Driving Miss Posey

4.14.2008

By Matthew Breen

When I sit down at an Italian restaurant in Manhattan’s Union Square with Parker Posey, I thank her for the interview. It’s customary and part of a little game that sometimes happens between interviewer and subject, both pretending the meeting is like one between friends. And I figured, since we chatted amiably in the car ride and walk over from the Brooklyn photo shoot (during which I met and played with Gracie, her banana-loving little Bichon Frisé/Maltese mix) that we’d share platitudes about her gay appeal or something similar. It’s happened umpteen times in interviews before. But this is Parker Posey. I should have known better.

“Well, I have a TV show that’s coming out,” she said. I must have flinched at her candor. “It’s true,” she continued. “You just have to do this when your things come out. There’s something about an interview situation I find very awkward.” She’s been called outspoken, “the queen of the indies,” a gay icon, and “It” girl. But no one accuses Posey of being a phony.

Despite early critical success following a notable string of films at the Sundance Film Festival in the late ’90s, Christopher Guest’s ensemble romps, and an appearance in big-budget fare like Superman Returns, Posey seems positively allergic to playing the game that earns actresses supermarket tabloid headlines and gossipy spots on Extra. And while she isn’t interested in tossing out canned quotes to interviewers, she couldn’t be warmer or more engaging now: We shared a bowl of the house-specialty pasta (“I’ll never give up pasta or cheese”), and she even flipped over my cassette when side A ran out, and hit the RECORD button.

In her first ever television series, The Return of Jezebel James, created by Gilmore Girls mastermind Amy Sherman-Palladino, Posey stars as Sarah, a children’s book editor with a great job, a no-strings steady date (played by Scott Cohen), and baby fever. When her gynecologist explains that Sarah cannot get pregnant, Sarah seeks out her estranged wild-child younger sister, Coco, to convince her to be her surrogate. Coco, rounding out a stellar casting troika, is played by Lauren Ambrose of Six Feet Under.

A new network sitcom might seem like a quantum leap for an actress so identified with independent film. And while it’s become a cliché to discuss successful actresses now gravitating toward TV (Glenn Close, Mary-Louise Parker, Patricia Arquette, Chloé Sevigny, Kyra Sedgwick), it’s also actually happening. “It’s where the roles are,” Posey says. “I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. Let’s talk about something else.”

She read the Jezebel James pilot script while at a Laundromat in Albuquerque, doing her laundry during a filming break on the big-budget thriller The Eye. “I was laughing, and I was really moved by the end,” says Posey. “I like Sarah. She’s very frenzied and accident-prone, and I like playing people who don’t really know what’s wrong with them, who aren’t self-aware.”

The signature breakneck-paced Gilmore-style dialogue was a bit of a shock to Posey, unaccustomed to working with a 60-page script each week. “I was fantasizing that words were coming out of my ears and my nose. I was so chock-full of material I was like, you know, thinking about medication. Can I take anything? People are like, ‘You’ll be fine.’ It’s an actor’s nightmare, really, but it’s an actor’s job.”

Asked how she changes her approach to acting for a television series, Posey rolls her eyes and cracks her inimitable downturned smile. “That was very Inside the Actors Studio. I’m a little embarrassed for you. There’s a little button I push. Do you want to see it? It’s behind my left shoulder blade.” Then she answers the question. “All of a sudden you’re talking and then your arms are doing this,” she says, waving them over her head. “And then you’re like, Oh, this happens on TV! It’s more emphatic. It can’t happen between your eyes and your brain and your heart. It just comes out. It’s very expressive.”

While Posey has never been one to conflate her roles with her life, one might wonder about the similarities between actress and role, especially now that she’s working on Jezebel James, playing Sarah. Both character and actress are successful single women. Are babies in Posey’s future? “Well, that’s none of your business,” she giggles, knowing full well the question will be repeated by others ad nauseam. “I’m in a good place night now. I’m not in a place where I think I should have kids because it’s the thing to do. There’s a part of our society that thinks if you’re a woman and you don’t have children, there’s something wrong with you, that you aren’t complete, and that you are overly ambitious. I’m a mother to a lot of people. I exercise that part of myself. Honestly, I don’t know if it’s in my plan, and I’m approaching 40! I’m really happy to be single and independent and successful."

There’s no boyfriend in the picture now. Besides, she still needs to fine-tune her gaydar. She recounts a now-routine -- for her -- scenario. “I’ve been flirting with a guy, thinking he was really cute -- and, like, the man standing next to him is his lover. But I’m just enjoying being a single gal right now. I don’t really know what dating is.”

Posey, the daughter of a housewife and a car dealership owner, was raised with her twin brother, Chris, in Laurel, Miss. But from early on, she knew she was leaving the South. “By 11 or 12 I just knew that I had a life on the stage,” she says, laughing. She studied at State University of New York at Purchase, leaving just a few short weeks before graduation to take a role on CBS’s soap As the World Turns. In the 60-some film, television, and theater projects she has worked on since then, Posey has achieved household-name status without becoming a celebrity caricature and in many ways seems to be an actress of another era. Is she the stuff of an acting legend in the making? She’s often compared to Katharine Hepburn for her strong will and arresting looks. Her close friend, actor and writer Craig Chester, who wrote the role of Rhonda -- an unfunny stand-up comic who laughs at her own jokes -- in Adam & Steve for Posey, likens her to Bette Davis. “She’s very passionate about her work,” he says. “She’s obsessed with the art of acting. She’s disciplined, opinionated, and has high standards.”

“She loves Charles Busch and Kiki and Herb. She has a deep appreciation for camp. What she did in Superman Returns was great,” says Chester. While director Bryan Singer hasn’t divulged how camp the role of Kitty Kowalski was meant to be, it’s easy to see that in a less capable actress’s hands the part of Lex Luthor’s gal pal would have been disappointingly two-dimensional. (She’d also have made one hell of a Lois Lane.)

The mention of her name often elicits “Oh, I love her!” and not just from gays. Her simmering career has earned her a legion of fans many of whom can recite the lines of the ditsy Dairy Queen soft-server Libby Mae Brown in Waiting for Guffman or the whacked-out, Kennedy-obsessed Jackie O in The House of Yes. She is beloved of art-house moviegoers and smart directors, including Hal Hartley, who created last year’s Fay Grim as a sequel to Henry Fool because he felt Posey’s mannered housewife-cum-spy role deserved more exploration.

Yet she bristles at the idea of acting as a passport into an elite A-list group and isn’t shy about laughing off the inherent absurdity of some typical Hollywood hoop-jumping. She famously lost a role (that Sandra Bullock rode all the way to the bank) in Speed when, during the audition, she asked for a paper plate to use as a bus steering wheel. Funny, but not well received. During publicity tours for Norah Ephron’s romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail, she was horrified when a TV journalist welcomed her “to the club,” later recalling, “I could not believe it. It made my knees just start to ache. Like everyone’s doing what they do to belong to the big Hollywood elite. It’s like Scientology.”

And there’s a reason you never saw her soaping up hot rods on men’s magazine covers. “There’s a thing about being a Maxim cover girl,” she says. “Maybe it’s arrogance, but I always thought I had more to say.” Is this an attitude problem or the very reason she’s more intriguing than other, more pliant actresses? She is a wonderful study in contradictions, even to close friends. “She’s an outsider,” says Chester of her queer appeal, yet she’s also ‘fabulous, the cheerleader you wanted to be friends with in high school.” Unlike the bright young things who burn hot yet briefly, Chester is sure Posey will have longevity. “She’s no trained seal. I don’t think she’s envious of anyone else’s career.”

An actress more worried about taking on her first sitcom might be more hesitant to discuss her distaste for most television, which she no longer watches. “I don’t know if we realize just how addictive it has become. It felt like a distraction. We’re a culture that likes blood movies. Violence is cool -- are you kidding me? As someone who loves stories and characters, it’s outrageous. If I were a kid right now?’ Posey pauses. ‘If you’re a sensitive human and there is a TV in your house, it can wreck you.”

Posey’s take on horror movies is another matter. “Oh, I did that. In Blade: Trinity, I played a vampire, which was really fun, putting on my teeth and my contacts.” But any expectation for her to play a bloodsucker totally straight would have been foolhardy. She recalls a scene and a flubbed attempt at ad lib: “I’m having this really serious scene with the head vampire and there’s wind blowing through the window and my hair is all frizzed out, and it’s like a Heart video.” The lead vampire’s menacing line read, “I was around when Jesus walked the earth.” Posey asked the director if she could respond with “I was around at Woodstock.” He let her give the line a try a couple of times but Posey never made it through without laughing. “I couldn’t help it. I was so bored! And I had run in these high heels and was trying to walk really fast, thinking, I hope no one notices. Give me my vampire phone so I can phone it in.”

Posey is happy with her life in New York City, cooking at home for friends, doing yoga and pottery, and gardening at her new country house. She’s preparing for a move to a larger place in Manhattan but has lived in her East Village apartment for many years. The appeal of shooting a sitcom in New York was essential to signing on to Jezebel James. She much prefers working in New York to “floating around the Chateau Marmont.” She’s one of Gawker’s most frequently spotted celebs and she and Gracie are a regular fixture on St. Mark’s Place, a street alive with caf’s, students, record stores, tattoo parlors, and constant activity.

She even takes her work home with her on occasion. “I wore my vampire teeth to the deli a couple of times, and walked around St. Mark’s Place. Yeah,” she says, miming an undead order, “Could I get a seltzer and a couple Zone bars?”

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