WASHINGTON, D.C. — It’s safe to say that Lois Smith has “a performative streak” within her.
That phrase is the most memorable line Smith has in playing the character of Sister Sarah Joan in the movie “Lady Bird,” which nabbed a couple of Golden Globe nominations while Oscar buzz is building.
“Lady Bird” unspools the senior year of its title character Christine McPherson (Saoirse Riordan) at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California, in 2002-03, one quite similar to the school attended by the movie’s writer-director, Greta Gerwig.
“I liked it the minute I read it. So did my agent,” Smith, 87, told Catholic News Service in a Dec. 21 telephone interview, adding “there was no question” she would take on the role. “It was a wonderful piece.”
Smith called Gerwig “a remarkably talented person” whom she had not met until her first day on the set.
“The second and third day of the shoot was when I did my scenes with Saoirse. Then I was with her for a while when they had scenes with lots of people,” Smith said.
Smith said the film shooting was “safe, and by that I mean there was no friction. It’s so well-written, and when a part is wonderfully well-written, it’s quite understandable what it’s about. I don’t think there was ever any friction. Of course, it’s a lovely way to work when you feel upheld by the text itself and by the director who is so knowledgeable and so concerned. … It’s a pleasure to work that way.”
With her experience, Smith should know what constitutes a safe set. Her first TV credit was in 1953 for “Pond’s Theater.” Smith’s first Broadway appearance was also in 1953 in the comedy “Time Out for Ginger,” later winning a Drama Desk Award for “The Trip to Bountiful” and being nominated twice for Tonys. Her first movie role was Anne in “East of Eden,” which starred James Dean, in 1955.
In 2017 alone, Smith had roles on five television series and two other films. “I’m very fortunate to be in demand, as they say,” Smith said. In fact, award buzz is building for her as well in the title role of the movie “Marjorie Prime,” which also features Jon Hamm, Geena Davis and Tim Robbins.
“All the days are busy right now, yes,” Smith told CNS, as she’s doing phone interviews with reporters and talk-show appearances to keep potential moviegoers interested in not one but two films lest they get swept away by the undercurrent of the tsunami of late-December movie releases.
“Lady Bird” has clung to a perch in the lower rungs of the top 10 U.S. box office receipts most weeks since its mid-November debut.
Talking about her Sister Sarah Joan character, Smith said, “It’s so well-written it’s like it wasn’t mysterious (in how to portray her). I’m not Catholic, I wasn’t raised Catholic, it’s not as if I had a lot of knowledge — but one picks up a lot of knowledge from movies and so on.”
“The movie is so much about a growing-up, coming-of-age movie and characters and all that. I was thinking, this wonderful character, Sister Sarah Joan, is a grown-up and a teacher and so interested in and good at reaching young people at that point in their lives. And reaching with a kind of kindness — and strictness, too — but generosity. It’s just one of the wonderful things about the character.”
CNS guest reviewer Kurt Jensen said “Lady Bird” is “Gerwig’s sensitive autobiographical account” of her high school days that is “pleasing in some respects but teeth-grating in a couple of others.” Lady Bird, while not Catholic, is “not rebelling against church teachings, though, as much as life in general and her place in it,” Jensen added, but by film’s end, “shows a very strong old-school moral compass at work.”
The movie received a classification of L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling — for “underage nonmarital sexual activity, mature themes, a same-sex kiss, a scene of marijuana use and frequent coarse language.”