Let me begin by apologizing for the many ways this interview will fail to fully capture the experience of sitting down with Parker Posey. If ever there was an actor whose distinctive physical essence cannot be conveyed in print, it’s her. Reading the transcript below, you won’t get to hear her nuanced Woody Allen impression, or observe the subtle way her voice and energy changed when she briefly resurrected the character of Meg Swan, her apoplectic yuppie dog-owner from Best in Show. Most of all, you won’t get to watch her produce a turban seemingly from thin air and gracefully tuck it over her newly-blonde hair while discussing the enduring appeal of Party Girl. That is something I got to watch, and I felt like I was seeing some kind of timeless, sacred ritual I did not deserve to witness.
Of course, if you’re familiar with any of Posey’s vast, diverse work across film and television over her nearly 25-year career, you’ll be able to picture some of it. Because truly, who else is like her? She is inimitable. From the commanding moment she first shouted her way onto our screens as every freshman bitch’s worst nightmare in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993), Posey appeared fully formed as a movie star: the blazing confidence, the theatrical Old Hollywood haughtiness, the unpredictable line readings with a voice that felt simultaneously deadpan and musical. She’s been a public figure long enough to have gone through a number of career phases, whether as the semi-official face of Sundance indie culture in the ’90s, the youngest member of Christopher Guest’s celebrated mockumentary ensemble, the MVP TV guest star of sitcoms like Will & Grace, Parks and Recreation, and her devastating four-episode arc on Louie, or the scene-stealing standout in Hollywood studio fare like Superman Returns, Blade: Trinity, and Scream 3.
But who is Parker Posey now? That’s the question that appeared to be on the 46-year-old’s mind when we sat down with her at the Fairmont in San Francisco recently. The one-time ingenue seems to be sauntering toward the grande dame period of her career, and if her red carpet look at Cannes this year is any indication, she’s embracing it. And now, like many a grand dame before her, she’s made a movie with Woody Allen—her first! Irrational Man stars Joaquin Phoenix as Abe, a famed philosopher who takes a job at a small Rhode Island university. His arrival is the talk of the campus, and few are as excited as Rita (Posey), an unhappily married chemistry professor who throws herself at Abe as soon as they meet. But Rita isn’t the only woman in Abe’s life; he also begins a complicated relationship with one of his students, Jill (Emma Stone), who pursues Abe even more aggressively than Rita, even though she has a longterm boyfriend. (It’s never explained why the potbellied, misanthropic Abe is so irresistible that two such dynamic women are prepared to throw their lives away for him.)
Irrational Man isn’t a comedy; it finds Allen once again in Crimes and Misdemeanors/Match Point philosophical murder story mode. As such, it gives Posey the rare opportunity to play a purely dramatic role, which she does beautifully (regardless of the irony that this long-overdue first collaboration between two comedy icons is as serious as they come). Posey has rarely been more understated or mournful onscreen—she may be a supporting character, but Rita becomes a woman we immediately understand and recognize thanks to Posey’s impeccable, affecting work. Despite being visibly exhausted from the film’s L.A. premiere the night before, Posey was clearly thrilled to discuss the role and working with Woody Allen when we were granted an audience with her.
Oh, so back to that “Parker Posey experience” thing—allow me to set the scene. Two colleagues and I are ushered into a suite at the Fairmont and instructed by a publicist where to sit. “Parker will be sitting in this chair, so you can take the rest of the seats,” she said, gesturing at a couch and a second chair positioned around a coffee table. Moments later, Posey entered the room after stepping out for some fresh air. She was dressed in a wonderfully ridiculous outfit consisting of oversized black overalls over a baggy canary-yellow blouse; she did not yet have her turban on, and her choppy blonde hair was sticking straight up. After pacing the room a bit as if acclimating to the energy of the space, she strolled to the other side of the coffee table and slowly took a seat on the floor, where she sat looking up at us for the duration of the interview. Occasionally she’d stand and un-self-consciously stretch in front of us while we sat transfixed, all too delighted that she was making this so much more interesting than the usual press tour roundtable. And so it began:
Rita is a very different character than we’d usually expect from you—she’s a sad, lonely academic. How did you prepare to throw yourself into that headspace?
Experience really builds and ages you, and disappointments can make you feel lonely. I was really happy that I was the right temperature at this time in my life to express that.
There are elements of her arc that reminded me of your character in Personal Velocity, which is one of my favorite movies.
I know! I love that movie too.
It’s just the best.
I love [writer/director] Rebecca Miller.
Just like in that movie, I left wanting to know what would happen next for this woman. In your mind, where does Rita go after these traumas with her husband and Abe?
Hopefully she has a good therapist. [laughs] I think she has enough of a hold on her fantasy to bounce back from the irrational man. We see that she’s aware of him on a level, and it shows us that she’s intelligent, even if she’s lost herself. She could easily drown in the waters of this man, but she survives him. It’s a really cool story for that reason.
Woody Allen has a famously laidback directing style and doesn’t give much feedback during shooting. Is that something you appreciated, or did you want more of a hands-on approach?
I like a lot of freedom when I work, to be left alone in the world that’s being created for you—the set’s there, the wardrobe’s there, and you’re just sliding into this realm. What was different was that after [we wrapped each day] he’s, like, nowhere to be found. He’s in a car. He’s going to dinner. It’s practical, too! It’s like, “Okay, I want to do well [on this take] because he has to go to dinner. We all have to eat, even Woody Allen.” That’s something that’s very particular to him. He’s going to be 80 this year, and he has a body of work that’s so impressive, so the stakes are already high and he knows that. His ear is so subtle and he doesn’t want any “acting,” he just wants you to be very real. I like that way of working.
I was very surprised to realize you hadn’t already worked with him.
That’s what everyone is saying!
And now our suspicions have been confirmed: you two are a perfect fit. Hopefully it won’t be the last time, and he’ll write something that will fully unleash you.
I’m ready to unleash. It’s really frustrating to see how stories have changed. I fantasized as a teenager about growing up and becoming a woman and being in grownup movies. Now it’s a lot of action and werewolves and vampires and video games—movies that are crafted for a gaming culture. And the economy’s not that great, so people aren’t seeing movies like they used to. I’ve suffered the loss of a style and a form that we’ve seen disappear.
So, a big part of this experience [making Irrational Man] has just been feeling really blessed, like, “Oh, good. Oh yes. I do belong in his world and in these kinds of movies.” I cherish the experience. And to work with someone who is so talented and has a particular way of working and to be able to trust that, even if it was hard. I remember he came up to us one day and was like, “What I wrote isn’t very good, you can add whatever you want. Just feel free.” Then I added something, and I hear from the video monitor, “That’s terrible!” [laughs] And I was like, “Okay! Well, where’s the shovel so I can go bury myself.”
Didn’t he come to you and Joaquin early on and assure you that you wouldn’t be fired?
Yeah. He extended his arms, put his hands out in a really funny way, and was like, “Okay. Well, neither of you are getting fired.”
Did that have an effect on your performance? Did you feel more confident to explore different approaches?
Yeah, of course. But he can very easily elicit that feeling from his actors, and that’s his right. If it’s not the right fit … you’re at the service of his world and his point of view and what he’s trying to accomplish. We talked about it, too: “Would I be able to survive being fired?” Well, not fired—let go, not right for the part. I think so. So it was a lot of that at work, which also led to thoughts like, I’m not in it that much, so I hope my role makes it into the movie. I only got my 20 pages, so I didn’t know how important my part was.
And of course Woody Allen isn’t the type of writer where he’s like “Oh, I’ll figure it out in editing.” He doesn’t even do ADR, he doesn’t like to loop. You do a scene, then he comes up and says, “That was good, but it wasn’t good for sound, so we’re gonna go again.” I was like “Oh, but I’m good at ADR!” And he goes, “I don’t like doing that.” “Oh. Okay. Wow.” So it brings such a focus and concentration with the whole crew and the actors. It’s a sport, in a way. You feel like you just want to hit what’s happening live on camera and connect. And Joaquin is so great; he has so much going on, so it’s easy to connect with him.
You have no shortage of previous experience working with great comedic directors with set ways of working, which has yielded such treasures as Busy Bee.
Oh yeah, everyone loves Busy Bee.
Why do you think that has become so iconic?
I don’t know! I guess it’s just so absurd. That’s all Chris Guest. We just played the scene, it’s not like I wrote it. There’s a scene that was cut where I find a piece of dog poop in my husband’s slipper, like very deliberately pooped right in there. And I’m talking to my cleaning lady like, “How did this happen? What is going on? How are we supposed to clean it?” It was just such a funny thing, and that’s all Chris. I don’t know why that was cut; I guess it lasted too long. But just the idea that a dog could be so upset—and a big dog, too—that it would have a little poop right in there… [laughs] It’s just so funny, I can’t take it.
You had that amazing cut audition scene in Waiting for Guffman, too—“Who’s on top now?”
Yeah, that was really fun. I love him.
Which of your movies do fans tend to talk to you about the most?
The Christopher Guest movies, Dazed and Confused, the Hal Hartley movies, Blade, The House of Yes…
I was hoping for Scream 3 or Josie and the Pussycats.
Josie, there’s some. There are the girls that I did it for specifically, the 12-year-olds. I wanted to be really silly and funny in that to appeal to a 7- or 8-year-old, running around doing my arms in a certain way. It was so stupid and fun acting the way that kids do. And Party Girl! Party Girl has lasted. [Posey puts on her sunglasses and turban.] I say as I put my sunglasses and turban on.
Please do. When you’re doing press tours like this, is there one question you wish would go away?
When someone’s like, “Time Magazine called you queen of the indies…” I never knew how to answer that. I guess I can answer it now, like, “Well, I was called that at a particular time, and then the industry became something else.” Then it becomes about your fame and what’s it like to be called that. It’s not like I wake up in the morning and my neighbor’s like, “Hey indie queen, want me to hold the elevator for you?” Although that would be kinda funny.
[We’re informed that our time is up.]
I love San Francisco. I wish I could stay longer.
I was gonna ask about doing Tales of the City.
Yes! Tales of the City is another one people talk to me about!
What are your recollections of working on that?
Oh my god, pure joy. I love Armistead Maupin and Laura Linney. Being a part of that was the beginning, it was one of my first jobs. I just loved it. I could live here in San Francisco. [pause] Well, maybe not now…
We’ll all pitch in and fund a Kickstarter for you.
The essence of San Francisco, the soul of San Francisco, the vibe…I just love it.
Irrational Man opens in San Francisco today.