ALL HAIL THE QUEEN
Why Parker Posey Almost Quit Acting: ‘I Saw the Independent Film Movement Go Away From Me’
The star of Irrational Man on how the world of independent cinema nearly got away from her, to the point that being cast in Woody Allen’s new film made her burst into tears.
The “Queen of the Indies” is regally reclined on a sofa, quite fittingly, in Manhattan’s New York Palace hotel.
Well, she’s less reclined, really, than she is rolling around. Her newly dyed shock of blond hair is bent over an end table. Is she…? Yes, she is. She’s beginning to rub the follicles together.
Parker Posey is showing me how her hair is falling out.
“It was two weeks ago that this started to happen,” she says, pointing out the molting fibers. A trip outside the comfort zone of her regular salon had been disastrous. “Half of my hair fell out,” she says. “It just began to crack. So as you can see, it’s not in the best condition.”
It’s a comedy of errors befitting the makeover of an actress who, throughout the late ’90s, appeared in 32 independent films, turned quirk into a commodity, and earned the nickname “Queen of the Indies.” We’re willing to bet Jennifer Lawrence’s hair isn’t falling out. Or, at the very least, that she wouldn’t be shaking out the loose follicles in front of a journalist.
Still, there’s something about the whole thing that’s just…so…Parker Posey.
“I feel like it’s just kind of shocking and it’s present,” she says of her new look. “And this is just so Hollywood blonde. Like on me, really?”
We talk about the attention she got for her new ’do when she debuted it on the Cannes red carpet. She says going blond is a great way to mask going gray—or as she calls it, “opalescent pearl.” Then, suddenly, she jerks up and stares off into space for a beat, as if she’s powering down. “I’ve been talking about hair a lot.”
She’s enjoying it, though. It’s all part of renewed interest in her film career, thanks to a starring role opposite Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone in Woody Allen’s latest film, Irrational Man. It’s the kind of quirky, loosey-goosey, frenetic role that’s so perfectly Posey that it’s shocking to remember that the actress, the Queen of the Indies, and Allen, perhaps one of the most prolific progenitors of the genre, had never worked together before.
“I know!” she says. They first met 20 years ago when Allen was making Bullets Over Broadway. “Well, you know, I suffered over the years with bitterness,” she says, unleashing a bit of a cackle. “I would reluctantly see his other films and watch with bitterness and jealousy. But I always thought I’d work with him.”
That hunch notwithstanding, when Posey got the call that she had been cast in Irrational Man, she burst into tears. “It wasn’t, ‘Oh my god, I get to work with Woody Allen,’” she says. It was more profound than that. Her casting was reaffirming.
The Queen, you see, had considered abdicating her throne, thinking that the world of indie cinema had changed so drastically that it just didn’t know what to do with her talents anymore. Now, renewed by Irrational Man, she has hope that she might reign once again.
For more than a decade, Parker Posey presided over her indie kingdom with her uniquely appealing and uncomfortable offbeat glamour and comedic treasure trove of subversively strong characters, all aggressive in both their oddities and their convictions.
There was Darla Marks, the terrifying and somehow intoxicating head bitch of Lee High School in Dazed and Confused. Pick a favorite, if that’s even possible, of her master class performances in frequent collaborator Christopher Guest films: Dairy Queen employee and community theater enthusiast Libby Mae Brown in Waiting for Guffman, dog owner on the verge of a nervous breakdown Meg Swan in Best in Show, or New Main Street Singer Sissy Knox in A Mighty Wind. And then, there’s House of Yes. What the hell was that movie? It’s hard to say, other than that it was brilliant.
But fast-forward a decade, and the very medium that so gleefully showcased Posey’s singular comedic gifts, turning them into a veritable brand, stopped asking her to use them. Indie cinema had turned on its queen.
“I saw the independent film movement go away from me,” she says.
It’s startling news to hear from the woman most famously associated with the genre. How could that be the case? “How movies are financed, it’s a world market now,” she says. “They’re made from real star power. Whoever’s hot at the moment.” Opportunities like the one she’s given in Irrational Man only really happen when someone with the power that Woody Allen has manufactures them.
“I feel like, you know, the independent film way of working is something that was in my bones,” she says. “It’s like being a part of a punk band but no one’s singing punk rock anymore. Only a few bands are able to play, and Woody Allen is one of them. That’s why I cried. It was a relief.”
Before being cast in Irrational Man, Posey had been serving on a jury at a film festival in Poland. Allen’s longtime casting director, Juliet Taylor, was on the jury, too. They bonded after both of their bags were lost after their return flight to New York, which eventually led Taylor to think about Posey for Allen’s next movie.
Allen famously meets actors for short periods before casting them in his films. Legend has it is that Owen Wilson met with him for less than a minute before being offered the lead in Midnight in Paris. Posey felt good after her meeting, which lasted a whopping 3½ minutes. She was offered the role of Rita, one leg of a love triangle between Phoenix and Stone’s characters, in Irrational Man the next day.
“I was happy that the part was small enough to not require a big name,” she says.
This is Parker Posey. This is Parker Posey, Queen of the Indies. Could things have really changed so much in the last 10 or 15 years that the name Parker Posey truly doesn’t mean anything? That it isn’t “big?”
“I know. You don’t believe it, right?” she says. “But it’s true. The movies I did in the ’90s didn’t make money, although I became famous for them.”
As the indie movement became less precious and more commercial and money-focused, that last bit—the not making any money thing—began to really matter.
“How movies are constructed and financed now, it’s a corporate medium, for the most part,” she says. “The investors that invest in independent film, they don’t make their money back for a good decade. It’s philanthropic at this point. This is the arts now.”
She goes back to the same point she made earlier: “That’s why I cried when I got the part, because I know what the culture is. It was a relief.”
The key to Posey’s dominance over the indie world was her strong sense of self, and her talents. She knew where she fit in the cinema world. More importantly, she knew where she didn’t. Claiming that she almost never gets the roles she auditions for, she says she long stopped exercising that muscle altogether.
“I’ve had some pretty terrifying, embarrassing moments auditioning for studio films, mainly,” she laughs. “I just can’t.”
Directors and casting directors would approach her and meet with her, knowing what she would bring to their project. Even her role in the blockbuster Superman Returns came about that way: Bryan Singer reached out to her. But as the indie world shifted and financing became more difficult, she stopped being approached. Wounded, frustrated, and unfulfilled, she started to rule out a future in acting altogether.
“You get insecure,” she says.
She started to develop contingency plans. The project she’s most excited about is her plan to turn her house in upstate New York into an avant-garde wedding venue. Skydiving, paintball fights, and pagan rituals have all been floated as possible nuptial ideas. “Now I have other career options,” she says, high on the idea, “which is great.”
Not that she hasn’t been working. She’s been in high demand over the past few years as a guest actress on buzzy TV shows. Stints on Inside Amy Schumer, Portlandia, The Good Wife, and Louie have been the most memorable, if not always the most profitable.
“I was happy working for free, basically, for Louis C.K. just to do something that’s meaningful and well-written,” she says. “Like, that’s my safety zone. But then to look at it and think, ‘Oh my god, this actually isn’t paying me.’ I’m glad I have two mortgages.” She starts fidgeting and gestures like she’s shooing a fly away. “This is whatever—you don’t have to talk about that. But it is very real.”
But running her hair through that golden—if somewhat thinning—mane, she’s quick to remember that this is a happy time. She’s a lead in a Woody Allen film. “You get popular again!” she laughs, when asked whether Irrational Man’s release this weekend rejuvenates her faith in her career.
“It all comes back,” she says, optimistically, about the future of indie film. “What it’s missing is the platform. It’s here. The writers and directors are here.”
And Parker Posey is here, with her newly blond hair—well, most of it—and is ready to work.
Long live the queen.