A Hologram Husband Keeps Lois Smith Company In 'Marjorie Prime'

Aug 19, 2017

Marjorie Prime is a science fiction film — sort of. It opens with an elderly woman, played by Lois Smith, who is getting to know the lifelike hologram of her late husband, played by Jon Hamm. It's a low-key but highly intense drama that asks: If holograms can learn, carry memory and form personality, are they creations or are they us?

Smith has been acting for more than 60 years, and she's earned rave reviews for her performance in Marjorie Prime. Her credits include East of Eden (1955), Five Easy Pieces (1970), Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) and, more recently, a heartbreaking scene in FX's The Americans.

At 86, Smith still has plenty of work to keep her busy, including two upcoming theater projects. How does she explain her continued success? "I'm very lucky," she says.


Interview Highlights

On how Marjorie Prime differs from the original play by Jordan Harrison, which Smith also acted in

There's always differences in a film. It certainly is based on the play and clearly so, and very much the same, but also very different. One time, [director Michael Almereyda] ... said, "I only added three things: flashbacks, cigarettes and the ocean." It's not quite so — some added characters have come into it. And, yes, the ocean is definitely a character. In the play, I, playing Marjorie, spent almost all of my time in a recliner. Now, that's not so and I am on the beach and on the porch and in various rooms. So that's very different.

On what it was like to work in television in the 1950s

When I started, I came to New York and there were lots of television shows in New York and there were plays all the time. There must have been, I would say, easily eight or 10 every week done on television. And also, when I first was doing television in New York, it was still live. Before too long they were beginning to tape them.

But my first television show was an adaptation of The Apple Tree [by John Galsworthy ]. And I remember also that the equipment was so much different. There were four heavy, big people shoving these great things around the studio floor, and they had enormous cables behind them which could not cross. So the choreography of the cameras was as important as the choreography of the actors. We, for instance, would be changing clothes as we dashed across the studio into the next set, but the camera had to be choreographed so that nobody crossed the other guys' cables.

On whether the physical demands of acting have become more of a challenge as she gets older

Well, let's see. I'm very fortunate to be healthy and mobile, but I'm not as strong and I'm not as flexible physically as I used to be. I don't tend to have trouble with stamina, long days of rehearsing, shooting, playing etc.

On her partner dying of cancer while she was in a stage production of Marjorie Prime

I lost my dear companion, David Margulies, actually just in the course of all of this, during actually the Playwrights Horizons performance of Marjorie. ... Part of this whole amazing time, when I was probably busier at things I loved maybe than I'd ever been all at one time — this is in the last year and a half to two years ago — and at that very time, this amazing awful life event was going on as well. So that's all wrapped up together. And I'm — well, here I am, thank God.

Sarah Handel and Peter Breslow produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Marjorie Prime" is a science fiction film, sort of, but without explosions, laser weapons or fire-breathing robots and mythical creatures. As the film opens, Lois Smith plays an elderly woman who's getting to know the lifelike hologram of her late husband played by Jon Hamm.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARJORIE PRIME")

JON HAMM: (As Walter) I could tell you a story. You liked that the last time.

LOIS SMITH: (As Marjorie) I'll have to take your word for it.

HAMM: (As Walter) I could tell you about the time we saw a movie.

SMITH: (As Marjorie) We went to a lot of movies.

HAMM: (As Walter) But one time, we saw "My Best Friend's Wedding."

SMITH: (As Marjorie) "My Best Friend's Wedding"?

HAMM: (As Walter) There was a woman, Julia Roberts...

SIMON: Geena Davis and Tim Robbins also star in this low-key but highly intense drama that asks - if holograms could carry memory, learn and form personality, are they creations, or are they us? The film is earning raves, too, for the performance of Lois Smith, who's been a star for more than 60 years, including the films "East Of Eden," "Five Easy Pieces" and on Broadway in "The Glass Menagerie" and "The Iceman Cometh" and in the days of live drama on TV. She joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

SMITH: My pleasure.

SIMON: You played this role onstage a couple time, too. Didn't you?

SMITH: I did, yes. Once before we shot the film and once just after.

SIMON: Yeah, Jordan Harrison's play. What differences are there between what we might have seen onstage and in the film? Or are there?

SMITH: Oh, there are, indeed. There's always differences in a film. It certainly is based on the play and clearly so and very much the same but also very different. (Laughter) One time, Michael said - I heard him say there...

SIMON: This is the director, Michael Almereyda, yeah.

SMITH: The director Michael Almereyda, who did the adaptation and directed it. And he said, I only added three things - flashbacks, cigarettes and the ocean.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: It's not quite so. Some added characters have come into it. And yes, the ocean is definitely a character. In the play, I, playing Marjorie, spent almost all of my time in a recliner. Now that's not so. And I am on the beach and on the porch and in various rooms, and so that's very different and a lot of fun.

SIMON: You were part of the golden age of television, as it's still called.

SMITH: (Laughter) You know, when I started, I came to New York. And there were lots of television shows in New York. And there were plays all the time. There must have been, I would say, easily eight or 10 every week...

SIMON: Yeah.

SMITH: ...Done on television. And also when I first was doing television in New York, it was still live. Before too long, they were beginning to tape them.

SIMON: Yeah.

SMITH: But my first television show was an adaptation of "The Apple Tree." And I remember also that the equipment was so much different.

SIMON: Heavy.

SMITH: There were four heavy, big people shoving these great things around the studio floor. And they had enormous cables behind them, which could not cross. So the choreography of the cameras was as important as the choreography of the actors. We, for instance, would be changing clothes as we dashed across the studio into the next set. But the camera had to be choreographed so that nobody crossed the other guy's cables.

SIMON: Sounds like a lot of fun.

SMITH: Lot of fun.

SIMON: Yeah.

I have to ask you about "The Americans." We have a clip. I'll set it up without giving anything away 'cause nowadays people watch everything out of sequence and in sequence.

SMITH: (Laughter).

SIMON: But this is an elderly woman who's about to be killed by Keri Russell playing a Soviet agent. Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE AMERICANS")

SMITH: (As Betty Turner) You think doing this to me will make the world a better place.

KERI RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth Jennings) I'm sorry, but it will.

SMITH: (As Betty Turner) 'Cause that's what evil people tell themselves when they do evil things.

SIMON: I turned to my wife when we saw that, and I said, that's one of the most astonishing bits of acting I've ever seen in my life.

SMITH: Oh, thank you. It was a wonderful scene. And of course, you were playing very nearly the very end of it. And of course at the beginning, I am quite hale and hearty, and there is no knowledge about what's coming.

SIMON: Yeah.

May I ask - do the physical demands of acting get harder as you grow older?

SMITH: Well, let's see. I'm very fortunate to be healthy and mobile. But I'm not as strong, and I'm not as flexible, physically, as I used to be. I don't tend to have trouble with stamina, long days of rehearsing, shooting, playing, etc.

SIMON: What about memorizing lines?

SMITH: No, that's OK. I'm not - I'm like...

SIMON: God bless, Lois Smith. That's wonderful.

SMITH: Yeah. God bless me. You know that the "Americans" scene you're talking about...

SIMON: Yeah?

SMITH: ...Was a very long scene, and I did almost all the talking.

SIMON: When people see "Marjorie Prime," what would you like them to think about Marjorie?

SMITH: The writing is so precise and specific and human. It's a play about family and memory. Yeah.

SIMON: Do you have friends you miss?

SMITH: Oh, my dear, of course.

SIMON: Yeah.

SMITH: Yes, I do. I lost my dear companion, David Margulies, actually just in the course of all of this.

SIMON: I'm sorry.

SMITH: Yes, thank you. That's - it's very much, in my life, part of this whole amazing time when I was probably busier at things I loved maybe than I'd ever been all at one time. This is in the last a year and a half to two years ago.

SIMON: Yeah.

SMITH: And at that very time, this amazing, awful life event was going on as well. So that's all wrapped up together. And I'm - well, here I am, thank God.

SIMON: Lois Smith - her new film with Jon Hamm, Geena Davis and Tim Robbins is "Marjorie Prime." Thanks so much for being with us.

SMITH: Thank you. I love it.

(SOUNDBITE OF JORDAN GAGNE'S "MISTAKES MADE CAREFULLY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.