HBO Max’s “The Staircase,” which concluded Thursday, has its share of revelations for longtime followers of the true crime case. But even for viewers who watched every bit of the 2004 docuseries, one special line from the dramatized version undeniably stands out. It’s Parker Posey, playing Durham, N.C. prosecutor Freda Black, quoting a line from accused killer, Michael Peterson: “I was in the Marines, like to fuck, suck and rim.”
Although Posey grew up in Louisiana and Mississippi, her flawless execution of Black’s Southern drawl (most notable in the delivery of the line “pure-T filth”), was close to effortless — but not quite. There was a phrase she repeated to herself each day on set before the cameras started rolling.
“What would bring me into her voice was: ‘gay military men,’” Posey told Variety, perfectly re-creating her character’s delivery from the show.
Posey is perhaps best known for her rolodex of performances in Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries — including “Waiting for Guffman,” which is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary — but none of those, nor any of her other performances, were cut from the same Southern cloth as Posey herself. She said the experience of playing Black was both a homecoming for her, as well as a distinct honor, as the late prosecutor is one of the only real-life people she’s portrayed in her work. Black died in July 2018 of liver disease as a result of chronic alcoholism.
“I am happy that it’s getting a good response, because playing a real person and hearing about her life, you just automatically have empathy,” Posey said. “That she had died, you know, it was dark. I felt a lot for her, burning bright and then just kind of crashing.”
The real Black stood out to viewers for her eccentricities: She dressed glamorously, in bright colors and never without a bold eyeshadow, and her prosecutorial style was theatrical. But Posey, who used to watch Court TV “in the night like a valium drip,” said the last thing she wanted was for those features to overshadow the depth she saw in Black and the weight of her job.
“I didn’t want her to be just such a caricature or every time she comes on, like, oh, what kind of funny, campy things she can say,” Posey said. “What does that do to a person, to be a part of so much domestic violence? What I like about Freda is that she’s adored at the DA’s office. They think she’s pretty wild, but they respect her and they respect what she does.”
In a lineup of A-list actors who have garnered praise for their uncanny portrayals of the show’s real-life characters (including Colin Firth as defendant Michael Peterson, Toni Collette as his late wife Kathleen and Odessa Young as their adopted daughter Martha), Posey truly seemed destined for the role, and their physical similarities are undeniable. Although Posey said she was concerned about their height difference — Posey is shorter than Black — she studied videos of Black to learn her mannerisms, and spent a significant amount of time speaking to the people who knew her best.
It was a fine line for Posey, who learned about the softness of Black. “She was more on the sensitive side of playing piano at the Unitarian Church and singing — she had this beautiful voice,” Posey said, and Black would make banana bread for her coworkers. But she also knew the darkness of Black’s job and personal life. She’s shown spiking her coffee with liquor during late nights working on the case, and, although she was theatrical, her arguments during the trial often revolved around homophobic characterizations of Peterson’s extramarital affairs with men.
“What I brought to it was knowing she was a woman who had seen a lot already. She worked in domestic violence. She had seen a lot of men abuse women. So, you know, this was just another another man doing the same in this way, and lying about it,” Posey said. “She would get in her regalia like she was going to a Christmas party, so just the clothing alone and how she presented herself was so strong … in the script, they described her as like a hawk.”
For someone who was coined the “indie queen” in the ‘90s for her work on a steady stream of now-classic films, including the Guest movies, “Clockwatchers” (also with Colette), “Coneheads,” Nora Ephron’s “You’ve Got Mail” and Richard Linklater’s “Suburbia,” Posey has since found a home in the world of television.
It’s no surprise, since she’s cited some advice actor James Spader gave her on the set of “Boston Legal” in the early aughts: “He looked at me and he said, ‘All the character work is in television. That’s where you’ll find the great characters,’” Posey told the L.A. Times in 2011.
In addition to “The Staircase,” Posey will appear on “Tales of the Walking Dead” later this year, and she gained a whole new fanbase for her role on Netflix’s “Lost in Space,” a reboot of the 1965 sci-fi series that ended in 2021.
“I’m always happy when I can fit into something that it seems like only I can fit into — that has been part of it,” Posey said of her TV work. “I think — with more screens and more writing — that a branching out is starting to happen, and that feels great. I was so happy to land a spot in ‘Lost in Space,’ and that was even more meaningful for me because I loved the show so much as a kid. So I’m not complaining at all.”
“All actors have their own path, whether it spirals or zigzags or flies in the air and crashes down numerous times,” Posey continued. “And now, I’m just like, wow: It really is coming full circle for right now, at this time. So that just feels soulful for me.”