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Stars want to honor the real-life women of 'The Staircase'

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Stars want to honor the real-life women of 'The Staircase'
Rosemarie DeWitt's miniseries "The Staircase" debuts on Thursday. Photo courtesy of HBO

NEW YORK, May 4 (UPI) -- Rosemarie DeWitt says she wanted to play the late Kathleen Peterson's sister, Candace Hunt Zamperini, in the HBO Max drama, The Staircase, because she felt Zamperini was unfairly portrayed in an earlier docu-series about the real-life murder mystery.

"Candace really drew me in. I hated the way the documentarians treated her. She does have these arias -- speeches she gives in court -- but they showed a lot of her anger and despair, and then they let other characters comment on her as if she were the villain," DeWitt told UPI in a recent Zoom interview.

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"I felt really torn about playing her at all just because she is alive and this is her life and her tragedy and her love for her sister," the actress added. "At the same time, I thought, 'Maybe there is an opportunity to show more colors because this is not the whole story.'"

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HBO's eight-part version, which debuts Thursday, focuses on how a blended family is blown apart when telecommunications executive Kathleen (Toni Collette) is found dead in a pool of blood at the bottom of a flight of steps in her North Carolina home in 2001.

Kathleen's philandering husband, crime novelist Michael (Colin Firth) insists she hit her head when she accidentally lost her footing while drunk, but police and prosecutors quickly come to believe Michael murdered her.

While Kathleen's only biological child, Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge) and sister Candace also strongly suspect Michael of killing Kathleen, Michael's biological children, Clayton and Todd (Dane DeHaan and Patrick Schwarzenegger), brother Bill (Tim Guinee), and lawyer David (Michael Stuhlbarg) do everything they can to clear Michael's name using the life insurance money that rightfully should have gone to Caitlin.

Also in the mix are Martha and Margaret (Odessa Young and Sophie Turner), whom Michael adopted in Germany years ago when their own mother died by falling down a staircase.

Capturing Michael's criminal case, legal battles and family drama in real time is the filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon), who wants to get to the crux of what really happened.

Ultimately, Michael is convicted of murdering his wife, and serves eight years in prison before he is granted a new trial and released in 2017 after the charge was reduced to manslaughter because a key witness was deemed to have given misleading testimony.

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The murky outcome of the legal proceedings has left many people debating Michael's guilt or innocence to this day.

"This show investigates not only the crime, but also how the truth is told and the story within the story that the documentary filmmakers are telling and how much of that truth is a construct and how much of that truth is biased and how we are controlling the truth," DeJonge said.

DeWitt knew she and the story would be in good hands with writer-producer Antonio Campos, whose credits include The Sinner and Martha Marcy May Marlene, at the helm.

"Antonio Campos is a friend, and I knew he was a sublime filmmaker, and then once I found out Toni Collette would play Kathleen and really embody her and bring her to life, I thought, 'This is worth doing,'" said DeWitt, who previously co-starred with Collette in The United States of Tara.

DeJonge echoed the sentiment about the intentions of those involved in the project.

"The case itself is so intriguing, but I think, too, the way that they handled the subject matter and the way that they really respected Kathleen, as well, and brought her to the forefront of the narrative and honored her was 100% why I wanted to do it," the actress said.

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Caitlin and Candace start out believing Michael's account of the events, but ultimately realize there are holes in his story.

As advocates for Kathleen, Caitlin and Candace are shown evidence by investigators that shapes their perspective on the case and puts them at odds with the rest of the family.

"They cut some of these little moments out, probably so as not to lead the audience down one path or the other, but we spent some time paying attention to what a united front they all were and how much they were behind Michael and then they left it a little more gray in the final telling of it," DeWitt explained.

"As the case presented itself and the photos [were revealed] and more truth came out to them, for Candace, anyway, it was undeniable, his guilt."

"It's an awful thing that has happened. Caitlin loses her whole family. How does one grapple with that at such a young age?" DeJonge asked rhetorically. "It's a lot of big adult decisions she had to make as a kid."

Lawyers with agendas, headline-grabbing reporters and Caitlin's own well-meaning father add tension to an already pressure cooker-like situation.

"How would anyone know what they are up against? And how would anyone know who anyone's allegiance was to or what they were walking into?" DeWitt wondered.

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"The external factors, you can only notice after the fact. You can't see them coming," DeJonge added. "That's something this show grapples with - hindsight."

"For true-crime junkies, like fans of the show, I think they will appreciate nuances that a lot of audiences will miss, like Sonya Pfeiffer (Teri Wyble) saying, 'I'm friends with David Rudolf.' People who really know the story will know what that means."

Pfeiffer, who also is a defense attorney, is now married to Rudolf. The couple hosts an Audible podcast called Abuse of Power.

"He's all about helping his client," Stuhlbarg said about what motivates Rudolph to take Michael's case in the first place.

"Yes, it does cost a certain amount and, yes, it is good to win, but, really, he takes things on the molecular level of the facts," the actor said.

"He takes all of the facts and he tries to present them to the jury in the most honest and straightforward fashion that he can and to poke holes in a prosecution's case. They have the burden of proof."

Making his job more challenging, however, is the fact that his client isn't always honest with him whether it is out of fear or embarrassment or simply not realizing what might be relevant to his defense.

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"When things come up, you have to run with it. We, as audience members, really enjoyed watching David do that in the documentary," Stuhlbarg noted. "But it makes his job quite difficult if he doesn't know about things ahead of time."

The actor said he met with the real Rudolf as he was preparing to play him, and they discussed his unusual decision to allow documentarians to follow Michael, his family and his legal team after they agreed to a list of Rudolf's demands and promised not to compromise the case he was building.

Stuhlbarg acknowledged that even when someone is exonerated in a high-profile case, his/her life might be irrevocably altered.

That's not for attorneys to worry about, however, he emphasized.

"David's life became intricately woven into Michael's life over the course of several years and he did what he could, given his circumstances, to help Michael even after the trial," the actor said. "But, in the end, it is a professional relationship."

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