Lois Smith’s Chicago memories revolve around theater colleagues

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Lois Smith and co-star Jon Hamm at the Sundance Film Festival premiere of “Marjorie Prime.” | Getty Images

The 60-year acting career of Lois Smith has been as much about her acclaimed theater performances as her acting in films and on television. So it’s not surprising the actress’ thoughts about Chicago focus on the strong friendships and relationships she has with such colleagues as fellow Steppenwolf ensemble members Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts.

“I’ve only resided in Chicago when I’m working there, and frankly when I am there, working is pretty much all I do!” said the Kansas native, who long has called New York home. But Smith is delighted she was cast along with Metcalf and Letts in “Lady Bird,” an upcoming film directed by Greta Gerwig.

During her time in Our Town, Smith has become fascinated with “how Chicago’s architecture and waterfront blend together so beautifully. In New York, while surrounded by water, it’s so crowded — with the buildings so packed together — that you rarely get the same sense of how the architecture and the public art complements the waterfront, as you do in Chicago.”

In her new film “Marjorie Prime” (opening Friday at Facets Cinematheque), the actress plays the title character, as she did in a couple of stage productions. Michael Almereyda’s sci-fi drama is set in the near future, when Marjorie and other elderly people are provided with artificial intelligent companions — very lifelike holograms — to help them deal with fading memories. Marjorie’s AI friend is a younger version of her late husband, played by the very handsome Jon Hamm.

The actress laughed when reminded that very early in her long career she was cast opposite another heartthrob: James Dean in “East of Eden,” back in 1954. “Not so bad is it? I’ve been very lucky for so many times,” she said, “and over so many years.”

The opportunity to re-connect with a friend, loved one or family member, as Marjorie does, is an intriguing one for Smith, “but interestingly that’s not what attracted me to the play — or now the movie. That idea, of doing that kind of thing … there’s still something about me that hasn’t gone there. Yes, that technology supposedly is not that far away, so this likely could happen in the near future. But for me, this is about dealing with someone’s sense of humanity and showing that no matter what, humanity — in the final analysis — is never lost, if people truly care about one another. It also was interesting to explore the past and see how ideas and memories do change with time and age.”

Having done “Marjorie Prime” on stage, Smith admitted, “I was so familiar with the play and the character and was pleased that my part changed less in the adaptation than it did for others,” including the role of her daughter, played by Geena Davis, and son-in-law, portrayed by Tim Robbins.

“The biggest change — which I definitely liked — was that I got out around the house, outside the house, on the deck, in the pool, on the beach and in the ocean. That was fun for me, because in the play I spent pretty much the entire time in a reclining chair on our one set, which was one room. It was great to be able to move around a bit more!”

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