To talk to Lois Smith is to hear her professes, again and again, how “fortunate” and “lucky” she has been, almost as if everything in her career happened by chance.
At 87, Smith is closing the book on what may be the splashiest year of her seven-decade tenure in film and theater. In January, the big-screen adaptation of “Marjorie Prime” premiered at Sundance; Smith’s performance has since sparked Oscar buzz, collecting nominations from the Gotham Awards and the Independent Spirit Awards. Smith originated the role onstage, in Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer-nominated play about an octogenarian conjuring memories from her life in the company of her late husband, who assumes the form of a computer-programmed hologram.
The movie “Marjorie Prime” opened in August. Then, Smith appeared in November’s “Lady Bird,” the acclaimed Greta Gerwig film that’s another awards season favorite. For a venerated actress who has consistently worked without achieving widespread fame, Smith’s 2017 has been an improbable treat. It’s one of precious few examples of aging performers earning their due.
HuffPost sat down with Smith in New York on the afternoon of last month’s Gotham Awards. If she earns an Oscar nomination on Jan. 23, she’ll be among the oldest nominees in the award’s 90-year history. What does she think of all this fuss? She’s grateful, of course, but she could do without it, too.
It seems you’ve had a huge year. Does it feel that way to you?
Oh my gosh, it’s been wild. This past year has been very quiet for me, actually, in a certain way. I was recovering from [her partner, actor David Margulies’] death, which happened a year ago last January. It’s getting into almost two years now.
But the year just before this very year was so busy. The first time I did “Marjorie Prime” was the fall of 2014, and after that, I did a play at [Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago] that Rory Kinnear had written, his first play, and directly back to New York and pretty straight into Annie Baker’s play “John” [at Signature Theatre Company in August 2015]. And right after that was the filming of “Marjorie Prime,” and right after that — I mean, really, hours — into the first rehearsal of “Marjorie Prime” onstage at Playwrights Horizons.
And then it was January of 2016. That year, I turned down all the roles that came for the stage. Nothing I was really into. But I started doing quite a lot of guest shots in episodic series. It’s all been really overwhelming, really it has been.
I’m not working [now]. Well, I’m doing television stuck in among the other things, briefly. I’ve got plays coming up, but not until spring.
Do you prefer to stay in New York?
I do. I love to be at home. I really do.
Was there a point in your career when you became choosier about the roles that required travel?
Well, for quite a while I was a single mother with a growing child, and I thought, I can’t really take long trips, and I also don’t want to. It’s a good excuse.
And then later, there were good times, onstage and on film, of going out of town. I haven’t done a lot of classics, though. I’ve done almost no Shakespeare, I’m sorry to say, but I did get to do some Chekhov and Shaw. Irene Lewis was so great — the first time I worked at the Baltimore Center Stage, when she was the artistic director, I did a modern George Walker play, and she asked me if there’s anything I wanted to do. At that time, I knew I wanted to do “The Cherry Orchard,” and we did a beautiful production. And then I said, “When I was a student, I always thought I’d do Shaw, and I never had.” And she did “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” for me, so that was a treat.
I always say it’s the people or the material, and when the people and the material were very attractive, there’s no reason I couldn’t do the plays.
Is there a Shakespeare role that you’d love to get your hands on?
You know, it’s a little late now for my favorites. There might still be something.
You could kick “Macbeth” up a couple of generations and do an older Lady Macbeth, right?
[Laughs.] We’ll see.
The list of people you’ve worked with is astonishing: John Cassavetes, James Stewart, Helen Hayes, James Dean, Jack Nicholson — all before 1980.
Isn’t that amazing? As it happens, it just happens. You know, James Dean was not an icon. He was a very talented, fascinating young actor doing his first movie. Certainly, some of it has been sort of astonishing, but it’s never like ― gasp!
I’ve been most greatly fortunate, and sometimes very fortunate to have something drop in my lap, like working with James Stewart on a television show. That was just a funny thing — I don’t know how it happened. Somebody in the big television casting stuff must have noticed that I was one of the young actresses who had started to work. But it was never a big pursuit. I just kept working. I’ve been very fortunate to do that.
Did James Stewart have a big movie-star aura?
No, no. Most people are lovely, really.
“Marjorie Prime” has consumed such a large portion of your life.
It’s been well over four years since I was first handed “Marjorie Prime” to play. I’ve been living with it a long time.
It does seem like your profile has risen in conjunction with this role. Audiences get to discover the same role across stage and screen.
It’s interesting. When you just said stage and screen are coming together, that’s true, really, because I don’t think that’s ever happened before for me, and it doesn’t happen very often that people play something on the stage and get to make a film of it.
Now, when I did it onstage, I did it at the Taper in LA, and at the Playwrights Horizon. These are places where I’ve done regional theater, and the New York scene of theater companies where I have worked for a long time. So that was not a new audience for me. It was wonderful to bring this wonderful play to these audiences, I certainly feel that. And in film, again, I’ve been doing films for 60 years, but this one was really special. It’s special on its own terms.
Some critics have called it the greatest role of your career.
I don’t even know how to think about that. Whenever people ask you something like that, you know — the answer to the what’s-your-favorite question is, “The last one.” Because what are you going to do? It’s very hard. There are many meaningful things for different reasons, and especially once you’ve been at it as long as I have.
What were your first ideas about the play, which addresses concepts of memory and death?
The minute I read it, I was so excited. [...] I’ve always found [Marjorie Prime] the most full-of-life character. The play is funnier, and the movie is sadder. It has partly to do with the adaptation and partly to do with the tonality of the two different people who made them. It’s the same story, but of course, there are differences with the movie. The play takes place in one room, and I was mostly sitting in a reclining chair all evening. That’s a big difference, but the character remains very much the same.
When you first saw the movie, were you prepared for that tonal difference?
It took me quite a while to accept the movie entirely as itself because I couldn’t help it. I’d been living with this text for a long time. I’d read the screenplay [by Michael Almereyda], and of course, admired it from the beginning. And I think I increasingly appreciate many things about it.
I think Michael did many wonderful things to make this a movie, because it’s not a simple, obvious thing to do when it’s very contained, with few characters in one place. It’s very verbal, and it’s very thoughtful and provocative — all things I love.
And of course, you do a play and you don’t see yourself. And actually, when you do a film you can see yourself, and that is not always easy, either. Maybe because I’m a stage actress so much, I’m not used to seeing myself act. It’s true I’ve been doing it for a long time, but it is different. It’s not something that happens to you in a play.
And I must say, I think when I first see myself in something, more often than not, it’s difficult. It’s not the most fun, to judge one’s own performance. We often are not very good at it as actors. I know a lot of other actors have that trouble, too. Some have it worse than I do.
Do you ever go back and watch your older work?
Rarely, though once in a while something comes up, like “East of Eden.” Quite a number of years ago now, it had some big anniversary, so there were a lot of events. That was an occasion for seeing it again.
What did you think upon revisiting it?
Oh, I loved it. It’s better if it’s long ago. And also, it’s really interesting — I remember a film I made with Paul Mazursky many years ago, “Next Stop, Greenwich Village.” It was a film that, for some reason — I think it had to do with a piece of music — was never on television, and people didn’t see it. And I hadn’t seen it or thought about it, really. But that must have gotten fixed, because it was on television.
I happened onto it, and in that case, it was like, “Oh my god, how young we all were,” because it was this circle of New York actors. We were so young! Chris Walken is in it, and Jeff Goldblum and Ellen Greene. That was like visiting another time, because it really was of its time.
Acting is maybe the only profession that provides a living yearbook to open, or not, at your choosing.
It’s true, isn’t it? You don’t have to go looking for it sometimes — it just appears.
Do you feel you’re fundamentally a stage actress?
I guess I do. It’s where I started. I was really lucky when I first came to New York and started working. Within the first couple of years, I was working both onstage and in television, of which there was lots then, in the ’50s. I mean, lots. There were plays on television — not series, but every week, plays. Right away, I started to do plays for television and film. That was really lucky, in so many ways.
Do you feel like you’ve managed to accomplish onscreen what you would want to, given that theater and the stage are your bread and butter?
Well, you don’t get much bread and butter in the theater. Really, film and television is where the bread and butter is, in terms of making a living.
But had I been a more famous movie person, I might have had better parts. I think I had some lovely parts. I’m not complaining about them. But I never felt I was a movie star.
When American Cinematheque in LA announced they were going to do a retrospective — three days of double features of films of mine — my immediate response was, “Well, that doesn’t make any sense. I’m not a movie star. Who would come to that?” And after friends and family told me, “No, this is really nice,” I thought, “Oh yeah.” And it was! It was really nice. And now The Quad is going to do something like that in New York. I guess that also gave me the feeling, “Well, yeah! I did some interesting things in movies.”
I’ve always felt, as much as I’ve thought about it ― which, lately, I have thought about it ― I’ve had the kind of fame which I felt was just the right amount. It’s really lovely if people come up to you and say, “Your work really means a lot to me” and “I like your work.” But to be chased around by photographers? That would not be a nice way to live.
So you never had a craving to hit the next level?
To be more and more famous? I guess not. Isn’t that funny? I guess not. I mean, in this business — I’m sure it’s true in many places, but it’s certainly true in our business — you need to be known in order to get more and better work. So, yes, I appreciate that if I worked, and worked well, I’d get better known, and then I’d get more and better work. That was always a true thing, which I did not negate at all.
I wasn’t aware of drawing a line, but what I’m saying makes me think I did, because I didn’t long to be on everybody’s gossip column. That is not something that seemed attractive to me.
Looking back, is there a particular role that let you feel like you’d made it?
I don’t know about that. Every good piece of work really helped. Sometimes I’m not aware of the connections of it all. Just a few years ago, I did a scene on “The Americans.” I think it was about three years ago. It was a wonderful scene. As soon as they sent it to me, I thought, boy, they’re not usually this good, this complete, this well-written.
I was very fortunate: I was busy, but they waited for me. I was shooting “The Nice Guys,” a movie, and that turned out really well. I have a feeling that, because I got a lot of acclaim for it, that made more and more television work come, more and more requests for me to do a guest-star.
Now, I think that’s true, but I can’t be sure, because a lot of things change. For instance, all of a sudden there’s so much television, and certainly in New York. I’m not in a position to say “this caused this,” but that’s what it felt like to me. It made a difference in the employment track right there.
“The Young and Beautiful,” when I did it in New York, I think I won every award I could have won, because it was off-Broadway that year. I think that also elevated my status.
You mentioned knowing that the “Americans” role was acclaimed. How does that get filtered to you? Do you ever Google yourself?
No, I didn’t Google it. First of all, when they actually finished it, before it was shown, I got a telephone call from the two producers. I found that really unusual. They had just seen it and they were really excited. Then, when it came out, a lot of people talked about it, and still do. And then I was nominated for some broadcasters’ award, and there would be little press things saying “should have gotten an Emmy.”
I don’t care, but it’s that kind of thing. Many, many people remember it, and speak of it. It was a particularly good piece. There’s nothing like good work. It’s always the material and the people you work with.
Were you familiar with Greta Gerwig before “Lady Bird” came along?
Oh yes, I saw her as an actress and a writer, and I was enormously impressed with her as an actress, my goodness. But I had not met her until the first day of shooting. Somebody called my agent and asked if I wanted to do it, which I did.
She has such a distinctive voice as a writer. What was she like as a director?
Well, she was absolutely, as she herself described it, creating a safe place. She’s really something. And her first time directing? The major part of my part was shot the second and third day of the shoot, so I was very, very early in the shoot of her first film. I was very impressed. And then it went on and on for weeks while I wasn’t there, because my part’s little and it’s all concentrated. I think she’s really quite astonishing.
Have you played a nun before “Lady Bird”?
No! I haven’t.
Every great actress has to play a nun at least once.
Well, I’m glad I had a chance. Something reminded me of this, maybe the nun. William Wyler was casting “The Nun’s Story” with Audrey Hepburn, and I was pregnant. I remember when we spoke. We were talking about dates, and realizing the date they were proposing was almost immediately after [my due date]. We all just sat and looked at each other, and I thought, well, that would have been fun. I mean, this was in 1957.
And you were offered the role but couldn’t take it because of the timing?
You know, I’m not sure he actually offered it. We met, and I could tell in the room that I was certainly a high candidate for it. But that was that.
See, everything comes full-circle. You didn’t play a nun then, and now you can play one now. She’s an interesting character because she’s so compassionate.
It’s such a great character, to be a teacher. She’s so compassionate and involved and understanding of the kids she’s dealing with, but she’s a grownup.
Often, popular culture presents nuns who go into education as strict and cloistered. It’s interesting to see a California spin on that, if you will. Did you grow up religious at all?
Yes, I grew up Protestant. My family were devout Protestants. When I was little, I went to Sunday school and church all the time.
Here we are on the day of the Gotham Awards. What is it like to be part of the Oscar conversation?
Well, I guess it’s fun. It’s also exhausting. I don’t find award shows the most fun events in the world. I said the other day, “I’m not keen on the contest idea, both in our country and in our profession.”
But it is there, and it’s hard to ignore it. It’s not something that I’ve been panting after in my life. And I feel I’ve had a lot of awards — more in theater than in film. Of course, it’s gratifying to be praised, to be valued. There’s no doubt about it. That’s lovely, it really is. So there’s an element of pleasure.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.