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The low-key dominance of Lois Smith, star of new film 'Marjorie Prime'

The low-key dominance of Lois Smith, star of new film 'Marjorie Prime'
Lois Smith at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival (Jay L. Clendenin/LA Times)

Walking through a driving blizzard last January, the actress Lois Smith took the arm of an agent and posed a directional question.

“So is this where I should step?” Smith asked as her foot hovered above a treacherous curb in the old town of Park City, Utah, during the Sundance Film Festival. “It seems like the most direct way to go.”

Smith has been following that credo for most of her career. She has plunged ahead through changes in the entertainment industry and the rise-and-falls of more boldfaced names, quietly stealing scenes in American film classics like "East of Eden," "Five Easy Pieces" and "Fried Green Tomatoes" and subtly dominating stage productions of "The Grapes of Wrath" and "The Trip to Bountiful"

And she has continued hurtling forward even in the more veteran phase of her career, bringing, at 86, her brand of what might be described as genteel formidability to a dazzling number of parts.

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The latest such role, and one of the strongest of an actor of any age this year, comes via "Marjorie Prime," which opened in Los Angeles on Friday. In Michael Almereyda's speculative drama, based on Jordan Harrison's play, Smith plays a widow who grapples with the death of her husband by interacting with his younger digital avatar (Jon Hamm). Her character is warned by family members of the dangers of resurrecting, even technologically, a person she should be putting behind her. But she finds herself propelled forward by both curiosity and emotional need, embracing her future by remembering the past.

Like much of what Smith does, the performance is cool but indelible; it suggests the pain and melancholy of long ago without ever feeling a need to telegraph or remind of it.

"When I read the play I thought it was about people and humanity and relationships and memory. Artificial intelligence is never the substance of the piece," Smith said this week in an interview in New York, where she lives. (She performed the "Marjorie Prime" role on stage too, including at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles three years ago.) "Some people are appalled and some are scared by that, and that's what makes it so interesting.

"But I'm not sure I would ever want a hologram of someone I lost," she added. "I don't think I'm adventurous enough."

The January afternoon when Smith was giving the lie to that statement was one of the most perilous days in the history of the Sundance Film Festival. The streets were deserted, as rare a sight as a bone-empty 405 on a Thursday morning. But Smith gamely trudged up and down a slippery and snow-buried Main Street, visiting half a dozen media studios so she could talk about her movie; play the straight woman with the constantly kibitzing Hamm; and, for the benefits of the camera, politely engage in a ring toss on a moose antler.

"Oh, that was a little crazy," she said this week in her carefully controlled cadence, assessing the health-endangering walk that day the way someone describes a dessert with bold flavors. "I don't think I've done that before, no," she said, giving a little laugh.

As Smith walked into one studio that January day she found herself in a swirl of contemporary Hollywood. Hamm was sitting on the floor checking his text messages. Tim Robbins, who also stars in the film, was on the phone making dramatic-sounding evening plans as he scooped up a greenroom snack with one hand. Smith had just gotten situated on a couch as the group waited its turn in front of the cameras when the director Kevin Smith walked up. He rattled off her roles as if he were listing forwards for his beloved New Jersey Devils. "National treasure," he said to her and to anyone who would listen.

The sheer number of people she's worked with, and held her own against, makes the head spin. "How many people now can send out a reel with James Dean in it?" the agent, Gregg Klein, said.

A short while later the rapper Common approached Smith. He asked to take a photo with her. It was not entirely clear how much he knew of the actress but seemed generally drawn in by her aura, which might be described as unassumingly famous. Smith gamely stood for the photo with no fanfare — someone walking by would think she was the civilian, not the sought-after celebrity — then sat back on the couch to work out premiere logistics with Klein for that night.

The distributor of "Marjorie Prime," the micro-indie Film Rise, plans to conduct an awards campaign for Smith. (Amazingly, she has never been nominated for an Oscar.) And though the movie is likely to find only niche success, Smith's appeal within the industry as someone who makes not so big a deal about being so good suggests it's not such a far-fetched idea.

Asked what he thinks is the key to Smith's appeal and longevity, Hamm said, "I don't know that it's a formula, but I really think there's something about the way she doesn't make a big deal of it. She doesn't present a diva aura — she's just there and ready to do the work."

Of how that unflappability helped her in "Marjorie Prime," Hamm said: "The last thing you want to do is turn this into a sad meditation on death. And Lois didn't do that at all. She tapped into a real sense of wonder at this new, weird thing."

Born Lois Humbert in Kansas in 1930, Smith began acting professionally shortly after World War II, arriving in New York (after an adolescence in Seattle) to a host of television and stage roles. She achieved fame so quickly that by 1955 she was on the cover of Life magazine.

She continued working in a way that would do her Midwestern roots proud, at times taking on as many as half a dozen parts in a year.

On stage she would consistently leave a mark, catching Tony nominators’ attention for parts in “Grapes of Wrath” and Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child.” Fittingly given her character-actor legend, both were in the featured (supporting) category.

What's notable on the movie front is how her roles have spanned eras. Nearly every generation currently alive, from boomers to Gen-Xers to millennials, probably has a favorite movie with Lois Smith in it, whether "Eden," "Five Easy Pieces," "Fatal Attraction" or "Minority Report."

Though Smith studied at Lee Strasberg's acting school, she does not attribute her continued go-to status among filmmakers and casting directors as anything more than a desire to keep grinding away.

"I don't know why I'm able to keep doing it," she said. "I really think the fact that I'm fortunate plays a role — I'm in good health, I'm mobile, I have most of my marbles."

At one of the Sundance studios, a sponsor-minded moderator finished a video interview by asking what snack the actors like to consume when watching movies.

The cast, which also includes Geena Davis, all answered with genial tolerance. One mentioned Peanut M&M's, another popcorn. Then Smith's turn came.

"I like Jack Daniels," she said, matter-of-factly.

More interviews are in her future. Smith continues her prolific ways with a part in Greta Gerwig’s upcoming directorial effort “Lady Bird” that will debut at next month’s Toronto International Film Festival, and she’s signed on for a pair of new plays. And why just take on a part without studying a new language? Smith has begun learning to sign for one of the works, in which she will play opposite deaf actors.

Smith has a tendency not to look back; unlike her character in "Marjorie Prime," she believes retrospection offers little reward. It's one reason, perhaps, she has been able to keep working so steadily in an industry seized by such chaotic change.

But she allows herself a moment of reflection about the technological and other shifts of entertainment promotion.

"I remember I did a play on Broadway years ago and I was doing a breakfast at Sardi's — it was a radio interview. And it seemed rather exciting, and exciting to my mother, who was visiting from Seattle. Press wasn't a commonplace thing back then," she said ruefully.

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At Sundance she stopped at the fourth studio in the space of five snow-filled hours.

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"Would you like any gifts?" a well-scrubbed female assistant, about college-age, asked, bounding up to her.

"Maybe I'll try on the boots," she said of one piece of swag. Then a moment later she changed her mind. "I don't need them," she said and stepped back into the snow-swept street in her well-worn shoes to move to the next stop.

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