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Interview: Michael Stuhlbarg On Playing ‘The Staircase’ Defense Attorney David Rudolf

Photograph by Courtesy of HBO Max

When you are on accused of a heinous crime, you want the best lawyer to defend you. This explains why Michael Peterson hired powerhouse defense attorney David Rudolf. When you need someone to capture the essence of that person on film, you would be hard-pressed to find a better actor than, Michael Stuhlbarg.

Rudolf’s role in the trial was to defend a man many had chalked up as guilty even before the trial began. Michael Peterson (Colin Firth) an otherwise respected man is accused of the heinous crime killing his wife, Kathleen (Toni Collette) by pushing her down a flight of stairs. The events of the night are foggy at best, but it is what is uncovered along the way that has entranced viewers. It was Rudolf’s job to protect Peterson from those ready to convict him, including his family and former friends.

Stuhlbarg captivates whenever he is on screen, making Rudolf much more than a lawyer – he’s a human first. Even after watching Stuhlbarg’s incredible performance, it is what I learned from him about his process and the thought he puts into his work that impressed me even more.

As you will learn in the interview, Stuhlbarg put great time into researching the role and the man he portrayed. The results speak for themselves. Like so much of The Staircase, there’s much more below the surface. Enjoy my interview with Michael Stuhlbarg. (Read or watch it in its entirety below.)

Photograph by Courtesy of HBO Max


Steven Prusakowski: I knew very little about the case going into the series. I was really fascinated by how it all comes together. I think that’s part of the genius of how this series is created and produced, you get these different perspectives, keeping a lot of mystery. How did you approach this? Did you know a lot about the case going into working on it or did you keep yourself in the dark?

Michael Stuhlbarg: I knew the documentary. I had seen it before. And had actually watched it a second time, I was so fascinated by it. Once I became attached to the project, our director Antonio Campos, introduced me to David Rudolf. So I got to go meet David and spend time with him, have a meal, meet his family, and discuss this in a very personal, personal way. So I just submerged myself and all things Staircase. And what you see is what I learned.

Steven Prusakowski: It takes a certain type of person to take on a case like this. So representing somebody who pretty much the whole world thinks he’s guilty, or at least has him under a microscope. Who is David Rudolf?

Michael Stuhlbarg: Well, David, in this instance, he’s a criminal defense lawyer. He’s lauded and successful. And before the Peterson case, had also done very high profile cases. Michael has a line about him in our story about being the guy you go to if you’re guilty. So David never shies away from challenges. But he’s a remarkable logician in terms of how he thinks about things. And I believe he did a remarkable job in defending Michael, protecting Michael, and poking holes in the prosecution’s case. David is an exemplary practitioner of what criminal justice defense lawyers do in defending their clients. And if people didn’t gather that during the course of the documentary, hopefully, they’ll glean a little bit of that with our story as well.

Steven Prusakowski: It’s such an amazing cast, you very much included, that must have drawn you into working on the series. What else made you want to take on this project?

Michael Stuhlbarg: I guess first and foremost, was walking around in David’s shoes for a while because I was one of the millions of people who after veiwing, or during watching of the documentary, was so impressed with how he handled the case. I had worked with our showrunner Antonio Campos before, several years ago in a low budget independent film that he made called After School. Plus the cast that they assembled for this, some of whom I knew and had worked with, and many whom I hadn’t. So the chance to get to play with old friends and meet some new folks was a tremendous thing. The story is fascinating, because at its heart, it’s a mystery. What we offer in this particular version of it or in our story, is it’s not retreading old story points as much as it is supplementing what the human condition was for everyone who had to live through these circumstances, including the documentarian, who created the documentary.

Steven Prusakowski: It sounds like you’re a fan of true crime stories. Why do you think people are so fascinated by these types of stories?

Michael Stuhlbarg: It’s funny, that’s a question that’s come up a lot today. And I don’t really have a good answer for it. Honestly. With mysteries, we want to know what happened to me. By applying our own intellect to the circumstances, maybe we can solve something that other people couldn’t. But in this case, it’s a tough thing to do when no one was present, necessarily that we know of when this happened. I think the idea of murder scares everyone, as death scares everyone. So there is something that goes through our system when it comes to stories about mishaps or the demise of somebody. I think our natural inquisitiveness of either trying to solve something ourselves or or watching someone else go through it and taking the ride along with them.

Steven Prusakowski: So if this case occurred today do you think it would have been like a different outcome or a different feel to it because of social media, the technology and just where our mindsets are?

Michael Stuhlbarg: I think inevitably, it would probably be very different because of technology. The world has changed since 2001, when this took place. Significantly and enough so that I imagined it would reflect on everything that happens nowadays. And yes, primarily because of technology.

Steven Prusakowski: What was it like working with Colin on this film?

Michael Stuhlbarg: Fantastic. Yeah, it was great. I knew his work beforehand was a fan beforehand. And it was, it was wonderful to get to watch someone that you respect, work up close, and to see how they go about navigating the complications of the roller coaster that is the life of Michael Peterson. Certainly, I had a great time with Colin and I hope you get to play together again.

Steven Prusakowski: It’s amazing watching you two together, because you truly believe each of you are those characters, which obviously is the goal. But, not knowing anything about the case, I’m listening to every single word trying to figure out, who you are as David and who Michael Petterson really is. It’s just amazing to watch it come together. If you have three words to describe this series, to potential viewers, what would they be?

Michael Stuhlbarg: To describe this story? Three words? I can’t help you with that. I guess I would want to say something like mystery, Rashomon, and unpredictable.

Steven Prusakowski: You know that those are fantastic answers. Really, Rashoman is a nice twist on that answer. 

Michael Stuhlbarg: Like that film where a central event is viewed from several different perspectives, you get to see this case explored from several different perspectives that even if you saw the documentary you weren’t privy to. So I think it is wonderful in that way.

Steven Prusakowski: I’m really enjoying it and I’m sure the viewers are going to just eat it up. So thank you so much, and have a great day.

Michael Stuhlbarg: Thanks, Steven. Nice to meet you.

Steven Prusakowski: Nice meeting you as well.

For more insight into the case, be sure to check out my interview with Parker Posey (who plays prosecutor Freda Black) as well as stars, Colin Firth and Toni Collette. The Staircase is streaming in its entirety on HBO Max.

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Written by Steven Prusakowski

Steven Prusakowski has been a cinephile as far back as he can remember, literally. At the age of ten, while other kids his age were sleeping, he was up into the late hours of the night watching the Oscars. Since then, his passion for film, television, and awards has only grown. For over a decade he has reviewed and written about entertainment through publications including Screen Radar and Awards Circuit. He has conducted celebrity and red carpet interviews with some of the industry’s biggest names. He is a graduate of RIT film program. You can find him on Twitter and Letterboxd as @FilmSnork – we don’t know why the name, but he seems to be sticking to it.
Email: filmsnork@gmail.com

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