Movie Talk

Interview transcript: Sally Field discusses her role as Mary Todd Lincoln

Movie Talk

The following is a transcript of my recent one-on-one interview with Sally Field, who plays Mary Todd Lincoln in "Lincoln" (in theaters November 9). The interview took place in Beverly Hills on October 19, following a press conference with cast members of the film, including Daniel Day-Lewis, and director Steven Spielberg.

Meriah Doty: I'm personally curious -- and I didn't have a chance in the press conference [with Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis] to ask -- how the height difference between you and Day-Lewis was depicted. Was he literally on stilts? Was it CGI?

Sally Field: Well, Daniel is about 6'2". And I'm 5'2" -- Mary [Todd Lincoln]'s real height. I've heard different things and all the things I've read it keeps changing.  Mary's height was either 5 feet, two or 4'11", but I'm 5'2". I've read more books that say she was 5'2" than books that have said she's 5 feet or 4'11", so I go with 5'2".  Mr. Lincoln was 6'4". So the height difference is actually very similar and the scenes -- I don't really know… Daniel created a walk and a posture that you just believed he was that big, gangly man.  And I don't know what they did.  I never saw it happen because I was so in my own world.  I don't know and the scenes we -- there's one particular scene where you see me walk up to him and put my hands in his chest, which I do -- Mary does a lot of that in the scenes in the bedroom.  I don't remember him being on anything or having anything on his feet.  It's just that's what it was.  I think that's just where they put the camera. But that seemed to be very much a real thing.  Whether he had anything in his shoes or anything else — I didn't ask him. It didn't matter. All I know was by then, he was my darling Mr. Lincoln, who I was having serious problems with, and I was his Molly. So, I don't know what they did.  I didn't do anything except gain 25 pounds which is what I had to do.  He had to get tall and skinny and I had to get fat.

[Related: Sally Field to Steven Spielberg: 'I won't let you walk away from me']

MD: Mary Todd Lincoln was kind of the original drama queen.  She's highly intelligent and the woman behind the man, but in a way where, you know, she kind of needled him a lot. It seemed like there was a certain destructive quality there that oddly helped his presidency. How important was it for you to bring forth redeeming qualities in Mary Todd Lincoln?

SF: It wasn't my task at all. I simply played what the text was and what I had researched her to be. She was amazingly colorful but she was instrumental in his life. Not only in the presidency but to get him there… as I said in the press conference: Honestly, if there had not been a Mary Todd, there would not have been an Abraham Lincoln. She found him early on.  He was very much a bumpkin. You heard Tony [Kushner, "Lincoln" screenplay writer] talk about where he came from. And Mary came from money and Southern -- she was raised by slaves and she came from a very political family in Lexington, Kentucky. That was a cutting edge city at the time and it was -- she grew up in all of this.  She understood it.  For a woman of the time, she was more educated than anyone — certainly [more] than [Lincoln]. He had taught himself but she spoke French fluently.  She, like he -- and probably where they first met and fell in love -- is that they both could recite poetry — Keats, Shelley and Shakespeare. She was tremendously important to him.  She was colorful.  She wore all of her emotions all over her but she felt things that he would not and could not allow him to feel. So in a lot of ways, she was a very important part of who he was because she felt the things that he couldn't feel through her. He would tell her his nightmares because Mary shook all over when she heard them and it allowed him to be calm.

He would dash in and tell her his nightmares and she suffered for it, because she felt them deeply and would feel everything.  [She] would be terrified that he would be assassinated and it allowed -- it freed him to not feel it.  And yes, she grieved for the loss of her children and drove him to distraction because he needed her to get up, out of her bed and mother [Tad Lincoln] and she couldn't do it and she wouldn't do it.  And they fought, they fought a lot, and he would walk away and she would be driven mad because she was somebody that talked back, and he was very reserved emotionally and they went very well together in all of that.

[Related: 'Lincoln' star Daniel Day-Lewis heard the voice in his head]

MD: It struck me -- a lot of women, even nowadays, wouldn't have the guts to go toe-to-toe with Thaddeus Stevens. There is a certain confidence about Mary as well.  Maybe even an arrogance?

SF: Definitely!  She definitely had arrogance and an imperial quality to her and a feeling of entitlement. I mean she came from that.  She came from money.  She was raised by slaves.

MD: A little bit of a spoiled brat like the mentality?

SF: But within that, she was also a woman that when she found Lincoln and he had no money and they had no money and she had come from this money, she lived in a boarding house.  She gave birth to two children by herself in a boarding house.  She learned to do all the cooking, all the sewing, she had no help.  She learned to bake the bread and make the calf's foot jelly and make the butter.  She did all of this and she had guts enough to take the little bit of money that he made as a lawyer and to go and to barter in town, which -- women didn't do that.  But she'd complain about the strawberries, you know: "I'm not paying for these strawberries, look at them.  I'll pay you this.  I'm not paying you this."

MD: Because she knows good strawberries.

SF: She wouldn't take no for an answer.  She wouldn't be pushed around.  She was raised to be that by her father, her only real love link in the world. Otherwise, she would have been lost in the sea of children and a stepmother that didn't like her and she had no problems standing up to Thaddeus.  She despised him.  She despised him.  And as far as she was concerned, he was a slug on the street… Tommy [Lee Jones] plays him so beautifully.  He was such an interesting character, but he tried to have her indicted several times for spending money to upgrade and bring to the White House to be a place of respect and of power which she felt needed to be -- first of all, because she lived in it -- and second of all, because it represented what they were fighting for.  She felt there needed to be symbol of the weight and worth of what they were.  And she was right.  She was the first "First Lady."  She was where that title came from and they gave her that title not out of affection.

[Laughter]

MD: And I like how she calls herself: "I'm Mrs. President."

SF: Madam President.

MD: Madam President! Now that I've seen the film -- you and Daniel Day-Lewis -- I can't imagine it any other way.  I would imagine you can understand that right when I heard about the casting -- I just wouldn't normally think of you being cast opposite to Daniel Day-Lewis.  And then, there's a little bit of an age difference.  I'm curious how that all came about.

SF: Well, actually, Steven asked me to do this role a long time ago, like 2005, 2006.  I was sort of tracking it.  I knew Mary was a part for me.  I just felt it in my gut for many, many years because of her size and who she was.  There are so many reasons I felt she was, and also because she's such a fascinating character.  I wanted to play her.  He asked me to do this when there was no script, there was nothing, except another actor was attached to do "Lincoln."

MD: And Spielberg addressed that. [During the press conference Spielberg discussed how Liam Neeson was originally cast as Lincoln.]

SF: And another actor was there and so -- I always knew in my gut even though he asked me that and I was thrilled -- I knew it would be battle.  I knew it would be battle for all the reasons that you so bravely mentioned especially because then time kept galloping on and writers came and went.  Tony Kushner came on board and wrote the most exquisite script I have ever read or ever will read.  Liam [Neeson] dropped out.  Daniel came on board and I went, "Uh-oh!  Here the battle begins."

First of all, I knew now the movie would get made.  I was never really sure, that it would be just something Steven wanted to do.  I knew that it would be the most important film perhaps to Steven that he had ever made.  I knew how important the subject was to him.  I knew it would be a battle because -- and there was a part of me that goes, "Oh, God!  I can't face the humiliation."  And then, I said, "No.  I know in my heart this has to be mine." And I called Steven and said, "I won't let you walk away from me.  I won't let you do it."  He said, "But Sally, I don't see you with Daniel.  I saw you with Liam, I don't see you with Daniel."  I said, "Well test me.  You owe me that, please test me."

And then, the generousness of what he is, Steven, he did test me.  I tested alone with Steven and he called me the next day and said, "God, you know thank you but it isn't right.  It isn't right.  I've put you with film with Daniel, old footage I just still don't see it."  I thanked him and said, "I thank you.  I owe you so much for just giving me the chance."  I tried to live through the rest of the day and then he called me the next day and said he can't quit thinking about it, also he talked to Daniel.  I went, "Well, if there's a gun I'm going to put myself out of my misery and just kill myself."  He said he'd spoken to Daniel who is in Ireland beginning his process.  Cocoon-izing himself and he wanted to meet me.  And I said, "Okay, wherever."  And so we decided well Ireland.  Well, Steven and I will go to New York and we'd meet. And somehow, we were working it out, and all of the sudden -- and it must have been Daniel and Steven together deciding, but I think a lot of it came from Daniel in giving Steven the freedom to invade his process.  And Daniel, out of the generousness of what he is, the generosity of this man flew from Ireland to Los Angeles and he and I tested.  Because he felt Steven needed to see us on film together and he, early in his process, became my beloved Mr. Lincoln and I became his Molly. And we were new in the process but very much there because we'd done enough research, both of us and we did some sort of weird hour-long improv.

I thanked them.  I left.  When I get home, the phone was ringing and Daniel and Steven were on the phone saying, "Will you be Mary?"  And I knew that it would be difficult.  I knew all the things that you named, the age difference, Steven would worry about it.  I told him, "I know I'm older.  I know I'm 10 years older than Daniel and Mr. Lincoln was 10 years older than Mary, but we won't look that way."  I said, "I will look worn and fat because that's what Mary looked like and he will look worn and thin."  And that's what he did look like.  I said, "But you won't notice the age difference."  And he trusted that when he saw and I said, "I know I have baggage.  I know I've been around a very long time and I know you might want to hire, find an actress who doesn't have the kind of baggage that I have, but then they won't have the weight that I have."

Then, they won't go toe-to-toe with him.  I'll go toe-to-toe with him and he won't blow me down.  And so I fought for it.  And in some ways Steven and I both knew -- and we talked about it later -- that I had to do that and Steven had to do that.  It was my first way of finding Mary. I had to dig down in myself and unearth things that I'm uncomfortable doing because I'm much shyer than that and much more reticent to state myself.  It was my beginnings at finding Mary's tenacity and boldness and owning it in that way, and it was Steven's first discovering of where his devotion and who Mary was.  So we both agreed that it was something that needed to be done.


Watch the 'Lincoln' Theatrical Trailer:

'Lincoln' Theatrical Trailer

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