In a scene from the new movie Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States—played by Daniel Day-Lewis—talks to a telegraph office clerk about whether fate or the times determines one’s character. Chatting over French-American cuisine at Cafe Cluny, Sally Field, who plays Mary Todd Lincoln in the film, answers a question about what has shaped her own life by picking up a saltshaker from the table.

“I’ve never been someone who changes her shape [to suit the times],” says the 65-year-old actor, bearing a wistful smile. “I’ve always felt that I literally fit in like the grains of salt fit into this bottle. I’m just happy to be in the shaker.”

The two-time Oscar winner’s modesty is striking—especially when set against a spirited discussion of her role in Steven Spielberg’s epic new drama. Determined to demystify the legendary president, the film spins the tale of a flawed man who led the United States, as Field explains, “out of sheer grit, heart, intelligence—and [who] changed his own destiny and the shape of a country.” She maintains, however, that those attributes are equally applicable to Todd Lincoln, in that the First Lady not only stood by her husband through the most turbulent time in American history, but she also was, in large part, responsible for his greatness.

“When he would get into these depressive states for which he was well-known, it was her insane faith in him, forever telling him how brilliant he was, how important he was, how critical his judgment was to the fate of the country, that pulled him through it,” Field says. “Had she not existed, had he been married to someone else, he would not have become [the] Abraham Lincoln [we know].”

Mary Todd Lincoln was born of Southern aristocracy. A number of historical texts cast her as vain, selfish, and emotionally unstable. But a much more complex portrait of Todd Lincoln emerges in the film, which largely deals with Lincoln’s determined, often ruthless drive to end the Civil War and pass the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, through a recalcitrant Congress.

In a performance that may garner Field another Oscar nomination, we see her engaged in a face-off with detractors who would put her in jail for overspending; sitting in the Congressional gallery counting votes; tearfully mourning the death and absence of her young son, Willie, in his untouched room; raging at her emotionally unavailable husband; and playing Washington’s social games with a mix of honey and vinegar.

“My first choice to play Mary Todd Lincoln was Sally,” says Spielberg, who directed the film. “Her range as an actress, proven and honored over the years in TV and film, was at the core of my wanting her to play this charismatic, emotionally burdened First Lady.”

Indeed, the sum of Field’s professional experience, not to mention events and milestones in her personal life, appear to inform this powerful, memorable, and poignant role. Almost five decades ago, the California native began her acting career in Hollywood as a punch line on TV’s Gidget and The Flying Nun. Casting directors and executives dismissed her talents, but years later vindication would come in the form of numerous industry awards. At home, the actor has endured two failed marriages but relishes time with her three grown sons. Those experiences, that steely core encased by youthful jauntiness, have given her emotional wells to tap—and over the years granted Field the ability to master such Oscar-winning performances as a striking textile worker in Norma Rae and as Edna Spalding, the Depression-era cotton picker of Places in the Heart, not to mention a leading part in television’s Brothers and Sisters.

She admits she wanted to play Nora Walker, that strong and wise TV matriarch, because there were so few examples of what real women’s lives are like when they are no longer young. “I felt it was important to show what it was like for a mother when she has a son in harm’s way, at war, or as a fireman or policeman, and then wait for that damned phone to ring to tell [her] that [he is] safe. And sometimes that call doesn’t come. Or if [she] had a gay son. [She] could come to grips with it and not be so scared and frightened of what is, after all, just being human,” she says. Field was recently honored for her sensitivity in bringing attention to social issues at the annual Washington gala of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered civil rights organization.

At the ceremony, her 25-year-old son, Sam Greisman (who is gay), gave a lighthearted introduction, noting her image as an iconic figure in the gay community. “She is the mother we all wished we had,” he said. “She’s never been afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve or speak her mind.” Emotionally accepting HRC’s Ally for Equality Award, Field, who’d never before spoken publicly of her son’s sexual orientation, said “Sam was different, and his journey to allow himself what nature intended him to be was not an easy one. As his mother I consider it one of the great privileges of my life to be part of it.”

During the course of lunch, she’s in turn reflective, resigned, funny, angry, and bemused. She orders a plain salad but registers delight when her fellow diner orders French fries. “Good, I can have one!” says Field, meaning just that—one—a result of having gained almost 25 pounds to play Todd Lincoln. (“Oh, sweet Jesus, it was horrifying, just horrifying,” she recalls.)

Field admits that, despite all the gloss of celebrity, she is only human. “There are only a few things that I am,” she says, playing with her salad. “One is a mother. That’s huge. Another is an actor. And the third one?” She pauses to think for a while and then says with a hint of self-mockery, “A mess. A lonely, sad, and confused mess.”

A mess? Hardly. But certainly a woman who fights the headwinds of time and the realities of an industry obsessed with youth: “These days women have no place to see how a woman is aging, how she may be pulling it off. If you’re not young in this society, you’re dead! Or you’re asexual. There’s nothing valuable or viable about you.”

Faced with these hurdles, Field says she leaps. In fact, she strongly coveted the role of the First Lady. Field long had her sights set on playing Mary Todd Lincoln because of her status as one of the great American characters and, additionally, Field felt she was physically right for the role. Spielberg, in fact, had approached her in 2006 to play the part. But while the director maintains that Field was his first choice, there was a point in the film’s development when casting created the possibility that he might have to look elsewhere.

Liam Neeson had been slated to play Lincoln but bowed out after the tragic death of his wife, Natasha Richardson. When Spielberg replaced him with Day-Lewis, Field sensed she was in trouble. “I know it’s hard to cast me. I know I come with a lot of baggage,” she says. “And now, on top of that, I’m thinking, I’m 10 years older than Daniel, and Mary was almost 10 years younger than Lincoln. I’m 20 years away from the role.

“I was expecting Steven’s call,” Field recalls. “He said, ‘I saw you with Liam; I just don’t see you with Daniel.’ I could’ve said, ‘Well that’s the way the cookie crumbles,’ or, ‘This is mine! I won’t let it go.’ So I said to Steven, ‘Mary is worn, Lincoln is worn. I won’t look older.’ And he said, ‘The lighting will be harsh.’ I said, ‘Fine. Let it be harsh.’ He said, ‘There won’t be prosthetics.’ I said, ‘We won’t need them.’ He was still reluctant. So I said to him, ‘Test me! You owe me that!’ And he did.”

Yet even after the screen test, Spielberg remained unconvinced—and told her so. “I was devastated,” she recalls. The director couldn’t get the footage out of his mind and sent it to Day-Lewis, then in Ireland. The actor was impressed. “Daniel, out of the generosity of his big heart, flew all the way to Los Angeles for the day so Steven could test us together. And in the course of that day, we simply became these two people,” Field effuses.

Drawing on the moxie and determination with which she pursued the role, Field dove into portraying the resolute First Lady. She also had to tap into a reservoir of rage, from years of being dismissed by industry types who would delight to see her founder. “Mary… was a very damaged soul, terribly spiteful, and wanted to get even with the people who hurt her and who hurt him. So, certainly, Steven knew I had the capacity to be surprisingly furious.”

And while anger can be destructive, Field asserts that it can also be clarifying: “It comes whirling out in a vomitous way because you’re tiptoeing around, trying to be nice, sweet, pleasing, and lovable—all those things women are supposed to be,” she says. “But you’re a human being, and so the truth just comes pouring out on the table and you couldn’t give a rat’s ass whether they like it or not,” she explains. “[To say,] this is me, this is what I feel... just breaks through the parts of you that are trying so hard to please.”

In myriad scenes from Lincoln, Field poignantly conveys Todd Lincoln’s sadness and loneliness. Asked if Todd Lincoln’s feelings were difficult to play, Field hammers back quickly. “Goodness sakes! I don’t believe that longing ever goes away,” she says. “I wouldn’t mind having it be addressed a little more often.” Though it’s been nearly 20 years since she divorced Alan Greisman, the Hollywood producer, she says she hasn’t entirely given up on romance. “Do you know somebody?” she says with a laugh.

Talk of dating aside, Field takes great pleasure and solace in her children and grandchildren, her career and her causes. She’s on the board of Vital Voices Global Partnership, a DC-based group that fights for women’s rights internationally. Her support for gay rights continues.

Field is concerned overall with the human condition, and thus chooses her roles carefully. These days she doesn’t work as much as she’d like but finds contentment in the roles she does accept—and just staying in the game is what keeps her feeling alive. Says Field: “There is a great quote by Albert Camus: ‘In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.’ There is something in me that is always moving forward, always hopeful that my best work is yet to come.”

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