Not every actress makes her film debut in a Richard Linklater movie and becomes a stalwart of the Nora Ephron, Hal Hartley and Christopher Guest canons, but Parker Posey isn’t like most actresses. As peculiar and emotive in real life as the many characters that populate her work, Posey welcomed Indiewire for a chat at The New York Palace Hotel in ways both comfortable — she was lounging in a large white bathrobe and leisurely sprawled out on a big couch — and distinctly pensive. While she’s spent the past 22 years working with some of the most acclaimed indie auteurs, the release of “Irrational Man” this weekend finds the heralded “Queen of the Indies” hitting a milestone she never thought possible: A dream collaboration with Woody Allen.
“I was kind of in denial about it. I can’t even think about it. I think I’m still in denial about it,” she said of Allen offering her the role of Rita, a college science professor who falls for the new philosophy teacher on campus (Joaquin Phoenix) and gets wrapped up in his existential crisis. “But denial is a very good quality. I think it keeps you separate from thinking too much about how something should look. I tried to hold on to that here.”
After discovering Allen’s work in her early twenties, Posey became a devoted fan of his “realistic female characters” and “strong wit.” She credits performances such as Dianne Wiest in “Hannah and Her Sisters” and Mia Farrow in “Alice” as the tipping point into realizing what it is about Allen that makes him so resonant. “He likes a complicated woman and, more importantly, he gets that complicated woman exist,” she said. “He understands there is a complexity there, and he’s so aware of his writing and the characters he creates. His characters are thinking women and feeling women. It’s fierce.”
When we brought up another one of Allen’s defining traits — his annual output — she dropped her jaw in amazement, though it didn’t take her long to find a reason for his enviable career longevity. “I saw this film in a screening room and it felt like a Woody Allen film, but it also felt like it was totally from out of left field. Where in his back pocket did this come from?” she asked in shock. “There’s the essence of it being a Woody Allen film, of course, but the style and how modern it is makes him forever interesting. He’s a classic storyteller. This is in his bones, and it’s been utilized and supported for so long. That’s why he’ll forever last.”
While she had heard stories about what Allen is like on set — rather quiet and hands off, not a fan of many takes — the 7-week shoot moved so quickly that she had no choice but to embrace it and its advantages. “He’s very loose. He knows it’s about a looseness. He plays clarinet, you know? And his sets are like jazz — it’s moving and it’s alive, ” she said. “He listens to his own storytelling sense and his instincts. I don’t know how he does it. It’s amazing.”
“He works very fast and he only wants to do a few takes, and the sound has to be right because he doesn’t want to loop. So you have to be on top of your game. But at the same time you have to throw all that away. Part of it is just being in your character’s world,” she continued. “His ear is so subtle to what’s real and natural. I made a little adjustment once after a take to a little line, and he said, ‘You lost the feeling that you had in the first take.’ And I was just blown away that he could sense that from the littlest change. I gave the line just a slight irony, and he didn’t want that, and he can pick that up from just the subtlest change you make. He’s very perceptive in the art of filmmaking in that way. He’s very attuned to what it is to make a take work.”
Working on the film also provided her the chance to work with one of the industry’s most enigmatic figures: Joaquin Phoenix. “Oh, my god, there’s just so much going on with him,” she said with a laugh. “It’s a joy, really. I’ve talked about this a lot, but he’s so mercurial and in his truth. He’s so deep and elusive. He’s a real artist. It’s not challenging to be around at all, it’s inviting. I found it really, really fun to match and to be in the waters wherever he was leading. When someone has a lot going on like he does, it’s very easy for me to connect with them because they’re always remaining interesting. You don’t get bored by them — there’s something alive going on inside them that you can’t quite figure out but you wan’t to. It’s compelling.”
The aliveness of collaborating with both Allen and Phoenix clearly paid off, for Posey has been unanimously praised as the film’s MVP ever since the mystery-comedy premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Like a majority of her roles — from Meg Swan in “Best in Show” to Kitty Kowalski in Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” — Rita seemingly comes off as a loony, eccentric kook when we first meet her, only to become more layered in each subsequent scene she’s in.
The uncanny ability to make crazy turn vulnerable in a single line or glance seems to be Parker’s biggest strength as an actress, and she always forces us to take her rather unhinged characters seriously as a result. “I don’t know why I want to bring that out and show that in women,” she said when asked where her attraction to these kinds of characters comes from. “I approach these people from a standpoint of love. How were they loved? How do they love? What’s going on in their heart? There’s that that I think about with every role.”
Something she’s more certain of is the shifting business of Hollywood in today’s “franchise-obsessed” age. Posey has done franchise work in the past — “Scream 3, “Blade: Trinity” and “Superman Returns” — but she smartly got out before it turned into a “four-quadrant checklist,” as she defines it. “Now producers want movies to appeal to children and adults all at the same time,” she said. “You have to hit all these markets in your film if it’s going to get produced, so this sort of sameness has started to saturate stories.” She noticed a change at the turn of the millennium, when youth-oriented genre fare started to dominate and global marketability became the name of the game. “I traveled to Morocco once and I only saw one television when I was there,” she recounted, “but I did go into this dirt cave and I saw this kid chopping tomatoes and pita and he had a picture on the wall of Jean Claude Van Damn holding a gun. That connected with him on the other side of the world, so no wonder these big movies are made — they have a mass appeal.”
Posey hasn’t returned to franchise filmmaking since “Superman Returns” bombed at the box office in the summer of 2006, and while it’d be safe to assume her presence on the indie scene would be a solution to the mainstream, she’s no longer certain that’s the case, at least not in the way it was in the 1990s. “Things have become more technological, and where the indie film community was once sort of a safe place from that, now they’re being asked to make things for the sake of making them,” she said.
“We’re in a time of the screen that’s being upstaged by everyone’s little screens, and we’re now in a culture that’s addicted to distraction,” she said. “There are storytellers making movies that are their own, but what’s missing is the platform. You can go to festivals, sure, but there should be a channel. Festivals were great a decade ago, but they’re too exclusive now where everyone has a screen. There should be an Amazon or Netflix to guide people to the experiences of these small films. Where is the cafe to show these things? One of these banks should invest in an indie experience where you can have a glass of wine and some brussel sprouts.” Fortunately for Posey, Netflix and Amazon are already in the process of acquiring and producing independent films, so she may soon have her answer here.
Also of good news: She’s in final negotiations to star in Allen’s next project, starring Blake Lively, Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg and Bruce Willis, meaning Allen must clearly love her as much as she loves him. How’s that for a dream come true? After so many years in the business, roles like Rita in “Irrational Man” prove Posey still rightfully wears her “Queen of the Indies” crown, and that’s another kind of longevity worth praising.