After making her feature film debut as a power-tripping cheerleader in the cult classic Dazed and Confused, Parker Posey went on to star in more than 30 indie films in the ’90s—until casting agents stopped calling. In an in-depth interview, Posey opens up about her imminent comeback.
Parker Posey is exhausted. We’re inside a condo besieged by faux-rustic detail off Main Street in Park City, Utah, and she’s slumped over atop a stone fireplace in front of a roaring blaze—like a Sundance throne of sorts for the “Queen of the Indies,” as she was dubbed in 1996. Her black boots dangle over a tiger-striped rug draped over the wooden floor. Despite appearing in more than 30 independent films in the ‘90s, and having more than a dozen movies premiere at Sundance, its been five years since she’s had a movie screen at the mecca of indie cinema. But Posey is back in the mountains to promote her new film, Price Check, boasting one of her juiciest roles in years.
And that’s not all she’s doing here. Posey popped up as the guest of honor during Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s much-ballyhooed hitRECord: A Night at the Movies event during Sundance. Sauntering onstage, she grabbed a microphone and gave her royal seal of approval: “This is very independent, I approve,” before engaging in a quasi-philosophical discussion with the host over what makes an indie film—(500) Days of Summer does not make the cut, according to Posey—and participating in a reading of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, along with Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet. She was also set to host Sundance’s awards ceremony but had to back out at the last minute due to a sudden illness.
According to Posey, the Sundance Film Festival has changed a great deal over the years since the heyday of indie cinema—the ‘90s. Now the strange mélange of indie zest and corporate interests resembles, she says, an episode of The Twilight Zone.
“You do these photographs in these [gifting suites], and someone came up to me and said, ‘Hello. Can I give you this leather bag?’” Posey says. “I said, ‘No, I don’t need a bag. I already have one.’ It was a room as big as a hotel room but there was a lemonade stand, a Chex Mix, a martini bar, mints, and then this bag. I move along, and then the guy behind the bar says, ‘Hi. Can I take a picture of you shaking a vodka martini?’ Again, I said, ‘No.’ It’s so weird.”
Price Check, a modest little film by Michael Walker that was shot in 18 days on a budget of $500,000, definitely qualifies as an indie. Posey plays Susan, a frantic, newly hired powerhouse executive at a supermarket chain who hopes to change the company’s sorry culture. She enlists Pete Cozy (Eric Mabius), a happily married father—and unhappily employed worker—as her boy Friday, offering him a huge raise to help settle his outstanding debt. However, as Pete becomes more and more of a “yes man” to his dynamo boss, he finds himself losing track of who he really wants to be.
Walker’s film is the type of movie that Sundance was once known for—a microbudgeted indie that succeeds thanks to solid writing and winning performances. And whether she’s banging an underling in the broom closet of the office Halloween party or yelling at the top of her lungs into her phone, Posey chews up the office scenery as Susan in one of her most full-bodied, hysterical roles in years.
“I was looking forward to playing a strong woman and a powerful person because it had been a long time since I had,” Posey says. “And I wasn’t feeling particularly strong during that time because it was tough times. I wasn’t getting a lot of work since the independent scripts that used to come to me were going to bigger celebrities. So in my off time, I watched, observed, talked with people, and waited, hoping that someone came along and I could bring my point of view.”
The role of Susan seems like a full-circle one for the 43-year-old Posey, who made her feature film debut as Darla, a power-tripping, haze-happy cheerleading captain in 1993’s Dazed and Confused. In many ways, Susan comes off like Darla-gone-corporate, but Posey envisioned a different future for her first film character.
“It’s really funny,” Posey says, “I always thought Darla would move to San Francisco. I just always saw her there. Darla thrives on the drama, but I think she’s aware of the drama and is playing at it. Susan is seducing people into her fantasy world, so she’s more of a Svengali-type.” Posey pauses. “I think Darla is probably [dramatic] when she’s home, too, just always acting out.”
Dazed and Confused has, over the years, grown to become one of the most celebrated films of the ‘90s. It’s now required viewing for high school and college students, and its iconic smiley-face poster is plastered on the walls of dorm rooms across the country. According to Posey, people still yell “AIR RAID!”—Darla’s command during the movie’s memorable hazing scene—at her every so often (“I think I’m going to make a Christmas card out of it!” she jokes). Her eyes do seem to light up though when we talk about the strong legacy of the film.
“I think it just tapped into a mood, almost like The Catcher in the Rye does, but in movie form. It’s a spirit and an attitude,” said Posey, who is also quite surprised by how girls at high schools across the country have come to imitate the film’s hazing ritual on incoming freshman. “It’s crazy! My aunt in Texas, when she did the hazing things, they had girls swallow oysters. They’d wrap an oyster in dental floss, swallow them, and then pull them back up.” She adds, “But it becomes a way to sublimate all those feelings you’re repressing. Darla was really playing a role, and just having fun.”
As far as her effectiveness at playing hysterical, power-tripping women is concerned, Posey says that her inspiration for playing these roles comes from observing her own family.
“I’m a good girl, you know?” Posey says with a smile. “But I’m from the South and there are some powerful women down there, and very theatrical. My grandmother is this amazingly theatrical woman. She acted like a movie star, as far as looks and attitude, kind of like Susan Hayward.”
Posey, it seems, has mixed feelings about her Queen of the Indies title. Despite being a powerhouse leading lady in celebrated indie films like Party Girl, The House of Yes, and Broken English, she’s been relegated to sidekick roles in Hollywood, as in You’ve Got Mail or Superman Returns. It is, to some degree, of her own making. After the critical success of 1994’s Party Girl, it was reported that Posey accepted a pair of indie supporting roles—against the advice of her management at the time.
“They love putting me in the ‘indie queen’ box. I had some high standards in my 20s that I don’t have anymore.” She laughs nervously. “Let’s be honest, I don’t have them anymore! Hire me. It’s great to be here now though because it’s reinvigorating me. It was fun to play Susan. She’s bold.”
As far as supporting roles in indies are concerned, Posey is a key member of filmmaker Christopher Guest’s movie comedy troupe that’s been featured in four hilarious satires: Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration. Since the last of these was released in 2006, Posey is anxious to get the gang back together for another go, and has a clever idea in mind.
“I talk to Bob Balaban and I’m like, “Have you heard from Chris?” I hope I’m in the next movie!” Posey exclaims. “I think it would be fun to do a silent movie about the transition of a vaudevillian troupe to silent film. I came up with this years ago”—before The Artist—“and told Chris about it after I read this book on Fatty Arbuckle. It was just such a demeaning thing to do, being in silent movies. They’d call you up and tell you, ‘Hey, jump off this building!’ and they’d give you a hundred bucks and you’d do it.”
Christopher Guest projects aside, Posey has a few interesting projects in the pipeline. In addition to Price Check, she’s returning to the hit CBS series The Good Wife, and will appear on an arc of comedian Louis C.K.’s critically hailed F/X series, Louie, sometime in February. She is, however, still looking for a steady-paying job and, like the recession-themed Price Check, laments the seemingly low demand for indie films in an overcrowded marketplace.
“There’s a lot of us suffering in the arts at the hands of what’s happening to our culture,” Posey says. “Where film was really respected in the ‘90s, when [the computer] came along, and all the things it can seduce you into, we see the rise of celebrities and the rise of reality stars, the resentment against celebrities and reality stars. There are just so many more screens.” She pauses. “But that’s OK. We’re going to evolve.”