There was a time when actress Lois Smith fuzzed her age. Not out of vanity. After all, when the top of her dark hair turned shocking white, she kept it. “Nature just decided to gray me that way,” says Smith. “I really liked the way it happened.” Until then, the problem was she looked younger than her driver’s license. At 22, Smith made her Broadway debut playing a 16-year-old drama queen. A few years later, while working out a skit on The Loretta Young Show, the director complained that Smith didn’t look old enough for one of her character’s lines. Smith quipped, “Why don’t we say I’m between 15 and 100?” She liked the ad lib so much she used it on-air in the bit, and again in interviews.
Today, Smith is 87 years old and proud to say it. If the Academy recognizes her incredible dual role performances in Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime, based on Jordan Harrison’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-finalist play, she’ll tie Gloria Stuart as the oldest person ever nominated for an Oscar. And if she wins, she’ll set the record.
There’s an irony in making history with Marjorie Prime. Almereyda’s science fiction drama skips through the life, and afterlife, of a widow who purchases a hologram of her dead husband, Walter (John Hamm), and then becomes a hologram herself when her estranged daughter (Geena Davis) has trouble saying goodbye. Marjorie Prime is obsessed with memory: why we cling to moments, and how they slip through our fingers anyway.
In the first section of the film, Smith’s human Marjorie, a former violinist, is playful, but prickly, urging Walter to rewrite their story about the night he proposed. Her daughter Tess and son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins) are glad she has Walter to remind her to eat, and anchor her when a wave of dementia rolls in. Marjorie is smart enough to know she’s being minded, but she likes Walter’s company anyway. We see Smith’s face flicker through different emotions—delight, defiance, suspicion, petulance, and finally, the judgement that his programmers haven’t gotten Walter’s nose exactly right. She’s chosen a younger version of her husband “because he was handsome”, says Smith. Tess thinks it’s because her mom was happier before she was born.
After Marjorie’s death, Davis and Smith have a long, wonderfully uncomfortable scene where the angry daughter confronts a digital ghost. “I’m the Marjorie you still have things to say to,” chirps Smith as her character’s replacement. She’s so close to the person we first met that initially, we’re not supposed to know the difference. Yet Smith gives us small hints. Her words are crisper, her posture is straighter. But really, it’s in the eyes—this synthetic Marjorie is so curious, her eyes almost seem to be lit from within. Tess says Marjorie was vain and temperamental. “Smile less,” she commands, and Smith obediently drops the corners of her mouth. Is this an accurate Marjorie replica? Smith seems to be assembling something trickier: a complicated woman flattened by her daughter’s decades of resentment.
“A prime is designed to be a good listener, to be empathic, and to be learning all the time,” says Smith. She’s describing her hologram, but she could be describing an actor. Marjorie’s first words would make a great opening line for Smith’s autobiography, if she’d ever had time to write one: “I feel like I have to perform around you.”
Smith has spent most of her life on the stage. She’s acted so long that when she refers to developing her new line-learning technique in “recent years”, she means, “the last 25 or so.” She was born Lois Arlene Humbert in Topeka, Kansas in 1930. Her father worked for the telephone company, but at night he directed biblical plays for the Protestant church. “They weren’t for entertainment,” stresses Smith, but they were entertaining to her. She loved sitting in on rehearsals, and when he needed a fill-in, she knew all the lines. Finally, he gave his youngest daughter an Old Testament costume and her own parts. Smith remembers the pleasure she felt performing. “That was the beginning.”
When she was 18, she married a teacher named Wesley Smith, and the young couple soon moved to New York. Between auditions, Smith sliced salami at a deli and checked hats at the Russian Tea Room. She got her first job and hastily wondered if she should change her moniker to something more glamorous than “Lois Smith”—”Oh wait a minute, am I supposed to be doing something about this name business?” she laughs—but decided it wasn’t worth the fuss. Besides, it was the perfect name for her kind of actress: simple, straightforward, honest. The focus was on her work, not fame.
In 1955, Smith posed for LIFE Magazine with four other young female Broadway stars, including Jayne Mansfield, who’d just landed her break-out role in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? “Somebody must have gotten the idea to put us all on the cover,” shrugs Lois. She wore her stage costume, an off-the-shoulder red dress, and stared directly at the camera. (The magazine lauded her “pale-faced intensity”.) Behind her, Mansfield seems about to shiver out of her strapless sequin dress.
At 25, Smith was the oldest starlet in the photo and still playing teenagers. Today, she’s the only one alive. Her longevity seems less like a calculated career arc, than an actor who can’t resist learning another role. “I don’t think I was ever particularly a planner,” Smith admits. Around the time of the LIFE Magazine cover, Smith told a journalist that she hadn’t “realized all my stage ambitions.” She wasn’t talking about awards or glory. She just wanted to be Nina in The Seagull. On Broadway, she did Harold Pinter and Bertolt Brecht and Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill and John Steinbeck and Sam Shepard and Tony Kushner, and yes, three different plays by Anton Chekhov. But by the time she got around to The Seagull, she had aged out of Nina and played the viperous Madame Arkadina instead.
In a way, Smith’s decades on the stage have trained her in the art of letting go. Film audiences remember her as Jack Nicholson’s dour, conservative sister in Five Easy Pieces, or as the wide-eyed and waifish barmaid who fascinates James Dean in East of Eden. (Smith and Dean’s camera test, in which the two Actors’ Studio students circle each other like infatuated kids, has spawned a flurry of YouTube fan videos.) Still, the bulk of her work has existed for a few months, and then vanished. “Its time is its time,” says Smith. “It’s over when it’s over.” Unlike Marjorie, she doesn’t cling to the past. Before she filmed Marjorie Prime, she originated the role onstage, first in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum, and then in New York at Playwrights Horizons. Yet, she’d never even seen herself as Marjorie until Almereyda fell in love with the idea of adapting the play.
“The film is a very different creature,” says Smith. “It’s more meditative. I think it’s sadder, definitely less funny.” Almereyda knew Smith could straddle humor and pathos—he directed her in Twister, where she played Helen Hunt’s steak-slinging, tornado-hounded Aunt Meg. Still, Harrison and Almereyda have “a different sounder”, says Smith, using a nautical term befitting the seaside-set script, “which is interesting because this material is very alive in both of them.”
It’s alive in her, too. Even after channeling Marjorie twice before, the lines became new all over again once she started saying them to Hamm, Davis and Robbins. “A different actor changes it,” says Smith. “It’s like you’re playing the same piece of music, the same notes, but it will be interpreted differently. The stimuli, what’s going on moment-to-moment—that’s one of the great joys.” Hearing Smith describe acting with such intelligence and zest recalls a phrase she says in her cameo as an empathetic nun in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird: “Don’t you think maybe they’re the same thing, love and attention?”
“One wants to be well thought of, I think,” says Smith. Marjorie would agree. And hopefully, the Academy will finally demand people pay attention to an actress who’s long been content just to quietly concentrate on her work. For now, she’s busily learning sign language for her next challenging role in Craig Lucas’ new play, I Was Most Alive With You. “It’s a very ambitious piece,” Smith beams. “It’ll be interesting to see how it works.”