Actress Christine Lahti plays Felicia Petunia, the matriarch of a dysfunctional family in the comedy-drama “Petunia.” Stuck in an empty marriage, she tries Botox and other things to feel desirable. An empty nester, she meddles in her adult kids’ relationships —one of whom is newly married, one of whom is gay, and the third is a sex addict. “Petunia” screens at QFest July 17, 5:00 at the Ritz East
What appealed to you about playing Felicia? How did you identify with her?
[Laughs] That I am nothing like her. I can relate to a helicopter mom. I don’t think I do that, but my kids are grown. I’m not offered this kind of role — one that is so “out there” — and at this stage, I love taking chances and doing a role like this.
Playing Felicia allows you to do both broad comedy and deliver some very stinging one-liners. How did you calibrate your performance?
It’s always a delicate balance to do broad comedy to keep it rooted in reality. It’s high stakes. I thought about Felicia in terms of her objective: she’s desperate for love, so she goes to desperate measures — Botox, nightclubbing —and fails miserably. She feels invisible, worthless, and in a loveless marriage. She thinks if she tries to control her kids, maybe she’ll get love back.
There’s a scene where Felicia says some pretty awkward stuff to her son’s girlfriend. And she behaves pretty badly when she tells her son’s boyfriend to “aggressively seduce” her abstinent son. These scenes are either funny or cringe-inducing for viewers. How do you play that?
She’s clearly inappropriate. You can take it that she’s being mean, but she’s really trying to find a partner for all her sons. She’s trying to control it all.
I hope she’s likable. She was three dimensional, and that’s why I was attracted to the part — that she wasn’t a two-dimensional, judgmental bitch. [But] the audience understands why she behaves the way she does. As controlling as misbehaving as she is, she has a big heart and wants her kids to be happy.
What did you learn about family and love from making “Petunia?”
I always question how I relate to my kids and husband. My younger kids are at that wonderful/confusing time where they are becoming independent, and I’m trying to let them go. I do things for them that I probably shouldn’t. One of the most extraordinary things in my life is witnessing my children blossom and become their own person. Much as I want to keep them under my wing. Felicity went way overboard to keep her kids dependent because her own life was so empty. She thinks, if I can keep my kids needy, I’ll feel some worth in my life. I don’t feel that personally but I can understand that.
So, have you ever tried destructive therapy, Botox, or ecstasy as Felicia does?
[Laughs]. I am never going to tell you! They all sounds interesting, don’t they?