Why The Staircase 's Odessa Young Is Weary of True-Crime Fans Playing “Armchair Detective”

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HBO Max’s The Staircase Star Odessa Young on Playing Martha Ratliff

As much as people want to have answers, sometimes there are none.

It’s hard to accept that, much like Jon Benet Ramsey‘s murder or the Zodiac Killer’s identity, Kathleen Peterson‘s death may remain a mystery. Sure, people can make assumptions about what happened on the night of Dec. 9, 2001, but no one will really know how it is that Kathleen, played by Toni Collette in The Staircase, died that night.

And while it’s only human to speculate about whether Kathleen’s husband Michael Peterson, played by Colin Firth, killed her (he entered an Alford plea in 2017, in which he maintained his innocence while acknowledging there’s enough evidence to convict him of manslaughter), the obsession with the case also impacts those with ties to the victim. As Odessa Young (who plays Martha Ratliff, Kathleen’s adopted stepdaughter) told E! News, “Everybody loves to play armchair detective but we all forget how much grief warps everything.”

It’s this empathy that informed Young’s portrayal of Martha, who is one of the few characters to question Michael’s innocence.

Young looked back on playing out these scenes in which Martha questions Michael’s version of events, saying that it was a normal reaction based on what was happening in her life. “I think that ultimately what she’s kind of begging for when she expresses that doubt is for someone to see and acknowledge how absurd the whole thing is,” she said. “How absurd it is that they even need to have conversations about whether their father killed their mother.”

Courtesy of HBO Max

She noted that in HBO Max’s adaptation of The Staircase documentary, none of the characters want to confront that reality “because once you do, it’s like Pandora’s Box. You can’t put it away again.”

Young continued, “So, she may actually be so confident in her belief in her father that it allows her to doubt him. It allows her to actually think about the realities of it, because she knows in her heart that he’s innocent of the crime.”

As the series progresses, Martha seeks to understand how losing her biological parents shaped her relationship with Michael and Kathleen, as well as the person she has become. And while Young never met or spoke to Martha, she said, “It’s not hard to imagine what being orphaned as a toddler would do to your sense of self or belonging.” 

HBO Max

Young sympathized with this loss of self and hopes her performance gives people a “better understanding” of Martha’s experience, as it was largely left out of the documentary.

And she said this as a statement, not a judgement, noting that French documentarian Jean-Xavier de Lestrade made The Staircase as an exploration of the American justice system. “It just so happens that the case that they focused on was abnormal, unique, absurd and had all these other parts to it,” Young explained. “And ultimately, so much of the humanity had to be left out of the documentary because that’s not what the justice system is about.”

Nonetheless, The Staircase‘s focus on the botched investigation, the Peterson trial and the many theories about Kathleen’s death distracted from her memory. “So much of the tellings of this story pick up from when she dies and she’s never actually allowed to live,” Young said of Kathleen. “And we allow her to live, we give her this life to herself.”

The Staircase is streaming now on HBO Max.

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