Odessa Young On HBO’s ‘The Staircase,’ If Michael Peterson Did It, and The Problem With Personas

On a mid-May morning in Brooklyn, Odessa Young is recognizable, though muffled under a shield of ubiquity. In her home neighborhood of Williamsburg, she arrives at the snug café Marlow & Sons with her eyes hidden behind a pair of tortoiseshell-rimmed tinted glasses. She’s makeup-free, dressed in the local uniform of black loafers and socks, a clip holding up half her blonde hair while the rest tangles at the nape of her neck. Loping at her side is Slim Jim, a mutt she rescued after discovering him abandoned in a parking lot in Atlanta about a year ago. A teeny chestnut-colored poodle-miniature pinscher-shih tzu-cocker spaniel-American Eskimo dog mix, he repeatedly interrupts to fight for a nibble of her pastry. Young leans in, grinning: “Can you imagine all those dogs in this tryst?”

I’ve read before that Young doesn’t come off like a star, or even like most other actresses of her caliber. It’s unclear if this fuck-it attitude is curated or natural, though I suspect the latter once she tells me why she got into acting in the first place: “There are just some parts of me and my personality and the way that I was built that inherently lend itself to doing this job. Because if I wasn’t an actor, I’d probably be a grifter.”

Case in point: She’s a high-school dropout, an Australian expat who convinced her musician father and writer mother in Sydney that, following two roles in Aussie films Looking for Grace and The Daughter, she could go full-time. After enduring unemployment for about a year, she made the big move to LA; after that, she abandoned Hollywood for New York City. “I don’t like rules,” she says, by way of explanation for her career choices. “Unless they are the Ten Commandment-esque rules of, ‘Don’t kill people’ and ‘Do unto others…’ But in terms of the rules of how we’re meant to behave in public, how we’re meant to carry ourselves, what we’re meant to believe and how we’re meant to express that? I find all of those rules a little confounding. I think that acting gives me an opportunity to express that confoundedness.” She shrugs, takes a self-deprecating swing. “Didn’t finish high school, so I make up words.”

Now Young divides her time between the East Coast and West, simultaneously convinced of her talent and conflicted about it. “I think that everybody in the fucking world has the ability to be on a screen and move someone [who’s] watching,” she says. “And I know I have that ability. What is difficult is figuring out all the stuff around it.” I don’t have to nudge her toward these more existential topics; she falls into them willingly, if not gracefully, plugging her nose before the dive.

Her most recent role, as Martha Ratliff in HBO’s true-crime drama The Staircase, lends itself to a particularly soul-searching chat. Something of an ingénue wunderkind, especially after her lauded role as a housekeeper in the 2021 film Mothering Sunday, Young’s enjoyed a steady command over her own performances. The Staircase was a departure.

In the series, based on the French documentary of the same name, she plays one of the adopted daughters of Michael Peterson (Colin Firth), accused and convicted of murdering his wife, Kathleen (Toni Collette), after she’s discovered dead at the bottom of their household staircase. Throughout both the real-life case and the HBO adaptation, Martha insists on her father’s innocence, even after a nearly identical case is unearthed from years prior: Her own mother, who died when she was a child, was found dead at the bottom of a staircase before Michael and Kathleen adopted Martha and her sister, Margaret (played in the series by Sophie Turner). In both reality and fictionalized reality, Michael isn’t exactly known for his forthcomingness; he’s caught in several lies and omissions, but the majority of his family members—and those crafting the documentary about his case—remain convinced of his innocence. Of all his children, Martha identifies the most with her father’s secrecy: He’s eventually revealed to be a bisexual man who hid his frequent affairs with men from his wife and family. Martha is a closeted lesbian.

Young never made contact with the real-life Martha, in part because The Staircase creator Antonio Campos had met with the real-life Margaret, whom she said made it clear the Peterson family didn’t want to be “anything more than just conversationally involved.” (Some of the real people involved with the documentary have also expressed their displeasure over the HBO series.) But sequestering the real Martha from the show Martha was also a sign of respect. “I’m not her friend,” Young says. “She doesn’t have any reason to tell me secrets about her.”

odessa young looks into the camera wearing red lipstick blue eyeshadow and a blue satin jacket

Christopher Schoonover

In hindsight, that distance might have made it trickier for Young to get into Martha’s head. So much of The Staircase is about projection and perception, how a different lens can provide a different—but equally convincing—account of reality. Was Michael Peterson unjustly vilified for his bisexuality? Was he a pathological liar and cold-blooded killer? Did an owl kill Kathleen? Did an alcohol-induced fall? What about a blow poke? Does Martha actually believe in her father’s innocence, or does she need to?

“The revelation is not that [Martha’s] gay,” Young says. “The revelation is that she has an understanding of her father’s secrecy and propensity to hide. She understands how someone can feel—even when they’re telling the truth—they feel like they’re lying, because if you’re lying about one core thing, it creates this haze around everything else.”

For someone like Young, who’s less obsessed with the “integrity” of a performance than the clarity of it, that haze felt like an actual menacing presence on set. “I see a bit of a lostness in my performance, that, for me, feels painful to watch. Because I know that I, as a performer, was lost,” she says. Young couldn’t discern how much of Martha was real, how much was a persona for the public, nor whether she should replicate mannerisms from the documentary or trust her own instincts. “That was always the pendulum for me as the performer, and I never felt like the pendulum settled.”

Never mind that no one, including her cast-mates, could settle on whether Michael actually killed Kathleen or not. Each tended to fall into the perspective of whatever character they were inhabiting. At this point, Young’s a little sick of even considering Michael’s guilt or innocence. “I thought for a long time that I was going to be the really smart one to figure it out, to see something that no one had seen or think of something that no one had thought of,” she admits. But like all those who’d come before her, chiseling into the warped psyche of Michael Peterson, “now I know that’s not going to happen, and so I’m like, it’s actually none of my business.”

“We’re becoming really lazy about discerning between narrative and reality.”

Yet she does, desperately, want her performance as Martha to have merit. Perhaps that’s why she’s frustratingly insecure about it: She needs people to watch this series and get something—anything!—out of Martha’s tears, her dye-dipped hair and early-aughts glasses, her kisses behind closed doors. All the discomfort during filming—and it was discomfort; “I don’t think I’ve ever been so uncomfortable for seven months, from the beginning to end, all the time…I had all sorts of existential crises every single day playing that character”—couldn’t be for show.

There’s an almost childlike earnestness that rears its head when Young, now 24, discusses her repertoire. She’ll rein herself in when buzzwords slip out—“Oh my God, this is so fucking corny”—but the terrible truth remains: She’s a card-carrying member of the Acting Matters fan club. Sue her! It’s in vogue for artists to exhibit a healthy cynicism, to admit Netflix isn’t researching cancer cures and Star Wars isn’t therapy. (Young would add, duh.) But for a would-be grifter, she’s no skeptic.

“I believe so greatly and devoutly in the power of this work and the power of cinema and drama and all that sort of stuff, even though I hate it with a passion and wish I could just fucking drop it and move to the woods,” she says. Tearing a hunk off her pastry, she adds, as a way of accepting her fate, “I unfortunately do believe in it more than anything.”

The problem is that Hollywood’s a package deal: If you want the big, meaningful stories, you’d best be prepared to craft a persona to deal with “how intent this industry is on distracting you from actually doing the work,” Young says. When I ask her for clarification, she drops back into jokes at her own expense: “I remember I did a bunch of mushrooms once, and thought I’d figured this out and then promptly forgot it.”

But, the gist of her argument—not that it’s anything new—is this: For how often it waxes poetic about artistic purity, Hollywood’s still a business, and its job is to sell commodities. Sometimes those commodities are films; often, they’re actors themselves. That means actors are competing products, which explains why Young finds herself flustered when she encounters a film set in the city and her name’s not on the trailer. “I get fucking grumpy, because I’m like, Why didn’t they hire me? Why didn’t I know about this?” That competition is intensified for female actresses, who not only commodify their personas but also their bodies. Their performances become an image and their image a skincare line. There are old performances of Young’s that she’ll watch every so often, ones where she can just tell she couldn’t forget the presence of her own face. It doesn’t help that directors have told her not to raise her eyebrows in crying scenes before, supposedly because she has too many forehead wrinkles. Ironically, Young’s little imperfections, the aforementioned forehead wrinkles, her slightly crooked teeth, are part of what make her performances feel so—God, that word again—real. Meaningful. Like they matter.

“We’re preoccupied with showing controlled ugliness [at the detriment] of showing realities,” Young says. “We completely ignore true ugliness, for fear that it will reveal or create a misunderstanding between us and the audience…We’re becoming really lazy about discerning between narrative and reality. And it’s a little worrisome.”

I point out that, well, isn’t that exactly the point of some of these films and TV shows? One like The Staircase, for instance? That there is a place where narrative and reality mesh, and can anyone really know where the line is drawn?

odessa young as martha ratliff in a scene from the staircase

Odessa Young (center) as Martha Ratliff.

Courtesy of HBO Max

She agrees, but insists that line still matters. She uses a friend of hers as an example: a so-called “multi-disciplinarian” with a strong social media following, “where her persona is a fictionalized version of herself,” Young says. “Despite the fact that she says, all the time, ‘It’s partly fabrication,’ people refuse to see that and think that they are welcomed into her life and her experiences by the very fact that they’re witnessing what they think is her real-life experience. It becomes dangerous when we cannot discern between reality and narrative, because it means that we will live to the standards of those narratives, not to the standards of those realities.”

“That’s how those rules you dislike come about,” I say.

“Exactly!” Young says. “But truly.”

So then I ask about her persona, if she has one, which of course she does, because don’t we all? I tell her a colleague of mine once described her as a cinematic “It Girl,” and Young reacts like I’ve just let a fart loose in a place both sacred and hysterical, like a wedding or a funeral. “An It Girl?” she repeats, equal parts disgusted and giddy. “No! Who said that? Oh my God. What are they reading? That’s shocking. Because in order to be an It Girl, you need to have lots of friends and be in lots of places. I don’t leave my house and I have four friends.”

Well, the narrative has to come from somewhere, right? So what evidence has been manipulated this time to give Young the sheen of tastemaker? “I’m going to be thinking about that the whole week,” she says, then considers. “No, I think really what has happened is that, since I stopped thinking that my worth in the industry was based on how many people wanted to work with me without knowing why, I have actually become way more confident.”

As she thinks more, she ends on a paradox: “I don’t want my persona to be a persona. I’d like it to be somewhat real, while also knowing that, as an actor, it’s impossible for me to know who I am.”

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