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NUNN ON ONE MOVIES Lois Smith In her 'Prime'
by Jerry Nunn, Windy City Times
2017-12-06

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The legendary actress Lois Smith continues to have a career that just keeps getting better.

She trained at the legendary Actors Studio, with Lee Strasberg, and she made her Broadway debut at age 22 in the play Time Out for Ginger. She returned to Broadway with The Iceman Cometh; then, The Grapes of Wrath earned her a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play.

In 1995, she worked on a revival of Buried Child at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company and then earned a Tony nomination for it following a Broadway run. More awards came after the off-Broadway production of The Trip to Bountiful and she was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 2007. In Chicago, she has been an ensemble member of the Steppenwolf since 1993.

Television credits include Desperate Housewives, Frasier and Law & Order. She was nominated for a Critics' Choice Award for Best Guest Performance on the FX series The Americans.

Smith made her film debut with East of Eden and won the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress in Five Easy Pieces. Other memorable movies with her include Fried Green Tomatoes, Twister and The Comedian. There is already Oscar buzz about her new film, Marjorie Prime.

Windy City Times: How was your recent trip to Chicago?

Lois Smith: It was wonderful to have a screening of Lady Bird at the Landmark. Some of my dearest Steppenwolf friends were there. It was so touching and lovely to see them all.

WCT: Do you have a favorite memory of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company?

LS: The whole experience of The Grapes of Wrath. It went on over three seasons and four different productions. It was an enormously special time.

We started in Chicago, then rehearsed it three different times, building each time. You just don't get to do that very often. It was long term process and we all bonded together. I am still in touch with people from it almost 30 years later.

WCT: With the movie Lady Bird, there were many Steppenwolf regulars [in it]. Did they reach out to you about the role of the nun?

LS: Yes; they called my agent and asked if I wanted to do it. When I got the script, I didn't know Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts were the parents. It was a good surprise.

WCT: How did your role in Marjorie Prime come to be?

LS: When Jordan Harrison finished the play, she knew me a bit and sent me the play. I loved it the minute I saw it. That was about five years ago. It was first done at the Taper in LA. I was busy with The Herd at the Steppenwolf then I did John by Annie Baker at Signature Theatre in New York.

Right after, we did the film in a narrow window to make it in 2015. Right after the filming I did the play again onstage.

WCT: How do you feel it translates from the play onto the movie screen?

LS: I think it turned out very well. I think the ocean is a wonderful addition. It no longer takes place in one room. There is an extension of time much more than could be in the play.

The play is tighter. It is a lean script and always has been.

It has not changed much. I can now see the movie for itself and really appreciate it.

WCT: In Marjorie, you talk about two gay best friends. What was that referring to?

LS: That is a line that Michael Almereyda put in. It is not in the play. It is part of the back and forth between Marjorie and Walter Prime. It is about what they know and the exchange of information.

WCT: You have many gay fans, by the way.

LS: That is lovely!

WCT: What would an Oscar mean if you won it for this film?

LS: I have never thought much about it. It probably means better things are offered to you. Sometimes when you get older there are less good parts, but that has not been my experience. I work in theater a lot. As I get older, the roles seem more interesting and diverse. I already have nothing to complain about, on that score. It is a pretty lucky place to be!

WCT: Actresses like Judi Dench and Helen Mirren are doing well these days, so maybe [the theory that older actors have fewer parts] is not as true as it once was.

LS: Absolutely. I think they are better in England about that, though.

WCT: How was The Laramie Project experience?

LS: I wasn't part of the stage version, but when they put it on film I got to be a part of it on HBO. I loved it and it was so important. That ghastly story was turned into a piece that was so strong. I think it did reach a lot of people.

WCT: What advice do you give to actors to have a lengthy career?

LS: From the vantage point I am at now, endurance is a big deal. I have been fortunate in that way, too. I am healthy. I have lived a long life, and kept working—oh: Also, always be on time!

WCT: So your appearances on Grace and Frankie are completely over?

LS: Well, I did two episodes after they brought my character back in Martin Sheen character's mind. It was part of his story to deal with his mom's death. Once they killed me off, though, I don't think I am coming back.

I had a period on television where many of my characters were killed, so not a lot of returns on those shows.

WCT: In True Blood you were also killed off, but it was such a standout performance.

LS: It was a terrible death on that one. People really loved that first season.

WCT: How was joining Twitter at 87 years old?

LS: It is such a new experience. I have never had any social media at all. I don't think I am very good at it yet.

WCT: What plans do you have for 2018?

LS: I am going to do two plays in New York. One is in the spring by a new author, Lily Thorne, at The New Group called Peace for Mary Frances.

The other one is at Playwrights Horizons that we rehearse in the summer. It is a new play by Craig Lucas that deals with the deaf. We are learning sign language, and I will be both signing and speaking, so it is not exclusively signing. There are deaf actors involved and interpreters during the performances for everyone to experience it. It is called I Was Most Alive with You and is about a deaf, gay, recovering addict. It really is extraordinary.

Marjorie Prime is available on YouTube, Amazon Video, Google Play and iTunes.


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