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Lois Smith finds the human element in her sci-fi 'Marjorie Prime' role

In 1955, a young, Kansas-born actress named Lois Smith made her movie debut opposite some guy called James Dean in the screen version of John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” directed by Elia Kazan. Who knew then that it would be followed by more than 50 years of acclaimed film, TV and stage performances?

Although Smith has amassed a wide array of acting award nods, including the National Society of Film Critics’ prize in 1971 for “Five Easy Pieces,” a pair of Tony Award nominations and a Drama Desk Award, she has never been up for an Oscar.

But Smith, now 87, whose voluminous film credits include “Fatal Attraction,” “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “How to Make an American Quilt” and the current “Lady Bird,” could potentially add Oscar to her résumé for her sly, tender turn in “Marjorie Prime,” Michael Almereyda’s meditative adaptation of the futuristic, Pulitzer Prize-nominated play by Jordan Harrison, in which Smith also appeared in Los Angeles (at the Mark Taper Forum) and Off-Broadway.

In his review, Times film critic Justin Chang called Smith “marvelously quicksilver” as an elderly woman who spends time with the 40ish version of her late husband (Jon Hamm) thanks to a service that creates holographic projections or “primes.”

While visiting recently from New York to attend an American Cinematheque retrospective in Santa Monica of several of her most notable films, the lovely, lively and generous Smith sat down to chat about longevity, movies and “Marjorie.”

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Playing Marjorie on stage undoubtedly gave you a deeper kind of insight that you could bring to the film. Did you approach the character any differently?

I suspect basically not. And that’s probably partly because I’d been living with this text and this play for a long time. Marjorie has less dialogue in the film and [unlike in the play] she’s not spending almost the entire time sitting in a recliner in one room. But it’s not particularly a psychological change. There wasn’t any real alteration of what Michael [Almereyda] wanted of Marjorie.

Since you originated the role of Marjorie, were you always attached to do the film?

Michael and I have known each other a long time and he came to see it [the play] at the Taper, in its first production. He knew it was a play I liked a lot and he immediately felt he’d really like us to make a movie out of it.

That said, do you often find yourself competing against that handful of other great veteran actresses “of a certain age” for these kinds of movie parts?

Maybe I’ve felt that way in the past, but I don’t know. I’ve been around a long time and what is said to be the norm — that as you get older your parts become less and less interesting — has in a certain way been the opposite for me. At this point, I don’t feel like, “Oh, somebody else is going to get that part.”

Between its symbolism, ethereal bits and elliptical unfolding, there’s much about “Marjorie Prime” that seems open to interpretation. What’s the main message you took away from it?

While I’ve always felt the piece has a sci-fi factor, it’s really about ourselves and how we live; what we remember and what we don’t. It’s about memories lost and memories found.

Speaking of memories, what do you remember most about working with James Dean in “East of Eden”? I mean, he wasn’t James Dean at that point, right?

There was no knowledge of him being an “icon,” of course, but the main thing I remember is how good he was in it. I’m sure it was a big deal for him; it was his first film too. Sometimes I would feel like he was this farm boy in a porch swing and sometimes that he was a very guarded city boy. And I think that was all true, that’s what he was going through. I think he had a lot to contend with.

You seem to be in a hugely inspired, productive place at an age when so many actors have slowed down or called it quits. What’s the best thing these days about being Lois Smith?

I’m very fortunate, very blessed. I like working, I do. The thing that happens very often and which I treasure is [fans coming up and saying] “I love your work” or “I loved you in this” or “This meant a lot to me.” It’s not, “Oh, I saw you in something, can I take your picture?” but the kind of attention that matters. That connection — that’s really what it’s all for.

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