Irrational Man actress Parker Posey on Woody Allen, Joaquin Phoenix and comeback

The nineties favourite thought her leading lady days were over - then a certain director called...

James Mottram
Friday 04 September 2015 10:12 BST
Parker Posey and Joaquin Phoenix in Irrational Man
Parker Posey and Joaquin Phoenix in Irrational Man

It has been almost a decade since I last met Parker Posey; when she played Kitty Kowalski in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. Perhaps, then, it’s not the best opening conversational gambit to light-heartedly say: “So where have you been these past years?” Posey, dressed in a striped blouse, nude heels and a purple skirt, gives me the eye. “I’m still here, honey. I’m still doing it – living the life of an actress. It ain’t easy. It’s hard.”

There was a time when the raven-haired Posey couldn’t stop working. Named after 1950s model Suzy Parker, in the Nineties she was proclaimed Queen of the Indies by Time magazine. While she once told me she preferred “indie tramp”, films for Hal Hartley (Henry Fool), Richard Linklater (SubUrbia), Greg Mottola (The Daytrippers) and Gregg Araki (The Doom Generation) gave her cachet money couldn’t buy.

And then what? The whole landscape of American independent cinema changed. “As soon as I got called something, I saw it go away and become something else. It was corrupted by the studio system and became capitalised. So I saw the little movies become inflated and puffed up and outsize themselves, and the money upstaged the story and a casting choice could be totally wrong. It was very upsetting.” She sighs. “I think I’ve been mourning it for 15 years.”

Posey, now 46, kept working in spite of it all; aside from TV appearances on shows like The Big C, she made two further films with Hal Hartley (Fay Grim and Ned Rifle) and continued her working relationship with ex-Spinal Tap star Christopher Guest (who regularly cast her in his mock-docs, films like For Your Consideration and A Mighty Wind). But the big dramatic roles that an actress like Posey was more than equipped to handle just didn’t come.

So it’s no wonder she’s elated to be in Woody Allen’s latest, Irrational Man. “You feel rescued,” she admits. “I felt like an awareness took hold of me… I feel like I’m a gambler. I have standards and kinds of work that I want to do that I always dreamed of doing, and the material is not there. You read 20 pages of a Woody Allen movie, and it’s a relief. It was a dream come true to work with him which is surreal.”

It was much needed too. She met Allen’s casting director, Juliet Taylor, when they were serving on a jury at a film festival in Poland. “I was in a suffering, heavy time. I wasn’t having the best year… or the best decade, as I realised! I was living the experience of my life through all its parts and being an actress. I’m not going to lie to you and tell you it’s a lot of fun. It’s really tough.”

She met Allen for three-and-a-half minutes, which, apparently, is a decent amount of time in one of his auditions. She wore black and red “which are Woody’s favourite colours” and talked about Poland and Catholicism (she was raised a Catholic).

When she heard she’d won the role, she burst into tears. And even a broken wrist, sustained after she fell off a ladder in her kitchen doing home repairs, didn’t stop her. She told the doctor she’d had a big break being cast by Allen, and he rushed her into surgery. “Now I have door hardware in my wrist,” she says, flexing it.

Still, for Posey, it was worth it; the chance to work with Allen on what was his 50th film; a comedy-drama set in a leafy university campus at a fictional Rhode Island college. “It’s a definite highlight [of my career],” she says. “It doesn’t feel quite real to me, but it feels right. Being in his movie feels right. The outsider looking in, I really disassociate myself. Seeing myself on the big screen, I disassociate myself. I think it’s the healthy way to be. I have a good therapist in Europe and he agrees!”

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Parker Posey and Kevin Spacey in Superman Returns

In some ways, Posey’s East Coast neuroticism feels perfectly tailored for Allen’s work. Here, in what is Allen in Crimes and Misdemeanours mode, she plays Rita, an unhappily married science teacher who throws herself at Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), the university’s newest addition – a maudlin philosophy professor with a reputation for drinking and womanising. She’s not the only one, with Emma Stone’s pretty student Jill also flying close to his flame.

Parker immediately recognised the sort of charismatic male Phoenix embodies. “I’ve been attracted to these types of men and they’re compelling and fantastic. But you can’t save them, and Rita doesn’t want to save him. I like Rita because she’s in her own fantasy and I love that. She doesn’t even really see him. Emma’s character gets a little more lost in the maze, but Rita knows better. Rita is a mature woman.”

She’d never worked with Phoenix before but felt drawn to this “righteous spirit”, as she puts it. “He’s a squirrel!” she laughs. “He’s so mercurial and watery and he’s such an artist, and he’s got so much style. He’s got something. There’s something truly California-hippie about him.” Watery? “He’s very dedicated to his waters,” she confirms. “So that… that’s great parenting. It speaks highly of him.”

Born in Baltimore, Parker’s own parenting was rather less alternative. She was raised with a twin brother, Chris; her mother Lynda was a chef, while her father Chris owned a Chevrolet car dealership. “My parents thought I had a learning disability when I was young because I was such a daydreamer,” she says. “They said I had a short attention span, and I still do.”

After school, she majored in acting at Purchase College, State University of New York (where she shared a room with ER’s Sherry Stringfield and the dean had her on “probation” for most of her four years).

But this didn’t stop her, with Posey graduating to win the role of Tess in CBS’s soap As the World Turns. It lasted 18 months. But her big break came in Richard Linklater’s 1993 film Dazed and Confused – as high school bitch Darla Marks.

Yet bar the odd film – Scream 3 or Superman Returns – Posey never really broke onto the Hollywood A-list. In her eyes, it’s all to do with the agency who represents you. “They’re like mini studios. I’m now with a medium-sized agency who I hope will have a better eye and ear out.” She’s currently filming The Brits are Coming – an LA jewel-theft story with Pulp Fiction alumni Tim Roth and Uma Thurman.

More encouragingly, she has a role in Woody Allen’s next film – alongside Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg – and a reunion with Christopher Guest on his Netflix movie Mascots, a mockumentary about a “best mascots in the world” competition alongside Chris O’Dowd and Jennifer Coolidge. It might just be the boost she needs. Unlike a lot of her peers, Posey has never produced movies or self-generated her roles. Yet evidently she has a huge creative appetite to satisfy; whether it’s playing the mandolin on a Dandy Warhols track, singing vocals on songs cut by her ex-boyfriend, alt-rocker Ryan Adams, or throwing a pot in a Manhattan studio. “Believe me, I have so many career options,” she says, wryly. “That’s what I do when I’m not acting: thinking about career options.”

She has yet to join social media “because I want to find a way to enter it that’s true to me”, but Posey knows it’s the way forward. Even the Queen of the Indies has to move with the times. She points to the likes of comedian Louis C.K. (she appeared on Louie) and his internet-generated success. “That’s what you have to do, if you want to be satisfied.” She pauses. “Or hope that Woody Allen calls!”

‘Irrational Man’ opens on Friday 13 September

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