Rosemarie DeWitt Thinks Kathleen Peterson's Sister Was "Villainized" in The Staircase Documentary

The Staircase actresses Rosemarie DeWitt and Olivia DeJonge discussed playing Kathleen Peterson's daughter and sister in the HBO Max adaptation of the infamous true-crime case.

By Cydney Contreras May 12, 2022 7:18 PMTags
Watch: The Staircase: Rosemarie DeWitt Humanizes Kathleen's Sister

Documentaries may chronicle real life, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's an honest portrayal.

Rosemarie DeWitt and Olivia DeJonge learned this firsthand while preparing to star in HBO Max's adaptation of the 2004 true crime documentary The Staircase. The series followed North Carolina novelist Michael Peterson as he defended himself from accusations of murdering his wife, Kathleen Peterson, who was found dead at the bottom of their staircase in 2001.

In the HBO Max dramatization, Toni Collette plays Kathleen, while DeWitt and DeJonge plays her sister Candace Zamperini and daughter Caitlin Atwater respectively. Both women turned against Michael (Colin Firth) after the murder.

In their preparations, the actresses were given access to never before seen footage, which offered them insight into the people they are playing.

"The documentarians had a point of view on Candace, and they had a point of view on Michael Peterson," DeWitt told E! News. "They chose what to leave in and what to leave out and, ultimately, for me playing [Candace], I thought she was kind of villainized in the documentary."

The Staircase Actors Compared to the Real-Life People

She continued, "While I had a lot of hesitation about playing her because this is her life and this is her trauma—I don't want to cause her any more pain—I also thought there was an opportunity to make her really human and not just this energy that they showed her in, which was despair and emotional, and fighting for justice."

DeWitt pointed out that filmmakers were unable to include all the hours of footage they captured, so they chose to feature her "angry moments." This made Candace come off poorly in the documentary, but DeWitt said that her character was justified in her anger. 

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

"Michael is really fascinating and compelling to people, so people were drawn in by him and Kathleen was really eclipsed," she reflected. "I think a lot of what made her family angry was that she was forgotten and all the focus was on Michael."

DeJonge, who is starring in the upcoming Baz Luhrmann movie Elvis, similarly felt Kathleen's side of the family was "ostracized" in the documentary, a sentiment that made her question, "How much of truth is curated?"

Despite the murky ethics surrounding the true-crime genre, DeJonge and DeWitt wanted to participate in the adaptation because it offered them the opportunity to change the narrative surrounding their characters and bring Kathleen Peterson's life back to the forefront of this story. DeWitt praised Collette for her depiction of Kathleen, saying that the Australian actress "plays her as a vital, vibrant, wife, loving mother and sister."

Courtesy of HBO Max

DeJonge added, "We're really honoring [Kathleen] as a multi-faceted woman. It was really important and was totally part of the decision-making when choosing to be a part of this project."

To learn more about why Collette wanted to bring Kathleen to life in HBO Max's The Staircase, read more here.

New episodes of The Staircase stream Thursdays on HBO Max.

Get the drama behind the scenes. Sign up for TV Scoop!