Entertainment

With ‘Lost in Space,’ Parker Posey Finds an Unlikely Home in Serial TV

Posted April 16, 2018 1:24 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — It seemed only right that, at a certain point in an unpredictable conversation with Parker Posey, the topic of true evil in the universe would arise.

Posey was talking about her portrayal of the devious Dr. Smith in a new Netflix reboot of “Lost in Space” — a rare television role on a resume full of quirky indie-film protagonists, and the first honest-to-badness villain she has played in some time.

“Can she just not help herself?” she wondered aloud in her ethereal voice. “Am I going to save the world? Am I going to destroy it?” She concluded that her Dr. Smith was the “dark Medusa force” of the resuscitated “Lost in Space” show.

“She can go under and take everyone with her,” Posey said. “But she also has the strength to save herself and others.”

More than 25 years into an ever-changing acting career, Posey, 49, continues to embody the irrepressible energy she has brought to films like “Dazed and Confused,” “Waiting For Guffman” and “Party Girl.”

She unapologetically wears oversized, Elaine Stritch-style eyeglasses and carries Tic Tacs in a dispenser the shape and size of a giant Tic Tac. She shares her West Village apartment with Gracie, her 14-year-old bichon frise-poodle-Maltese mix; her friends are fellow artists — actors, comedians, directors — and her tastes are eclectic. Her idea of a good movie, she said, would be something from “the Estonian film festival I saw 10 years ago.”

Like her best-known characters, Posey carries herself with a blithe spirit that conceals a cutting sense of humor. She spent a walk through her neighborhood on the lookout for starlings and blue jays, and when asked for the address of a restaurant she recommended, she answered: “I’m not going to tell you. I’m a practicing psychic and I want to see if you can read my mind.”

For Posey, playing Dr. Smith is an opportunity to cavort among the stars on a big-budget series and to put her unique stamp on a beloved cult-TV character.

But it’s also an acknowledgment of how challenging it has become, even for an actor of Posey’s stature, to make a living solely from small prestigious films in today’s industry.

“I was so happy to find a place within the show at this time,” she said. “I was absolutely, wholeheartedly relieved. Because I really had not felt that I had a place. I know it doesn’t look like that from the outside.”

The original “Lost in Space,” which ran on CBS from 1965 to 1968, followed the interplanetary adventures of the Robinson family. On that series, Dr. Smith, as played by Jonathan Harris, was a conniving and campy foil who bickered with the family’s robot and spouted alliterative insults.

Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, the producers who developed the Netflix reboot, which began streaming Friday, said they did not want to copy or caricature what Harris did with the role.

Sazama and Sharpless reconceived the character, changing Dr. Smith’s gender and making her a low-level criminal on Earth, who steals her own sister’s identity — and later a doctor’s title and uniform — so she can reinvent her life in another star system.

Imagining their Dr. Smith as a 21st-century upgrade of the nefarious title character from “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Sharpless said this approach was possible only because of Posey’s blend of comedic and dramatic talents. “It wasn’t like we had the Dr. Smith you see on screen and then just went out and got Parker,” Sharpless said. “Parker allowed the Dr. Smith that you’re seeing to exist. She expanded the genre of the show.”

Posey has been a fan of “Lost in Space” since watching reruns during her childhood in Louisiana, “getting up at 5:30 in the morning to watch the static turn to color when the show came on at 6.”

She described her Dr. Smith as “a chameleon” who “survives by her wits,” which is not too different from how she has come to see herself.

During the last decade, Posey said, she has experienced a steep decline in the kinds of acting opportunities that best suit her. “I was like, I need to do something else — I need to express myself in a different way,” she said.

“When reality TV showed up, it was like, OK, that’s it — game over, character actors, bye,” she said. “There are so many big chunks that are gone from the culture. It wouldn’t be that much of a turn to say, you know what? I’m going to become a landscaper.”

Over the years, Posey has occasionally dabbled in television, on shows like “The Good Wife” and “Search Party.” She said she felt left behind by the explosion of serialized genre shows — like “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead” — that she does not believe she would fit into and does not watch. (Even the Netflix sci-fi anthology “Black Mirror,” she said, is off the table: “I hear it’s really good, but I don’t want to watch it alone,” she explained. “I’m scared to.”)

Yet each time she’d speak to a friend or peer who was happily thriving in a genre TV role, she remained hopeful that an appropriate role would come her way.

Recalling a conversation she had had with Denis O’Hare, who was then playing a malevolent vampire on HBO’s “True Blood,” Posey said he told her, “It’s like Shakespeare — you get to be really epic in your emotions.”

Much to her satisfaction, “Lost in Space” has allowed Posey to perform her own Shakespearean pastiches, like a soliloquy addressed to the decapitated head of a robot. And it has let her share scenes with actors like Selma Blair (“Cruel Intentions,” “Legally Blonde”), a guest star who plays Dr. Smith’s wealthy, disapproving sister.

Describing a scene that required her to pass out (under the influence of drugs that Posey’s character had surreptitiously slipped her), Blair said: “I decided I was really going to milk it. And Parker was laughing, like, ‘I feel like you’re on an episode of ‘Columbo.’ You really love acting, don’t you?’ Coming from Parker, it wasn’t an insult.”

Blair said it was a positive development that Posey had finally made the crossover to serialized television.

“She should be a big-deal, household name,” Blair said. If TV hadn’t snapped Posey up already, she said it was because past series “might not be the best fit for people who have a real gravity and an eccentricity.” But now, Blair said, “They’re making such great shows for people like her, and hopefully one day for people like me.” Even with a busier acting schedule, Posey is continuing to expand into other forms of media. She is finishing her first book, called “You’re on an Airplane: A Self-Mythologizing Memoir,” that will be published in July. (The title, she explained, was intended to evoke a conversation she might have with a fellow passenger on a plane “that is a little bit tell-all and a little bit, I’ll never see you again.”)

She said the thought of sharing herself with an audience this way was intimidating. “No one likes an actress who writes books,” she said, half-joking and half-sincere. “It’s true. I’ve lost friends, I know.”

Posey said she was trying to leave herself open to whatever future possibilities might await her after “Lost in Space.” “I will feel the reverberations for a while, I imagine, and then hopefully I’ll be able to relax,” she said. “And then, Season 2 will begin.”