When it comes to collecting recent accolades like Windsor International Film Festival’s lifetime achievement award, Lois Smith, who made her film debut in 1955’s East of Eden opposite James Dean and has had notable roles in Twisterand on True Blood, says it’s mostly a matter of longevity. “Those words,” she tells ET, referring to lifetime achievement, “are a little alarming.” But all the recent fuss, as she describes it, comes as the longtime actress is earning the best reviews of her career for Marjorie Prime, a sci-fi film directed by Michael Almereyda based on the Pulitzer Prize-nominated play by Jordan Harrison.
“It’s not why one does the work, but it’s nice when it happens,” Smith says ever-so-diplomatically as she’s perched on a sofa in the lobby of the Thompson Hotel, just outside the Loop neighborhood of downtown Chicago.
Marjorie Prime, which was released in August after premiering at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, has been a long time coming for Smith, who first read the play nearly five years earlier and has starred in multiple stage productions in Los Angeles and Off-Broadway in New York City. Co-starring Geena Davis, Tim Robbins and Jon Hamm, the film tells the story of a woman (Smith) suffering from early signs of dementia who hires a company to create a projection of a younger version of her late husband (Hamm). In speaking with him, he reminds her of things she needs to do while she attempts to rewrite their past together.
“I loved it from the minute I read it,” Smith says of the story. “One of the things that excited me so much in the text was the use of surprise. In the very first scene, it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, what?’” Indeed, the story is a simple idea that unfolds in unexpected ways as the narrative leaps forward in time. And the role of Marjorie is not as simple as the audience first thinks. “She’s full of life. She may be losing it in some way, but she’s as flirtatious as she’s always been. She’s interested,” Smith says, adding that she was blessed to get such a well-written character.
But she says that even at her age, she hasn’t experienced the downfall of great parts that so many of Hollywood’s female stars of (rightfully) lament about. “It feels part of my wonderful good fortune,” she continues. “This is one occasion where this is not only a beauty but a special circumstance. I couldn't have played this when I was in my 20s, so here I am!”
Since its release, Marjorie Prime has earned Smith nominations for an Independent Spirit Award, a Gotham Independent Film and a Satellite Award, while her supporting role in Greta Gerwig’s awards season frontrunner Lady Bird has earned the actress a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.
It’s also spurred a retrospective interest in her career, with the American Cinematheque and Quad Cinema hosting film series of her work. However, when Smith first heard about the idea, she was aghast. “I didn’t get it. I’m not a movie star,” she says, revealing that she came around to it when friends and family told her how lovely it was to screen her work, especially films like Next Stop, Greenwich Village. More than any sense of embarrassment, it’s been nice to see those roles celebrated.
But the accolades and the retrospectives are not what make 2017 a standout year for Smith. It’s Marjorie Prime and her relationship with the play and subsequent film and how it’s impacted her life over the last five years.
When she first started performing it on stage in 2014, it represented this extraordinary period of time. Then later, in 2016, it became tied up with her grief and sorrow over losing her partner, former film actor David Margulies. “He’d been increasingly sick during this amazingly wonderful period of having these plays and film on top of each other,” Smith says of 2015 -- which included shooting the film adaptation and appearing in The Comedian and on The Affair -- going into 2016, when Margulies died on Jan. 11. “It took a while for me to recover from that shock.” But everything that’s followed has been moving from that to what has become another “amazingly” busy year.
“2017 has been this recovery,” says Smith, who has worked her way out of the hole with roles on Grace and Frankie, Younger and The Blacklist, now ready to return to the stage with back-to-back plays in 2018. “There was this glorious thing, then this horrendous thing. Time helps, doesn’t it? It took me a long time to realize I was stuck in an emotional [rut]. Then time moved me away.”
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