As 90s cinema’s secret weapon, Parker Posey captured the imagination of a generation. With Woody Allen’s Irrational Man, she proves she’s ready to do it all over again
Taken from the Autumn 2015 issue of Dazed:
Parker Posey is the 90s-nurtured indie cinema heroine no one ever quite figured out, nor quite got over. Known for playing complex, uncompromising women, her performances turned outsider females into era-defining icons. From existential NYC hedonist and fashion plate Mary in Party Girl (1995) to Rose McGowan’s “eternal love slave” in The Doom Generation (1995) and the brilliantly uptight (and upwardly mobile) Meg Swan in Best in Show (2000), Posey helped make turn-of-the-millennium cinema a little more strange and wonderful.
In person, Posey is a fireball of energy, with a contagiously bright demeanour. After a long day shooting in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, the 46-year-old spiritedly kicks off her heels and runs over to greet me. “Look at this!” she laughs, shaking her newly bleached mane back and forth. Hairs fly off at random, the fallout from some sort of salon mishap the day before. She may be raining blonde, but Posey looks fantastic – like a couture yoga guru in a seaside-ready Marc Jacobs dress. She cuddles up to Gracie, her 12-year-old bichon frise / Maltese dog, and invites me for a smoke and a walk home to her West Village neighbourhood. There are sun showers, but the Hudson River is behind us, and its trusty breeze seems to blow the raindrops out of our path. Posey grabs my phone and speaks into it like a guerrilla mic for much of our chat, so we can be free to roam as we record.
And we roam, all right. Posey’s thought patterns shift like the restless weather, and conversation ricochets from one topic to another, weaving a surreal tapestry around us. Her charisma should come as no surprise: even in 2015, with her calling-card roles now touchstones of late-20th century nostalgia, Posey stunned Cannes Film Festival with her choice of wardrobe. She was there for her acclaimed role in Woody Allen’s Irrational Man, alongside co-star Emma Stone and Allen himself, but all people blogged about was Posey in an amazingly unlikely outfit for Cannes: a mango sorbet-coloured lamé halter dress topped elegantly with a gold turban. It was as if Lana Turner had stepped into the retro-future and invaded Marisa Berenson’s wardrobe. “I don’t even know what it means to trend!” laughs Posey. “But I know it got a lot of attention because my friends sent me pictures. I just wanted to treat it like a fantasy and have some fun with it.” Posey counts the outfit’s designer, Leana Zuniga of Electric Feathers, as a close friend and collaborator. “I felt like an old movie star in that get-up. Like I’d been around a long, long time – I really do feel that way. Like, ‘Oh my God, I’m still doing this?’”
She is still doing it, and she’s doing it well. Posey has maintained a brisk pace of work this side of the millennium, but has – until now, at least – lacked a major milestone role. All that is set to change with Irrational Man, Allen’s typically star-studded new ensemble, in which she plays Rita Richards, an unhappily married science teacher who seeks sex and solace in Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), a visiting professor who should wear a ‘toxic’ warning label on his chest.
Posey calls Richards a “survivor”. She inhabits the role convincingly, perhaps relating, on some level, to a fear of stagnation. Before she was cast, news of a new Woody Allen film in the works actually saddened her, reminding her of what was missing in her career. “I randomly saw on the cover of The New York Post that Joaquin was doing the film and I was like, ‘God, I wanna work with him. I wish... I wanna be in a Woody Allen film.’ Just really bitter. I needed a break, you know?”
As luck would have it, Allen’s casting director, Juliet Taylor, ended up on a film jury with Posey in Krakow, Poland, and the two got to know each other. “I guess it was just a case of sitting together and being at the right place at the right time... and the right temperature and the right age, the right look – you know, all that,” says Posey. Taylor invited her to meet Allen (“One minute you’re shaking his hand and making nun jokes, and then his foot is out the door!”) Soon after, she was asked to be in the film.
“I burst into tears when I found out,” says Posey. “I became suddenly aware of just how risky I have been with my career, and how much I’d felt lost and reliant on luck,” she says, offering a modest assessment of her own agency in her career to date. “I remember telling my manager, ‘I feel like such a gambler.’”
Thanks to Allen’s tradition of giving actors only minimal context for their roles, Posey arrived on set not even knowing what kind of movie she was in. “I didn’t know if it was a light movie or a heavy movie,” she says. “I’d been given a 20-page script with just my lines. Then, on set, I suddenly became aware of all this information.” She came to appreciate the madness of the method, however. “By withholding in the beginning and then telling me on the day, including you in his vision right then, it gives you mystery – something special.”
As we wait for Gracie to finish peeing on an Eighth Avenue kerb, Posey chit-chats amiably with another bichon frise dog owner, laughing and wrapping her leash around her purse like a sash. In the flesh, Posey’s spirit seems too light and irrepressible to fall prey to such trifles as existential anxiety. But as is the case in her best character work, tragicomedy peppers her worldview. “I always feel like a job is going to be my last job,” she sighs a few minutes later. “There’s that aspect of going to hell to find a light.”
“My mom became a Catholic after seeing The Exorcist! My family all had this morbid attitude, so there was always drama and intensity” – Parker Posey
As Posey tells it, a flair for the dramatic runs in the family. The actress grew up near the bayous in Monroe, Louisiana, before moving to Laurel, Mississippi, hometown of Tennessee Williams’ faded southern belle Blanche DuBois. “It’s the deep south, very southern Catholic,” she says. “I was a preemie, and I had anxiety early on. My dad was (drafted) to Vietnam, so it was just my mom, and she was very young. She said I would rock back and forth on my belly.” Posey’s father ran (and still runs) a Chevrolet dealership, and her family was close-knit, traditional but open-minded. And very southern gothic. “My mom became a Catholic after seeing The Exorcist,” she laughs. “We all had this morbid, ‘we-could-die-tomorrow’ attitude. So there was always this drama and intensity.”
Posey’s soft and regal southern twang remains intact, but she says people are often surprised to learn about where she’s from. “What I like about the south, and especially New Orleans, is that they show up for other people there in a way that other cities don’t. It’s so open, all about food and theatricality.” She pauses, remembering, then pipes up. “I remember when Elvis died, going to my dad’s car dealership and all his secretaries were so devastated, just crying and screaming.” Another pause. “Elvis had so much heart and personality. Oh, and my first boyfriend in high school – his mom dated Elvis!”
Perhaps the most influential figure on the young Posey was grandmother Faye, known to the family as ‘Nonnie’, whose “drag queen-like” mannerisms she lovingly describes as a source of inspiration for her campy voguing in Party Girl. “She loved the grace and glamour of old Hollywood,” says Posey. “She made her own clothes, and she would clomp around in knee-high boots – boots she’d made herself! She’d go to Neiman Marcus and copy all the patterns. I love that. She’d smoke like a duck in a fireball, drink coffee and sew.”
Nonnie also led Posey into dancing and, later, acting. “I had that connection really early on and that love of escaping into my impressions. We used to dance together and she’d say, ‘Look what I can do!’ and put her leg up over her head. She was very flexible and agile. She loved to romanticise New York and people like Bob Fosse. She’d say, ‘Tell me, honey! Why d’you think all the choreographers are gay?’”
While studying drama in New York, Posey was cast as school sadist Darla in Dazed and Confused (1993), her big-screen debut. (“I was a good Catholic girl, so I got to play a repressed version of myself,” she jokes.) Two years later, she found cult stardom with Party Girl, beating Dazed co-stars Ben Affleck and Matthew McConaughey to the punch in landing her first lead role. Local girl made good, very good.
Over time, she evolved into the downtown NYC icon she is today, but she still infuses an innate southern drama into her work. In a peak Posey performance, you can see a little of the regional Blanche DuBois-style fervour and fragility, a little of Bette Davis in Jezebel, a little bit of her family’s own femme fatale, Nonnie. That deep cache of cultural and familial influences helps make Posey that rarest of breeds in modern-day Hollywood: a celebrity with mystique. Despite the Instagrammable backstory, Posey doesn’t do social media. Chalk it up to generational differences, but her choice to not commodify herself online speaks to a character sufficiently confident in their own uniqueness that they don’t need to broadcast it. Though she jokes that setting up a social media account was her New Year’s resolution, it clearly hasn’t been a priority. “I don’t want to be any more self- absorbed than I already am,” she jokes.
The sun showers have ended, and we turn on to Sixth Avenue’s crowded sidewalks, when someone vaguely familiar calls out.
Posey looks up in surprise, then gasps in recognition, and runs forward for a big hug. It’s indie actor extraordinaire Sam Rockwell. As she introduces us, her eyes light up. “This is Sam. We were on the cover of Dazed together back in the 90s!”
With that, time happily collapses. ‘Small world’ sentiments abound between us. “I need to find that cover,” she exclaims, as much a reminder to herself as an aside to me and Rockwell, as we bid him goodbye.
A chance dog walk turns into a poetic confrontation with a very specific moment in the past – yup, sounds like something that would happen to Parker Posey. But the actress also has her sights set hungrily on the future. As she heads inside her building to pick up her laundry – she does her own, of course – she muses on what lies ahead. After an upcoming film with Ira Sachs, she wants to start making her own projects. “I have to direct. That’s the natural next step – to make something funny which I feel is missing,” she says. “I’ve been starving creatively in a lot of ways. It’s hard when you want to express all these things and the material isn’t there for you. But everyone is adjusting to their screens. I feel like it’s the beginning of silent film. It’s just such a different time – a new time.” Despite the scepticism, it’s hard to feel worried for Posey. After all, drama is in her blood.
Irrational Man is out on September 11
In cover image Parker wears coat Burberry Prorsum, dress her own, headscarf Jennifer Ouellette. Hair Frankie Foye at Photo Op Management for L’Oréal Professionnel, make-up Christian McCulloch at Tim Howard Management using Dolce & Gabbana, set design Lauren Nikrooz, photographic assistants Alvin Kean Wong, Danny Lim, fashion assistant Ariel Leon-Coeur, set assistant Danny Omara, digital operator Casey Showalter
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