Parker Posey is contemplating small plates of Brussels sprouts and sautéed Swiss chard when I arrive to meet her at the Crosby Street Hotel’s airy restaurant. It’s a fresh afternoon in October and the 44-year-old actor can’t shake the cold. She puts on her coat, but that doesn’t do it, so, like a Starbucks-era MacGyver, she fashions her white linen napkin into a makeshift Pashmina. “Well, that’s better!” she says, with a smile so infectiously pleased that it’s hard to determine whether or not she knows how absurd she looks.
For the past two decades, Posey’s acting success has hinged on the ambiguous gray area between sincerity and humor. As a Dewey Decimal System–loving good-time gal in Party Girl, a Jackie O–obsessed crackpot in The House of Yes, and a Gale Weathers–impersonating thespian in Scream 3—Posey’s most enduring performances straddle the liminal space between darkness and comedy. It’s why she’s been such an asset to the Christopher Guest canon, appearing as a series of sad-sack women who’ve chewed the scenery in Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration.
In her latest film, Price Check, the New York–based, stalwart indie actor plays Susan Felders, an ambitious corporate boss determined to resurrect a struggling supermarket chain from obsolescence. Along the way, she befriends, and eventually beds, her married employee, Pete (Eric Mabius), causing the tightly wound rope she’s been climbing toward white-collar domination to unravel—and quickly. Price Check finds Posey at her best portraying a knotty mess of emotions, at times manic and hilarious—at others, lonely and damaged. I found her wearing a doily toga.
Price Check, with its cubicles and watercooler culture, seems kind of anathema to the world in which you live. Have you had any experience with a nine-to-five job?
Well, I read The PITA Principle [How to Work With (and Avoid Becoming) a Pain in the Ass] for this movie I did called Clockwatchers. Did you ever see that one? It’s about this group of girlfriends who are temps, and I played an antiestablishment type within the corporate system. Someone’s been accused in the office of stealing from the tip jar—like a quarter from the tip jar—and it’s about how the insidious quality of that fishbowl environment, the paranoia and fear, can affect how people behave and how they lose friendships. There was something in The PITA Principle that said if you’re going to have a job and sit behind a desk with your name on it—if you’re the boss—then it’s guaranteed that the level of your competence will be mediocre. The person sitting behind the desk is never the real leader. But Susan [in Price Check] is a very passionate woman who desires to bring change to her office.
So much so that in one scene she falls to the floor and throws the equivalent of a childhood tantrum.
That’s because, to her, it’s personal. Susan wants to make the supermarket into the greatest space it can be. There’s another book, Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, in which the writer talks about putting video cameras in newspaper stands to observe how people shop and the things they stop to look at. It sort of speaks to why there are old people in front of Walmart or Home Depot stores. Someone, at some point, thought to put that person there, namely because most people won’t steal if they see an elderly person at the entrance to the store. There’s manipulation behind it, like, “There’s my grandma—better not walk off with this picture frame.”
Can you relate to the careerist aspects of Susan’s personality?
I’m not sure, but it’s fascinating when people are intensely passionate about a job that’s so undeserving of passion. Susan doesn’t have a sexy job, but she’s like, “I’m going to make this the hottest thing ever! I’m really going to turn people on to what this could be.” But then she gets a few drinks in her and she’s like, “This job? What a joke!”
I think that happens a lot, where people have to trick themselves into believing that the thing they devote their workweek to is important. Pete encapsulates that idea when he comes home one day, shortly after Susan starts to shake up the office, and tells his wife that he’s finally starting to enjoy his job.
And she’s like, “What? Are you kidding me?”
The emasculation he’s had to endure at the office—a small salary and little opportunity for upward mobility—permeates his private life, and it’s the only brief moment where I could understand, although not condone, his extramarital affair.
Sure, and the idea of a woman coming into a boardroom is sexy. She’s just as strong as the men. But then there’s that dinner meeting she sets up between herself, Pete, and her boss—her father figure—Bennington [Edward Herrmann], the man she’s dying to please. She goes to the restroom and when she comes back, they’re deep in conversation and she’s so jealous. She’ll never fully escape the old boys’ club.
Have you encountered that type of thing in your profession?
Oh, yeah. But the last time I was in L.A. it felt more like a girls’ club. I guess I was just gravitating more toward female producers and writers. But, of course, there are times when, at a meeting, you feel like you’re on a date with three guys at the same time.
Show business is, in a way, a never-ending courtship.
It can feel like that. But you just go with the people who make you feel natural.
About 10 years ago, during an interview to promote Personal Velocity, you sort of excused your character’s infidelity because she was in her 20s and still trying to sort out her place in the world. How about with Susan, a woman in her 40s? Are you able to embody her without judging her?
I have a new friend who’s a Jungian analyst, and he’s so cool. I met him during a dinner party at the Rubin Museum of Art. He was saying, “People really judge alcoholics and sex addicts, but infidelity and addiction is often about a strong desire to find wholeness. That’s what that’s about—“I’m not feeling whole.” And when you start to see it like that, you don’t judge. Susan is a great character to play, and I approached her, right from the beginning, as wanting to find her heart and soul—even if she’s not that deep. With her, I discovered, it’s like: “I don’t have that. I don’t have this. I want that. I want this.” When you see someone like that, you know there’s something missing in her life—she’s a bottomless pit of need.
Before we go, I’d like to talk about your recent video, “Just Act, Naturally.”
[Laughs.] You can call her JA,N.
Was it inspired by any actual acting courses that you’ve taken?
It’s sort of a hodgepodge. Let’s see how that came about—originally, the idea of me playing an acting teacher was pitched to Acura by some UCB directors. I went to P-town [Provincetown, Massachusetts] in April, and saw some amazing drag queens there.
I’ve never been.
You have to go. They were so good. Anyway, when I went out to L.A., I got invited to Trina Turk’s showroom, and then I just started dressing up with, like, fake eyelashes from the ’60s. I rented a Lincoln Town Car, just to feel like I was driving myself around in Hollywood. So I was like, Okay, I’ll play the part. I’m 43, but I feel like Phyllis Diller in her 70s, you know? You know how women, when they reach a certain age, they start dressing in a certain way—there’s honesty to those boas, and a ballsiness that comes from being a seasoned entertainer. So that’s kind of where JA,N came from.
I’m sure it’s a far cry from Grace of Monaco, which you’ve been filming in the South of France with Nicole Kidman. Is the character you play based on a real woman?
Yes, but [the film’s director] Olivier Dahan is kind of meshing a traditional biopic with a Hitchcock film. Hitchcock is actually a character within the film [played by Roger Ashton-Griffiths], but I’m talking more about his style of filmmaking.
Hitchcock, the man, is having a real moment right now.
He’s coming back…
He’s. Coming. Back.
There are two other Hitchcock films: The Girl and Hitchcock.
Isn’t it interesting when that happens? It gets in the air. Anyway, Grace Kelly had an Australian lady-in-waiting named Madge. But my Madge is more like Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca, so it’s more of a villainous part—you don’t know if she’s a traitor, or what she’s up to. The costumes are really… real, really ’50s. Poor Madge.