When Steven Spielberg asked Sally Field to play Mary Todd Lincoln in 2005, deep down, the two-time Oscar-winning actress knew the road to playing the contentious first lady wasn’t going to be easy. Writers on the film project came and went, as eventually did Liam Neeson, the actor originally cast to play Abraham Lincoln. When Daniel Day-Lewis agreed to come on board, Spielberg wasn’t sure Field still fit, owing largely to their age difference. Lincoln was nearly 10 years older than his wife, but Field had more than a decade on Day-Lewis.
Field wasn’t prepared to give up the role without a fight. Over coffee in a Santa Monica cafe, the 66-year-old actress, whose youthful appearance immediately makes Spielberg’s initial concerns seem beside the point, lays out her determination to get the role.
Why was playing Mary Todd Lincoln so important to you?
There are just certain characters that I feel belong to me. Sybil, I felt like that. No one else could have done it. Norma [the factory worker in the 1979 movie “Norma Rae”] belonged to me. And Mary too. The size, the roundness of the face. Steven had a legitimate reason for feeling as he did. I understand that. But I also knew there was no other Mary to be had. So I had to step up to the plate. I said, “Test me.”
In full hair and makeup and in costume, right?
Yes. Steven gave me a Saturday afternoon, and [cinematographer] Janusz [Kaminski] came in and [costume designer] Joanna Johnston found me a dress from Western Costume, and I did the monologue from the scene with Sen. Stevens [played by Tommy Lee Jones].
Did you feel good about how it went?
I did. But Steven called the next day and said, “We put it with some footage of Daniel, and it just isn’t going to work.” I thanked him for the opportunity. I wanted to kill myself, of course, but I didn’t, which is the good news. Because Steven called the next day, saying he had walked around the lot for hours and hours, thinking about it. And that he had sent Daniel the tape — yikes! — and that Daniel wanted to meet me.
To talk or test together?
Originally we were just going to have coffee in New York. Then Steven’s office called and asked, “Do you want the same hair and makeup people?” And I said, “For what? A cup of coffee? I was just going to put on some mascara and hope for the best!” And they said, “No one told you? Daniel wants to film with you.”
So your first meeting with Daniel Day-Lewis was in costume?
Yes! We met at Amblin and were introduced to each other as Mr. Lincoln and his Mary, and we had a long improv for an hour or two that became this kind of magical reality. To this day, neither one of us remembers what we did or said. But as a human and an actor, what it felt for the two of us to be together, doing these two people, was magic. And that was the beginning of the relationship in the movie.
When did you learn that the role was finally yours?
My cellphone started ringing just as I was getting home. It was Daniel and Steven together asking, “Will you be our Mary?”
And you said: What took you so long?
[Laughs] Steven was always saying, “Oh, God, I tortured you to do this.” And I told him not to ever say that. Both Steven and I needed to find Mary in that way. Something in me needed to adjust my own being to be that tenacious. I’m very shy. There was a part of me that wanted to back away and not call Steven ever and say, “Fate does what it does. What can you do?” But I couldn’t do that. Like I said, she belonged to me.
And it’s a little perfect in its own way since Mary herself had a reputation for being a tough fighter.
Absolutely. This long process was the beginning of me finding this woman who would have never backed away and not given a rat’s … about what anyone thought about her.