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Sally Field to Steven Spielberg: ‘I won’t let you walk away from me’

Meriah Doty
Movie Talk
October 27, 2012

So far, Daniel Day-Lewis has been getting the lion's share of buzz around "Lincoln" for his jaw-dropping transformation into the 16th U.S. President. But there's another Academy Award-winning heavyweight who gets nearly as much screen time -- Sally Field in her role as First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. And insiders are already predicting the two-time Oscar winner will be in the mix this coming awards season.

Field recently sat down with Yahoo! Movies, where she revealed she had to fight director Steven Spielberg for the part of Mary.

An epic battle it was, as Field had been attached to the project for nearly seven years as part of a production that indeed took a long while to get off the ground. "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... and also because she's such a fascinating character," she said of the first lady, who is thought to have been 5'2" -- the same height as Field. "I wanted to play her. [Spielberg] asked me to do this when there was no script, there was nothing except another actor was attached to do 'Lincoln.'"

That actor was Liam Neeson. And he eventually dropped out, making room for Day-Lewis -- who has admitted he was initially reluctant to take on the leading role. That's when Field realized she was in jeopardy. "Daniel came on board and I went, 'Uh-oh!  Here the battle begins.'"

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

Field, who is now 65-years-old, is 10 years older than Day-Lewis -- quite a difference by Hollywood standards. Adding to Field's challenge, Mary was nearly 10 years younger than Abe. But Field wouldn't let that deter her. "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.'" (Neeson is five years younger than Field.)

Field dug deeper in her effort to convince Spielberg. Knowing he was worried about the age difference, she argued it won't appear that way on screen -- largely because Day-Lewis will look "worn and thin." She also told Spielberg that her age is an advantage to play the confident, educated, bold, overly-emotional Mary Todd Lincoln -- who was key in bringing her husband to power. "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," Field recalled telling Spielberg.

Field then demanded that Spielberg screen test her. He honored her request, but tested her alone, editing her onto film with older footage of Day-Lewis. The mega-director still wasn't convinced and told her so.

But then Spielberg couldn't get Field out of his mind. He called her the next day, saying he had spoken to Day-Lewis -- who expressed he wanted to meet her. There was still hope, and Field indicated she was feeling every heavy emotion associated with that sort of push-pull. "Well, if there's a gun I'm going to put myself out of my misery and just kill myself," she joked.

[Related: Spielberg and Day-Lewis admit fear drove them toward 'Lincoln']

Day-Lewis graciously flew from Ireland to Los Angeles to test with Field because, as she recalled, "he felt Steven needed to see us on film." The two also engaged in what Field described as a "weird" hour-long improv. "He, early in his process, became my beloved Mr. Lincoln and I became his Molly [Mary's nickname]. And we were new in the process but very much there because we'd done enough research," Field recalled.

When she got home, the phone was ringing. Spielberg and Day-Lewis asked her to be Mary. She got the part.

"So I fought for it," Field said, adding that fighting for the role was also a way of getting deeper into character. "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."

Field said there are no awkward feelings between she and Spielberg over the battle for her role. "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."

Read the entire  transcript of my interview with Sally Field where she delves deeper into Mary Todd Lincoln's historical significance as well as her experience working with Daniel Day-Lewis on set.

"Lincoln" opens in theaters on November 9.

Watch the 'Lincoln' Theatrical Trailer:

'Lincoln' Theatrical Trailer
Follow me on Twitter (@meriahonfiah)

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