Parker Posey: A Reliably Independent Woman

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 18, 2007

There it is, 15 minutes in, the Parker Posey money shot. She's in a tub, the camera's cockeyed. A pack of cigs and a fat glass of wine lie by her side as she winds up the crank on an old-timey viewfinder, flipping through still shots of an orgy. She's exasperated, ridiculous.

You are mesmerized.

Because that's what she does, our singing, dancing queen of the indies. She makes the absurd entrancing. She charms by holding up a hand mirror and flashing back visions of our most ludicrous selves. The Jackie O worshiper seducing her brother. The frigid, braces-wearing yuppie violently castigating a pet store clerk. The meanest mean girl humiliating high school newbies with whipped cream and a bullhorn.

"What are you looking at? Wipe that face off your head. . . ."

Ohhh, good times.

They were all good times, actually, even when they seemed a touch demented, sort of sad. Like Fay Grim, Posey's woman in the tub and the lead character in the film of the same name. (See review on Page 36.) She's a beleaguered single mom who carries the same sack of groceries around for the first five scenes of the movie and winds up traipsing across the globe looking for her runaway husband and getting sucked into international espionage. Of course she does; it's an art-house comedy. And a Parker Posey flick.

Here, listen to how Posey once ended an interview with National Public Radio: "Thank you. I hope I made sense."

Those lines could make a perfect epitaph someday. An apt, ironic headline for an actress who's both reliable and unexpected. Clever and flighty. Endearing and abrasive. Who has shot a manic 50-odd movies in the past 15 years and in the process trademarked such a singular brand of erratic quirkiness that she has become an adjective. ( "That's a Parker Posey role." "We're looking for a Parker Posey type.") Who seems, always, to be equal parts toddler, teenager and neurotic, luminous lady.

"It's like, it's like, God. Ask me another question," she stutters in response to an inquiry about the plot of "Broken English," her second movie of the summer, due out in June. (For the record, it's about a hotel manager in New York struggling with relationship issues.)

Posey sounds as if she has just spun around 10 times and landed in a giggling heap on the ground. Which is maybe how she feels, actually, having just gotten off a plane in Los Angeles and trying to squeeze in a quick phone interview during the drive to CNN's studios, fulfilling her obligation to promote a movie that won't be seen in major megaplexes and won't have the benefit of a prime-time ad campaign.

It's a familiar drill along the path she has chosen. Or the one that has chosen her. This life as indie royalty wasn't something Posey plotted long in advance. The daughter of a car dealer dad and chef mom in Mississippi, she fell into acting after being rejected from the ballet program of a prestigious arts academy. It clicked, and she went on to the drama school at a state university outside New York City. Her first gig was on the daytime soap "As the World Turns." (A part she got, she says, despite auditioning in grungy clothes and no makeup -- "That was such a lesson: Try to be yourself as much as you can.")

But in the meantime, the independent-film scene in New York was booming. So it was the work she got, doing readings, showing up for auditions, making friends with folks like Hal Hartley, who directed "Fay Grim" and its predecessor, 1997's "Henry Fool."

Anyway, something worked between Posey and these low-budget, literary films.

"I think that's what happens with a lot of people. You attract it or it attracts you. And it fits," she says. "I think people probably think I self-start, but I don't. . . . I'm an actor, and I like to be of use to the director. To be a muse."

Then she's off down a rabbit hole, chatting about self-starters and power and how people who have lots of it don't necessarily have to find what they're best suited for because probably they can make any career they want work for them. And she's sort of making sense. And you nod and "uh-huh" and laugh because even when she talks in loopy figure eights, it's lyrical and articulate, a private soliloquy of the sort you imagine must run through her mind night and day.

It's fun being on the other end of Posey's cellphone.

The actress has, in the past, described herself as narcissistic, obnoxious, self-absorbed. She has copped to losing parts because she mocked the audition process. Ask about the time, sometime, when she ticked off the "Speed" casting directors by requesting a plate to use as a steering wheel.

That's probably another reason she and indies seem to fit, temperamentally. She can be a muse to directors she respects, and they can give her the leeway -- without eight levels of studio approval -- to do what she will with the part.

"I've known Hal for, like, 15 years. He's such an artist: He's visual, he's musical. He writes women in a really great way," she says. "It's almost like a graphic novel. I loved it."

The first of the many outlandish elements of this outlandish movie is that Posey plays the mother of a 14-year-old. Wasn't she just three years older than that about three days ago? Yes. But she's 38 now, and apparently of age to be raising teenagers.

And babies, too, which is what her character in a potential new Fox sitcom hopes to do. After years of rejecting television scripts (though stealing scenes with guest appearances on such shows as "Will & Grace" and "Boston Legal"), Posey signed on with the creators of "Gilmore Girls" to do a half-hour comedy about a book editor who tries to persuade her estranged younger sister to carry a child for her.

If the show gets picked up (network executives hadn't announced a decision as of press time), Posey soon may have to deal with a lot more of a career side effect she doesn't enjoy: fame.

When she's in her East Village neighborhood and someone says, "What's up?" at the coffee shop, that's one thing. When they come up and tell her they're just like her anal-retentive character in "Best in Show" -- shopping out of catalogues and fawning over a sacred Weimaraner -- well, fine.

"But when it's just, 'Hey, my sister really likes you,' and then they run away -- uck," she says, disgustedly. "I had someone come up behind me in line at Trader Joe's and say, 'I'm a fan of your work.' I screamed -- he was so close to me. I said, 'I'm gonna do that to you and see how you like it.' "

He'd probably like it just fine, but you get her point. Still, if that's the worst of it for Posey, then it's not so bad. She calls herself a working actor and says she is mostly just happy for the work. The well-crafted characters, the liberating directors. "I'm lucky," she says. "I've had an interesting life so far."

Agreed. So what's next? What hasn't she done that she'd like to do?

"I guess I'd like to, uh, I don't know what. I was gonna come up with something funny, but . . ." she stops, trailing off into a sigh as the car door opens and another interview awaits.

It's okay. She's tired. And probably dizzy. And she'll figure it out. And when she does, we'll all stop to laugh at our ridiculous reflection.

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