Friday , December 1 2023
Lois Smith, Five Easy Pieces, Jack Nicholson
Lois Smith, Jack Nicholson, 'Five Easy Pieces' (courtesy of the film)

Interview: Actress Lois Smith with Linda Winer, LPTW Oral History Series

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and The League of Professional Theatre Women collaborate on a number of special evenings during the year. The LPTW champions women in theater. Its members form a network of professionals representing all aspects of the theater, from artistic directors to technicians and “everything in-between.”

The Oral History Series chronicles the contributions of renowned theater women. Held at the NYPL for the Performing Arts in the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center, the dynamic and entertaining evenings are well attended by women and men.

An LPTW Oral History Series event on Monday 22 October featured a conversation with award-winning actress Lois Smith, interviewed by 30-year Newsday Drama Critic Linda Winer. Members learned that Smith’s prodigious career spans multiple genres: film, television, theater. Nominated for two Tonys Awards, she has won an Obie, a Lucille Lortel, an Outer Critics Circle, and a Drama Desk Award.

Linda Winer is an award winner in her own right, including receiving the LPTW special award for her service to the league and her field. After Ludovica Villar Hauser made opening remarks, Linda Winer sat down to talk to Lois Smith about her favorite theater and film roles and Ms. Smith’s extensive body of work. For variety, I’ve summarized the first part of their conversation. Then in the second segment I’ve included their direct conversation, edited for infelicities.

When Linda Winer suggested that Lois Smith is perhaps the busiest working actor in New York, Ms. Smith humbly commented that she has just hung around for a really long time. She also discussed how fortunate she is to work and defy conventional wisdom. That “wisdom” is that when you get old, the parts are few and not interesting.

Ludovica Villar-Hauser, Lois Smith, Linda Winer, LPTW, NYPL for the Performing Arts
Ludovica Villar-Hauser, LPTW Oral History Series, Lois Smith and Linda Winer in Conversation (Ashley Garrett)

The opposite happened for Smith. She continues to receive interesting parts and more of them. And she agrees with Anne Bancroft who said she didn’t always want to work. So she counts her blessings that she still does what she loves to do. And she especially loves to be in a good play. Also, she credits the good plays to an increase in talented women playwrights. Since she began, the good news is that the number of women directors and writers has increased.

Ms. Smith credited Martha Levy, the artistic director of Steppenwolf in the 1990s, as a true champion of women artists, writers, and directors. She discussed playing a blind woman in Annie Baker’s play John and learning sign language in the recent Craig Lucas play I Was Most Alive With You (see our review here)These were complex and rich characters. She found the sign language fun to take on, and quipped that you find out one day you can forget your lines in two languages.

She also enjoyed being a part of productions of Trip to Bountiful and Grapes of Wrath. She found the audience reception to Trip to Bountiful very positive. For her that was a wonderful feeling. And the Steppenwolf production of Grapes of Wrath, she said,”reached out and worked with the audience.”

Was Eve the first character you played in your father’s church?

I certainly learned about acting and the theater at my father’s knee, not that he was a theater person. My father for some reason took acting and directing classes in night school when he worked for the telephone company for many years. And the reason I say that is because he wanted to put on plays in church. He was a devoted lay member of a Protestant church in the Midwest. And when we moved he continued with the plays.

Lois Smith, LPTW, Oral History Series
Lois Smith, Warner Brothers (photo courtesy of Warner Brothers website)

For two years we lived in St. Joseph, Missouri and then we moved. In Topeka and Seattle the same thing happened. He put plays on in his church. They were not Biblical plays but they were plays that belonged in a church. He almost never went to the movies. He occasionally went to the theater. But that was how it all started for me. So when you say I played Eve – I remember the preacher’s son and I were very young. Perhaps we may have been drafted into playing some version of Adam and Eve. I’m not really sure we weren’t naked. (laughter)

You were a contract player at Warner.

It wasn’t hard. After East of Eden (1955), I did another movie at Warner Brothers. They had me sign a two-picture deal. So I made this other movie which I rarely talk about. It’s called Strange Lady in Town (1955) with Greer Garson. I play Dana Andrews’ daughter, and Cameron Mitchell was my heartthrob. He was a bad guy but I loved him. I was the ingénue and I rode horses.

Not very much later, I did a play on Broadway called The Young and Beautiful written by Sally Benson and based on a F. Scott Fitzgerald story from the Saturday Evening Post. I didn’t want to be in LA. Instead, I realized I wanted to do the play. No problem. No one said you must come back and twice a year do a play at Warner Brothers.

How lucky you escaped that. And then you moved here [to New York] and we’ll talk about your background. You married a high school sweetheart.

He wasn’t a high school sweetheart. We slightly knew each other in high school. We had the same English teacher. She was enormously important to us and another group of close friends. We got married. I was barely 18. We were in the University of Washington together. He was a Classics major and he had a scholarship to Harvard to do graduate work. I didn’t finish college. So we came back East. I lived in New York and he lived in Cambridge. So for a while we went back and forth from Cambridge to New York as he was a graduate student. And I started working in the theater. That was 1952. That was when I got my first job, in 1952, a long time ago.

Lois Smith, LPTW, Linda Winer, NYPL for the Performing Arts, Oral History Series
(L to R): Lois Smith, Linda Winer, LPTW, Oral History Project, NYPL for the Performing Arts (Ashley Garrett)

You daughter’s name is Moon.

My daughter’s name is Moon. Just an inspiration. Her middle name was going to be Elizabeth because of the teacher I mentioned. And fortunately she loves her name.

And you didn’t know she was going to grow up to be a midwife.

No. Can you imagine, and her name is Moon.

And two grandchildren?

Three. The first is adopted from China. And the second two she birthed. And they’re all young adults now.

Who told you you could have a life? People with big careers don’t often have lives.

I don’t think so. Maybe some don’t have time or mind for it, but I think people do have a life [that] maybe we don’t know about.

I was at a Woman’s Media Luncheon. Barbara Walters leaned over and said, “Women, you can have two of the three but you can’t have all three,” meaning career, husband, children.

How did that go over?

Well, I remembered it. I think that’s why I asked how did you have a career and family?

Well, I’m only 150 now, but I don’t have a husband.

If you stick around enough, you get to play all the ages of women. And now you’re playing women who are dying.

I remember one time years ago – some of you are actors, but not all, so you do play readings which is important. But sometimes it’s too much. I was getting lots of scripts in which there was dementia or death. And I thought with some of them, I don’t want to settle into this and really didn’t. I’ve been fortunate. The last two characters I’ve played, one died, the other was terminal. There’s bound to be some of that.

NYPL for the Performing Arts, Lois Smith, Linda Winer, Ludovia Villar-Hauser, LPTW, Oral History Project
(L to R): Lois Smith, Ludovica Villar-Hauser, Linda Winer, LPTW, Oral History Project, NYPL for the Performing Arts (Ashley Garrett)

You’ve said you love being in the theater.

It’s fun being in an imaginary life.

Barbara Walters told me sleep is important for preparation.

I love sleep.

You see, I am a sleep artist. The wonders of recreational sleeping are really underrated.

I agree.

And that part of your preparation is, “Well, I’m going to go to sleep.”

Yes, I love to sleep. And I go to sleep between matinees and evening performances. Also, I sleep between the end of the endless rehearsals that happen all through previews and the evening performance. Likely, I take a little bit of a nap during lunch hour.

Backstage, you just stretch out sleeping. Just great. In the last year, to give you an idea, I’m not overstating that she works, you were in the Craig Lucas play, I Was Most Alive With You. You got the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Marjorie Prime and for your body of work.

Yes. That award meant a lot to me. Two, three years ago. It was a citation. Surely, it wasn’t a big deal with an awards ceremony. But the people also given awards were Oskar Eustis, Evo Van Hove, and designer Jan Versweyveld. Also, George Woolf spoke because the musical that year won an award. I thought, well, this is the kind of heavy company on this level that means a great deal. It’s not a bunch of nominations for what’s most popular with a lot of hoopla. This was very different. I treasured that. It was great.

Lois Smith, Linda Winer, NYPL for the Performing Arts, LPTW Oral History Series
(L to R): Lois Smith, Linda Winer, LPTW, Oral History Series, NYPL for the Performing Arts (Ashley Garrett)

Also this last year, you did an episode of Younger. You did an episode of Grace and Frankie. And, you performed in the Lily Thorne play where you were in hospice. [See our review of Peace for Mary Frances] Then, we saw your portrayal in Ladybird, and I don’t usually quote. But the NY Times called  you a “great actor at the height of her powers.” Isn’t that great!!! (applause)

Well, I hope not. What does he know where I’m going?

That was in your 87th year. I’m saying this because there’s a punchline. You’re almost 88. Completely astonishing. You’re working all the time, memorizing new plays all the time. The one thing that stuck in my head: When you turned 87, you joined Twitter.

It had nothing to do with social media. I was promoting the film of Marjorie Prime, a little film with not enough money to have spent lots on ads and big releases. It was released in many cities. They did decide to do a campaign. I did a campaign for the movie and myself which I never did before. And I trust I’ll never do it again. It was of some interest and it went on for months. The press agent was lovely. We became friends. His name is Adam Kersh…And they came after me. You’ve got to join Twitter on your birthday. Finally, I said all right. He would say, wouldn’t it be nice? I said I would write it myself. So maybe half the times I wrote something myself.

So for your 88th birthday…

What do you think I should do?

I think you should ride horses. I have to stop making up stories and open it up to the group. When you were the grandmother in True Blood the vampire series, how did you approach the character?

There was really no problem. I was in it for the first half of the first season and then came to a terrible end.

And we were sorry.

But my scenes were in the house. True, there was a lot of madness and craziness. But I wasn’t part of the vampire nightclub. A lot of that came later in the series. I did entertain the main vampire in my home and took to him. But there really wasn’t any conflict with the vampire life because I wasn’t part of that.

And you were a moral force.

Yes. What kind of work do I want to do? I guess I don’t know. There are some things coming up. One is a teeny television job. One of them I can’t talk about yet. There’s another. And then I don’t know what I’m going to do next. What I’d like to do next is work on something that I care about with people who also care. There’s nothing better. It’s a very simple thing to say, but it’s not necessarily a simple thing to have happen. May I be lucky enough to have that happen.

Lois Smith, Linda Winer, LPTW, Oral HIstory Series, NYPL for the Performing Arts
(L to R): Lois Smith, Linda Winer, LPTW, Oral History Series, NYPL for the Performing Arts (Ashley Garrett)

What was it like to work on Five Easy Pieces (1970)?

What comes to mind immediately and speaks to what you ask: We were on Vancouver Island. One of the San Juan Islands. It was actually a little peninsula, but it looked like an island. We all stayed in a motel near the set which was a wonderful house that became the house of the family. Every night we all ate together. I don’t remember other people around. There may have been guests. Bob Rafelson and we all talked about the day’s work and the coming day’s work, about possible alterations that came up. It was shared, collaborative. It was the good stuff. I think that’s what you saw in that family that was created. And Bob Rafelson created it.

That’s more rare.

I think so. It’s rare. There tends to be less rehearsal. Putting a play and a film together are very different. A film is done moment by moment, not in chronological order. It’s a very different system. And so having this shared time and planning together is not so common.

What advice would you give to anyone starting a career in the theater?

Oh. It isn’t that hard. Be on time and enjoy yourself.

In the process of filming Five Easy Pieces, did you get to know Karen Black and Susan Anspach?

Only in the course of the weeks we were there together. I didn’t get to know them well. Nor did I have a friendship with them. Actually, I lived in New York, and they didn’t.

If you could change one thing about the theater now, is there something you would change for women? Or anything you would snap your fingers at?

One thing that is on my mind lately has to do with rehearsal time, which keeps getting chipped away and smaller. I’ve been feeling that not only is the time actually less, but the kind of scene work which is for me the joyous basis of rehearsal, I’m talking about in the room, before one is moved to the theater, before tech, it’s becoming less. There is no substitute for it. And I think everyone knows there is no substitute for it, but it keeps getting brushed away.

And so time is not spent in the creation of what happens with the actors. This is an actor thing. What happens with the actors, what happens with the characters, what happens with the development of the play through the actors, so that it has its life, its particularity. All of those things. And because that is so short-changed one moves into the technical part of the rehearsal [as] more like a thing to be moved about. Without the soul having been planted. And then it drives me crazy, which over and over is said.

I’ve been working mostly in the Off Broadway theaters, the nonprofit theaters which I love. So I do not want to disparage. I’ve found wonderful homes there and treasure them, and treasure the plays I’ve been able to do. I remember a long time ago that always, the first run-through is, “Oh my God!” It’s awful but that’s OK because you have run-throughs and other run-throughs.

And then you come into tech. And I loved it. I love it. Because all of the other elements come through. And the designers come in, etc., and it seemed to be a great time for actors because we’re not the point now. We do our thing as much as we are able. Then you begin to perform for the public. Of course it gets better as it goes along. But now, they say, oh well, this is just a preview. So for three weeks, you’re rehearsing all afternoon in what’s basically tech and playing to a paying audience with a really unfinished piece. And I find it wrong. Wrong.

Is it because of money? Because tech is so expensive?

Perhaps, it’s many things. Money is part of it. And a lust for that stage picture, you know the fancy stuff. However, this is just one person speaking. I am more happy in more character-full plays than in spectaculars. Other people are different. Other people have a different view.

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