Odessa Young Talks Playing Martha Ratliff in The Staircase
With "The Staircase," Odessa Young Hopes People Learn About the Real Kathleen Peterson
Image Source: Getty / Paras Griffin
HBO Max is adapting Netflix's "The Staircase" documentary and turning it into a scripted TV series. The limited series — starring Colin Firth, Toni Collette, Michael Stuhlbarg, Juliette Binoche, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sophie Turner, Parker Posey, and Odessa Young — explores the mysterious death of Kathleen Peterson in 2001 and the subsequent confounding murder trial of her husband, Michael Peterson.
Young — whom you may know from "Mothering Sunday," "The Daughter," and "Looking For Grace" — plays one of Michael's adopted daughters, Martha Ratliff. She was immediately attracted to the project after reading the script and watching the original Netflix documentary. "I had heard the legends of the Michael Peterson case, 'The Staircase,' the author who had murdered his wife, and then been released from prison on a technicality," Young tells POPSUGAR. "I'd heard of the big absurd parts of the case before, but I had no real understanding of what it was."
Though the 24-year-old actor didn't personally get in contact with the Peterson family to prepare for her role, creator Antonio Campos did. According to Young, Campos has been in contact with the family for a while now. "He's been talking with them and working quite closely with them for a long time. I know he has been wanting to make 'The Staircase' for over a decade," Young says. "I wondered at one point if that was something that he was interested in, us meeting with the people that we were playing, but in terms of Martha's case, I know that she just doesn't really want to put herself through that again, which I completely understand, because nor would I."
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In the Netflix documentary, Ratliff revealed that she experienced deep anxiety from her father's trial. "I used to suffer a lot from really bad nightmares. I used to have really bad panic attacks in public spaces because of being in the trial," she said.
However, Young didn't feel the need to meet with Ratliff because of how heavily the case had already been covered. "She has given so much of her life to this case already and to people's understandings of the case that I'm sure she never, ever wants to talk about it ever again. And that's totally fine," Young notes. "I didn't feel like I needed anything more from her. I think that what she's already given to the public understanding is more than enough to work with. And I certainly found myself having a very empathetic perspective on her side of the story and her part in all of this."
Even though the HBO series is a dramatized iteration of the Netflix documentary, Young says the show is "significantly different," given that it focuses more on what went down behind the scenes with the family and how the case affected them emotionally. "The documentary set out to make a procedural documentary about the US court system, and they succeeded in that. It's about how a trial moves through the courts and moves through the justice system. And it just so happens that trial was abnormal, and there was far more to it than met the eye," Young explains. "What we are concerned with is giving the people involved in the family, the people who are close to this tragedy, giving them a little bit more of a representational humanism in the media canon of this story, because there's been so much talked about that nobody's really talked about who Kathleen was as a person, who her family was, what she meant to them, and how her death really emotionally affected them and changed the course of their lives."
Ultimately, Young hopes the series gives viewers a reason to pause and think about the realities of true-crime stories. "I hope people actually gain an understanding of who Kathleen was. I think that she is only focused on, in other media representations of this story, as the victim of this case. And we kind of speculate about what she was like as a woman, and for all intents and purposes, give her her own story," Young explains. "And I hope people take away just more of an understanding about the realities of family life and family tragedies. As much as you see of them in documentaries, there's always something missing, and empathy goes a long way."
"The Staircase" premieres on HBO Max on May 5.