Actress Lois Smith on Marjorie Prime

By Kees Driessen 

In Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime, Lois Smith (1930) plays Marjorie opposite Tim Robbins, Geena Davis and Jon Hamm. The story is set in the nearby future, when Artificial Intelligence and holographic projection have progressed to the point where it is possible to create a ‘Prime’, a conversational copy of your deceased partner. Marjorie uses hers to exercise her faltering memory. The intelligent script takes this as the starting point for a reflection on the importance and reliability of remembering.

So, why not take a trip down memory lane with actress Lois Smith? How does the memory function of someone who has memorized texts and recorded events her whole professional life?

In the film, your character says to the computer replica of her husband: “I feel that I have to perform with you. And it might be a good thing.”
“Yes, that’s the first line in the script.”

That got me thinking. You have been acting your whole life. Do you believe that has trained your memory?
“I’ve wondered about that myself. It certainly helps the kind of memory that’s involved in memorizing lines and situations in plays. But that could be a different part of the brain, I’m not sure. I remember, quite some years ago, the composer Aaron Copeland, who worked at the Lincoln Center. When he was old he had, apparently, very serious memory problems. He could hardly find his way around the office. But once he was conducting – he was fine! That little story has always stuck in my mind. But it’s hard to know your own memory. I have a lot of trouble remembering names – I feel like last names were the first thing to go. So many people seem to share this, you know?”

I have the same problem.
“Yes, it isn’t even just about being older – although it doesn’t get any better, of course. And in terms of memorizing lines, is it harder than it used to be? Maybe. It probably is. But it’s something actors do and it seems to be on another level.”

Do you still remember lines from decades ago?
“I actually don’t. When a film or play is finished, I lose them rather quickly. I let them go. I might remember a particular euphonious or very meaningful phrase, yes, but not entire parts.”

It’s not like you hear yourself say something and you go: oh, that’s from that movie!
“Ha ha ha! I don’t think so. Although it may happen, it may. I’ve seen that with people. But I don’t think that’s something I do.”

My own memories, of holidays for example, are often dominated by photographs that were taken. Does the same happen to you with movies you were in?
“No, movies seem to be separate. They belong to the role, not to me personally. But with this film, we did something interesting. Michael [Almereyda, the director] asked for personal photographs of me. That’s a common enough request, but he used them wonderfully! He showed lots of my photographs to create Marjorie’s earlier life.”

So in this specificfilm, the line does get blurred.
“In this movie – absolutely! Because these are pictures of me, not of roles.”

Which of your movies are the easiest to recollect?
“The ones with the strongest sense of collaboration and company. Where everybody was working together, doing their best work. Five Easy Pieces had a lot of that. Bob Rafelson was the director and there was a strong sense of unity. We always had dinner together, talking about the movie. And that was wonderful.”

When people grow older, often their earlier memories get stronger. Does it also work like that with movies? Do you remember East of Eden better now?
“That was my first film, yes. But I don’t know that to be true... You know, with a movie, you can always see it again. Several years ago, I watched East of Eden with Julie Harris, who was still living then. We did a Q&A after a screening. And I loved seeing it again. It’s good, and powerful, and Jimmy Dean was wonderful, I thought.”

How do you feel about having become living film history yourself?
“I’m beginning to think about that more now. Because yes, I’ve been around a long time. You know, I feel the pleasure of having the long span. Really, I do. James Dean didn’t have that, you know? I think that’s a blessing that I have and I’m fortunate, and lucky, and glad of it.”

Marjorie Prime  was shown at the IFFR and will screen in Dutch cinemas from 10 May 2018.