HOLLYWOOD - Parker Posey hears two voices. One tells her she's an established film presence. The other tells her she's still swimming upstream.
The voice of optimism reminds her that in her 10-year career she's played all manner of provocatively unhinged women in more than three dozen films, most notably a seductive Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis fanatic (The House of Yes), a sadistic cheerleader (Dazed and Confused), a manic show-dog owner (Best in Show), an aimless Dairy Queen attendant (Waiting for Guffman), an unfaithful Manhattan book editor (Personal Velocity) and a fish-out-of-water librarian (Party Girl).
The voice of reproach reminds her that most of these parts were in movies most people never saw - some classy indie flicks, certainly, but small change by Hollywood standards.
The voice of optimism reminds her that a cult of hip directors, critics and fans routinely swoons over her range, her comedic timing and the way her characters seem to lack a censoring device so that earnest, often delightfully inappropriate language erupts from them like hard beads of lava.
"The wonderful thing about Parker is, she is able to play two or even sometimes three contradictory emotions at the same time," says Personal Velocity writer-director Rebecca Miller, who needed Posey to be torn between elation and anxiety.
The voice of reproach reminds Posey that if all that were true, Something Big - a meaty mainstream role - should have happened to her by now.
It's not that she loses a lot of sleep over this. She's confident of her skills. "I get myself more than I ever have," she says. It's that, in her journey from acting school to a TV soap to low-budget-film icon, she has almost always chosen art over fame. And she's at an age, 34, where you involuntarily evaluate your choices.
On a recent visit from Manhattan to perform with fellow cast members of the folk-music satire A Mighty Wind, Posey was waiting to order lunch. She'd just gotten that ever-elusive meaty part in a mainstream movie. "Thank God, praise the Lord!" She has been cast in Laws of Attraction, a comedy starring Julianne Moore and Pierce Brosnan as rival divorce lawyers. She'll play a high-strung fashion designer divorcing a rock-star husband, a part she views as rich with histrionic potential. ("I'll be approaching it like a drama. Hopefully you'll laugh.")
Posey has lost out on Hollywood parts before, her vaunted edginess working against her, and she had to lobby for this one, arguing that she could play a character significantly younger than the 41-year-old Moore.
Perhaps at last her talent for playing larger-than-life characters with no trace of irony will be "discovered" by millions of less adventurous moviegoers more partial to Brosnan's James Bond fare.
It is what one film critic called Posey's ability to appear slightly but intriguingly disassociated from her character that seems to make her an awkward fit for big Hollywood productions, which often demand more simplicity. Great things were predicted when Posey won a special jury award at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997 for The House of Yes and two of her other films were screened there that same year.
But after appearing in about 30 films from 1993 to 1998, her appearances dwindled. As more studios tried to appropriate "indie" sensibilities, there were fewer quality low-budget films to choose from - and no rush by the studios to grab Posey, or at least the most interesting part of her. Instead she got small parts in such flicks as You've Got Mail, Scream 3 and Josie and the Pussycats.
Her lack of mainstream success (even the fact that she still lives in the same Chelsea apartment she occupied near the beginning of her career) has stoked her following as "Indie Queen."
A stranger expecting the stream-of-consciousness patter he has seen on screen would be disappointed. Posey's sentences can come at you hesitantly, separated by long pauses, taking their sweet time to gel into complete thoughts - until the subject changes from fame to craft.
Ask her, for example, about her uncharacteristically controlled role as a grim prosecutor in The Event, Canadian director Thom Fitzgerald's ensemble drama about AIDS and assisted suicide, due for release in September. Now the words rush out as she explains the emotional architecture of her character, Nicole, who is determined to file charges against a group of people who threw a party to facilitate and celebrate the death of an AIDS patient.
"She still lives at home. She was never loved. She's still waiting for her mom to be a mother. And she has no regard for other people's emotional lives or situations. ... There are, like, layers of cloud between her and other people, so much pain. That kind of person who's asleep. The prospect of playing someone who really doesn't love herself and doesn't know how to communicate was interesting to me."
Posey plans to move out of her Chelsea apartment into more fashionable digs this year. She has her own projects she'd like to produce and act in. Her confidence was boosted by three nominations last year - an Independent Spirit (best actress for Personal Velocity), a Golden Globe (best supporting actress for TV's Hell on Heels: The Battle of Mary Kay) and a Lortel Award for off-Broadway (best lead actress in Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July, a play about a reunion of '60s radicals).
"I'm struggling, but I'm not drowning," she says. She tries to tell herself, "`Parker, look behind you, look what's happened to you, look how far you've come.' I'm still working, I'm still searching, I'm still finding that edge."
Bob Baker writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.