Movie Interviews
2:31 pm
Mon November 19, 2012

Sally Field Captures History In Role Of Mrs. 'Lincoln'

Originally published on Wed February 20, 2013 12:56 pm

In Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln, Academy Award-winning actress Sally Field plays Abraham Lincoln's emotionally tormented wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.

Field lobbied hard for the role and did extensive research to capture the complex first lady, who modern observers believe may have suffered from bipolar disorder. Field immersed herself in biographies and books about the era, and visited Mary's home and collections of Lincoln memorabilia.

"Besides putting the psychological ingredients of understanding her childhood and all of that into my head," Field tells NPR's Jennifer Ludden, "I then tried to match her exterior."

Field put on 25 pounds to match the documented measurements from fittings. "I went to a nutritionist, and I ate really the most god-awful stuff," says Field. "It was repulsive. And after the end of every day, I felt like a pate de foie gras goose."

Field discusses the process of securing the role, working opposite Daniel Day-Lewis and what she learned about the relationship between the 16th president and his wife.


Interview Highlights

On fighting for the role

"Steven [Spielberg] asked me to be Mary Todd Lincoln in 2005. ... Writers came and went, and Tony Kushner came onboard and delivered the most exquisite piece of writing perhaps I will ever read.

"And then Daniel Day-Lewis came onboard as Lincoln, and I knew the battle was about to begin. There were several obvious reasons; one of them is the age. And it would be absolutely legitimate for Steven to walk away from me because I'm 10 years older than Daniel and 20 years older than Mary. But I felt that the age you wouldn't really see because they're both so worn, and I know how brilliant Daniel is and was going to be. And I knew he would look worn, and I didn't think it would be a problem. ...

"So Steven let me fight for it. He first let me test on my own ... and Steven still wasn't sure that I was right. ... Steven really needed to see us together. ... Daniel Day-Lewis flew in from Ireland to Los Angeles for the day to test with me. And we met as Mr. Lincoln and his beloved Molly or Mary, and we spent the afternoon doing some bizarre like hour-and-a-half, two-hour-long improv that neither one of us remember a single thing we did or said. ...

"It was the beginning of the relationship Daniel and I began to form that ultimately you see on the screen. Having those two hours of doing some bizarre improv was really the beginning of the preparation to have this 20-year-old tumultuous, deeply bonded marriage. ...

"And afterward, as I was driving home, I got a phone call on my cell from both of them at the same time saying, 'Would you be our Molly?' "

On exchanging texts with Daniel Day-Lewis

"This movie was actually shot in a very tight budget with very few days, so we had no rehearsal time. Daniel and I were able to contact and keep some sort of contact with each other going only through contemporary means because he lived in Ireland and I was in Los Angeles.

"So, he doesn't email, and in lieu of sending letters ... we texted each other ... using the verbiage of the era, which is what he and I were both studying. So it made total sense that we would write kind of letters, because I was reading all of Mary's letters and also letters that others had written of the time. And so it was a way for us to start to wrap our minds around ... the beautiful use of language in the 1800s."

On the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln

"They were very, very bonded. Had there not been a Mary Todd, there would not have been an Abraham Lincoln. There were two sides of this coin that came together and were Abraham Lincoln. She found him early on in his young lawyer life. She was extremely well-educated. She came from a powerful political family in the South. She came from money. She was raised by slaves. And she was politically savvy. And she had ambition. She wanted to marry the president. She spotted him early on, recognized his brilliance ... and honed him and supported him and was his closest confidante always until they got to the White House."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

Steven Spielberg's latest movie "Lincoln" opened in theaters across the country this weekend to rave reviews. Academy Award-winning actress Sally Field portrays the complex and emotionally tormented first lady who doesn't hesitate to remind her husband that he must answer to her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LINCOLN")

SALLY FIELD: (as Mary Todd Lincoln) You think I'm ignorant of what you're up to because you haven't discussed (unintelligible) with me as to what you've done. When have I ever met someone easily bamboozled? I believe you when you insist that amending the Constitution and abolishing slavery will end this war and since you are sending our son into the war, woe into you if you fail to pass the amendment.

LUDDEN: And, actors, if you have played a historical character, we'd love to hear how did you prepare for the role? Call us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Sally Field joins us now from our bureau in New York. Thanks so much.

FIELD: Thank you.

LUDDEN: So it's quite a story about how you landed this role or fought to keep the role, I guess I should say.

FIELD: Yeah.

LUDDEN: Steven Spielberg worried you wouldn't be right against Daniel Day Lewis because Lincoln was older than his wife and you're older than Daniel Day, but he gave you this - a tryout, right? You and Daniel Day Lewis met in costume and character. Tell me what happened when you did.

FIELD: Well, gosh, this story could take up the entire show.

(LAUGHTER)

FIELD: But I'll try to condense it a little bit. Steven asked me to be Mary Todd Lincoln in 2005. He's been wanting to do this project for years and years and years. But I knew in my heart that when it finally would come about, if it finally came about, it would be a struggle. I would have to stand up and shout. Finally, you know, writers came and went and Tony Kushner came onboard and delivered the most exquisite piece of writing perhaps I will ever read.

And then Daniel Day Lewis came onboard as Lincoln, and I knew the battle was about to begin. There were several obvious reasons, one of them is the age. And it would be absolutely legitimate for Steven to walk away from me because I'm 10 years older than Daniel and 20 years older than Mary. But I felt that the age you wouldn't really see because they're both so worn, and I know how brilliant Daniel is and was going to be. And I knew he would look worn, and I didn't think it would be a problem.

LUDDEN: It absolutely is not noticeable. No, I mean, you're both very worn and...

(LAUGHTER)

FIELD: Yes, yes. And so Steven let me fight for it. He first let me test on my own. Daniel was in Ireland and he didn't want to invade the process that had newly begun for him to become Lincoln and so I tested by myself. And Steven still wasn't sure that I was right. And then, I think, Daniel came onboard and said that he - Steven really needed to see us together.

And so I had two generous things happen: first from Steven Spielberg who gave me an opportunity in the first place to fight for it, and second from Daniel Day Lewis who flew in from Ireland to Los Angeles for the day to test with me. And we met as Mr. Lincoln and his beloved Molly or Mary, and we spent the afternoon doing some bizarre like hour-and-a-half, two-hour long improv that neither one of us remember a single thing we did or said. And afterward, as I was driving home, I got a phone call on my cell from both of them at the same time saying, would you be our Molly?

LUDDEN: Oh. So - but how did you - I mean, when you walked in the room, had - did you know him? Did you know him before? Have you met him before?

FIELD: Who? Daniel?

LUDDEN: Daniel Day-Lewis.

FIELD: No, I did not.

LUDDEN: So...

FIELD: I knew and only knew him for the entire filming, and he only knew me as Molly and I only knew him as Dan - as Mr. Lincoln.

LUDDEN: So he walked in the room and you're not, hi, I'm Sally. Hi, Daniel. You were Mary Lincoln. And...

FIELD: Oh, no. I was Mary Lincoln.

LUDDEN: So what happened?

FIELD: Well, I stood. I waited for him to approach my chair, and he walked to me as, you know, as the man that Mary so devoted herself to. I stood and gave him my hand and he kissed it. And I said, Mr. Lincoln. And he said, mother, which is what they called each other. He either called her Molly or he called her mother. Or when he was really angry at her, which is sometimes, he called her Mary.

(LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: Like you do with your children. So how - so you had - you hit it off. You had a connection there.

FIELD: Well, we had, you know, it wasn't - it was sort of beyond that. There wasn't a hiccup. There wasn't - it was just sort of seamless. And I think it was fate that I had to struggle to find Mary to reach inside of myself and be as tenacious as I was to get it. It really helped Steven and myself. And Daniel, I think, ultimately, know who Mary was. And it was the beginning of the relationship Daniel and I began to form that ultimately you see on the screen. Having those two hours of doing some bizarre improv was really the beginning of the preparation to have this 20-year-old tumultuous, deeply bonded marriage.

LUDDEN: Yes. How did you develop that relationship because it is a marriage, a relationship with so many issues, so many burdens from the past? How did you establish that?

FIELD: Well, I think that was actually the beginning of it. This movie was actually shot in a very tight budget with very few days, so we had no rehearsal time. Daniel and I were able to contact and keep some sort of contact with each other going only through contemporary means because he lived in Ireland and I was in Los Angeles. So he doesn't email and in lieu of sending letters, which is the way that Mary and Mr. Lincoln, you know, communicated with each other when they were separated, obviously. And they wrote wonderful letters to each other, rather short and kind of unloving, but that's all right. I could have that.

LUDDEN: Like his speeches I guess, Lincoln's speeches.

(LAUGHTER)

FIELD: So we texted each other in - using the verbiage of the era, which is what he and I were both studying. So it made total sense that we would write kind of letters because I was reading all of Mary's letters and also letters that others had written of the time. And so it was a way for us to start to wrap our minds around the - really the beautiful use of language in the 1800s.

LUDDEN: So, for example, can you remember a text or a phrase?

FIELD: No. And even if I could, I wouldn't share it. It's personal. It's mine. It belongs to me.

LUDDEN: Phrase or text.

FIELD: Well, Mary actually destroyed much - many of their letters, their personal letters, as did he. So I think there's probably a lot of Mary living inside of me and always will. And I won't let anyone see my texts. They're mine.

LUDDEN: So you mentioned reading letters - the letters that exists. What else did you do to prepare to be Mary Lincoln?

FIELD: Well, all that a person could do - I read the five really credible biographies besides "Team of Rivals," which is Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, which is the tiny - it's a tiny little, like five pages of it that this is based on even though the book is so worth reading. It's such a brilliant book. I read books about the era to understand women at that time, how they were treated. I visited Mary's home. I visited the largest collections of memorabilia of Mary and Abraham.

I then went about to create the exterior, which is what actors do besides putting the psychological ingredients of understanding her childhood and all of that into my head. I then tried to match her exterior with the help of an extraordinary costume designer, Joanna Johnston. We had her measurements and - Mary's documented measurements from fittings that she had, so we went about to try to match that. So I put on 25 pounds, which was a very - really a strange thing to celebrate when your waist gained two inches in diameter, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: And I've heard you talk about this. It's not as fun as it would sound.

FIELD: No, it was not fun. I'm a woman of a certain age and putting on that amount of weight was sort of horrifying. I did it in a very disciplined way. I didn't just go willy-nilly with myself and began to eat, you know, creampuffs or something. I went to a nutritionist, and I ate really the most god-awful stuff. It was repulsive. And after the end of every day, I felt like a pate de foie gras goose, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

FIELD: And I needed to do it that way because it was part of the work. But also I had it in my head that if I didn't do it that way I would, you know, I'd have a cardiac arrest somewhere halfway through the production and die and then someone else would get the role. So, you know, I had to be careful.

LUDDEN: We're talking with Sally Field about her latest role as Mary Todd Lincoln. Actors, if you played a historical character, how did you prepare for the role? Give us a call at 800-989-8255, or send us an email: talk@npr.org.

I want to play another clip from the movie here. Mary, as you play her was - could be quite feisty at times. Let's listen to one scene where she confronts a very outspoken abolitionist and member of Congress, Thaddeus Stevens, who is played by Tommy Lee Jones.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LINCOLN")

TOMMY LEE JONES: (as Thaddeus Stevens) Mrs. Lincoln.

FIELD: (as Mary Todd Lincoln) Madame President, if you please. Oh, don't convene another subcommittee to investigate me, sir. I'm teasing. My husband is away.

JONES: (as Thaddeus Stevens) I believe I am smiling, Mrs. Lincoln. As long as your household accounts are in order, Madame, we'll have no need to investigate them.

FIELD: (as Mary Todd Lincoln) You have always taken such a lively, even prosecutorial interest in my household account.

JONES: (as Thaddeus Stevens) Your household accounts have always been so interesting.

FIELD: (as Mary Todd Lincoln) Yes. Thank you. It's true. The miracles I have wrought to have fertilizer bills and cutlery and (unintelligible), but I had to.

(LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: Sally Field, that was a fun scene there. I don't know, was Mary Lincoln a big spender? Was she - what's going on there?

FIELD: Yeah, she was. But she was doing it for a very good reason. When they got to the White House, the White House quite literally - the bottom floor of it was a pig sty. I mean, the people would come to speak to the president about the problems with, you know, with a bridge or with, you know, some encroachment on their land, and they would bring their livestock with them. And so their livestock being pigs and chickens and cows, they would leave what pigs and chickens and cows leave there.

And it was just horrifying that, you know, what Mary thought that they were thinking that she was going to live in that kind of squalor. And, you know, besides that, she felt that they were in the midst of the Civil War, and the White House needed to represent something noble and honorable and strong and resilient and worth admiring. And so she thought the White House should be that. She was really the first one that felt so strongly that the country needed a symbol.

And she went about to do that. Of course, yes, she spent too much. All right. I give her that. She made it easy for people to get mad at her. And Thaddeus Stevens, in particular, tried to arrest her and take her off to jail more than once.

LUDDEN: Why?

FIELD: So she didn't like him at all, and she had an inability to sort of keep her feelings to herself. She - they say about Mary is that everything she felt she showed on her face all the time. And you'd find to see that.

(LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: And you did that. You totally did that. Let's get a quick call in here. Josh is in Denver, Colorado. Hi, Josh.

JOSH: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

JOSH: Yeah, I've played - I happened to have the opportunity to play Franz Kafka in two different plays. One was called "Josef K," in which I got the chance to walk on a giant hamster wheel, and the other was "Kafka on Ice," in which the rest of the cast was skating around me on synthetic ice while I was miserable little Franz Kafka in the middle. And it's obviously - the strange thing is that I looked nothing like Franz Kafka. I'm an oval-faced, balding blonde guy but...

LUDDEN: Although how many would know that? But how did you prepare?

JOSH: As for Kafka, I just really read a lot of his writings and a lot of - about him. And it was - but the strange thing was that both productions were a lot of fun, and so the Kafka-esque personality didn't suck that joy out of me that...

LUDDEN: You haven't been morose ever since.

JOSH: I haven't been morose ever since and...

FIELD: Obviously, this was theater of the absurd, right?

JOSH: Well, yeah.

FIELD: I mean, Kafka on ice skates?

(LAUGHTER)

FIELD: I think it's very, very interesting, actually. But I - yikes.

LUDDEN: Josh, thanks so much for sharing.

JOSH: Thank you.

LUDDEN: You know, I wonder, Sally Field, in your research, did you know - I want to ask about the woman who's your confidant, your seamstress. Oh, she's played very well by Gloria Reuben. She - it turns out her character, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, is quite an amazing woman, an activist in her own right, really kind of glossed over in this script. Did you know about Elizabeth before you did this, and did you wish that maybe more of her story was able to be worked in?

FIELD: Well, you know, this is a huge story. If you wanted to delve into it in - with that sort of knife, you could find a hundred stories worth telling. Certainly, Mary's alone is worth telling. Elizabeth Keckley's is worth telling. Seward is worth telling. You know, there are characters...

LUDDEN: Secretary of state, right?

FIELD: Secretary of state beautifully played by David Strathairn. It - there are stories in here that have so impacted who we are as a nation and, really, the growth of who we are. But Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner had to choose this little segment of Abraham Lincoln's life. And it really shows who he is. And that's what's the story is about. And his family is a big part of who he is and who he was. And at this time in the United States, when oddly enough sounds very much like where we are now, two sides so totally entrenched in their own ideology that no one can really see the big picture, or seemingly no one.

And it is about how this president realizes that it's a very dangerous time, that something needs to be done and how he gets it done. And the price he pays and the man, the human, the flawed and brilliant human that he is.

LUDDEN: And what is striking is with - on top of all the pressures he has with the Civil War and the effort to get the 13th Amendment going through, on top of that, such a tremendous drama in his family. And here's this wonderful scene where you all are talking. And one of you says, we've been so miserable together for so long.

(LAUGHTER)

FIELD: Yes.

LUDDEN: But was there something that did attract them? What was it you found in that relationship?

FIELD: You know, they were very, very bonded. Had there not been a Mary Todd, there would not have been an Abraham Lincoln. There were two sides of this coin that came together and were Abraham Lincoln. She found him early on in his young lawyer life. She was extremely well-educated. She came from a powerful political family in the South. She came from money. She was raised by slaves. And she was politically savvy. And she had ambition. She wanted to marry the president.

She spotted him early on, recognized his brilliance - he was sort of a bumpkin lawyer - and honed him and supported him and was his closest confidante always until they got to the White House. And at that time, she was kicked out of the close inner circle when his ridiculous cabinet took over. What were they thinking?

(LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: Well, you did a wonderful job, and I have to agree with the critics. It's a great film. Sally Field co-stars in the movie "Lincoln." It's in theaters now, and she spoke with us from our New York bureau. Thank you so much.

FIELD: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Tomorrow, Neal Conan's back with legendary singer Tony Bennett. Join him for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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