Parker Posey simply has one of the best names in Hollywood. Not only does its alliterative nature give it a great ring to it, when you see her attached to a project you cannot help but be intrigued about what she will bring to the role. The actress made a name for herself early in her career as the queen of indie film with roles like Dazed and Confused, Party Girl, and The House of Yes.
As her filmography proves, that was only the beginning. Posey extended that success into a lengthy filmography of work as eclectic and unpredictable as the actress herself. She’s crossed genres on television and film projects, big and small. Scream 3, Lost In Space, Search Party, The Good Wife are just a sample of her range of performances. You never know where she will pop up next.
Currently, Posey is starring in the HBO Max crime thriller, The Staircase. The series, based on the highly publicized case of Michael Peterson (Colin Firth), a well-respected man accused of pushing his wife, Kathleen (Toni Collette), to her death down a flight of stairs in their home. It is a grim yet fascinating series that keeps you wondering right to the very end (and beyond) about what truly happened on that fateful night. Posey plays real-life prosecutor Freda Black, a lawyer with a flair for pageantry, who is tasked with searching for a way to put Peterson behind bars. She faces off in court against renowned defense attorney, David Rudlof, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, who fights just as passionately to keep him a free man.
Posey discussed taking on the role, “It really just feels like roulette. I just feel like I’m right for certain kinds of roles. And when I am asked to play them, they are a certain size, they’re dark, they’re funny, they’re outsiders. So it’s those kinds of parts. I don’t think you really, or at least from me, can have control over it.”
She may not have total control of where the roulette ball lands, but she has never been a passive participant in her career direction either. Taking risks has led to some of her most beloved roles, including working with Christopher Guest in four of his much lauded mock-documentary style films, including, Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman. The opportunity to work with Guest came to her in the most unlikely of ways, via Coneheads – a role that she also landed by actively tweaking fate.
“I met Christopher Guest, because I convinced Lorne Michaels that Connie Conehead needed friends in The Coneheads. And, so when Karen Murphy (Christopher Guest’s producing partner) called Lorne Michaels and said, ‘Hey, Chris is looking for an actress who can play high school and can improvise. He said, ‘Well, why don’t you try Parker Posey?,’” explained Posey.
Posey’s participation in The Staircase came after a patient wait and some good timing. After meeting The Staircase creator Antonio Campos at a screening of his film in New York around 2009, they quickly became friends and had hoped to work together. The opportunity never arose. Years later, when Campos approached her about The Staircase, Parker, a big fan of documentaries, jumped at the chance to work with him.
Parker recalled, “Antonio said, ‘I’ve been approached to make the documentary The Staircase into a movie, have you seen it?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, my God. Yes. And I’m obsessed. I love it.’ You know, I think I watched it twice when I first saw it. So I love long form documentaries.”
“This one was just so compelling, The Staircase, because it had the crime element. I just feel like for me after having done some many independent movies in the 90s it felt like my old way of working – just socializing with directors who live in New York and getting a job. It felt organic in that way. I really feel blessed by that. Lucky.”
Researching Freda Black was an important part of the process for Parker. “I watched a lot of Court TV, I watched a lot of interviews, I read that book “Written In Blood” (by Diane Fanning), I would listen to podcasts and tried to bring as much material to Freda that I could,” said Posey. “Antonio was great just nurturing the story and constantly talking about these characters. The cast would get together on Saturday nights. Not only was he directing every day of the week, but he was making these delicious meals, like putting something in the oven on Friday night so he can have us all over to hang out on Saturday. I think the actors just honed in.”
Since Black passed away in 2018, Posey reached out to someone who knew her best for a look inside who Freda was. “I talked to her best friend Candy, who worked with her at the DA’s office. And Candy just wondered if Freda, who was given a boy’s name with an ‘a’ on the end. Her dad was a legislator, her mom was a principal at high school. I think she had a lot of really high expectations of herself. ”
Once on the courtroom floor, that’s where Freda prospered, explained Parker. “I think she was made to do this kind of work. Candy said she was most comfortable in her work – everyone respected her and what she did. She was a shark. But outside of that she had low self esteem.” She continued, “These people are on fire, they have lots of energy, they have a certain kind of brain, they’re really smart, they can compartmentalize, and they have this ferocity.”
The time of the Peterson case was very different than today. Posey reflected on the prosecutor’s approach, “Freda’s strategy in how she approached winning this case was really bold. She appealed to the bigotry of the jurors, and she paid a really big cost for that. I think one of the things that this series does is show how far we’ve come in terms of the fluidity of people’s sexuality. It makes that time in the 90s seem so conservative. I was so crushed by how there’s so much misogyny in this.”
“She laid it on a bit thick,” Candy told Parker. “She knew it, it was a performance. And she’s kind of at the pulpit, right? If you watch her closing argument on Court TV – this is a one woman show. This is a performance – a monologue. She did her homework. She was heavy hitting and bold and to appeal to their contract of marriage, right? And not just, it wasn’t like he cheated… it was with another man. And there’s still a lot of homophobia.”
As seen in the series, the trial did not leave Black unscathed, her strategy took a toll on her explained, Posey. “She was so bold and then because it was televised, and not just on Court TV but also in this documentary, I think the framing of it, the thick of the case got the best of her. It was the longest court case in Durham. This case was something that cost a lot in her life.”
For more insight into the case, be sure to check out my interview with Michael Stuhlbarg (who plays defense attorney David Rudolf) as well as stars, Colin Firth and Toni Collette. The Staircase is streaming in its entirety on HBO Max.