Sally Field says acting with Daniel Day-Lewis was like she’d ‘died and gone to heaven’

BEVERLY HILLS – You don’t get to speak to a legend like Sally Field every day.  The 66-year-old actress has been in the public eye for over 45 years first gaining notoriety with her starring roles in the ’60s TV series “Gidget” and “The Flying Nun.” In the ’70s she began to show an unexpected range. Whether it was her acclaimed performance in the TV movie “Sybil” or  indulging superstar Burt Reynolds in “Smokey and the Bandit” it was clear Field had more than a smile, she had fire.

Beginning in 1979, with her first Oscar for “Norma Rae”, Field became a true “actor” among her peers. The decade that followed brought turns in “Absence of Malice,” “Places in the Heart” (her second Academy Award), “Murphy’s Romance” and the gutsy misfire “Punchline.”  But with 1989’s campy cult classic “Steel Magnolias,” Field’s career took a starkly commercial turn with hits such as “Not Without My Daughter,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and best picture winner “Forrest Gump.” 

The 21st Century saw Field return to television with a recurring role on “E.R.” and then five seasons on the popular ABC drama “Brothers & Sisters” (where she earned her third Emmy Award).  2012, however, has found Field back on the big screen. First, as a starkly different version of Aunt May in “The Amazing Spider-Man,” and this Fall in Steven Spielberg’s epic drama “Lincoln.”

As Mary Todd Lincoln, Field plays the famously difficult First Lady to the nation’s 16th president. While “Lincoln” centers mostly on the President’s attempts at passing the 13th Amendment through a lame duck Congress, the time dedicated to Mary Todd and Abraham’s strained marriage is significant.  Most critics have praised Field’s performance and she’s a leading contender to earn a best supporting actress nomination in January. 

From all historical accounts, Mary Todd Lincoln wasn’t an easy woman to deal with during her husband’s presidency.  One of her sons, William, died after contracting typhoid fever (her second son to pass away).  She lost many half-brothers fighting on the Confederate side of the war, feuded with Congress over the White House budget and suffered political gaffes from a national media she no doubt thought was out to get her (sound familiar?).  As the president’s term went on she reportedly suffered from migraine headaches although some thought her actions were signs she was bi-polar or seriously depressed.  For any actor it could be hard to wade through all the different theories about the former first lady. Field appears to have relished the challenge.

“I did every bit of research I could do,” Field says. “I read five books. I went to her childhood home. I visited the collections. People who had the best collections of Lincoln and Mary memorabilia. I put on 25 pounds. Johanna Johnson and I tried to create exactly her dimension which was hard for me to do. She was a little bit rounder than I and then there was Tony Kushner’s magnificent text. I tried to understand the morays of the time, women at the time, how they behaved. It was very different and not so different.”

As for Ms. Lincoln’s mental state, Field chose to focus on the fact it was an overall time of tragedy and loss.  The long war and the emotional weight of trying to end it no doubt affected everyone living in the White House at the time.  But what Field appreciates most is how screenwriter Tony Kusnher’s script portrays the strong bond between the Lincolns.

“She was a very colorful character,” Fields says. “She always had been and it served him very well. They were sort of kindred spirits in their emotionality in a way. She felt things that he didn’t allow himself to feel which took the burden of it off of him. They were two separate sides of a coin that became Abraham Lincoln. Had there not been a Mary Todd there would not have been an Abraham Lincoln. Everybody who has done a lot of research on them knows this is true. She was his closest confidante and adviser.  She was unbelievably smart and well-educated. She came from a powerful political family in the South. And when she found him early in his lawyer career he was a young, nobody lawyer. And she spotted him and his brilliance.  And she said, ‘I’m going to marry him and he’s going to be president.’ And she honed him. She taught him to dress and criticized the way he spoke and he was using too much slang and she always criticized him for telling too many jokes, but recognized his touch, his brilliance with people. And [Lincoln] is a genius writer. His writings – if you read them today, he was a poet. They were a really powerful couple.”

Field’s co-star, Daniel Day-Lewis, doesn’t speak to the press often.  So, the responsibility of telling the now mythic tales of his on-set behavior usually falls to the rest of the cast and crew.  Day-Lewis is known to stay in character as much as possible while shooting, but it turns out he wasn’t the only one this time around.  Field was quick to remind this writer she is a product of the Actor’s Studio and “method” (as it’s called) is deeply ingrained into her acting DNA.

“Daniel and I work almost the exact same way. It was like I died and gone to heaven,” Field says. “The difference is Daniel…in his position as a powerful actor is able to impose it on the crew around him. So, he creates a bubble that makes it heaven for the actors to walk into, because they don’t have to constantly get away from the crew yelling at each other or telling dirty jokes to each other,”

The film’s director, not surprisingly, also gets a huge amount of credit for providing the proper environment on set.

“Steven really was the instigator in creating this bubble for Daniel, for myself, for Joe, for all of the other actors to live in that respected what the nature of acting is and helped define and create this detailed bubble of 1865 where we were living,” Field says. “All of the exquisite talent of the crew around [us] whether it be costumers, hair, the makeup, the sets, perpetuated this bubble that actors need to create. So, for me, it was like I had come home and I was in nirvana.  This is the way I work and now I get to show it.  I don’t have to go in a corner and hide it.”

Field adds, “I will never have a work experience like that again.”

“Lincoln” opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.