‘The Staircase’: Michael Stuhlbarg on Becoming ‘Logical’ Lawyer David Rudolf

The Staircase Michael Stuhlbarg and Colin Firth
Courtesy of HBO Max

[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for Season 1, Episodes 1-3 of The Staircase.]

HBO Max‘s The Staircase may tackle a case that’s familiar to many true-crime aficionados, but the drama featuring an all-star cast pulls back the curtain on the story happening behind the scenes. This includes the working relationship between accused killer Michael Peterson (Colin Firth) and his lawyer, David Rudolf (Michael Stuhlbarg).

As new evidence emerges or damning details surface, David is there to have his client’s back, but it impacts more than just his work. Below, Stuhlbarg opens up about embodying a key player in this case and the challenges of bringing a real-life figure to the small screen.

The Staircase Michael Stuhlbarg and Colin Firth

(Credit: HBO Max)

You play David Rudolf, Michael Peterson’s lawyer. What should viewers anticipate from this version of the real-life figure?

Michael Stuhlbarg: The difference that you would find in our project is it’s more of an exploration of the people who got pulled into the case. [The people] who were involved in the case indirectly, not just the victim, Kathleen, but also the children in the family and the people who were surrounding it. It’s kind of a supplement to what the documentary offers. You’re not brought through the same old territory again. You’re privy to things that you weren’t privy to in the documentary.

Do you think David understood the commitment he was making when he agreed to take on Michael’s case?

I don’t see how he could have known that it would go the way it went. I think that he saw this going a very different way and it flips not just Michael Peterson’s life upside down, but it also flips David’s life upside down.

Michael consistently tells David that he has no secrets, but then a new detail will emerge like the circumstances surrounding the death of Margaret and Martha’s mother or the nude pictures on his computer. Instead of getting mad at Michael though, David starts thinking of how to spin the detail in their favor. Is that the optimism of being a lawyer?

I don’t think he’s trying to see the silver lining. He’s very logical about things that really matter in terms of what this case is. Things that pop up on the computer might sway a jury, but really it has very little to do with the circumstances that they’re presented with. In this case, David might have [tried] it in a different manner. But I don’t think it would necessarily change the facts of the case and I think that was his primary concern.

The Staircase Michael Stuhlbarg and Colin Firth

(Credit: HBO Max)

It is always his concern. He likes to consider his jurors. He doesn’t talk down to them in any particular way. If he can raise reasonable doubts about certain circumstances, they should understand that and they should be able to act accordingly. But I think because of the solemn nature of what happened, there was an emotional aspect to this case that David may have in some cases not dismissed, but it was all about the logic of circumstances for him. I think he also admitted that he rarely if ever puts his clients on the stand to ask them questions unless there is something about a case that needs them to speak for themselves.

The onscreen bond between David and Michael is crucial, what was it like getting to build that with Colin Firth?

Wonderful, just wonderful. There’s only so much you can glean walking in someone else’s shoes. And in some ways, every time you try to play a real person, you are the one up there doing it. In other words, as much as I try to look like David Rudolf and be like David Rudolf, it’s still being filtered through the vessel that is me.

So in some ways, it’s jarring because I finally get to see what it is that we’re making, and when I see it, I sort of think to myself, “Okay, I’m not David, it’s me up there.” But at the same time, I’m trying to apply all the things that David was considering during the course of it and the same way with Colin. It’s sort of like Colin playing Michael, I’m playing David and we get to know each other under those circumstances. So as an actor, I get to watch Colin argue or wrestle with the same things that I’m trying to wrestle with my own character.

Was it important to bring your own interpretation to the character or did you study the documentary to find your performance?

In the end, it’s going to be a little bit of both of those things. I sifted through the documentary as much as I could. And I also had the opportunity to meet David.

Wow, that’s awesome.

I went to his law offices and we spent several hours there, and then he brought me to his home and I got to meet his wife and his daughter. And we went on a long walk in the local park and we had lunch together and we spent a whole day from the very beginning to the very end of it together. He made himself available to not just me, but to the entire cast to answer questions that may come up for each of us about our individual characters.

What’s the biggest challenge of working on a character that is real?

In the end, it’s going to be me up there so I really just try to absorb as much as I can about the individual that I’m playing. And I’m a very literal thinker that way in terms of when I see someone with a particular hairstyle, I’m going to try to create it, something as close to what I see and hear as possible.

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