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

In <em>Marjorie Prime</em>, Lois Smith plays an elderly woman who finds companionship with a hologram of her late husband (Jon Hamm).
In Marjorie Prime, Lois Smith plays an elderly woman who finds companionship with a hologram of her late husband (Jon Hamm).

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 howMarjorie Primediffers 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 ofMarjorie 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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.