David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of AwardsLine.
No actress has matured before our eyes the way Sally Field has. Appearing on the scene first as a perky ingénue in two 1960s TV series—Gidget and The Flying Nun—she made an unexpected dramatic breakthrough in Sybil (1976), a made-for-TV movie that brought the genre newfound respect. From there it was a relatively short hop to her first Oscar, as an unlikely union leader in Norma Rae (1979). Then—for a good decade and a half—Field appeared in consistently solid material, including playing a single-minded reporter opposite Paul Newman in Absence of Malice (1981) and Tom Hanks’ redoubtable mama in Forrest Gump (1994). Then, after a period out of the limelight, she reemerged on TV in 2006 to lead the Walker clan for five seasons on Brothers & Sisters. Earlier this year she played Aunt May in The Amazing Spider-Man, Sony’s reboot of its lucrative franchise. And now she claims her biggest—and most important—role in at least 20 years, as the mentally unstable wife of our 16th president in Steven Spielberg’s epic Lincoln, which stars Daniel Day-Lewis as the great man.
AWARDSLINE: What appealed to you about playing Mrs. Lincoln?
SALLY FIELD: What doesn’t? I’d been looking out for her for a long time. She is one of the most underexamined, misunderstood, maligned, yet important women in American history. Had there not been a Mary Todd, there would not have been an Abraham Lincoln. She found him early on, and she was ambitious. She always said she was going to marry the president. She recognized his genius and said, “He’s the one. I will marry him, and he will be president.” She honed him. She was always his closet confidant—until they got to the White House. She was highly complicated but a very necessary and important part of his life. So, yes, she was someone I wanted to play.
AWARDSLINE: You had to fight to land this role. Why?
FIELD: It was the way things needed to happen. Steven was interested in me doing it long ago. Writers came and went, until we got Tony Kushner’s exquisite script, which is poetry, really. Finally, Daniel was on board. But Steven didn’t feel I was right any longer. He tested me, which I asked for, and that didn’t seem to go too well. Yet (even) though he didn’t think I was right, he couldn’t let go of me. I suspect it was Daniel who insisted Steven had to see us on film together to know for sure. So Daniel, being the generous person that he is, flew in from Ireland to L.A., just for the day. And Steven, Daniel, and I had a magical afternoon in which we did some improv in the roles. Then, when I was on my way home, Daniel and Steven together called me, asking me to be their Molly (Lincoln’s nickname for his wife).
AWARDSLINE: How did you arrive at your conception of Mrs. Lincoln?
FIELD: I did all the research I could. I read five credible biographies. One, Mrs. Lincoln: A Life by Catherine Clinton, became my bible. I took it all in, all her documented actions—what she had done and said and her childhood—so I could piece together a psychology. I even visited her home. I tried to see the authentic collections of Mary Todd memorabilia. Then I began to create the exterior, with costumes. To match her measurements, I put on 25 pounds, because we know Mary’s waist size. The costumes were absolutely authentic. You do your work. I worked almost 50 years to be able to do this. Having those pieces of her life and your own life, you put it together. And then you walk on the set and do it.
AWARDSLINE: What was it like working with Steven Spielberg, and what kind of direction did he give?
FIELD: He set up an environment that was the most divine way to work. He allowed us this space. He allowed the crew to understand the actor’s process. I am a Method actor. I try to keep this world going as much as I can. We weren’t called in early to the set. We were called in just as they were ready to shoot. I never had a sense of the crew, and Steven never left the set. And he would let us move around. We wouldn’t even say the dialogue. It was what we did, walking this way and that. And then we shot it. Steven was very much a part of the scene. He would shepherd it, whispering provocative things in my ear. There were not a lot of takes. He would say hugely interesting things. Even if I could remember what he said, I wouldn’t tell you. It’s mine to keep. It was intensely intimate with the three of us.
AWARDSLINE: You’ve got some wonderful scenes opposite Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones. How did they unfold?
FIELD: We just did them. Obviously, some scenes are more challenging because they are so deeply emotional. But we rehearsed those the least. We rehearsed practically nothing. It was all challenging and not challenging at all. I don’t know. The carriage scene, which is one of my favorites, we only shot that twice—maybe three times. I wanted to do it more just because I loved it so much. I wanted to do it till the day I died. But we did it very few times, because we lost the light.
AWARDSLINE: You’ve been twice nominated for Oscars and won both times, so you’re batting .1000. Are you getting your hopes up about another victory?
FIELD: Well, that’s very generous—I’m incredibly flattered—but, no. I’ve been around long enough to know what really matters to me. I want to do that carriage ride again and again. The kind of text that Tony Kushner wrote, the kind of talent both in front of and behind the camera, to have the stewardship of a master like Steven Spielberg—if I could have that ever again, that’s what I want.
AWARDSLINE: How did your previous Oscars change your life?
FIELD: I don’t think about that. I’m sure they affected my career in some way, but I don’t know how. My whole life has affected my career, because that’s what actors do: Your whole life informs your work. What you do and how you live—all that goes into your performances. Louis Armstrong said you have to live a life. And that’s right. If you don’t live a life, you don’t got nothin’ to come out your horn. Your accumulated life is what you bring to these roles.