It seems unlikely that a director wouldn’t jump at the chance to cast two-time Oscar winner Sally Field, but the actress had to convince Steven Spielberg she was the only one to play the First Lday in his upcoming historical epic “Lincoln,” which opens in limited release Nov. 9.
In fact, Field joked with Moviefone that her campaign for the part was nearly as arduous and complicated as the president’s quest in the film to pass the 14th amendment. Once she’d won over the director, working with Day-Lewis was “like I’d died and gone to heaven,” she gushed.
Field also spoke top us about being just as method as her leading man, the amazing amounts of research she did to play Mary Todd Lincoln and why she thought Mary was so misunderstood.
At one point, this was going to star Liam Neeson. Were you attached when he was going to play Lincoln?
Yes, I was, of sorts. It subsequently became a battle. I was attached way early on and I knew I had to fight for it, and I did.
You see the movie and you can’t imagine anyone else in these parts. It’s hard to believe you had to convince Spielberg you were right for this.
It’s a long story. It’s a whole movie unto itself. They asked me to do it in 2005 but there was no writer. Many scripts came and went and Liam came and went. Tony Kushner became the writer and delivered an exquisite script and then when Daniel Day-Lewis came on board, I knew there would be a problem. I just knew it in my head. I’m 10 years older than Daniel and Lincoln was 10 years older than Mary. And then I have a lot of baggage on me as an actress, I’ve been doing it for 50 years. I had a feeling they’d want someone who had less baggage.
I called Steven and said, “I won’t let you walk away. I won’t let you do it.” He told me, “I saw you with Liam, but I don’t see you with Daniel.” So I said, “Then test me.” He graciously did test me, but by myself. He put me in old footage with Daniel and said, “I just don’t see it working.” Daniel was in Ireland and he wasn’t ready to test with anyone because he wasn’t Lincoln yet, he was still cocoonizing himself. Steven told me, “I”m sorry, I’m sorry,” but then he called me back and said he couldn’t get it out of his mind and he’d spoken to Daniel, who’d seen the footage and I was like, “Oh, sweet Jesus, can someone just disembowel me?” And Daniel said he wanted to meet me. He knew Steven needed to see us together, so he flew into Los Angeles for the day and tested with me. He was very much in the early stages, but very much my darling Mr. Lincoln, and I was the early stages, but very much Mary. We did some weird hour-long improv with Steven and I said, “Thank you both more than I can ever say,” and when I got home, the phone rang and Daniel and Steven were on the phone and they said, “Will you be Mary?”
That’s a great story. This is a pretty iconic character. How did you approach playing her?
Well, I did a tremendous amount of research, both reading biographies about her, reading her letters, I went to her home, I traveled around to try to find artifacts of her and tried to find out what she wore and what she looked like as much as I could. I did as much research as was humanly possible, I think. I put on 25 pounds, I tried to find a dialect at the time by talking to women in Kentucky who were 80 years old so I was able to sort of count back and hear their dialect.
Speaking of dialect, I know a lot of people were surprised that Daniel Day-Lewis is using a higher voice than I think people would have expected Lincoln to use, but apparently that’s historically accurate.
It is historically accurate. Mary was always chiding him on his speaking voice and she always hated that he used slang and that he didn’t clean up his grammar. She found him early on in his young political life and dressed him right and tried to get him to speak out because she knew what a brilliant mind he had and what a great speaker he was on his way to be.
In the film, you have that great face-off with Tommy Lee Jones in the White House. Was that a fun scene to play?
It’s an eloquent, beautiful speech for Mary. It was thrilling. I can’t say I would describe it as “fun,” but it was a great task to try to master and deliver so it was thrilling to have the opportunity to do something like that of that eloquence and weight.
You also have a doozy of a scene with Lincoln where you break down and he loses his temper for once. How long did that take to film?
One day. We worked pretty much without rehearsals at all, so when it was time to shoot it, we just stepped on the set and just brought it. There were some scenes that we shot literally without any rehearsal, like the carriage ride and the scene of Mary grieving was shot with very few takes. You just sort of fly by the seat of your pants and jump off a cliff.
There’s the line in the carriage where she says to Lincoln, “People are going to say I was crazy and I ruined your life.” It only comes up a little bit in the film, but she was committed later in her life.
Yes she was. But for reasons that, when you look into what really went down, with her son Robert, you really question his behavior over hers. I think she was misunderstood and misjudged a great deal of the time.
Do you think she was bipolar, as some historians have suggested?
I don’t think anyone will ever know that, nor do we know whether Mr. Lincoln was depressive. Who knows? He had tremendous depressive episodes in his life where people didn’t know if he would pull out of it. Mary was actually very helpful when they were married. One of the really bad episodes came before they were married and they broke up. But then they were married and he would go through that, she was able to help pull him out of it by being his confident champion, really devoted to his brilliance and where he had to go and what he would do with his life. Both of them had dark areas and I think it is part of their connection with each other; they were people who felt deeply about things.
Daniel is always said to be very method and to stay in character the whole time. Did he do that on this film?
Listen: People don’t know what method is. I am method! I studied at the Actors’ Studio. I studied with Lee Strasberg. That’s where the term “method” came from. Daniel and I work exactly the same way. I always stay in character. Any good actor does that. Daniel happens to be the best of the best of the best. He really created a world as an actor that I [also] create, but I hide it from people. I don’t tell people because they’ll think I’m a lunatic or hard to get along with. The bubble that you create to try to make yourself believe you live in this world that you’re presenting is what an actor has to do. You can’t go in and out of it. You have to stay in it, talk with the accent, you have to stay there. I have always done that. People don’t know that because I’ve never had the guts or whatever to ask the people to participate in it with me. Working with Daniel was like I’d died and gone to heaven.
Is it tougher to keep in character during a period film?
No. If you read any great acting books like Stanislavsky, they talk about exteriors being as important, and in some cases more important, than the interior. When you put on those authentic garments, some part of your DNA still has some information about that time, I don’t know how. And so it really serves the purpose.
But when you get out of costume and go home at night, do you go back to being Sally or are you still Mrs. Lincoln?
We all called each other by our [character's] names. I’m still Mrs. Lincoln. My 24-year-old said, “I was just glad when the film was over and I didn’t have to talk to that person on the phone anymore!”
It’s such a big movie and it’s full of such great actors. Was there anyone you’d wished you’d had a scene with that you didn’t?
I was just perfectly content to spend my time with the President, thank you.