miniseries that was republished with new episodes by Netflix in 2018.
In an interview with Variety ahead of the series premiere, Turner and Young opened up about forming a sisterly bond on set, why they didn’t contact their real-life counterparts and if they think Michael Peterson is guilty.
Were you familiar with “The Staircase” documentary series before signing on to this project?
Turner: I finished it and became completely obsessed with it like everyone else did at the time. And then obviously, when I got the role, I did a little bit more research.
Young: I had heard about the wild case of ‘The Staircase Killer,’ but I had no idea. I had no details and no real understanding of what had happened. And I think after getting the first couple of episodes and looking into what it was about, I started watching it. I became very fixated on it. It was interesting to only become aware of it through the perspective of one of the family members… I think it changed my understanding of the story as a whole, coming from that perspective, as opposed to just watching it as an audience member.
The docuseries focuses a lot on the trial itself, and if Michael did it. Meanwhile, your series dives more into how this ordeal affected the family members. How did you approach these characters, who are going through the unimaginable?
Young: What was nice about our story is that it speculates upon what goes on behind closed doors and during the making of the documentary, during the weeks leading up to Kathleen’s death. And these are things that I don’t think have ever been given any real time to be explored in any other kind of media or retelling, fictitious or not. And so getting the opportunity to bring our own understanding of human nature, if you will, to what might have been going through their minds or what was going on in their private lives was a nice privilege to be given because ultimately, that is what makes these people, people. That’s what makes them humans in this story, not just members of the family. Each character in this gets given their own their own human moments.
Turner: What these girls have gone through is absolutely unimaginable. It’s something that you can only try to comprehend as actors. Your imagination can only extend so far, and then you just work on research. But I think what definitely helped me with Martha and Margaret was this unbreakable bond of theirs, because they’ve been the only constant in each other’s lives and the only kind of lifeline for each other. Because every other person in their lives has been ripped out from underneath them in one way or another. And so, for me, what was really helpful was creating a really intense bond with Odessa.
Young: The first few episodes, the only scenes that we had were with each other. And so that meant that we got to spend a lot of time with each other. As they grow up, and as they move cities and go to college and do all of this stuff, that’s when you start seeing more of the scenes of them by themselves. I remember days when we were shooting in the middle of the season going, ‘I really just wish that we were back in the family house,’ which was obviously very helpful for the arcs of these people.
In addition to relying on each other, how did you cope with the heavy subject matter and keep yourselves from taking your work home with you?
Turner: I think it’s something that as actors you just kind of learn to do. I don’t want to speak for anyone, but I know Odessa has had to deal with some pretty intense storylines before this. I think you just have to develop a skill for leaving it in the workplace. And then whenever you get a break, you break character, and you have the chance to actually play around and have fun and be yourself and not let the work take its toll on you emotionally. I don’t think we would have gotten through those seven or eight months that we were shooting had we had we let it affect us outside of the workplace. And it’s hard. It’s really hard.
Young: We had seven months of this. With COVID shutdowns, it was longer than we ever thought it was going to be. You really do have to just think of how to protect yourself from that state of mind… You’re sitting in a row of people that you’ve come to know, for the past however many months and trust and develop jokes with. Being in a place like that makes you rely on your co-workers so much more, because you have to elevate each other out of these places that could become so dreary and dull and dark, if you don’t have anything except for that. I think it’s a skill that you have to develop. And then also just the luck of working with people that you actually get along with and find pleasure in that company.
Speaking of the cast, it’s pretty stacked with critically acclaimed actors. Who were you most excited to work with?
Turner: I literally was a fan of pretty much every single person. I remember texting Odessa when I arrived in Atlanta and we were going to go out for dinner. I was like, “I’m a really big fan, by the way!” And then I’m like, “Oh, shit, Colin Firth, I’m really big fan! By the way, Toni, I’m a really big fan!” It’s just unbelievable that we got to work with these people. And also the fact that you get to see them transform into these real-life people. Colin, I remember the read-throughs, when I heard him do Michael Peterson’s voice. It sent shivers down my spine. I was like, “I’m gonna be able to witness this up close and get a front row seat to Colin doing what Colin Firth does best.” How cool is that?
Young: That first time hearing Colin do the voice, the game was changed. You don’t feel how real it is, when you start a project, until you hear it out loud… And then you hear Colin Firth do Michael Peterson’s voice and you’re just floored. The attention to detail is just astounding.
Did either of you consider reaching out to the real-life women that you play in the series?
Young: I asked [Antonio Campos] about it. It was one of the first questions that I asked. He was saying that there was a possibility that he could ask, but I think Martha specifically made it pretty clear that, despite the fact that she was OK with the show happening, she didn’t feel the need to have any kind of conversational involvement with it, which I understood straightaway. I had guessed as much, because you’ve spent the majority of your life dealing with this story and the repercussions of it and talking about it and trying to figure out what your identity is outside of it. To have to keep doing that would be detrimental to your health. So I didn’t feel the need to push it any further than that. I wanted to respect the family’s wishes in any way possible.
Turner: Same here. Margaret was very much in touch with Antonio, our director, and Maggie, and has been for a really long time. But respectfully, it would have been detrimental to her health to keep chatting over with me. I think it was just a decision that she felt like wasn’t necessary. I completely respect that and also wouldn’t push it.
I have to ask: do you think Michael did it?
Turner: It’s crazy, you’re the first person to actually ask us this out loud.
Young: Yes! Bold. Well done. I don’t know. And I used to think that I needed to know, and now I’m okay with never, ever knowing.
Turner: I feel the same way. I wish I had a better answer or juicier answer for you. But I don’t know. I’m less sure than I was going into it.
Young: I also think, and maybe it’s just because we spent seven months in the perspective of the people that it affected the most, I think part of me now has this feeling of, ‘Is it actually any of my business? Who am I to make a judgment call?’ The trials happened and they’ve come to their conclusions. What does it matter if I think he’s innocent or guilty?
The first three episodes of “The Staircase” are available now on HBO Max, with new episodes dropping each week after that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.