The feisty, savvy and emotional wife of Abraham Lincoln seemed like a perfect match for the renowned actress when Lincoln (out nationwide Friday), began to take shape under director Steven Spielberg.
"Had there not been a Mary Todd, there would not have been an Abraham Lincoln," says Field, 66, over tea at the Four Seasons. "She found him when he was a young lawyer and really a bumpkin. No one knew of him but she recognized his brilliance."
But the role almost eluded her. The truth is, "she fought for this," says Spielberg, whose film, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner, focuses on the 16th president's battle to pass the 13th Amendment and abolish slavery during the bloody end of the Civil War.
It's hard to imagine Field lobbying for a role. The actress has won over fans and critics over six decades, earning two Oscars (for 1979's Norma Rae and 1984's Places in the Heart) and an Emmy as the matriarch on ABC's Brothers & Sisters. Dressed casually today in a lilac sweater and slacks, Field's Earl Grey tea grows cold near the end of an hour-long interview, as she slowly circles the story of how she came to play Mary, a topic "so deeply personal and private."
Field says "people just assume" her days of fighting for roles are over. "Everything is always a struggle."
In 2005, before Lincoln even had a script, Spielberg approached Field about playing Mrs. Lincoln opposite Liam Neeson, who was then attached to the project. But the film would stall for years until Daniel Day-Lewis agreed to take over the title role.
"I went, 'Uh-oh,' " says Field. She is 10 years older than Day-Lewis and 15 years older than Mary was in Lincoln's time. And though she'd cheated age before - in 1994's Forrest Gump,she was only 10 years older than Tom Hanks but played his mother - Field knew her age was a problem.
Spielberg confirmed her fears. The director told her he planned to shoot Lincoln in harsh lighting with no prosthetics and no longer thought Field made sense in the role. "But I didn't think anyone else could play it," Field says. "It takes my amount of miles in the saddle to be able to do the complexities of this person."
"Test me," she told him. Alone and in full costume, Field tested in Los Angeles, but "I couldn't really lift off," she admits. Calling her at work on Brothers & Sisters, Spielberg told her it was over. "I dragged myself through the rest of the day," says Field.
But Spielberg couldn't sleep over his decision and asked that she travel to New York to test with Day-Lewis, who had agreed to fly in from Ireland (where Field describes him as "cocooning" in preparation for the role).
"Daniel is a beautiful man, but also, if you don't know him personally, you only know his work, he's such a powerful actor there's a little bit of a veil of intimidation even though he's such a gentleman," says Spielberg, who had the two actors meet in full costume and makeup at the Amblin Entertainment screening room. "He works very hard to cut through any preconceptions. But Sally, who had never met him before, held his look. Held his gaze. Just poured it onto Daniel (and) would not let the eye contact go. And I just said, that's Mary Todd, staring down Abraham."
Field recalls their instant connection. "He came and walked across the room and he was totally my darling, Mr. Lincoln," says Field. "And I stood and gave him my hand. I said, 'Mr. Lincoln - ' "
"Mother," he said, kissing her hand.
On the Richmond, Va., set, Field says the "towering talent and excellence of Daniel" inspired a bubble-like atmosphere. Both Day-Lewis and Field are Method actors, and the first couple stayed in character for the duration of filming. "I had put on so much weight, and he'd lost so much weight," says the 5-foot-2 actress, grimacing as she remembers eating high-caloric bars and smoothies daily to gain 25 pounds to match Mary's figure.
On set, Spielberg addressed the two solely as "Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln," and the crew wore period outerwear so as not to jar the cast out of the 19th century. On off days, Day-Lewis would text Field letters in character.
"We all felt the weight of it, that we were doing something bigger than ourselves," says Field, who found a kindred spirit in Day-Lewis' immersive style, which she says she had practiced for years but kept hidden, so as to not impose on fellow actors.
What's resulted is a stunningly intimate portrayal of the Lincolns, and an honest rendering of the pain that haunted them both.
"We must try to be happier," implores Lincoln to his wife during a scene shot in a carriage. "We must. We've been miserable for so long."
"We create sort of legendary figures out of people and sometimes forget that they were human beings," says Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays the Lincolns' eldest son, Robert. "Sally really rode that balance perfectly."
"I think Sally captures both the sad side, the slightly off-kilter side and also (her) strength," says author Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose biography, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Lincoln, was the basis for Kushner's screenplay.
In Lincoln, Field is often overtaken by depression over the death of her young son Willie, and left unable to properly mother her youngest child, Tad. "And then she sees her husband shot beside her, it's little wonder that she does seem to be out of control," adds the author.
In Washington, Mary floundered, shut out of her husband's inner circle by the Cabinet. "She had been his partner through all those failures, in the days when he was running for the Senate and he lost a couple times, she would actually count votes with him," says Goodwin.
Mary's vitriol is never more on display than in a scene with her bitter rival, the fiery Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), who famously tried to jail her over her excessive spending while renovating the White House.
The two joust verbally in a White House receiving line as Field is dressed in an opulent ballgown. "What the scene is really about is the state of Mary's mind, because she is talking about interior decoration, but she's really saying something else about how hard it is to have that job of being the wife of that man at that time and in that place," says Jones.
"She's barely hanging on. It takes a real fine actor to do that. To talk about one thing while demonstrating something else. Sally did a beautiful job, and I wasn't surprised to see it. It was a beautiful day for me to work with her."
It's a performance some say might score the actress a third Oscar. Awards forecasting website GoldDerby.com has Field in fourth position for an Oscar nomination, behind Anne Hathaway (Les Misérables), Helen Hunt (The Sessions) and Amy Adams (The Master). Not that Field would know - she stays away from mentions of herself online. ("God forbid I should see something about myself and not be able to take it," she says.)
A new life in the city
These days, Field - who has three sons from her two marriages - is experiencing a her own historical first. After the death of her mother, Margaret O'Mahoney, last November, Field recently left L.A. for New York's West Village, a place she'd wanted to live since she was 22. Her youngest, Sam, 24, a graduate of New York University, lives nearby and has been showing his single mom the town.
"I think I speak for a lot of women in my generation," says Field. "As tragic as it is, (when) I was no longer taking care of an ill parent - because then, that rooted me - you're bereft, but you're free."
Field is still unpacking boxes, but she has quickly come to love her new city life, despite missing her four grandchildren: Isabel, 14, Sophie, 11, Noah, 6, and Ogden, 1. "It's sort of scary that I like it so much, because I already feel guilty when my grandson says, 'Where you been, Grammy?'" says Field, placing a hand on her heart.
Field doubts she'll return to network TV, but "I really like cable TV," she says, noting favorites such as Homeland, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. "They're beautifully done, beautifully acted and exquisitely written. That's where television's going to go."
For now, Field is hoping her next stop is a few train stops north, near her new place - on Broadway. "I would like it to be on (stage), but I have to find something that really blows my skirts up, as they say," she says.
(Copyright © 2012 USA TODAY)