Acting for the stage and screen for six decades—and sharing the screen with James Dean in East of Eden, her first big gig—Lois Smith may have found the role of a lifetime in Michael Almereyda’s Sundance-premiering indie, Marjorie Prime. But to be clear, the actress’ first experience with the material was on stage in both Los Angeles and New York.
Based on Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated play of the same name, the compelling sci-fi drama boasts a unique, futuristic premise reminiscent of Black Mirror, while placing its focus on humanity above all else. Also appearing this year in Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut, Lady Bird, Smith plays the titular Marjorie, a woman living in a time when people can create holographic projections of their late family members. Through the use of this technology, Marjorie is able to engage with a younger version of her deceased husband, an “artificial intelligence companion” portrayed by Jon Hamm. While this technology is groundbreaking, it’s not without its limitations. In the end, technology can only compensate so much for the loss of a loved one.
“I probably have never been as excited about a new play as I was when I read that,” Smith told Deadline’s Joe Utichi at Deadline’s The Contenders London event, reflecting on her first experience of the film’s source material. “One time, Jordan said in an interview that he was interested in a wedding of humanity and technology, and I must say, I think that’s what he did.”
While the medium of cinema comes with its own opportunities and challenges, in comparison to theater, Smith said her interpretation of her character didn’t change when heading into Almereyda’s adaptation, so much as the visual presentation of the story. “In the play, it took place in a single set, and Marjorie spent most of her time in a reclining chair—not that she was immobile, but she was pretty much immobile during the course of the story,” the actress explained. “The film, on the other hand, it’s a house, an outside, an ocean and a beach, in and out of rooms and beds, etcetera. That’s really fun, but it didn’t change the character I’d come to know.”
Per Smith, Almereyda did make certain adjustments to the material. “One time, Michael said, ‘All I added was flashbacks, cigarettes, and the ocean.’ Well, that’s not so,” she reflected. “He extended the time that it takes place in and there’s a very different pace. He made a movie of this play because he loved it, so it wasn’t a matter of wanting to alter it, though there’s a different sensibility as you see it.”
While Smith first met Jon Hamm shortly before production began, the chemistry between the actors was easily found. “We are so fortunate that Jon Hamm is playing Walter Prime, my younger husband,” Smith said. “I remember it was at the end of the first or second day of shooting and I said to Jon, ‘Have you got your head around it, that you and I are the parents of Geena Davis?’”
The actress additionally took a moment to reflect on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of being able to originate a role on stage, while deepening one’s relationship with a character through a feature film adaptation. “I feel so fortunate to have been able to do it in the first place, and then to have had this really interesting journey, which is kind of once-in-a-lifetime,” she told the day’s BAFTA audience. “You don’t get to do this very often.”
Picked up for distribution by FilmRise, Marjorie Prime won the Sloan Feature Film Prize at Sundance, recognizing the film for its “imaginative and nuanced depiction of the evolving relationship between humans and technology.” The drama also stars Tim Robbins and Geena Davis.