Sally Field Channeled Grief over Mother's Death into 'Lincoln' Role, Defended Young Julia Roberts

Oscar-winning actress said she had to fight for the role of Mary Todd Lincoln.

ByABC News
February 11, 2013, 6:26 PM

Feb. 13, 2013— -- Sally Field has been a beloved part of American pop culture for nearly a half-century. At 66, she has as many Best Actress Academy Awards as Meryl Streep. Pretty good for someone who began on the ABC sitcoms "Gidget" and "The Flying Nun."

"When I started in the business, I started in situation-comedy, that's kind of-- those were it," Field said. "People will say to me, 'you made such wonderful choices in your life.' I have? I had so few choices."

Still, she was undaunted and unabashed in her desire to play Mary Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln."

"I'm proud of the film, I'm proud of my work in the film, I'm proud I fought to get in it," Field said.

Proud, too, of doing it all, deep in the midst of a heartbreak she has never talked about publicly before: Her mother's death.

But this acclaimed performance, for which she pored through books on the troubled first lady and gained around 20 pounds, nearly didn't happen, despite Spielberg's initial enthusiasm for her to play the part.

"He actually asked me to be Mary Todd, I think it was 2005, but I knew even then, when I drove away… that there would be a lot of slip between cup and lip, ultimately," she said.

Years of false starts followed. But when a script by "Angels in America" playwright Tony Kushner restarted the project, Field's struggle began.

"I just knew that would be a battle then," she said. "I'm 10 years older than Daniel [Day-Lewis], and Mary Todd was 10 years younger than Lincoln. I'm 20 years older than what Mary was. Steven said, 'it's not going to work.' The good news is I didn't kill myself that day because he called me the next day."

The customarily reclusive Daniel Day-Lewis had offered to fly from Ireland to Los Angeles for the day to act with her, giving Field one final chance.

He walked across the room, and I was sitting as Mary and I did not rise until he was literally next to me," she said. "And I rose, finally gave him my hand and he kissed it, and I said, 'Mr. Lincoln' and he said 'mother.' That's what they called each other, and I lay my head on his chest, because I am much shorter than he, as appropriately so, and I whispered 'thank you.' He kissed the top of my head and said, 'my honor,' and it will be one of the things I remember forever and ever and ever."

As she drove home, Day-Lewis and Spielberg called to say she had won the role.

"I knew then, that day, and just began to cry, of course. Saying, 'thank you, thank you, I won't let you down,'" Field said.

That performance as Mary Todd -- sympathetic, subtlety emotional -- earned Field a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination and was achieved under challenging circumstances. Her mother died during filming, and on Field's 65th birthday.

"My mother passed away while I was doing 'Lincoln,' which was a huge part of the whole experience," Field said. "I had never really talked about it. It was huge, and everybody knew and I flew home and she'd been very ill so it'd been ongoing. My daily phone calls with her. It all folded into the batter, and of course the grieving and the things that I felt were tremendous."

Field's work already stands as a pinnacle of an acting career, transformed by a key moment of self-assertion in 1972.