Already playing in a couple of markets and soon to open wider this weekend, the latest film from director Michael Almereyda (who also adapted it), MARJORIE PRIME, is based on the Off-Broadway critical hit from writer Jordan Harrison. The four-person play is part science fiction, part family drama about Marjorie, an elderly woman (Lois Smith, who was also in original play) who is slowly losing her memory and has purchased a service that provides her with a hologram of Walter, her late husband (Jon Hamm, from “Mad Men” and BABY DRIVER), who converses with her, in an attempt to capture her memories and recite many of them back to her in the form of conversation. And I have no problem believing that humans would buy into this grief-alleviating technology the second it becomes available in real life.
Marjorie’s daughter (Geena Davis) and her husband (Tim Robbins) have mixed feelings about hologram version of Walter, but as the film goes on, we see both the dangers and advantages to capturing memories in such a way. It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking work, featuring strong performances from everyone involved. I first saw the film at Sundance back in January and got a chance to sit down with most of those involved in making it, including the “husband-and-wife” duo of Smith and Hamm. It just so happens that the very first Broadway play I ever saw was a 1990 Steppenwolf Theater production of “The Grapes of Wrath,” which featured Smith as Ma Joad (the production debuted in Chicago and moved to Broadway). So when I finally turned on my recorder, that’s what we were in the middle of talking about. Please enjoy my talk with Lois Smith (whom you might remember from TWISTER and THE NICE GUYS) and Jon Hamm…
Capone: Seeing it was one of the greatest experiences of my life; I’ll never forget it. You went to Broadway with it, too.
Lois Smith: We had a great experience too. The first production was in Chicago, the one you saw. There was a lot of interest in going further with it, but unknown, and we were invited to an international festival in London, but we were still working on it in the last part of the Chicago run. We were still working on the text and everything, so I went back to New York, and did another play, actually.
So the following season, we opened the season at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, and there we went back to Chicago, had a full rehearsal, again building on what we’d done up to then, it opened in La Jolla, and that’s where it got there all the way. It was like, we got there. So we played that run, went to London with a festival, we were there only a couple of weeks, we could have stayed much longer. It really was exciting. Now that we had more acclaim, the Shuberts, who had enough theaters and enough money to join all the other people who wanted to bring it to Broadway, did just that. So we went back to New York. I did another play, and then we rehearsed a full rehearsal period. You never get to do that.
Capone: And the play won a Tony, too. And you were nominated
LS: Yes. It was a journey for all of us.
Jon Hamm: I remember hearing about that production. I never got the chance to see it. That’s the reason I read that book, too. I remember picking up that book. It was right around when I got to L.A., and I had nothing to do, I was fully unemployed, and I remember reading about that in the L.A. Times or The New York Times about the production, and I was like, “You know what? I don’t think I ever read that all the way through.” I either Cliff Notes it, or half-assed some paper about it, but I said, “I’m going to read this book.” And I bought it and read it and I loved it.
LS: It’s marvelous. We were all carrying a copy around at that time.
JH: It’s an amazing book, especially when you’re like unemployed in California.
Capone: So speaking of plays, you did MARJORIE PRIME on stage. What do you remember responding to initially to both your characters and the bigger-picture concepts at work?
LS: This is probably the new play that I remember, the minute I got it and started to read it, I think I was as excited as I’ve ever been. And the reasons were surprise, which I love to have happen when I’m watching a play or in one. This family of people, with this disparate presentation, and the secrets, which is partly about the memories lost and found. As it moves forward, I was just enchanted and excited to read it.
JH: I had not read the play, I was not familiar with the play, but I was familiar with Michael’s work, the filmmaker, and I found his films to be always challenging, in the best way that I can say that. And of course, I was familiar with Lois’s work. So I thought, “This is an interesting opportunity to do something a little outside of my comfort zone, a little curious in subject matter.” And if found the story compelling and the character exciting to be able to play, so it was a no-brainer for me. It’s interesting having done a lot of these [interviews] over the last couple of days, listening to everyone’s experience when they first got the project. Everyone seems to have felt that way, from myself to Geena to Tim. Everybody was just like, “Oh yeah, I’ll do that. This seems like a good one.”
Capone: The story is open enough that I feel like whatever an audience member brings into it will be reflected in what they get from it. It’s about memory, about grieving and avoiding grieving. It works on a very broad landscape. You both get to play two versions of your characters as did Geena. Were there any rules that you had about movement or just how you played them slightly differently?
JH: The only real rule was that they don’t have a physical component to them, so they can’t be touched and they can’t pick things up. There’s no physical relationship. The rest of it, I don’t remember having any kind of lesson plan. It was like, bring to it what you think it is. And from my end, it’s a little bit different, because we’re introduced to my character as this thing, and only later do we see the actual person. So it was about representing this person, but a person that hasn’t moved off of neutral, hasn’t gone one way or other yet, he’s still on neutral, so it’s all incoming and very little outgoing other than parroting stories. So it was an interesting challenge, honestly. And when you start to realize what these things are in the film, I think that’s when it really starts to enrich the experience.
LS: And we had to remember the whole idea that the primes are by nature, by purpose, sympathetic.
Capone: I feel like when you’re in that prime mode, your voice is a little bit more soothing than it is when you’re just being Walter. Was that something you thought, “I have to be as comforting as I possible can.”
JH: For some version of that, sure. You never want to talk in like, “Bleep-blorp, I am a robot” voice, but I think that there is some version of, like I said, I think it’s mostly just about neutrality, being as neutral as you possibly can and then hearing and listening to the great information coming in.
Capone: Every character has a different reaction and interaction as the story goes on, and with Tim I think it makes it worse having a hologram version of Geena there, but Marjorie is clearly comforted by having Walter there.
LS: And interested.
Capone: Especially because it’s the younger version of him.
LS: Exactly, that I chose.
Capone: I love that nothing is explained about the whole process and how it works.
JH: Yeah, there’s no manual, no montage, no assembly line. I think that’s what Michael does very well in this film. As a 45-year-old human being on the planet, I appreciate being allowed to make my own conclusions about things, especially in a theatrical or cinematic sensibility. I feel like it’s what we did with “Mad Men” in a lot of ways. I appreciate not being led along in a certain paint-by-numbers path. I feel like if the material is good and it’s well represented, and you’re saying something. As you said earlier, people are going to bring different things to this. Everyone’s had a relationship, everyone’s had loss, everyone’s had grief, everyone’s had a family, and I think that for me, it resonated so deeply, surprisingly too, because I gave it a chance.
Capone: The last thing I want to ask you is about the last scene with the three primes together. That scene made me very anxious for some reason. I’m like, “Am I supposed to be scared of what’s happening right now, that they’re learning from each other, and they have somehow activated themselves?” Because I did wonder for a lot of the film what happens when two of them are in the same room together. What do you want us thinking about after the last scene?
JH: I found it the opposite of anxious. I found it very comforting. I thought these people found the new definition of family, and they’re growing and they’re learning, and the idea of Walter maybe wanting to write music I found adorable. But I do think it’s supposed to be unsettling in some way, because you realize they look and act and seem just like the people that we’ve seen this whole movie.
LS: Except maybe by now a little more relaxed. In doing a play, there was such a difference in reaction to the end of the play. I know people who felt comforted, people who felt chilled and scared and worried.
JH: Again, that’s on purpose. I really do think that that’s a choice.
LS: It is. It allows a lot of different adjustments.
Capone: It also made me anxious when you corrected one of the other primes on a fact, because she had never learned that. And I just thought “Wow, they’re rewriting history.”
JH: But don’t we all do that? That’s kind of how it is.
Capone: I felt like we were looking at the beginnings of the our overlords [everyone laughs]. Well, it was so great to meet you both.