Parker Posey: ‘None of my indie movies made money, so it became like, “Why hire her?”’
Watching Parker Posey has always been like watching a high-wire circus act. Since stealing scenes as a monstrous cheerleader in the acidic teen classic Dazed and Confused (1993), the 51-year-old has injected rich chaos into some of the greatest independent films of the past 25 years. She remains an icon of the Nineties New York arthouse boom – so much so that “Queen of the Indies”, a title foisted upon her by Time magazine in 1997, will inevitably be written on her tombstone.
On-screen, whether playing a villainous record executive in Josie and the Pussycats (2001) or a high-maintenance slasher film actor in Scream 3 (2000), she has a flouncing, off-kilter sensibility that is often camp and knowing. Off-screen, she feels both out of time and out of this world, a lover of flamboyant turbans and big sunglasses, like Gloria Swanson, or a costume shop gone up in flames. She’s a true eccentric – which means that you barely flinch when she explains that she’s been time travelling while in lockdown.
“I’ve been doing chores and digging,” she says from her temporary home in Austin, Texas, where she’s been quarantining with family. “I’ve been walking barefoot, moving stones around and making pathways. I’ve climbed trees. I have like 12 mosquito bites from my knees to my shin. There’s been a lot of magical thinking, and honouring the paths that came before me. It’s time travel, for sure.” She means it as a metaphor. Probably. But it’s also Parker Posey speaking, so you never really know.
Among some of Posey’s most memorable credits are dark comedies such as The House of Yes (1997), Henry Fool (1997) and Waiting for Guffman (1996) – the latter the first of five collaborations with Christopher Guest, which have also included Best in Show (2000) and Mascots (2016). In Party Girl (1995), a time capsule of the Nineties downtown club scene and her most revered starring role, she played a colourful club kid put to work in a library. “I’ve had so many people come up to me and be like, ‘You made librarians cool!’” Posey laughs.
Her hero status among book lovers is just one of the reasons she was chosen to narrate and executive produce a new documentary, The Booksellers. It’s about New York book collectors and archivists, the weird and wonderful people ensuring that physical reading materials of the past are preserved and respected. It’s a lovely little film, full of joy if tinged with an inevitable sadness. “Books aren’t selling and the publishing world is evaporating, but I love that optimism that’s still there,” Posey says, while unintentionally describing the plot of You’ve Got Mail (1998), in which she played Tom Hanks’ self-involved girlfriend. “You have this younger generation who don’t want to pay $70 to eat dinner in New York City, and instead read a book and concoct their own recipes and have a more intimate conversation. I really like that.”
Conversation with Posey herself is never linear, her answers ponderous loop-de-loops that glide between subjects like she’s ice skating. It’s an effect only enhanced down a crackly phone line. A question about our collective cultural nostalgia seems to be going unanswered for a while. Instead, she digresses into her love of Channel 4’s Grand Designs, and then mentions a bizarre Canadian psychotherapy class she heard about, in which people beat rubber batons against the wall until they feel better about themselves. Only when she eventually picks up on the original thread do you realise that, yes, she did hear what you asked.
Posey hasn’t ever compromised herself, even when the film industry shifted away from the ragtag indies in which she found her earliest fame – but it’s made acting work increasingly hard to come by. “I’ve never really got any of the jobs that I had to really jump through hoops for,” she says. “That’s been disappointing. It’s just a numbers thing now, too. What’s that expression? ‘You’re only as great as the last film you did.’ It’s still kind of true. And none of my independent movies made money, so it became like, ‘Why hire her?’ Except for Wes Craven, I guess, or something like Josie and the Pussycats. That was when they were like, ‘Ooh, let’s get a character actor in there who’s kind of dark.’”
A lack of great parts, and the anxiety she was increasingly plagued by as a result, led Posey to write a memoir. “I’m a celebrity, so I got to write a book,” she jokes. Released in 2018, You’re on an Airplane was named after her love of meeting strangers in the sky and having profound if ultimately ephemeral conversations. “People really open up and then you never see them again,” she explains. “Which, you know, gives you an even better reason to spill your beans and get some free therapy.” The book is unlike anything else; a trippy, intimate read filled with illustrations, recipes and witty anecdotes. It’s also full of mourning for an independent film industry that no longer exists, and the specific pain of feeling as if you’re on a different wavelength to everyone else. In the last correspondence she sent Posey before her death, filmmaker Nora Ephron, who had been a friend and maternal figure for nearly two decades, told Posey to embrace her unconventionality, even if it sometimes made life difficult.
Posey misses Ephron, of course, but she also misses her movies – the Sleepless in Seattles (which she was cut out of), or the You’ve Got Mails (which she wasn’t). “She was very classic,” Posey says. “Like there was the leading man and the leading lady, but then there was the best friend who wasn’t the leading lady but who was funny. It’s so comforting. I loved those unconventional heroines from the Forties or the Seventies, too, and the sidekicks, or the funny neighbours. There are no funny neighbours anymore!”
She remembers when she first felt the industry changing. It was maybe 20 years ago, and she had been offered a part in a big studio film. “It was for this lovelorn, pining ex of Adam Sandler’s, and he ran into her at the grocery store. And I was like, ‘Yes. I am right for that.’ It’s three or four scenes in a movie, and it’s a paycheck. But then, all of a sudden, there’s a new draft of the script where it becomes a broad comedy, and then they decide that they don’t need the lovelorn ex at all. It’s simplified instead. Time is quicker now. They cut for plot and they cut for action. It’s like, ‘Oh, we don’t have time for that.’”
She feels hopeful, though. Professionally, she’s eager to get off the planet, with the third and final season of her Netflix series Lost in Space due to begin filming as soon as it’s safe to shoot again. She’s been thinking about George Floyd, too, the racism her generation of white people failed to tackle, and the wonder of the teenagers kick-starting a revolution. “Forget the celebrities, let the people be the stars,” she says.
Always an ideas person, Posey has also been pitching ideas for dramatic podcasts, and what sounds like an app that combines storytelling with a sleeping aid. “What would it be if you partner, you know, the raindrops on the leaves with literature?” she wonders. “So you’d give the listener a certain space to imagine...” She sighs. “I know I’m, like, waxing poetic and it’ll be easy to make fun of me, but whatever. My father would always say that people are more complex than we give them credit for. Everyone has a little universe inside them.”
Posey’s father died shortly after her book was published. Last November, she lost her beloved dog Gracie – a white fluff-ball and the secret star of so many of her past interviews, photoshoots and Instagram posts. She’s been grieving for a while now, sitting on the back porch of her aunt Skippy’s house and watching the birds. “Family is everything,” she says. “My father was so proud of my book. He would write poetry, and I think he wished he could have done [a book], too. We’re such extensions of our parents, you know, and their unconscious dreams and wishes. But I feel so blessed to have been able to have that moment with my dad, after the book came out, and blessed to even have loved Gracie so much. I’m just glad I got to do it.”
She then stops herself, not because she’s got too personal, but because she’s aware that she’s spoken a lot. “I don’t want to give you too much material!” she laughs. “I’m editing along with you. I’m sorry it’s a lot of work.” In fairness, she’d warned about it earlier – how little she’s speaking aloud nowadays, and the word salad that seems to happen when she’s suddenly asked to. Plus she’s a little anxious. “I’m having two crowns put on tomorrow at the dentist, and I’m not looking forward to it.” Somehow, in her own cosmic way, she makes the most mundane of activities sound like magic.
The Booksellers is available to rent and buy now