Actress Lois Smith’s face is one film buffs instantly recognize. Whether it’s a standout performance in a television series (“The Americans,” “True Blood”) or a memorable turn in a major motion picture (“Minority Report,” “Twister,” “East of Eden”), hers is a talent that has endured over six decades. But one wouldn’t guess that Smith recently celebrated her 87th birthday, or that she would post her first tweet that same day. She keeps people on their toes, radiating an energy more associated with someone half her age. When the Alzheimer’s Association sat down to speak with her about her performance and experience filming “Marjorie Prime,” she had been to several cities in one week and was on her way to Philadelphia to enjoy the holidays with her daughter.
Set approximately 30 years in the future, “Marjorie Prime” is about a woman, Marjorie, (Smith) who uses a service that provides holographic recreations (or “primes”) of deceased loved ones. In this case, it is a younger version of Marjorie’s husband Walter (played by Jon Hamm, in his own prime) who helps her rewrite memories while she is experiencing symptoms of dementia. Lovely to look at and always attempting to learn more about Marjorie and Walter’s lives together, this technological companion still can’t quite live up to the real Walter, even though Marjorie contemplates the fact that he might remember more of her life than she does. The film — which touches on topics from grief and loss to the power of memory — is based on the 2014 Pulitzer Prize-nominated play of the same name. Smith starred in both the Los Angeles and New York stage productions of the piece. Please note that there are film spoilers in this blog post.
One element that is so touching about the film is that although it is set in the future and has sci-fi elements to it, it’s also a study of times gone by, and how people grapple with grief in different ways. What drew you to the play originally?
This story is a story about humanity. I feel like the film is sadder than the play given the difference in tonality between the play’s director (Jordan Harrison) and Michael Almereyda, the director of the film. The film has Michael’s name stamped on it; in some ways I think it’s more languid and less humorous than the theater piece was. This shift in the mood and changes to the script made the process enormously interesting — and challenging.
There is a scene early in the film where Marjorie asks Walter to rewrite a “scene” from their life: the night he proposed. That evening, they were watching the Julia Roberts comedy vehicle “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” but Marjorie reimagines that they watched the film classic “Casablanca” instead. What kind of comfort does Marjorie get from that moment?
Marjorie receives great pleasure from reimagining her own memories. It gives her a true sense of power over her situation. Think of that power — you can decide what you’d like a moment to be like, instead of what it really was. Imagine the possibilities. With help from the prime, she can do that.
What scene in the film was the most interesting to play?
Marjorie is a person who gets a great deal of enjoyment out of life; she’s quite flirtatious, even with her doctor, as her daughter wryly points out. I really liked playing with those qualities of hers. I really love the scene with Marjorie Prime and her daughter Tess. (Marjorie Prime is the hologram Marjorie that Tess, portrayed by Geena Davis, engages with later in the film.) That scene was so central, so key to the film. It was of great interest to me, playing with the dynamic of that not-quite mother-daughter relationship and its learning curve. It was a delight working out how the characters find their way through it. Marjorie Prime is — in a certain way — programmed to be the true Marjorie. But there are other elements she has about her that the true Marjorie did not have, like increased empathy. That empathy was a quality that Tess needed so much in those moments when she was struggling with the reality of losing Marjorie. That scene was truly great fun to play.
In the film, Marjorie is a former violinist, forced to give up her passion due to arthritis. Was the connection between music and memory in the play strong as well? Michael Almereyda was very keen in making a contribution to the film’s story in that way. There was certainly much more music in the film than the play. He took the cue of Marjorie’s prowess as a violinist to introduce a variety of new pieces which paired beautifully with the composed music by Mica Levi. The score is so powerful and so present, and I loved the places in the script where the new music introduced. Music played an important part in Marjorie’s life, as it does in all our lives, and the way she and Tess engaged with different types of music highlighted the difference in their characters. (Tess sits and reflects while The Band’s “I Shall Be Released,” written by Bob Dylan, is played, while Marjorie enjoys a piece performed by the New York Philharmonic.)
There is a vast difference between Marjorie, who is having issues with her memory and being combative with her daughter, and the digital Marjorie Prime who is so eager and in the moment. How did you approach playing Marjorie Prime, and what characteristics defined the prime for you? Their demeanors are so different; the primes are so ready to learn and to please. When we began the first production of the play, it was clear that the author intended the additional empathy from the primes. Real people have lives that are full of conflict, especially between family members. The primes don’t come from this place of conflict. Their purpose is one of helpfulness; to be of help to the person they are paired with is of utmost importance. On the other hand, the primes need to hone the characteristics of the person they are supposed to be, and still have to come forth as a convincing version of the person. It is a double collection of traits and behaviors filtered through a sense of generosity. The main thing about the primes is that they find that learning curve so interesting, and you see them stumble and make mistakes along the way in their portrayals.
As we talked about, this film focuses on the concept of memory — the good, the bad, the ones we may not remember quite the way they were. What do you think of the connection viewers and critics are making between the film and dementia? When someone first brought up the connection between Alzheimer’s disease and the film, I didn’t see it as the subject of the movie, and it certainly isn’t. It does seem obvious, of course, that the connection would be made, as this topic is of such importance and of a lot of interest to people, whether they are curious about the disease, caregivers for someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia, or in the early stages of Alzheimer’s themselves. For Marjorie, the things she has trouble remembering are not necessarily a central aspect of her life. In a certain sense, the film and her experience are more about memories lost and found, and not a clinical study in memory. But the connection is there, and the conversation is one that I’ve been enlightened about. Memories serve such an important role in our lives, and performing a piece like this is so rewarding.
What was it like for you to work on this film after performing in the play in both Los Angeles and New York city? What has the awards buzz surrounding your film performance been like for you? This was a low-budget film that blossomed from a stellar play. The chance to make a film and continue in this role is something I am so grateful to have had happened, especially having another lovely cast come together — Geena Davis, Jon Hamm, Tim Robbins, to name a few. I didn’t even turn my mind to the thought of winning awards, as I didn’t see this as any sort of traditional “Hollywood” project. I’m just happy that the film’s momentum has been strong and seems to be building towards the idea of it being award-worthy. To be honored is certainly lovely. I recently received a lifetime achievement award, which I admit was slightly off-putting — apparently I’m a very old person! I am really just so lucky. Wisdom tells us that you will have fewer roles as you age, and less good parts, but that hasn’t been the case for me. I have just been so very fortunate.
"Marjorie Prime" opened theatrically in select cities in August and is currently available on most video-on-demand platforms.