Parker Posey Never Met A Scene She Couldn’t Steal
Spring is in the air, and apparently so is Parker Posey.
“I’m a crossword clue today?” she says with a mix of confusion and indifference. A friend had just texted Posey that she was fifty-nine down in the New York Times’s puzzle: Actress Parker _____. We are meeting in a Dumbo warehouse on a sunny Tuesday, where her friend and stylist Gabriel Held is working on a few looks for her. I flag that she was also mentioned on a recent episode of Yellowjackets, when a character returns a copy of Party Girl to a video rental store and declares “Parker Posey is my new dream woman.”
The 54-year-old actress cackles and flips her hair, grabbing a half-full glass of champagne. “Guess I must really be popular!”
Posey is being facetious, but she’s also not wrong. Nearly three decades after Time magazine anointed her Queen of the Indies, Posey is still dominating arthouse theaters across the country. Two of her films from 1995, The Doom Generation and Party Girl, were just rereleased in new 4K restorations. You can also see her in Beau is Afraid, the latest three-hour odyssey from Midsommar auteur Ari Aster, which features Posey in a small (but integral) role.
“I’m doing all this press and noticing these younger journalists dressing like my Party Girl character did,” she says. “The ’90s feel like they’re back in a big way, and that’s kinda surreal for me!”
Held tops off our champagne glasses while Posey sifts through a rack of vintage Todd Oldham. Posey met Held on a shoot where he professed that Party Girl changed his life. Today Held has pulled a series of looks for Posey that seem like they could’ve been lifted from that film’s costume closet.
“This is all taking me back to the ’90s,” Posey says, holding up a Roberto Cavalli jacket and launching into a spontaneous rendition of Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.” Held shows us a pair of sequined rhinestone shorts that he got directly from Oldham, who claim they might be the very same pair Posey wore in Party Girl. Held suggests it could be a fun choice for the rerelase premiere at IFC Center, but Posey opts for something more casual: the Cavalli jacket with a Moschino blouse and Vivienne Westwood skirt—all vintage. She’s more partial to winking at the past than trying to relive it. “We made Party Girl for people who saw New York as a place where they could reinvent themselves,” she says. “It means a lot to me that it seemed to resonate with some people.”
Raised by a chef mother and a father who owned a car dealership in Monroe, Louisiana, Posey displayed a performative streak early. She recalls one memorable summer at the Strong River Camp and Farm, where counselors assigned an eight-year-old Posey the job of putting on a show for the entire student body. “I wrote and directed a version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears where Little Red Riding Hood was a detective,” Posey recalls, citing the TV detective Kojak as her inspiration. In Posey’s version, Goldilocks walked onstage sucking on a Tootsie Pop and delivered Kojak’s famous one-liner: “Who loves ya, baby?” The adults, at least, loved the reference.
“My parents laughed so hard they cried, and that really upset me,” she laughs now. “All I remember thinking was, This isn’t funny, I’m supposed to be a detective. I’m Kojak, dammit.”
Growing up within driving distance of several dozen Baptist churches, Posey’s Southern bohemian parents encouraged her creative pursuits so long as they didn’t keep her from Sunday mass. Posey’s grandmother was a glamorous Southern belle who deeply informed her theatrical point of view. “She would put on her lashes and high-heeled boots every single day just to play bridge or stay at home and watch All That Jazz with me,” Posey says. “She always said that if she could do it all over again, she would’ve been a textile designer in New York City.” Posey took ballet lessons until a rejection letter from a summer program shattered those dreams. When her father asked for feedback, the dean advised him to steer his daughter toward acting.
Posey went on to study drama at SUNY Purchase in upstate New York, just a quick train ride away from Grand Central Station. A talent agent who lived near the school saw Posey in a play and took her on as a client, sending her out on auditions for everything from indie films to off-off-Broadway plays. Less than three weeks before graduation, Posey dropped out of school after landing a role on As the World Turns, the longtime soap that gave future stars like Julianne Moore and Marisa Tomei their first big breaks. “You could really be in the mix in New York at that time,” she says. “I could do the soap opera during the day and theater at night.”
Posey secured a rent-controlled apartment in the Lower East Side and put herself to work immediately. “Parker wasn’t a household name,” Party Girl’s director Daisy von Scherler Mayer told Vogue for a piece celebrating the lasting legacy of the film. “But she was well-known among casting directors because she was that crazy girl who would come in dressed in the most amazing outfits.”
Party Girl marked Posey’s first leading role after a series of scene-stealing performances in films like Dazed and Confused, where she learned to make a meal out of small moments—think of the way her ruthless senior Darla gleefully flicks ketchup over a group of terrified freshmen girls. Following an aimlessly chic 20-something who decides to turn her life around by becoming a librarian, Party Girl signaled the arrival of Posey as a new kind of movie star.
On the page, Mary is a self-absorbed snob whose only redeeming quality is knowing how to have a good time. But as brought to life by Posey, wearing some of the most inventive outfit combinations ever captured on celluloid, you can’t help but fall for her acidic charms. Costume designer Michael Clancy spent the bulk of his budget on the red Vivienne Westwood bustier that Posey wears in the opening scene, leaving the filmmakers to source her character’s flashy wardrobe from a variety of sources—including Posey herself, who supplied a ’70s brocade cream suit that she bought in Austin while working on Dazed and Confused.
Clancy and the filmmakers called in every favor they could to pepper Mary’s closet with designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Todd Oldham. For the scene where Posey finds a jacket at a party and beams “Hell-o, Chanel!”—that’s a real Chanel jacket loaned to the production by a Vogue editor who snagged it from the fashion closet. “Everybody who worked on that film was constantly calling up their friends and asking for help,” Posey says. “It was very much sprung from the communities that it represented.”
Party Girl became a hit on the arthouse circuit in 1995, grossing three times its $150,000 budget and endearing Posey to a generation of Gen X’ers. The actor assures me, though, that success in the world of independent film didn’t translate into anything resembling overnight stardom—or riches. (She only got paid $75 a day for Party Girl, a film in which she appears in nearly every frame.) “My career really took shape organically, when the culture still supported independent films,” Posey says.
Though she certainly felt more at home working within the shaggy comforts of indies, Posey never stuck her nose up at Hollywood. She even auditioned for the Sandra Bullock role in Speed, but got cut after grabbing a paper plate to use as a steering wheel. (“Keanu laughed but the director didn’t.”) Nora Ephron cast Posey for a role in Sleepless in Seattle, but it was eventually cut from the finished film. Ephron wrote a note to Posey counseling not to let it discourage her. “Nora was so supportive,” she says. “She told me I was a ‘gifted comedienne,’ which I’d never been called before.”
Ephron then cast Posey as a rollerblader with a few lines in her next film, Mixed Nuts, and wrote the role of Tom Hanks’s girlfriend in You’ve Got Mail with her in mind. Playing the inverse of her free-spirited downtown Party Girl persona, Posey shines as an Upper West Side princess who, as the film puts it, “makes coffee nervous.” Priced at $65 million, the film cost more than the combined budgets of her entire resume up to that point.
“Being on set with Nora was kinda like a cocktail party without the cocktails—it’s still the best catering I’ve ever had on a film set,” Posey recalls. “She didn’t have a lot to say, which is why everyone really wanted to please her and try to make her laugh.”
Posey soon became the go-to actor for any Hollywood blockbuster looking to energize its ensemble. Blade: Trinity and Scream 3 are generally considered the weakest entries in their respective franchises, but even the most scathing reviews singled her out as a highlight. “Ms. Posey, a specialist at jittery self-absorption, is like an up-to-the-minute version of Carole Lombard,” wrote The New York Times of her performance in the latter. “She alone makes [Scream 3] worth seeing.” Filmed in the immediate aftermath of the Columbine school shooting, when conversations around violence in movies were at a fever pitch, Scream 3 underwent significant rewrites up to and during filming. “We all thought we were gonna be the killer at one point or another,” Posey recalls.
At one point the studio demanded that no blood appear in the film at all, but director Wes Craven threatened to walk. The resulting slasher is significantly less gory than the rest of the Scream films and much jokier, thanks in large part to Posey. Craven, familiar with her improvisational work on Christopher Guest films, pretty much gave her free rein to do whatever. As such, Posey’s character behaves as if she’s in her own much more glamorous movie even when she’s in the background of a scene. Posey’s smallest gestures—the way she frantically opens a flip-phone or smokes a cigarette—are among the film’s most amusing moments. “Wes let me do a lot of ridiculous, irreverent things,” she says. “I was playing an actress who wasn’t supposed to be grounded at all, so I wanted to play up those unhinged qualities.”
If indies like Broken English and Fay Grim gave Posey opportunities to show the breadth of her talents, she still remained something of an anomaly to Hollywood. She moved from the Lower East Side to Los Angeles for six months after the success of Scream 3, but found it ultimately didn’t help her career much. “I wasn’t really getting offered anything good,” Posey says of that early-00s period. “I would audition for all these great parts that ended up going to bigger names like Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock.” She asked her agents to put her up for more studio films as a way of supplementing her indie work, recalling a time when she asked her agent: “Can’t I just be Matt Damon’s ex-wife in two or three scenes of some action movie?”
“I would never get those either,” Posey laughs. “I asked what the feedback was and my agent told me, ‘They say you’re too indie.’”
She was also deemed “too indie” by the Broadway producers of The Realistic Joneses, a 2012 Yale Repertory Theater play in which she starred. When the production transferred to Broadway, Posey was replaced by Marisa Tomei. “It was not a very happy time,” she says with a sly smile. “But, hey, that’s how the industry works.”
Though Posey has hardly stopped working over the past two decades, popping up everywhere from Lost in Space to Search Party, the type of small-to-mid-budget films that she used to shoot back-to-back-to-back have become more of a rarity. And she has seen many of her friends and collaborators in the indie-sphere lose the momentum of their debuts. “Our culture likes to constantly discover the new,” she says, “I saw a lot of great artists struggle to get a second feature made and make the type of work they’re passionate about.”
That’s why filmmakers like Ari Aster are especially exciting to Posey. She first watched Hereditary on a flight and then immediately again as soon as she got home. Posey has never been a horror fan but was enraptured by the film’s depiction of grief as the most terrifying villain of all. “I was completely shaken,” she says. “Ari composes images and stories on the same level of a Stanley Kubrick.”
Beau is Afraid follows the titular Beau (Joaquin Phoenix), a paranoia-riddled man who embarks on a surreal journey home following the death of his mother (Patti LuPone). Posey plays his childhood crush, Elaine, who appears near the end of the film, when Beau arrives at his mother’s funeral. “Elaine is a woman that Beau has been in love with his entire life,” Aster says. “So she obviously had to be played by Parker Posey.”
Aster met with Posey over Zoom to discuss the film, and she agreed to do it before even reading the script. She was blown away by the scope of Aster’s vision once she did and was even more astonished that A24 was giving him the money to make it. “It’s like a three-hour amusement park ride through this man’s psyche,” Posey says. “It spoke to that same countercultural streak I had in high school when I first read philosophers like Camus and Kafka.”
Beau is Afraid culminates in a scene where Elaine finally reunites with Beau after his torturous journey. “That scene was always meant to feel like a dream because there’s something unreachable about Elaine,” Aster says, who cites it as his favorite moment in the film. “There’s something almost ghostly about their interaction, and so much of that is because of what Parker brings to it.” Without spoiling too much of the film, Elaine dies in the middle of their reunion—more specifically, while they are having passionately bizarre sex.
“It takes real guts to do what Parker does in the film,” Aster says. “I will love her forever for playing this character because she made it look easy, and I know it wasn’t.” Posey’s scenes for Beau required full-frontal nudity as well as a life cast mold of her entire body for when Elaine dies in a state of frozen ecstasy.
“I had my reservations about the part,” Posey laughs, “but ultimately I wanted to do [Beau] because it was so out there. It felt a little brave and outside my comfort zone.”
We say our goodbyes to Held and start making our way to the West Village, where Posey is meeting a friend for dinner. I offer to order us an Uber since Posey doesn’t really know how. “I’m such a luddite,” she laughs, adding that she can barely use a computer or read her own handwriting. Posey hasn’t posted on her Twitter and Instagram accounts in years and couldn’t even if she wanted to since she forgot the passwords. At a time when self-promotion has become a core element of the celebrity-industrial complex, there’s something refreshing about Posey’s clear disinterest in branding herself.
“People wanna be famous so badly now,” Posey says in the car on our way back to Manhattan. “It feels so different than when I was in my 20s and you would hear Meryl Streep talk about refusing to do magazine covers or sell jewels; it gave up a certain sense of mystique.”
As for what comes next, Posey’s slate is predictably full. She has a lead role in Amazon Prime’s upcoming TV reboot of Mr. and Mrs. Smith starring Donald Glover and Maya Erksine, as well as a revenge thriller about a 90-year-old grandmother played by June Squibb. She’s particularly excited about The Parenting, a horror-comedy about a gay couple who rent a countryside house for a weekend to introduce their parents, only to discover it’s haunted by a poltergeist. Posey plays a “kooky, witchy neighbor” in a stacked ensemble that includes Brian Cox and Lisa Kudrow, who Posey previously worked with in 1998’s Clockwatchers.
“Reuniting with Parker was the highlight for me,” Kudrow told Vogue. “She accesses a sort of rhythm in her performances that allow a character to somehow be both outrageous and human.” Kudrow gives her credit for building a sense of community on the set of The Parenting the same way she did on Clockwatchers. Posey even started a group text so the cast were all informed and invited whenever she was cooking meals or running to the store, or just going for a walk. “Parker is always ready to laugh and have a good time,” Kudrow says.
At this point in her career, having fun with her work is critical for Posey. “Patti LuPone is shooting a Marvel show [Agatha: Coven of Chaos] right now and seems like she’s having a blast,” Posey says of her Beau costar. She’s also not ruling out a potential return to the Scream franchise if directors Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin can find a way to resurrect her character, who dies in a seemingly definitive way at the end of Scream 3. (For their part, Gillett and Bettinelli-Olpin have stated that if they could bring back any legacy character, it would be Posey’s. Posey says she’d sign up for a sequel “in a heartbeat.”)
With A24 recently taking home best picture for Everything Everywhere All At Once and funding passion projects from filmmakers like Aster, Posey also hopes that independent filmmaking is slowly coming back in style. She’s encouraged by her conversations with friends and strangers who seem to be going to the movies again—and not just the slashers and superhero movies. Our car passes the IFC Center and I point out that the marquee is even advertising a Parker Posey double feature: the new 4K restorations of The Doom Generation and Party Girl.
“Well, would you look at that,” she says, lowering her fuschia-tinted sunglasses to look out the window. “Told you I was popular!”
Originally Appeared on Vogue