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Emmy- and Academy Award-winning actress Sally Field has played everyone from Sybil, a woman with multiple personalities, to Norma Rae, a strong-willed factory worker fighting for unionization. Now the 65-year-old actress — she turns 66 this month — is taking on the role of Mary Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's latest film, Lincoln, which will be released on Nov. 16. Field, who had to pack on 25 pounds for the part, became an expert on Mary Todd's life after extensive research. She opens up to Richmond magazine about what she learned, how she met the challenge and what it's like to work with Spielberg.
Q. What about the role of Mary Todd Lincoln intrigued you as an actress?
A. She is one of the great American women throughout history. She is a phenomenal character. She is complicated and smart. She is a fascinating American historical figure.
Q. You've played real-life characters before and received the highest praise for those roles. What's the process like in preparing for such a part, especially when the character in question is a historical figure?
A. The process would be the process whether you were doing a historical character or not. I read as much as I could about Mary Todd Lincoln's life and tried to understand who she was in her childhood, young adulthood, in her early relationship with Lincoln and in their life together. I looked at society at the time and the mores of the time — restrictions on women, what that mentality was. I went to Mary Todd's home in Lexington [Kentucky] to see where she was raised.
Q. What other types of research did you do to prepare?
A. I went to Ford's Theatre, but I didn't go into the theater: I went to the museum below to see her personal items. I visited the biggest collector of Lincoln memorabilia, Louise Taper, who lives in Los Angeles. I went with our costume designer. [Louise] has many of Mary's actual things. I didn't go to the Springfield house because I felt I had seen and learned enough. [Eventually] you have to put all the ingredients together and make a pie.
Q. It's the general consensus that Mary Todd Lincoln was unbalanced, a spendthrift who sometimes displayed erratic behavior. Do you see her as more sinned against than sinning?
A. Everybody is a sinner and has been sinned against. The term that she was insane — I don't think it is accurate. You have to look very clearly at what her life was and what she went through, as well as the mores at the time. She always was a very colorful character. She wore every emotion on her face. She was smart. She was political. She helped guide Lincoln's political life early on. Yes, she was a bit of a shopaholic, but that doesn't mean you are imbalanced. You lose yourself in wanting things to be nice. When she lost her children, when Willie died, she grieved so desperately. She also suffered two head injuries. She had persistent and agonizing headaches. She was a remarkable woman that had a tragic existence.
Q. What's your take on the relationship between Mary Todd and Lincoln?
A. I think she had an important role in his life. He leaned on her a lot. She always wanted more of him than he could give her. Women can identify with that. He was interior; she was exterior. That was the source of battles. She wanted to get in there and know what the hell was going on in his head, and she wanted to be intimate with him.
Q. Mary Todd's dressmaker and confidante Elizabeth Keckly, who was born in Dinwiddie County and lived in Petersburg, was close to the first lady. How did you treat that relationship in the film?
A. Like the script was written. There are not a lot of scenes between Mary and Elizabeth. We didn't have any scenes where you could see the degree of their friendship. We never got to demonstrate that.
Q. This was your first time working with Lincoln's director, Steven Spielberg. What was your favorite thing about working with him?
A. I can't name a favorite thing. He is just absolutely phenomenal. Sometimes I wouldn't be working until later in the day, but I would come in early so I could watch him. Everybody loves being around him. He is a master. I will cherish this experience the rest of my life. We all felt that way.
Q. What was the best advice he gave you for playing Mary Todd?
A. He left that to me. He hires the actors he wants and trusts they will come in with having done the work. He trusted the fact that I knew more about Mary than he did. I spent so much time knowing this one character.
Q. What was it like working with Daniel Day-Lewis? I understand he stays in character on and off the set.
A. Actors do that. They have their task. The task is to stop acting and just be. I have always done that, too. Daniel creates an environment where actors are allowed to do that. You keep the bubble going, especially when you are creating a whole different era, different time, different culture. If you are sitting around with baseball caps, chewing gum and playing video games, you have a hard time coming back into this world. It was heaven. I am method. I am an Actors Studio baby. It was nirvana for me.
Q. What was the reaction of the audience at the surprise screening of Lincoln during the New York Film Festival in October?
A. We all were overwhelmed.
Q. The Hollywood Reporter is already saying that you've got a good shot at an Oscar nomination for supporting actress. How do you feel about that?
A. I appreciate that a lot. I am proud to be part of this film. That is good enough for me.
Q. What did you think of Richmond?
A. I enjoyed Richmond so much. Everybody did. It became our little community. Most of us lived at The Jefferson or around there. We would run into each other. I stayed in my little world — in my head, in Mary. I went back and forth to the store. I had to gain 25 pounds for the role. I had to keep eating. I also walked around a lot. Every single person loved being in Richmond. It's part of the movie. It really is.