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Interview: Parker Posey Talks Price Check, Louie, and More

Posey is a singular, essential comedienne, unafraid to act a fool while also acting her ass off.

Interview: Parker Posey Talks Price Check, Louie, and More
Photo: IFC Films

There’s a fly on Parker Posey’s knee. It’s a warm October day in SoHo, and Posey is seated in the Crosby Street Hotel Bar and Terrace, where her tiny visitor flew in through an open window. Having been on a rant about genre movies, the unofficial “queen of indies” suddenly pauses to observe the insect. “Speaking of genre movies!” Posey cries out, looking downward. She gently swats the fly off, then returns to a lunch of Brussels sprouts and sautéed greens, which she forks between anything-goes remarks about her fluctuating career. The fly’s cameo effectively calls to mind some riotous Posey milestones, like when she all but squashed freshman girls like bugs in Dazed and Confused, or commenced a mad hunt for a certain busy bee in Best in Show. For the many film buffs who love her, Posey is a singular, essential comedienne, unafraid to act a fool while nonetheless acting her ass off. And yet, the 44-year-old actress will be the first to tell you that, for her, the last decade has been fraught with professional fickleness, and marked less by major projects than by guest gigs on TV, punctuated by the occasional low-budget leading role.

However nestled on the fringes, Posey’s star vehicles are all shaped by their directors to showcase the seriocomic muse, from Billy Kent’s The Oh in Ohio and Hal Hartley’s Fay Grim to Zoe Cassavetes’s Broken English and Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Happy Tears. A nonchalantly relevant comedy about sales and workaday malaise, Michael Walker’s Price Check follows this tradition, giving Posey her most colorful and gnaw-worthy part in years. The inimitable star shows no restraint in expressing her gratefulness for characters like Susan Felder, the Price Check antiheroine she instills with a mess of inexplicably cohesive traits. A hyper-zealous boss in the supermarket biz who’s hired to reform a flagging branch, Susan is both alien and 100-percent Posey, and she proves a welcome elaboration on Posey’s fleeting work in Louie, The Good Wife, and that viral, must-see Emmy skit. Taking the answers to questions down whatever avenue she sees fit, Posey spills her thoughts on marketing, the changing state of the film medium, and how, much like her little winged friend, she’s currently hovering with a good bit of buzz.

An overarching trend in your work is a special brand of balls-out commitment, which seems to let you do away with inhibitions and push your characters to the limit. How does Susan Felders fit into that trend?

Well, Susan says a lot. There are a lot of words—forceful words. She’s the one that has the engine and the projection. It’s Susan’s world. Everyone else is along for the ride. Playing a part like that, a really strong woman like that, felt good. Someone so strong and committed to this job, which many people find boring, but she thinks is the best thing ever. And Michael [Walker] was just encouraging me to go for it.

Are a lot of directors like that with you?

No. This was unique, and it was one of those movies where it was an 18-day shoot, and it was really fast. The best way of working is when everyone knows their lines, and we come in, and it feels like it’s really happening. And it’s fun to play a boss, but also be in the community. We all had a lot of fun making each other laugh. For the record, I still go home at night, in the car, and think I don’t know what I’m doing. “What did I do there?” A lot of an actor’s job isn’t to beat yourself up after you do something, or be like, “Oh, I should have…” You know? But, then, Susan is such a perfectionist, so that becomes part of your headspace—the characters’ headspace.

The film is very smart about the business world, and features a lot of sales jargon and interesting dialogue. Are you a business-savvy person?

No. Mike gave me a book to read by Paco Underhill called Why We Buy. It’s all about shopping strategies. It’s really cool, and insidious, [in regard to] how that world can shape how you shop. Remember when the shopping carts got really huge? And you were going to Wal-Mart and just wheeling around this yacht? Strategists would watch surveillance videos, and they suddenly found that the shopping carts were too big, and people were leaving them and running out of stores because they were so frustrated. And it talks about how all staffing is carefully choreographed, and how an elderly person at Wal-Mart is there to greet you, like a grandmother or a grandfather, because if you see them when you go in, you’ll be swayed from stealing. It talks about the way a store is laid out, encouraging you to get lost because then you’ll wander. So that ended up being part of the headspace for the character. Susan is very much that kind of thinker. She thinks like a consumer: “I see that, I want that.” She exists in that hungry mode.

The office setting provides a certain atmosphere that seems to lend itself to the film’s dry humor. Did you find that environment useful when bringing Susan to life?

Yes, it’s like a stage. And Susan also sets the stage. She comes in and she sets the stage, and helps create that theatricality. What you’re in for now is Susan Felders, you know? Mike really wanted that theatricality, not a natural setting. He kept saying, “Do more! Do more!”—to create that kind of force. These Brussels sprouts are really good.

Are you a vegetarian?

I’ll eat meat a few times a month. What about you?

I’ve been trying to eat a lot of whole foods.

Mmm-hmm. That’s great.

What sort of thoughts do you have when you look at the scope of your career, beyond the whole “indie queen” label?

I’m so glad I get to portray different women, and I’m so lucky to be able to carry different movies. They all seem to be up against something, these women, or going through some obstacle like that. You know, I remember five or six years ago, someone said, “You seem to have a hot point every six or seven years, like, ‘Oh, there’s Parker Posey again.’” And that’s kind of how an actor’s life works. That’s the path. You feel kind of forgotten about for a while, or you’re wondering, “Why wasn’t I up for that?” or “Why didn’t I see that?” In the biz, people have hot streaks, but so much of the business has changed too. Even for good working actors, work is so few and far between that we’re doing a lot of guest spots, and just waiting for good scripts like Price Check.

I’m having a hard time thinking of when you weren’t “in.” You seem to have a pretty consistent fan base. Do you ever think about being admired, or what your fans will think about a choice you’ve made?

No! Things just fall in my lap. I just need to work. These past few years, like I said, I’ve mainly been doing guest spots. I feel like movies have changed a lot—which kinds of movies get made has changed. They’re less character-driven, and more action-packed. The concepts are bigger, and all the genre movies are huge. As I get older, I’m just glad to be a working actor, and I’ve also found that today’s culture really depends on timing. You have to make yourself exposed in the culture, or people forget about you. I feel like I’m a little more popular in the culture now, with the Emmy thing, and Louie, and hopefully [Price Check]. That would be a surprise—if people actually watched this film and enjoyed it. There could be some real dialogue around it. Not so much in the magazines, but on the Internet now, people are truly starting to have a critical voice about what they watch, and that’s really great. I think that’s good for the material you produce. It makes you want to produce smarter material, and more dynamic material.

Can you speak a bit about Liz, your character from Louie?

I was really sad that she had to die. It was really hard, and it really bummed me out. Louis [C.K.] said, “I’m thinking of having her die,” and I thought, “Oh, I’ve never died in a project before.” But, then, once she came to life, she was so different, and different for him. And then she had to die. It really made me sad. [laughs] I know it sounds silly, but it’s kind of a bummer. Maybe she could come back as a zombie.

What kind of projects do you say “no” to?

I’m not saying “no” to anything if it comes along and is gonna pay me and keep me working!

But, in terms of content, is there anything that turns you off?

Well, I don’t like things that are mean, and I don’t like things that are uninspired. I came up in the independent film scene, you know, and all those movies of the 1990s shaped me and shaped the kind of actor that I am. I don’t really see those movies now. And what’s really kind of a bummer is there used to be films with the lowly friend or the funny neighbor, and those movies don’t even get made anymore. I miss that. Hopefully the Internet and these digital companies will become the voice that’s been missing over the past 15 years. I think it’s ready for that: the digital platform. I think it’s ready to be a new and viable form. I hope it becomes that. Price Check is on video on-demand. It’s out there. I like that the medium in our culture is changing.

Do you have any favorite lines from characters you’ve played? Because I have so many.

You have lines of mine in your head? Oh great. Oh my god, that’s so funny. So, like, sitting here with me, you’re hearing those—you’re hearing my voice, but you’re also hearing my voice in your head? That’s great. You tell me yours.

Well, a few stand out…

“Freshman Bitches,” “Air raid…”

Actually, “Lick me, all of you” is a big one.

“Lick me, all of you,” of course.

Another one that always sticks out…

Oh my god, this is so absurd!

“You’re obsessed with her and you’re obsessed with her daughter!”

What is that from?

Scream 3. In which you also died, by the way.

That’s right! That was really scary. Wes [Craven] let get me get away with some really crazy stuff. I was shocked. I’d walk on set and be like, “Really, you’re going to let me do that?” Because it’s such a campy movie, but still. But when I did have to die behind that mirror, he did come up to me and say, “Okay this is serious right now.” And I’m like, “Oh, I know.” I loved him. He’s such a great guy.

And then there’s Best in Show

Well, those guys are just incredible. The Christopher Guest company. Just so much fun to work with.

I have to bring up the Busy Bee sequence.

Why do you think people are so obsessed with that?

Because it’s so absolutely off the rails, and so much of it, I think, has to do with your facial reactions. There’s that moment when Michael Hitchcock’s character actually climbs inside the dog’s cage, and the look on your face kills me every time.

You really have to take that stuff so seriously, because if you don’t, you start laughing and then the take gets ruined. You have to say, “Okay, this is the most serious thing in the world right now.” Christopher Guest would say, “You know, this isn’t too far from how people really are.” My God, all that narcissism. But we’re all in our own fantasy, right? You see it all the time. People just get so serious about things. It’s funny, and over the top, and sometimes it’s even charming.

Did you think about those people when you were approaching the role of Susan? Because she’s another one who just runs by her own compass, and gets off on putting out fires.

Oh my God, I know. Yes, those people love that. The more difficult the situation, the better. People just want to be around it, that chaos. It’s very dysfunctional. I’m working in France now [on Nicole Kidman’s Grace Kelly biopic, Grace of Monaco], and it’s not like that. There, it’s the opposite in terms of what it is to go to work. It’s very laidback. They don’t get out of bed until 10, they have lunch at 11, and then there’s beer and wine. Whereas here, you know, we work hard in America. It’s very important and serious. Forget about making things mellow. It’s counter-productive, and for people who feed off of it, it’s just crazy town. To be managing the crazy egos of others while still trying to do your job too? No wonder those people are nuts.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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