In part two of our conversation with the multiple Oscar and Emmy winner, Field reflects on her work in both film and television.
Actress Sally Field, Part 2
Tavis: Pleased we’re back with part two of our conversation with Sally Field. Before we jump into other life and career highlights, let’s take a look back at some scenes from her terrific performance as Mary Todd Lincoln in the new film, “Lincoln.”
Tavis: I think I’m gonna use the word “myth.” There is a myth or certainly there is a narrative that we’ve wrestled with for years about who Mary Todd Lincoln was. Clearly, she was grief-stricken, but what was the challenge to you to portray her in the way that is what the film called for versus what we have heard and thought about Molly?
Sally Field: Well, I had to go in without any preconceived ideas of anything that I might have thought she was. Since I had been sort of looking at her for so many years, I had less preconceived ideas than maybe most people. I read five biographies on her, so it was really piecing together her psychology of why she behaved the way she did and some of the documented things that we know that she behaved certain ways. The task is then what the task is.
You take Tony Kushner’s magnificent complicated screenplay and you put all those pieces together of all the research I had done, the interior and the exterior. I gained 25 pounds to try to, you know, reach the girth, the roundness that she was. Then you shake it up and you let it go and you stand in front of the exquisite talent of Daniel Day Lewis and let her be.
I had no preconceived ideas. I had no notion where she was going. There are scenes of great grief and scenes of great anguish and anger and then levity. She was imperious and she had a feeling of entitlement and she was also devoted to her husband. Had there not been a Mary Todd, there would not have been an Abraham Lincoln. That is simply a fact.
She was breathtakingly smart, highly educated, came from a powerful political family in the south and found him as a young lawyer. He was really nothing but a lawyer and she recognized his brilliance and said that’s the man I’ll marry and he’ll be president, and she went about to help him do that.
Tavis: First of all, before I go any further, the most important question I’ll ask, how much fun was it gaining 25 pounds?
Field: [Laugh] Not as much as you think.
Tavis: Just eat whatever you want [laugh].
Field: You know, this is the thing. I was doing it with a purpose because I was beginning to do the research and I was already in this very disciplined place. So like a jerk, I went to a nutritionist and I ate the most repulsive, awful things. I didn’t allow myself to eat chocolate cake and french fries and cheeseburgers. No, I had these shakes with stuff called Progain that weightlifters…
Tavis: Come on, Sally. You’re disappointing me now.
Field: It was awful.
Tavis: I’m very disappointed in you [laugh].
Field: It was just awful, but every night I felt like…
Tavis: You had a chance to have all this fun and you’re drinking shakes to gain weight?
Field: I felt like a pate de foie gras goose every night [laugh].
Tavis: Obviously, you dropped it.
Field: I did.
Tavis: So was that pretty easy for you or difficult?
Field: No, it was really hard. It took me about six months to gain it, six, seven months, and about a year to lose it. I worked out really hard. I ultimately had to have knee surgery and it was worth it, put it that way. I wouldn’t mind having knee surgery.
Tavis: I’m glad you said that. I was about to ask whether or not – because we see these stories from time to time. I was online the other day and saw a picture of Matthew McConaughey. I didn’t even recognize the guy. He apparently is doing some film coming up and he looks like this small now. Here’s a guy who’s, you know, always walking around with his shirt off ’cause he looks so good without his shirt off.
But I’ve seen actors go through this phase of gaining weight and losing weight to play particular roles and there is always the question in the back of my mind as to whether or not that is healthy. I know art is terribly important and I can’t imagine my life without it, but is it worth going through all of that?
Field: I don’t know. Certainly it was in retrospect. I wouldn’t have done it any different. I was willing to risk it. I’m a woman of a certain age and I thought, well, gosh, I don’t want to do it in such a way that I’ll drop dead halfway through production and they’ll recast. I won’t get to do it, you know [laugh] after all of this.
That’s one of the reasons I went to a nutritionist and tried to do it healthy. But I found out it doesn’t matter, Field. It doesn’t matter if you eat tons of tons of brown rice and you’re eating this enormous amount of calories. It’s still fat and, if it was gonna clog in my heart or my brain or wherever, I was gonna be dead, no matter what.
Tavis: I could be totally off base here, so I’m just asking you. You disabuse me of the notion if I’m wrong about this, but how much of wanting to be in a project like this – I don’t care if your name is Sally Field or whoever else in this town. Is there a gravitational pull even to want to be in a project like this when you know even before it’s done – you don’t know if it’s gonna work or not – but you know that, if it does work, it’s going to be huge.
When Steven Spielberg is taking on Lincoln and Daniel Day Lewis is going to be Lincoln, this guy’s already won the big prize. I mean, there are all kinds of signs, obviously, around a project like this. This is going to be massive. It’s not about winning the Academy Award, even being nominated. It’s just that, if you’re an actor, this is the kind of stuff I would think that you want at some point in your career to be a part of. Is there any truth to that?
Field: You know, there is a truth to it, but it isn’t quite the same as you say.
Field: It is to me to have the opportunity and the privilege to do that kind of work with that kind of excellence around you, whether it be the screenplay by Tony Kushner, standing across from the brilliant Daniel Day Lewis or Tommy Lee Jones or David Strathairn. The cast was not to be believed, or Joseph Gordon-Levitt, or that you work with the brilliant, masterful filmmaker of our time probably, Steven Spielberg at the height of his artistry.
Everyone in front of the camera and behind the camera are just simply as good as it gets and that’s why I would want to be a part of it. I’ve worked all my life, all my life, to add up to be able to be good enough to be in that arena and go toe to toe in it.
Tavis: You mentioned on this program last night there was a point in this process where you thought, even you thought, that it might be better to cast someone else in this character of Mary Todd Lincoln – using your phrase here now, Sally – because of all the baggage that you’ve brought. Let me ask you how you assess, how you’ve carried, that baggage down through the years.
Field: I don’t know. I have a tendency to think of myself as the mutt of the litter. I’m not purebred. There are some actors who are my contemporaries who I think of as purebreds and I’m not. I’m a street mutt and I’ve, you know, sometimes I…
Tavis: Street mutts don’t win Academy – you have two of these statues at home.
Field: I got two of these statues.
Tavis: You’re being a little modest now.
Field: I know, but everything has been a struggle. Nothing has been a glide. I guess it’s some highfalutin idea I have. My children say that there is such a thing as a purebred or a glide. Probably there isn’t, but I don’t know. There have been few people who are my age who’ve been, you know, working as long as I have who have struggled as much and probably because I came out of situation comedy television in the ’60s. The shows I came out of were so ridiculous. Let’s put a name to it. And I had…
Tavis: Are you calling “The Flying Nun” ridiculous?
Field: I kind of am, yeah [laugh], and the struggle to get out of that. Then it was a struggle to change and be taken seriously. For some reason, I’ve been more difficult to cast than somebody else. I can’t really say why it is, but most of the roles I’ve really wanted, I had to fight like crazy for. I had to want them more than my kneecap, you know.
I just will go to – there are no lengths, you know. And you have to dig so far deep inside of yourself to be so vulnerable to want something so deeply. Time and again, for my career, I’ve had to do that.
Tavis: There is a joy in that, though, yes? There is a joy in that sort of beautiful struggle?
Tavis: Maybe not when you’re in it.
Field: You know, you’re so smart, you’re so good. Yes, it’s hard to define what that is, but there is – and I think joy is the right word because there’s something about it that it forces you to have to be so utterly and totally and completely alive and in your own space.
Tavis: That’s it.
Field: I can’t duck and cover and be halfway there. I have to be so utterly and totally alive and that means that, if I go down in flames, it’s gonna hurt like holy hell. But even when you go down in flames, you know you are so utterly here on the planet. Really, why are we here as human beings except to feel what the experience is to be human even when that hurts really bad?
Tavis: That’s probably what it means to be human, you know.
Tavis: You mentioned in this conversation that you are, obviously, at this point a woman of a certain age.
Tavis: Was there ever a point or points, plural, you tell me, where you thought that this kind of epic opportunity would not come your way once you crossed a certain age, certain plateau?
Field: Well, of course, yes, absolutely. I’m not, you know, offered a lot of or any [laugh] films. Much of my career and certainly more recently I’ve had to say, well, then why are you really in this? What do you really want, Field? Other than I’ve had to make a living, for goodness sakes. This is about also how you eat and have a house and take care of my kids all my life.
But then as I got older, it would be like why are you really – what are you struggling for? What do you want? I’d have to say I want to do what I’ve learned how to do, what is my work, what thrills me, makes me alive. All right, if it isn’t in film and in that, you know, most prestigious way, it’ll be wherever I can get it. So if it’s in television, great. If it’s on stage, even better. You know, talk about alive. So I really look to do and have done that, or wherever it is.
I have to put my ego or that part of you that, you know, you win awards or whatever, you have some feeling of entitlement or you were there once, can’t I be there again? All of it must go somewhere else. It’s unimportant and it’s in your way. Why are you doing this and where can you do it?
Tavis: I was reading about you for our conversation and I thought – and we don’t have to go here if you don’t want to go here – but let me put it out there anyway. I was looking at the kind of work you’ve done outside of, to your point, off the stage, off the small screen, off the big screen.
There’s been a consistency in your life of working on womanist issues, issues that are important to women. I thought about that days ago in advance of this conversation, given the success that a good number of women had in this last political election. Elizabeth Warren wins big in Massachusetts.
Fields: Yes, I know, I know, yea.
Tavis: Debbie Stabenow holds onto her seat in Michigan and Claire McCaskill beats back these crazy comments in Missouri to hold onto her seat and there are other stories I could talk about.
Field: And then there’s some women who might not have a vote I have actually voted for, Nebraska being one of them.
Tavis: Precisely [laugh]. I take that. I raise that only because not just early in the political realm, but I looked at the kinds of work you’ve done, the kinds of issues that you’ve worked on, and obviously all these issues are linked to politics at some point. Give me some sense about why you have chosen those kinds of issues to be the work that you do when you’re not acting.
Field: Again, it’s such a – I’ll try to make it a shorter story, but it’s a long story. All of these characters that I’ve done throughout my life have changed me and awakened me and certainly “Norma Rae” began to change me in a very big way, also the fact that Marty Ritt came into my life and made me more aware of what the world really was.
I was then later invited by Save The Children to go – this was before the first Beijing Women’s Conference – to go to Nepal and see the work that they did and then to go speak at the Beijing Women’s Conference. I then took my middle son who was 21 at the time and we did all of that.
It awakened me in a way I had not been awakened before about how women are treated all over the world and the struggle of women and slowly but surely realizing that, if women didn’t come to the table in a real way – I mean, the statistics are staggering – that the world would always be in turmoil, that if women were allowed a place at the proverbial table, that the environment was better, that their villages and their communities were stronger economically, that their children were healthier, that there was literally no down side and everything changed and made a more stable community.
You realized when women are subjugated and treated as fodder of war and even in this country when they’re not allowed to be paid equally, there is a real problem in that. Until we can fight and scream and kick and demand it to change and the women not be slaughtered – that there were 100 million women missing off the planet – this is an inequality that must stop. I became impassioned with it and I then worked for people like Eve Ensler who still is just a hero.
I urge people to go on her website and see what she’s doing this V-Day, for women to stand up and scream and be known that this has to change, or Vital Voices which is another very important group based in Washington which helps empower women to go back into the community and spread it out and teach other women and change the world.
Tavis: You gave me another opportunity to circle back to Mary Todd Lincoln, the character you play in this new “Lincoln” film from Steven Spielberg. To your earlier point, you have been – my word, not yours – blessed, fortunate, to play so many important characters who, by your own admission, have changed your life. What will you take, what have you taken – you know where I’m going with this, don’t you?
Field: Yes, with Mary.
Tavis: Mary, yeah. What will you take, what have you taken, from this character?
Field: I haven’t left her. Mary is still so imbedded in me. Now “Lincoln” is coming out, it’s so hard for it to come out for me. This was such a deep, personal experience for me in every way. Mary is still here with me and I don’t know how she has changed me because she’s so right here with me.
It’s almost been hard for me to talk about her. I know she will change me and I also know she will always be with me. It sounds creepy and spooky, but it’s not. She belonged to me, I belonged to her. I felt that and I really feel it now. She has changed me and I don’t think she’ll ever go.
Tavis: How hard – I think you used the word “struggle.” Maybe I’m thinking the wrong word. But the point you made earlier when I was teasing you about “The Flying Nun” is that you had to struggle. You had to work hard to be taken seriously. As you reflect on that, two questions. I should never ask a two-part question, but I will anyway ’cause you can take it and run with it. One, how hard was it to make the transition to be taken seriously after, you know, a character like that?
Number two, do you think you have now – are you comfortable with the fact? I’m trying to figure this out for myself sitting here talking to you whether or not you are finally comfortable with the fact that, as an actor, you have been taken seriously.
Field: Okay, let’s see. You know, the way I transitioned eventually was that, when I was doing “The Flying Nun” and I was so massively depressed, I was taken to the Actors Studio by Madeleine Sherwood who was on the show and I began working with Lee Strasberg and I became an Actors Studio baby. I am method through and through to my core, and my work started to develop. I started to be able to understand a craft and play with it and do it and understand it.
Eventually, I would say to myself, well, it’s only gonna change when I’m ready. I didn’t know how, but I knew I had to be better than I thought I had to be. I had to be much better than even that. Eventually, I just sort of fought my way in sort of over everybody’s dead body kind of. I don’t know that I ever – I grew up in a show business family, in a working class show business family.
My stepfather was a stuntman/actor. Really a hard, hard, hard life. We’d have some things, you know, cars and things and a house one day and then, the next day, they’d come take it all away literally and we’d have to then find a much cheaper place to live. Again and again, that would happen.
My mother was an actress who was working class. One week she’d get, you know, a show. She had a part on “Bonanza” and she’d go to work for, you know, two weeks or something and then she wouldn’t work for three or four months. Sometimes you didn’t know, wait a minute, if nobody’s working, how are we living here? It wasn’t a glamorous life.
So I think there’s a part of me that won’t ever allow myself to feel I’ve ever arrived because he did that and, every time he did that, they came and took everything away. I think the minute you feel I’ve arrived and I’m entitled now, uh-oh. Then you got lazy, then you stopped, then something quieted.
Tavis: It’s a perfect way, I think, on which to end this conversation because I wanted to ask this question at the beginning of our conversation last night. It just didn’t fit, so here you now open the door for me to ask.
With all that you saw your mother and father go through and the million ways that impacted you economically, socially, culturally, why did you yet make the choice to be in this business or, put another way, was it not really a choice at all?
Field: It was never a choice. I was always that. I was always, always that. Maybe it was my deep and profound love for my mother who loved it so and who had studied with Charles Laughton and that drive to reach something magical in what any of this is. She would carry around Chekhov books, books of Chekhov plays, and always was working on things like that for no reason except she loved it, and Shakespeare, and always memorizing poetry and carrying me around on her hip and read these things out loud.
So in some way, I think, early on, it was my love for my mother that began to have this world where we were in together. So I always was this, always, in junior high school and high school. It is who I am and it’s like don’t be an actor? That would be like cutting off both my legs and even an arm. So it would be a huge part of just me.
Tavis: Well, I’m glad that you have been this. I’m glad that you are this and I am glad that they chose you for “Lincoln.”
Field: Thank you.
Tavis: The project, as you know, is called “Lincoln” starring Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln and Sally Field stars as Mary Todd Lincoln, or mother, or Molly. I don’t need to encourage you to see the film. I think the whole country’s waiting on this. I’m honored to have you on this program and I’m delighted in these two nights of conversation.
Field: This has been so great. You are so wonderful.
Tavis: You’re kind to come on, and thank you for your time.
Field: Thank you.
Tavis: I appreciate you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for tuning in. Until next time, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
Wade Hunt: There’s a saying that Dr. King had that he said there’s always the right time to do the right thing. I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger and we have a lot of work to do. Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we could stamp hunger out.
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.