David Rudolf and I have already been chatting for approximately 42 minutes when I finally gather the nerve to ask: “Did you think you were sexy while filming The Staircase?”
The criminal defense and civil rights attorney, made famous by the 2004 docuseries on the high-profile case against his client, Michael Peterson, is played by Michael Stuhlbarg in the new HBO Max miniseries based on the same case. And, for a millisecond, I fear the question was inappropriate. But before a bead of sweat can form on the back of my neck, Rudolf exclaims, “Of course!” with a wrinkled brow, as if his raw sex appeal is an undisputed fact. “Are you kidding?”
One may wonder why I would be asking a preeminent defense attorney about his desirability; in this particular instance though, it’s certainly relevant information. Last weekend, I wrote a not entirely shameless blog about my crush on Rudolf, in which I misused legal jargon like Elle Woods in the hopes that perhaps he’d see it and agree to an interview. While that piece will hardly earn me a Pulitzer, apparently I won my case.
Eight hours after it published, Rudolf reached out to me via Twitter DM: “Yes, I read your article. How could I not? Catchy title. How about interviewing me about this?” Attached was a link to a recent Vanity Fair story, where the filmmakers of the docuseries made plain their vexation with the growing list of creative liberties taken by HBO Max. Interestingly, Colin Firth eating Toni Collette’s ass wasn’t one of them. And because it’s rare that one gets to speak with the subject of their public thirst, we meet via Google Meet two days later.
It’s not until I’m screen to screen with Rudolf that I realize I’m interviewing the man who knows I wrote the words: “Justice may be blind, but I’m not. WYD later, David?” Fortunately, he has a sense of humor. “It’s all fun,” he chuckles in reference to my public declaration. “I appreciate it.”
In the hour-and-20-minute conversation, we vacillate between the more maddening amendments made by the HBO series (including that anilingus scene), the inherent flaws in the foundation of the American criminal justice system (too many to list here), and yes, even some lighter fare, like what music he listens to (“I think Eminem is a genius.”). When my initial embarrassment dissipates, we start with the Vanity Fair piece.
Since its premiere on May 5, HBO Max’s take on the original Peabody Award-winning docuseries—which hit Netflix in 2018—has likely befuddled anyone who’s actually seen both. While the Antonio Campos-adapted drama still follows the trial of Peterson, a novelist accused of murdering his wife, Kathleen, the team behind the original series now claims HBO Max is, as Vanity Fair put it, “recklessly blurring the lines of fact and fiction”—particularly in recent episodes. Those at the helm of the docuseries—namely documentarian, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, producer Allyson Luchak, and editor Scott Stevenson—say they feel betrayed by the dramatized depiction of the story and have even asked HBO Max to add a disclaimer before each episode, stipulating that the series is only “inspired” by real-life events.
“We gave [Campos] all the access he wanted, and I really trusted the man,” de Lestrade told Vanity Fair.
Rudolf, too, tells me he’s disappointed with several aspects of the show and even agreed to recap each episode for The Charlotte Observer to parse out fact from fiction. “I’m mostly annoyed, to be honest. I’m not angry. I’m not terribly surprised, although I had better expectations for Antonio,” says Rudolf. “I’ve spoken to him a number of times, and I made it really clear to him that the only thing I cared about was that he get it accurate. Whether he painted Michael innocent or guilty—people can make up their own minds about that.”
The esteemed lawyer goes on to tell me that he even offered technical expertise for the legal process to ensure that it be portrayed accurately—but Campos said HBO didn’t want him involved in production. Rudolf gave him the contact information of a lawyer in Atlanta, where the show was filmed, just in case. “I said, ‘call him, he knows what he’s doing,’” Rudolf explains. “He never calls him. So, when we see scenes like me meeting my client for the first time in a diner, eating a sandwich...it didn’t happen.”
The scene in question features Rudolf meeting Peterson (played by Colin Firth) in a diner—where the attorney is eating a pastrami sandwich. “Why don’t you just put like a little header on it: Jewish lawyer from New York,” Rudolf quips.
Of course, not all of the inaccuracies were quite as innocuous as a sandwich. Rudolf cites another scene in the first episode during the grand jury hearing wherein he makes a remark about District Attorney Jim Hardin to another member of Peterson’s defense team. “No defense lawyer is ever permitted into a grand jury room ever—not even after the presentation,” he says. Another episode shows Peterson’s brother selling the family’s furniture to pay the attorney’s fees during Peterson’s appeal process. “In the 13 years or 14 years that I represented Michael after the verdict, I never charged him a penny. Not a cent. I carried the expenses because he didn’t have any money,” Rudolf tells me.
But perhaps the most dangerous liberty taken arrived in the latest installment. In Episode 5, it’s revealed that Peterson was engaged in a romantic relationship with an editor from the documentary’s team, Sophie Brunet, portrayed by Juliette Binoche. While docuseries director de Lestrade confirmed the romance, Brunet herself insisted that she and Peterson didn’t begin corresponding until after she left the project, as planned, to work on a film, and that her feelings had no bearing on the series.
“My relationship with Michael never affected my editing,” Brunet wrote. “I never, ever cut anything out that would be damaging for him. I have too big an opinion of my job to be even remotely tempted to do anything like that. And Jean would never let it happen anyway.”
Though, the HBO Max series shows Brunet visiting Peterson in prison, clearly implying that the documentary’s edit was manipulated to depict a more sympathetic version of Peterson in service of his criminal appeal process. As for Rudolf, he claims to have had no knowledge of Brunet and Peterson’s involvement until 2011 after the first several episodes of the docuseries aired; but he emphasizes that one of his conditions for allowing the legal process to be filmed at all was an agreement with de Lestrade and the documentary’s team that it wouldn’t be released until all appeals had been exhausted.
“When I see in Episode 5 that they’re claiming they’re doing these edits to help Michael’s appeal, I’m like, ‘Wait a minute... they didn’t even have the right to show it before the appeals were exhausted, so how could they even think in their heads that this might help them?’” Rudolf says. “I just found the whole thing so incredibly defamatory. I think Jean has a cause of action against Antonio, whoever wrote the episode, and HBO, and I hope he sues them, because they trashed his reputation.”
HBO Max’s discrepancies aside, the docuseries has now captivated audiences for over a decade, spurred podcasts, books, and even entire course lessons in law programs, Rudolf tells me. I wonder aloud what it is about stories like Peterson’s that maintain such a level of staying power in pop culture.
“I think people are voyeurs,” he says. “People are sort of—in their own minds—amateur detectives trying to figure out what happened.”
Apart from The Staircase, the true crime entertainment industry is undoubtedly teeming with new real-life stories and their less-fact-more-fiction counterparts. Rudolf himself now touts both a podcast (Abuse of Power with his wife, Sonya Pfeiffer) and a new book (American Injustice: Inside Stories from the Underbelly of the Criminal Justice System) that examines the everyday corruption in the American criminal justice system. He also traverses the world speaking to audiences at events like CrimeCon about junk science, lingering theories in the Peterson case, and his experiences representing those most vulnerable to injustices within the current legal framework.
What he seems most proud of, though, are the number of messages he still receives from viewers about how his role in The Staircase changed their perspective on what criminal defense attorneys actually do. “I think that was really interesting for people to be able to see what goes into defense instead of these sleazy characters on Law and Order,” Rudolf explains. “For younger criminal defense lawyers to have a positive role model is enormously important. It’s hard for me to even express to you how much I care about that.”
As for why there’s no shortage of stories to tell about faults in the criminal justice system, years of experience have provided him with more than enough evidence. “People confess to crimes they didn’t commit,” he says. “People plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. People are convicted by juries of crimes they didn’t commit. And it’s because the system is populated by people. All of us have our confirmation biases and implicit biases, and we don’t do enough in the criminal justice system to put up guardrails to help us avoid those things.”
By the conclusion of our conversation, I decide to risk another potentially inappropriate question: “How does it feel to be an unlikely sex symbol in the world of true crime?”
He feigns outrage about my inclusion of the word “unlikely,” and I gently remind him that, for the rest of my life, my name will be linked to a story about my “horniness” for him. Also, there are entire Reddit threads and a plethora of takes on social media that echo my sentiments. “Let’s get Sonya in here,” he jests, referring to his wife.
I backpedal: “I mean, did you set out to be that in some way?”
Suddenly, he’s quite sober. “No,” he says. “I just set out to be a good lawyer.”