Down the Call-Sheet: Lois Smith in 'The Americans'

(Down the Call-Sheet is a weekly "discovery" of a great performance by an actor/ actress whose name may not be currently known to the public but deserves some special notice.)

Lois Smith is one of those actresses you've seen a hundred times in a hundred things but her name might not come to mind to the casual viewer. She is what is commonly referred to as a 'character actress'. This term is often confusing because it implies the actor is the type to 'play a character' which is, of course, what every actor should be doing. In Hollywood it's simply a blanket term to mean you aren't a leading man or lady. Yet, at age 85, Lois Smith is still as potent and beautiful as ever.

(Spoiler alert ) In the episode titled, 'Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?' (a winking nod to 'Blade Runner for those in the know) Smith appears in a rather innocent-seeming exchange with Elizabeth (Kerry Russell) as an employee at a machine shop. Elizabeth and her husband have broken into the shop at night in order to bug an FBI mail robot being repaired and happens upon Betty (Smith) who is working late.

What begins as a slight exchange of false pleasantries quickly devolves into the doomed comprehension that Elizabeth can't let Betty leave alive.

One of the great aspects of 'The Americans' is its tension filled pace that neither feels rushed nor does it ever seem to drag. Every scene, whether intimate dialogue or car chase, is supported with narrative and emotional intention. When Betty is confronted by Elizabeth one expects simply that she will be shot for expedience. But there are too many levels at play here. The entire episode comes to bear on this one conversation between two people contemplating life, its meaning and how they have lived it.

Lois Smith is miraculous as she registers her inevitable fate in just her eyes and voice. When Elizabeth talks of of her relationship with her own mother and lets slip that she's "Russian", Smith let's this wash over her with resignation, defeat and a flicker of relief. As she speaks of her dead husband her eyes glaze over with moisture and this dreamy quality of remembrance brings forth a beauty that transported me to seeing her as a little girl. She was going back in time and taking us with her all by going there emotionally and channeling that through her body and face.

It is a performance informed by years of living and the virtue of honing her craft on the stage. Lois Smith isn't currently a household name but she has taught at Julliard, studied with Lee Strasberg and worked with James Dean in 'East of Eden'. Inducted into the 'American Theater Hall of Fame' in 2007, she has been honored with numerous awards and two Tony nominations. Lois is one of those pros lucky and talented enough to work all the time on-screen without the baggage of having to create a 'brand'.

More recently remembered as Sooki Stackhouse's grandmother in 'True Blood', Lois gets a finely crafted platform in 'The Americans' to demonstrate just what a veteran can do in just a little time as a guest star. She is so natural that you have no suspicion the scene is about to stop and rest on her. She could easily have been dispatched as a slight altercation to the couple's espionage but each sentence uttered draws us in further. The scene is so tense and quiet, you keep waiting for a relief to snap you free but instead are dealt a slow and dreadful crawl to its sad resolution.

Not many actors can bring a show's plot to a halt and not have you frustrated that they are wasting your time. When Lois' Betty finally succumbs to her forced, medicated suicide, I felt the pathos embedded in her performance. It brought reflection upon the characters lives as well as my own. When Russell returned to her husband and glibly dismissed her exchange she turns to hide a tearful, pained expression. The gift of working with someone like Lois Smith is a moment like that doesn't have to be acted. She just gave it to you.

'Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?' is from season 3, episode 9 of 'The Americans' on FX. Original air-date 3/25/2015.

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