Sally Field finds role for all time in 'Lincoln'

Iconic actress plays Mary Todd Lincoln opposite Day-Lewis in Spielberg epic

Published On: Nov 13 2012 06:53:52 AM PST   Updated On: Nov 14 2012 05:51:42 AM PST
Sally Field in Lincoln inset Field Spielberg Day Lewis

From her lighter turns in "Gidget" and "The Flying Nun" to the riveting portrayals in "Sybil," "Norma Rae" and "Places in the Heart," there's no question iconic actress Sally Field has had her share of classic roles.

And even though she's also bridged generations with some of the roles (Mrs. Gump in "Forest Gump") and continues to earn new fans to this day with others (Aunt May in "The Amazing Spider-Man"), the two-time Oscar-winner said she never stopped pursuing, over her five decades-long career, a role that was all-encompassing.

That is, until "Lincoln" came along.

Field knows very well that her latest role as Mary Todd Lincoln, opposite Daniel Day-Lewis' President Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's new historical epic, transcends everything she's ever done. Simply put, it's a role for all-time that will resonate with all generations.

"Roles do not come around very often, and I can't imagine anything every coming around like this again," Field told me in a recent interview. "Certainly she's one of the most complicated, misunderstood and unexamined women in American history. Without Mary Todd, there would not have been an Abraham Lincoln. That's just the truth."

Now playing in select cities and opening nationwide on Friday, "Lincoln" follows the tumultuous last few months in Abraham Lincoln's life in 1865, leading up to the passage of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery and his assassination shortly thereafter.

The film also closely examines the president's strained relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln. Still bereft with grief over the death of her young son, Willie (the second Lincoln child to die young after Eddie), Mary is horrified at the prospect of losing her eldest Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), as he insists upon serving the Union in the Civil War instead of standing idly by.

As a mother of three sons in real life, Field said it was enormously difficult to wrap her head around the idea of playing a mother who had lost children.

"You have to learn everything you possibly can, then you take the text and you apply your own life to it and dig as far down as you possibly can go as a human being to unearth your humanness," Field explained. "I know -- knock on wood, please God -- that I've been lucky enough never to have lost a child, but unfortunately I know what grief is."

Field, who turned 66 on Election Day, said her road to "Lincoln" was a complicated one, starting, oddly enough, with finding a way to get her foot in the door. Despite her lauded body of work, Field said she wasn't exactly a lock to be in the film.

"I fought for the role. Daniel and Steven were kind enough to let me attest that I was right for it, and that I wouldn't walk away. I wouldn't get out of Steven's face, which is not like me at all. I think I was possessed by Mary," Field said with a laugh. "She had to be mine, and I fought for her and she was."

Once she was on-board, Field found out that getting the role was only one of the obstacles she would face. The next would be the time -- or lack thereof -- that she'd get to spend with her leading man before cameras started rolling. After all, Day-Lewis, a double Oscar-winner like Field, has often been heralded as one of the greatest actors of our generation -- and perhaps the most mysterious.

Per Day-Lewis' and Spielberg's request, there would be no rehearsals before filming. When Field did have exchanges with Day-Lewis in character, she said it was done in an unusual and unexpected way.

"The relationship that Daniel and I created slowly, over months and months and months, we did through texting each other," Field explained. "We created some beginnings of familiarity with each other since we texted each other, and by doing it totally in character and completely of the language of the time. It was very difficult and challenging to do."

When it came to the 11th hour, Field said she put her foot down to get a bit of time to rehearse with Day-Lewis face-to-face.

"I did demand -- within the context of Mary and very much in our characters -- that I spend the afternoon with him before we started shooting and he was gracious enough to do that," Field said. "I had to have some feeling of familiarity with him and his physicality. I had to walk with him and hold his hand and take his arm. I had to play somebody that was married to somebody for a long time -- which was 20-some-odd years at that point."

On the other side of the camera, Field said she found her director to be very accessible.

"Steven is the most exquisite, detailed, generous artist. It was the most incredible bubble that he and Daniel created for the actors to live in and be these people," Field enthused. "I found it to be absolute nirvana as an actor and at the heart of it was Steven Spielberg."

In the end, Field said, Spielberg was effectively another character on-screen in "Lincoln" -- albeit an invisible one.

"Nearly all of my scenes are with Daniel as the beloved Mr. Lincoln, but also mixed within them is Steven -- in my head, on the floor and underneath the camera. He was never far away," Field said. "I could look up at the end of the scene and meet his eyes. It was an amazingly loving, generous, supported experience all the way through and I think we all felt that."