Sally Field has had a long career ranging from Smokey And The Bandit to her Best Actress Oscar-winning roles in films like Norma Rae and Places In The Heart to Mrs. Doubtfire and Forrest Gump to more recent fare like the ABC TV series Brothers & Sisters and The Amazing Spider-Man.
Now the 65 year-old’s latest role is as First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln in the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln. Field talks about the complex personality that Mary Todd was in life.
“She was very, very complicated,” Field says, “And I think he will say and Steven will say and I think Daniel [Day-Lewis] will say as well, in all the research that we did, had there not been a Mary Todd, there would not have been an Abraham Lincoln. She was so responsible and contributed so much to what Abraham Lincoln ultimately was. I mean, they were like two sides of what ultimately became the same coin. She served him always, deeply and desperately devoted to him as he was to her. What I learned from her that surprised me, I don’t think anything really surprised me because I don’t think I came in there with expectations that were going to then therefore be surprised when I was wrong or found out something that I hadn’t guessed.”
“I was really ready to learn and try to figure out how to put the pieces together to accurately bring alive someone who was so had so many colors to her and where did they fit into her psychology,” she adds, “How did that happen, that she turned out like that, and um, without having any kind of judgment on her. And that was my task and I was certainly aided and abetted by the directors and the writer and the actors around me.”
Field talks about how Spielberg made Abraham Lincoln, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, and the rest of the characters three-dimensionally human and where does the fidelity to history end and the creative liberty begin.
“Well, I know that [the screenwriter] Mr. Kushner, he was so unbelievably authentic and accurate, and much of what you saw in the floor of the house was taken absolutely from the transcripts,” she says, “So much of the things that you saw were absolutely the truth. What you see of the relationship between Tad and Lincoln was absolutely the truth. Mary, when Willie died, was unable to mother him any longer. And as a matter of fact, did some horrible egregious motherly things that she refused to let any of the old playmates who used to come and play with Willie and Tad, come into the house. She sent all of Willie’s toys away, and they were Tad’s toys as well. And he grieved and missed his little, his older brother desperately and Mary could not comfort him. In the big fight that Lincoln and Mary have, you hear what Lincoln accuses her of, that she, you know, she turned her back on him, and she did. She couldn’t look at him. She went to bed. He threatened to put her in the booby hatch if she didn’t get up out of bed, and stop grieving. And she did finally, and one of the things that saved her was that she started visiting the wounded soldiers and found another, you know, way to put her mothering.”
“But she could not Mother Tad any longer,” Sally continues, “And you never see, in the film, Mary be kind to Tad. As a matter of fact, she’s very dismissive when he comes, when the older Brother comes home, all she has eyes for are the older brother and so when that happened and Willie was taken from the White House, Mr. Lincoln began to mother his son, and it’s so moving, and it is the reality of what happened. He took over. He mothered, her, him. He mothered his son. He helped him through his own grief and Lincoln put his grief for his son somewhere that couldn’t be seen. And Mary was constantly pounding on the door, where is your grief? Where is your grief? And Mary said something and correctly if it’s not exactly right. Mary, they said about Mary for instance, that every emotion she ever felt was right there on her face. And of Lincoln, she said that he showed the least of what he felt the most. And that is what Daniel played and that is what was, but with his boy, he was able to have this release of all of his duties. He could just be with his boy. And I think it saved him as much as it saved Tad.”
Sally also talks about Lincoln and Mary’s relationship with their oldest son Robert, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
“From everything that I read, he had such a non-relationship with Robert for most of his life,” she says, “Poor Robert was sent away to boarding school early on, even before Harvard. And, he lived in with Mary raised him, and then they had Eddie early on, who was another child who died. Eddie was sickly so Mary’s attention went immediately to Eddie, and Robert really got the short shift of both of his parents. But she said that they were wild animals when she showed up, that they had no parenting at all since Nancy had died, and Lincoln’s fathering style was sort of like that. I mean, I think what Sally just said and what Joe said is true. He had a vexed relationship with Robert. But with Robert and with Tad certainly, he kind of let them do what they wanted to do, and he loved them but he was indulgent to a fault. I mean, at the end of the Civil War, he took his 11 year old son. It was actually Tad’s birthday, to Richmond, VA, two days after it fell.”
“They sailed down the James River past Confederate forts still manned by Confederate soldiers with guns,” Field adds, “One of them may not have heard that the war was over, and walked with his kid through the city where there were people who could have taken pot shots at them very easily. And he said to Porter, the admiral, who had the job of conveying him there, the porter said you can’t bring a kid to this place, it’s too dangerous. But his heart would be broken if I left him, I have to. And you know, and he sort of felt like they were little adults. And he talked to them like adults, and if that probably made it easier for him to just say to Robert, here is your, you know, mother. She’s very angry at me, a lot of time, you take care of her. And I think he was more of a pal in a way than a guiding hand. He did tell Robert in that last conversation before his murder, that Robert should stick to the law, and it was a good way into a lot of interesting things. And Robert wasn’t terribly given to it but I think he took his advice afterwards and had a very extraordinary life after, the only kid who did. Tad died at 17. Mary lost everything.”
Field recalls a pivotal scene in the film where Mary has an intense confrontation with Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones.
“I had several big dramatic scenes in the film, that was one of them and like all the other scenes that I had in the film, we had no rehearsal whatsoever,” she says, “We just didn’t rehearse. I was given the most eloquent monologue of my life, and it was a mouthful. And we worked all day long with everyone in the cast and I was the only one who spoke all day and it was just an interesting way to work. By then, we were so these people, we were so in the era. We were so, I was so aware of the fact that my darling Mr. Lincoln was standing behind me and I knew. And I knew very well what I felt about Thaddeus Stevens and there he was.”
“And it was just a fascinating and really just remarkable way to work in that the bubble was created for us and respected for us actors and we just stepped up and did it,” Sally adds, “And we did it many, many times and it was a piece that had to be covered because of the nature of how many people are in this scene and blah, blah, blah. But we didn’t work anything out. You just trust the text, and know who you are playing and there it was.”
Sally talks about what it was like to work with Daniel Day-Lewis on Lincoln and what was her personal impression of him as a person.
Well, all of my task was to be Mary, and I had no room for that,” Field says, “It simply could not be there. I had no room for that. So I could not allow that to be in the mix in any way, shape, or form because all the people in the film with him, Mary is the one who will just not put up with it, anything from him and gives him a run for his money, and if I could not do that then I would let him, I would let Daniel and Steven and Tony [Kushner] and everyone else down. So I worked a long time to be Mary but the day before we started shooting, Daniel and I had really not spent, not really spent any time together. And the only relationship we had, and I had to create a marriage with the man who you are intimate with on every single level of your being, you know, for, had children with, and children died in your arms. You have a tactile relationship with this person, and I had not spent any time with him. I had no way of creating it but except we had texted each other. Daniel started it, I didn’t do it, texted each other since I had had the role which had been like seven months or something, um, but totally in character, which was very difficult to do because you had to figure out how to say what you wanted to say within the vernacular of the time, which many times wanted to call him up and say, ‘How would I say this?’ It was very hard to do but we would text each other all the time over the seven month period. But then right before we started shooting, I was down in Richmond. I arrived a week earlier than I start to shoot but Daniel was to start shooting the next day. I texted him as Mary and trying to figure out how I would say it and said something to the extent of I knew that the task before him was an enormous one, meaning almost like we were talking about the Presidency, but my task was him. And that was my soul task. And so then therefore, I would be on his porch the next morning. His choice was to let me in or not. And whether he left me in or not, I would not go. And I said, ‘In lieu of a carriage,’ because Mary would take him out for carriage rides. I said, ‘In lieu of a carriage, find your shoes.’”
“And he wrote me back graciously and said, ‘OK, fine,’” she continues, “And then, he’s notorious for not really wanting to have any socialization. I don’t like socializing so trust me, this was not me either. I was really Mary and going, come on, Mary, come on baby. Get it out here. You know, so I went to his house, knocked on his door, and where he was living in Richmond, and you know, hello, hello, hello. We were both sort of in-character, but sort of semi-not totally. We were allowing the dialect, I wasn’t as thick as I was, but and he was. Then he said, ‘Would you like to come in and have some coffee and some eggs?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t want to be trapped behind a table. Let’s get going.’ And he was gracious and generous enough cause I know he was under the gun in a very big way now. Um, we went out and we walked around Richmond for about 2 hours. And it saved my life because I said I have to create something that doesn’t exist right now. First of all, I have to touch you this way. OK. I laid my head on him. I had to, I said I can’t be worried and be shy about owning your body cause married people don’t have that. So you know, his eyes got a little bigger. And he said OK. But he was Daniel. He is so generous and so, such a deeply honorable loving man, and we knew that we were all there for the same thing, and that I would kill myself to arrive at the spot I needed to arrive. If it called for me to be bleeding all the time I was doing it, I would have sliced my wrists, and so, we walked around, and he knew what I was doing. I would touch him, I would grab his arm, I would take his hand. And we talked about the character, but we talked about our real lives. We talked about our children. And then, at the end, he said, ‘Do you want to come in?’ ‘No Thank you, I think I’ve, I think we’ve done enough.’ It served its purpose, and it did. So that when we landed in the first day, the first scene, which was an enormous scene, which is the first scene in the film, Daniel was not Daniel anymore. I had no feeling of that. He was Mr. Lincoln. I was not in any way intimidated of him. It’s, you know, he was the man I devoted my life to, and that’s all I knew, and one false move and he was going to hear it from me.”