As two-time Tony nominee Lois Smith sips a coffee on the Upper West Side, not far from her apartment, she continues to contemplate a question she’s been asked repeatedly while doing interviews for the film adaptation of Marjorie Prime: If the technology were available, would she want a Prime?
In the film based on Jordan Harrison’s 2014 play, Smith plays Marjorie, a woman in her 80s who seeks comfort in utilizing a Prime—a holographic representation—of her late husband (Jon Hamm). The Prime is programmed to take in and rehash memories fed to it (however precise). To date, Smith has now inhabited the character in three incarnations: world premiere, Off-Broadway, and film.
“That’s something that had never occurred to me until after the play, and then after the film,” Smith says of the prospect. “People started asking that question, and it startled me. It hadn’t occurred to me as a personal question.”
Perhaps that’s because Smith has lived with the idea throughout years of playing Marjorie onstage and screen. Instead of exploring the fantasy for herself, she’s explored a character who’s already made the decision to live with this technology. She’s also seen the other side, as Marjorie appears as a Prime version of herself for her daughter Tess (Geena Davis on screen).
“Isn’t that interesting?” Smith asks. “Maybe that satisfied the urge. It was always a fascinating subject to all of the actors involved in it.” After a six-decade career on screen, Smith confidently says playing both a character and a digital representation of said character is “like nothing else.”
Smith then volleys the question across the table, back to me: “Tell me about you. Would you want a Prime?”
Admittedly, it’s much harder to answer than it is to ask. Throughout the film and play, Primes are used as a form of technology-advanced therapy; a Prime will engage with what you or anyone else discloses to it and nothing more. It can be a scrapbook of sorts, an evolution of social media, allowing you to curate your memories as you would like to have them remembered. But should one aim for objectivity, or are some memories not worth storing?
At 87 (celebrating the recent birthday by joining Twitter), Smith needs no help recalling memories on her own: starring in The Trip to Bountiful Off-Broadway in 2005 (“It was revelatory—I do believe it was extraordinary”); reading Marjorie Prime for the first time (“I don’t know if I’ve been excited about a new play…from the minute I turned the first page”); navigating the Sundance Film Festival press junket mid-blizzard (“It was relentless”). She also remembers rehearsals for Playwrights Horizons’ 2015 Off-Broadway production of Marjorie Prime, which began the morning after she wrapped shooting for the film adaptation, which was released last month.
“There’s a funny story,” Smith says. “One day in rehearsal, Jordan said, ‘How strange for you working with four different directors.’ I said, ‘Oh, Jordan, I think it’s three.’ And he said, ‘I’m counting Pam.’” (Smith was involved in the show’s earliest readings led by director Pam MacKinnon prior to the Les Waters-helmed Center Theatre Group 2014 premiere, Michael Almereyda’s 2017 film shot in 2015, and Anne Kauffman’s New York 2015 staging.)
“There were occasions when it was bumpy,” she admits, pondering the artistic regime change she’s witnessed with the piece. “I was always more familiar with it than anybody else—except Jordan—as we went through this process.” Almereyda, a longtime friend of Smith’s, caught her in the Center Theatre Group production, and Smith notes he “basically really liked what he saw; I don’t think he was interested in having me do anything different.”
At no point did Smith refer to her work as an actor in Marjorie Prime as “challenging” (opting instead for “unique” or “fascinating”), but she does not shy away from discussing the trials of the events surrounding her performance process. Between traveling to promote both Marjorie Prime and Lady Bird (in which she plays a Catholic school principal) and balancing her personal life, Smith reached a point where she felt overwhelmed.
“I remember saying one day to my daughter as things would crowd together at once, ‘I just feel I can’t do this.’ But then I did it. That was a lesson for me,” she says. “I really thought I was beyond what I could actually do, but I did it. It gave me the confidence that as crazy as these weeks have become, it’s not forever.”
One thing that keeps her going is the continued gift of roles she finds enthralling: “I know that the common wisdom is that as you get older, you get less parts—and even less good ones—but I haven’t had that experience.” In fact, if the Oscar buzz she has earned for Marjorie Prime leads to a nomination, she’ll tie with Gloria Stuart as the oldest performer nominated for an Academy Award. But even without awards chatter, Smith says, “Working is something I like.”
And work she has. The American Cinematheque in Santa Monica recently celebrated her 60-year screen career with a film retrospective, featuring a series of double features the included a bookend showing of 1955’s East of Eden (her first film) and Marjorie Prime. Just as a Prime would, the films have helped preserve the memories of the work she enjoys so much.
“That was certainly a jogging of memory. It’s not as if I could have forgotten about them, though.”