Actress Sally Field, Part 1

The two-time Oscar winner describes her role as the first lady in one of this year’s most talked about films, Lincoln.

With two Oscars and three Emmys, Sally Field has proved her mettle as an actress. She's headlined such blockbuster features as Steel Magnolias and Norma Rae and drawn sold out houses on Broadway. She's also produced features through her production company, directed both TV and feature fare and co-written an ABC telefilm. Field was raised in a show-business family and began her career on TV. She went on to star in three series by age 25. A dedicated human rights advocate, she is on the board of the international women's NGO, Vital Voices Global Partnership, and the recipient of the 2012 Human Rights Campaign's Ally for Equality Award.


Tavis: What a great pleasure to welcome Sally Field to this program. The two-time Oscar winner has been a beloved actress for her standout work in film and television. Currently starring in what is easily one of the most-talked-about films of 2012, “Lincoln.” Before we get to that, a little trip down memory lane. Can we do that?

Sally Field: Yes.

Tavis: Okay.

Field: I guess so.

Tavis: Just a small sample (laughter) of your award-winning career.

[Montage of Sally Field’s work]

Tavis: You have quite a bit of work in the rear-view mirror, so what, what do you think?

Field: I don’t know what I think. I, I, I, I hardly ever look at that. I don’t know. Gosh, I looked young in “Smokey and the Bandit.” I forgot. (Laughter)

Tavis: But what’s amazing about this is the range, the range your career has covered already.

Field: Well, it’s covered a lot of years. It’s like almost 50. It will be 50 years that I’ve been doing this professionally in ’14. So we’re almost in ’13, so I started in 1964. So it’s been a diverse road of ups and downs and sideways.

Tavis: Yeah. We’ve got two nights to talk about that diverse road –

Field: Oh, good.

Tavis: – of ups and downs and sideways – mostly ups, I think. But this latest role will add, without question, more talk to this career, because it is a memorable performance. Her portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” The film, of course, also stars Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones, and so here now, a scene from “Lincoln.”


Tavis: All righty then. (Laughter) I’m trying to juxtapose the clip that we just saw with all the high-quality, award-winning work Academy Award-winning work that you’ve done, Sally Field. If the story is true, you fought really hard for this part.

So I raise that because they say that for so many of us, life is a perpetual audition. No matter what you’ve done, sometimes you’ve got to go on and prove again that you can do it. So why did you fight so hard with Mr. Spielberg? Why did you want this role so bad?

Field: Well, it’s obvious why I would want it. I had sort of been tracking Mary Todd all of my life. I guess somewhere in my heart I knew that I belonged to her. She somehow belonged to me. There are few roles I have felt that way about – Sybil is one of them.

I think it’s my size and that I somehow have a roundness to my face that perhaps I could put the two people together, me and Mary. And then when you add that it was Steven’s project, that eventually Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay and Daniel Day-Lewis was Lincoln, how would I not want this project?

Mary was such a complicated, under-examined, really maligned and unbelievable important female American character, and Steven had originally asked me, like in 2005, to be Mary, but he didn’t have the project, really. It was something he wanted to do. He was developing it.

He had a screenplay, but it wasn’t going to be right. I was, of course, beyond thrilled. I was overjoyed. Then when I got in the car to drive home from that meeting, a little voice inside of me said, “Nah, not so quick, Field. It’ll be a journey, and you may not win.”

The screenplays came and went and writers came and went, and eventually, Tony Kushner came on board, who honestly wrote the most exquisite piece of writing perhaps I have ever read. There was another actor attached to it at the time, and he had dropped out for personal reasons, some tragedy in his life.

Then Daniel came on board, and there’d been so many years between the time that Steven originally asked me and the time that it now was really a project that Steven was absolutely going to do. Daniel was on board, Kushner’s words were unbelievable exquisite, and it was going to be a project.

So I figured there would be some doubt now whether I was right, for many reasons, and many obvious reasons. The age. I’m 10 years older than Daniel and 20 years older than Mary was at the time that we see her there. Lincoln was 10 years older than Mary. So there was going to be a doubt in there whether I could pull that off.

Also, honestly, Steven would have a right, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for him to perhaps want to hire an actor who had less baggage than I do. I have so many miles in the saddle, some of it good and interesting, and some of it not.

You might want to hire an actor who had less recognizability coming in so that the audience didn’t have to take time to readjust who is this and I have to forget who she was in the past and what feelings I might have attached to her, and now believe she is Mary Todd.

So it would not be unreasonable for him to want to find someone sort of unrecognizable. Part of me wanted to say okay, I get that. I won’t even – if he calls and tells me that, I’ll just say I get it and of course and absolutely, and I’ll back off and I’ll put my head in the sand and I’ll pretend I don’t want these things. I’ll make them go away. I’ll go numb. I’ll turn off the part of myself that just constantly wants to reach the work that I can do what I do.

But I couldn’t quiet myself. I just reached a moment, a turning point, kind of, and I couldn’t quiet myself. So serendipitously, he called me right about that time to say, “Sal, I really don’t think that you go with Daniel. I saw you with this other actor. I really just don’t see you with Daniel. We’re not going to – harsh, harsh lighting, there’s going to be no prosthetics, hardly any makeup, and I just don’t see it working.”

I argued with him and said, “Well, you’re wrong. You’re wrong, and I won’t back away. I won’t give up without a fight.” He heard me and appreciated it, but just said, “No, I just don’t think it’s right. I can’t go there.” I said, “Well, then test me. Test me.”

He is a very generous man, Steven is, and also constantly curious. He said, “All right, let’s do that. I’m curious to see. Let’s do that.” Then I had to pull it off. We got – I said, “Steven, I want the real deal. I want hair and makeup. I don’t want to fake this.”

So we did, and we put a test together, and I had some of the actual text, and I went into a non-stage. We just did it on the floor of the screening room at Amblin, and Janusz Kaminski came, though, and it was just the three of us – Steven on the side of the camera, right there, and Janusz filming it, and I performed – I looked like Mary in early stages and performed some of the text.

But I knew I hadn’t taken off. I felt like a goose or duck in the water who begins to take off, and my feet were skidding along the top of the water. I never really stretched my wings out. It’s what I felt as an actor, because you feel as an actor when you catch the wind, and everything else leaves.

You leave your body, really, and all the preparation is gone and you just soar into something. Many times you don’t even know what it was you did. It’s very hard to recapture, but you look for that. You prepare for it and look for it, and it didn’t really happen.

Afterward, the next day – and I was doing a television series and I was working 24 hours a day every single day. Steven called the next day when I was at work in the dressing room and said, “Sal, I’m so sorry. This is killing me.” And I felt so bad for him feeling bad for me, I almost – “Just don’t even talk to me, I know, I know, I know, and thank you.”

“It just isn’t going to work,” he said. “I even put you together with some footage of Daniel.” Daniel was in Ireland, and it was – he was new to his process of really becoming Lincoln. He was brand new. So Steven couldn’t, didn’t feel he had the right to invade that, and he was in Ireland. We’re in Los Angeles. It made complete sense, so he tried to put me together, put some recent footage of Daniel with me.

He just said, “It just isn’t going to work. I’m so sorry.” I just thanked him. I had done what I needed to do, and I was so grateful for how generous he was to me. Hung up the phone and tried to get through the day, and the good news is I didn’t kill myself that day, because the next day (laughter) Steven called again as I’m headed out to work and said he couldn’t get it off of his mind.

That he’d thought about it and thought about it and thought about it, and that he was tormented, and he walked around the lot for hours, just really thinking about it, and then he talked to Daniel. He said he’d sent the footage to Daniel, and I said, “Oh, sweet Jesus. Oh, no. Oh, no. You didn’t.” (Laughter)

He said, “No, no, no, wait, wait, wait, yes, I did, and Daniel wants to meet you.” So I said, “Okay, fine, great. I’ll get my toothbrush, and wherever that is, I’m going. Just tell me when.” So he said, “Well, I’ll get back to you, because he’s in Ireland and we’re here, so let’s meet in the middle – maybe New York. We’ll have a cup of coffee or a drink or something.” I said, “Great. I’m there. Just tell me when.”

So I’m dashing about, trying to put the schedule together, Steven’s and Daniel’s and get me off the show for a few days, and I get another call from Steven’s office saying, “Do you want the same hair and makeup people?” I said, “For what, a cup of coffee? I was going to go much simpler than that.” (Laughter)

Tavis: I’ll do your hair and makeup for coffee.

Field: I wasn’t going to go there, but if you think I should. They said, “Oh, no, I’m sorry, we didn’t tell you? Oh, gosh, this is awful.” I don’t really know the machinations of how this, what went down with Daniel and Steven, but I think my instinct says is that Daniel felt that Steven needed to see us both on film together.

That Steven wasn’t going to really know just by having us sit across the table with a glass of wine, which I really needed that glass of wine by then. (Laughter) So Daniel – this is like generous person number two, and they are such exquisitely generous men, all the way through – Daniel flew in for the day to Los Angeles from Ireland to test with me.

He was off by himself, I had not met him, to become the very early stages of my wonderful Mr. Lincoln, and I was becoming Mary again. I was taken down to the same place. I was then waiting in the lobby of Amblin for this to begin, and I’m very much Mary now. I was sitting in a high-backed chair, in the opening of a doorway, and there was sort of a shaft of light coming down on me, and I thought, fine, just stay right here, Fields, this is just perfect.

I was sort of backlit, you and just – and I sensed movement across the room, the lobby, and I didn’t look up, and I sensed it, and I finally looked up across the way, and here came loping toward me my darling Mr. Lincoln with a smirk on his face, looking very much like Mr. Lincoln. I did not rise until he got next to me, and then I rose and gave him my hand. He kissed it, and I said, “Mr. Lincoln,” and he said, “Mother,” which is what they called each other.

I sort of felt this audible kind of hush in the people around us. I don’t know, they sort of fell by the wayside. I never saw them. Then we went down to the same place in the screening room. We did some sort of bizarre, hour-long improv, the two of us, that Steven had set up and Janusz again filmed it.

Afterward, I said, “Thank you so much, both of you, for this generous gesture. I’ll let you talk amongst yourselves.” I got in my car, I took Mary off of me and got in my car, and when I arrived home my cell phone was ringing, and the two of them were on it, Daniel and Steven, saying, “Will you be our Mary?”

Tavis: And now this Oscar buzz. That’s how that works. (Laughs) I didn’t want to interrupt, and I’m so glad I didn’t, to hear the full breadth and depth of how this came to be. There are so many things you said now that I want to get you to unpack for me. It’s a shame that I only have two nights with you now, because you’ve said just enough in this first answer that intrigues me.

Let me go back to this first, and I promise we’ll get back to the “Lincoln” conversation, Mary Todd specifically. You spoke, you referenced earlier this inner voice.

Field: Mm-hmm.

Tavis: Every one of us has that.

Field: Mm-hmm.

Tavis: Some of us ignore it; some of us listen to it. I guess all of us ignore it and listen to it, depending on the occasion. But tell me about this inner voice that obviously has been speaking to you over the longevity of your career.

Field: And my life.

Tavis: And your life. How much do you respect that inner voice?

Field: I have learned what it is, and not everybody has it, is what I’ve learned.

Tavis: That’s fair enough.

Field: You have it to a greater or lesser degree. Because my inner voice, and certainly it comes with the creative world, but my inner voice is a character of mine, a part of me, a very young one, almost pre-verbal, that really comes from a survival technique as a child, a baby, really, when you have sort of inconsistent parenting.

When a parent, the person who really is hands-on taking care of you, has inconsistent attention to you, can’t really see you all the time or barely, or worse, the child can’t say in his being that the parent is flawed, because that understanding is too deathly frightening.

Because the instinct for survival is if I don’t have a parent that can really look after me, then I’m alone in the world and I’ll be left in the forest on my own, and it’s too deathly frightening. So the child really develops a survival technique by turning it on themselves, and say, “Then it must be me. I must be flawed. I’ll be better. I’ll fix it. I’ll make them love me. I’ll make them look at me.”

Depending upon the degree of parenting and the inconsistent nature of it, the voice can be devastating. It can be sort of overpowering and be a way that guides your destiny because you are hearing that voice over everything else that’s going on in the world.

So you make your own world before it really happens to you, guided by that voice. But I have learned through a lot of study that that voice contains so much of my creativity and so much of me. Much of the time I back away from it because it’s painful, it hurts. But I have learned now, even recently in my life, even recently I have learned, as I faced, honestly, the losing of my mother, I went back and worked with somebody who helped me understand this voice.

Really, as a woman in my sixties, really for the first time in my life. So it isn’t a voice that really steers my life as much as it used to. It really adds to my life in a different way, and I think if I hadn’t been working with this genius man I was working with, that I might have listened to that voice and not called Steven or not argued with Steven when he called. That I might have let it be my destiny.

Tavis: I am curious as to how that experience, and I take the phrase that you offered – inconsistent parenting.

Field: Mm-hmm.

Tavis: That was generous and charitable, but I take it. I’m curious as to how that notion of inconsistent parenting affected your parenting years later. I ask that against the backdrop of the character you play in “Lincoln,” Mary Todd Lincoln,” Mother, Molly, who is, in fact, a mother.

Field: Yes.

Tavis: The scene that we saw is a scene of you pushing him, telling him he must get this amendment passed –

Field: Yes.

Tavis: – because he is sending your son –

Field: Yes.

Tavis: – off to –

Field: And if he dies, for the rest of his life, he’ll be dealing with me.

Tavis: Precisely. So indulge me, if you will, to the extent that you will. Tell me how that childhood experience of yours impacted your parenting later on.

Field: Well, I think, and in many ways, I think I had two sets of children. My first two sons were born when I was very young. I was – I had just turned 22 with my first son, and my second son, I was 24 and just heading into 25, something like that.

So I think Peter, my oldest son, got too young of a parent. I’ve apologized to him many times. I was too early in my own process to really be as consistent a parent as he is to his daughters. He’s triumphed over it, but I recognize some of his survival techniques that seem similar to what mine are.

I became a better parent. My youngest son, who is 18 years younger than Peter, and I was then 40 when I had my youngest son, I was better able to understand parenting and the weight of it. I think when I had Peter I couldn’t hardly take care of myself, and so my parenting to Peter was much more inconsistent than I like to go back and think about, because I feel so badly.

If life would only give me – if I could go back, I wouldn’t do anything else except go back and redo some of my years with Peter and maybe a little with Eli, my second son. But that’s not what life gives you. What it gives you is the room to grow and to recognize and to come to your children and go, “Whoops.”

Tavis: That’s what grandkids are for.

Field: That’s what grandkids are for, yes.

Tavis: You’ve got a couple of those now.

Field: Yes, yeah. So I get better at parenting, but it did – how I was parented certainly affected me greatly, and my constant drive to survive and get better drove me to eventually become a better actor and a better parent.

Tavis: You’ve been a survivor for years now, and I want to talk more tomorrow night – see how fast that time goes?

Field: No.

Tavis: It’s over, for the first night, at least. Thank God we’ve got another night here. I want to talk about that survivor, and talk about your career, and more about this character, Mary Todd Lincoln. There’s all kind of buzz on this project, and so I’m looking forward tomorrow night to getting more into the character and more into this illustrious career.

We’ll be joined by Sally Field tomorrow night for part two of this conversation. Until then, thank you for being here.

Field: Thank you.

Tavis: See you in a few hours.

Field: See you in a few hours.

Tavis: See you in a few hours. Good night from L.A., thank for watching, and as always, keep the faith.


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Last modified: February 11, 2013 at 11:57 am