It’s been nearly five years since acting veteran Lois Smith (who made her Broadway debut in 1952 followed by TV and film debuts in 1953 and 1955, respectively) first fell in love with playwright Jordan Harrison’s “Majorie Prime.” “I don’t know if I’ve ever been so excited at first reading a new play,” she recalls. Since then, the 86-year-old talent originated the stage production at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and then at Playwrights Horizons in New York City. Between the two runs, she joined filmmaker Michael Almereyda and co-stars Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, and Tim Robbins to adapt the sci-fi family drama for the screen.
Now in select theaters, “Marjorie Prime” takes place in a near future where artificially intelligent, holographic recreations of one’s deceased family and friends can keep them company in loneliness and old age. Lois plays the dementia-ridden Marjorie, who has her husband, Walter (played by Hamm), recreated as one such Prime.
Smith phoned Backstage prior to the film’s premiere to discuss her decades-spanning career, audition preparation (she still auditions!), and her advice for making an acting career last in the theater.
You’ve been attached to “Marjorie Prime” since the beginning of its stage run. How is it that this project first came to you?
When Jordan finished this play, [theater director] Pam McKinnon sent it to me at his behest. Apparently by the time he finished the play, he was thinking about me for it. So she gave it to me, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been so excited at first reading a new play. I really loved it…. We filmed it just before the Playwrights stage production, so it has been indeed a unique and remarkable trip for me.
What was it that made you want to get involved?
Jordan’s writing is very beautiful, and I was very taken with it right away. It’s just full of surprise, and that’s something that I really like in the theater, whether I’m watching it or in it. And it just seems such a smart play and so personal and human-oriented. I just loved it, and I’ve come to love it more.
What advice do you have for making a career last on the stage? I’m sure it’s a different beast than film and TV.
Well, I began on the stage and trained for the stage—because it was so many years ago, I think pretty much all training actors did. I first came to New York as a very young adult in the ’50s, and I was fortunate: I got a job in the theater quickly and within a couple of years, I was working on television. There were a lot of television plays then, something hard to believe these days, probably to you. And then I made my first film also in that first couple of years. So I had the great good luck of being able to work in all three mediums. I say particularly good luck because I think that it’s all but impossible to make a living just in theater; at least nowadays it seems to be. I mean, there may be an occasional place with a continuing company where people can still do that, but this country is not friendly towards theater as a place to make a living. So most actors, you’re either working in the mediums that pay a little more, sometimes a lot more, or supplement their income in some non-theatrical way. I’ve always felt extremely lucky to be able to make my living as an actor.
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Considering this film tackles age and memory in such an interesting way, if you were to give advice to your younger self, what would it be?
That’s such a strange idea, what you propose, since of course, it’s almost like something out of the play and out of the film. One doesn’t know; that’s part of being young and taking something on. You don’t know how it’s going to work out. What can I say? Whisper in my young ear, “It’s going to be OK”? “You’re going to last. You’re going to endure.” [Laughs] I don’t know. “Don’t despair,” something like that.
In those early years when you were auditioning—I’m sure you don’t find yourself auditioning that much anymore—how is it that you typically prepared?
Not very much anymore, but once in awhile! But you’re right, not much. I don’t know that I have any secrets, but I think over the years, I have increasingly felt that maybe a very important part of it is to be relatively comfortable and relaxed in oneself. For instance, I will sometimes think, Well, maybe this will be a good thing to wear [to an audition]—maybe this is kind of [what they’re looking for]. Sometimes that seems like a good idea, and I do that. But I’ve also had the occasion where I start out that way and then think, Well, I don’t really feel very good in this. I don’t really feel relaxed.
The most important thing, I think, is to feel really good all the way down to your feet on the floor, that you’re yourself and that you’re OK. Because I think you then have the room to move, to think, to speak, and that’s more important than anything else…. I think that’s what makes an audition successful, whether or not one gets the part. An audition can be successful if you’ve been present, been there, and kind of delivered something that you wanted to…. I don’t know that I felt that way when I was very young, but I certainly feel that way now. Maybe that’s what I would tell my young self: Take advantage of the audition!
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