|Sally Field in "Lincoln."
In 1985, Sally Field took a lot of ribbing for accepting an Oscar with the words, "You really like me!"
And yet, she wasn't wrong. Field has forged a career off her inherent likability, from TV's Gidget in the '60s to Spider-Man's current Aunt May.
So her casting by Steven Spielberg as Mary Todd Lincoln, one of history's least-liked First Ladies seems counterintuitive. Likability never entered into it. "She didn't need to be made likable. She just needed someone to tell her story," says Field.
Mary was depression-prone (understandable, given the death of two sons), and pro-active in her husband's career to the point of presiding over White House dinners and carrying on active feuds against politicos and the likes of Gen. Ulysses Grant. She showed a brashness unheard of in a presidential wife, and inspired the then-sarcastic term "First Lady."
So Field was intrigued when Spielberg first talked about her openly as his Mary Todd in 2004, when he first openly talked about his Lincoln. Several years and two Lincolns later (Liam Neeson made way for Daniel Day-Lewis), Spielberg's enthusiasm for Fields seemed to have cooled, but Field's hadn't.
"As time unfolded I did finally have to stand up for the role, and say, 'I won't let you walk away from me!' And Steven was generous enough to let me fight for it. And Daniel was generous enough to fly in from Ireland to read with me, because he thought Steven should see both of us together."
Method actors both, Field and Day-Lewis soon began texting each other in 19th Century vernacular. "He started, I didn't," she says. She describes sentimentally the day before start of shooting where, "We walked around Richmond (Va.) for two hours, holding hands, and it saved my life. I said I have to touch you. I can't be shy about owning your body because married people don't have that (shyness). And he said, 'Okay.' "
Field goes as far as to say, "If there had not been a Mary Todd, there would not have been an Abraham Lincoln, and that's simply the truth.
"Historians say this, that when Lincoln was assassinated and placed on such a mythic pedestal, it aided everyone to make her a heretic because it made him more of a hero."
Field read reams of Mary Todd's letters (though the First Lady destroyed nearly all correspondence between her and her husband).
"She was very complicated," Field says. "She made a lot of enemies. But she was also unbelievably important. She was tragic, but she was smart. She was intelligent and ambitious and women of that era, and other eras," she adds with a laugh, "had no place to put that.
"She's not recognized for the legacy she left behind. She felt that the White House needed to be some symbol of what people were fighting for, someplace noble, elegant, with a feeling of power and reverence."
Apparently, Field doesn't do anything the easy way -- not even gaining 25 pounds on her tiny frame for the role of Mary Todd.
"It was a hardship," she says. "I ate healthy things throughout the day, under the guidance of a nutritionist. I was afraid if I ate really fun things like cheeseburgers and fries and chocolate cake that it might kill me. Halfway through the film I might drop dead."