Daniel Day-Lewis calls her Mother; to Tom Hanks she’s Mama. After 50 years as one of Hollywood’s leading actresses, Sally Field can teach a thing or two to the best in the business. Yet, she reveals to Elaine Lipworth, she still has an unfulfilled ambitio
‘I’m still hoping I might meet Mr Right some day... So if somebody knows anybody suitable, just speak right up!’
The versatile star of classics that range from the weepie Steel Magnolias to the very funny Mrs Doubtfire, Sally Field has enjoyed a career spanning nearly half a century. She’s won two Oscars and was nominated again this year for her poignant performance as Mary Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s drama Lincoln. ( Her co- star Daniel Day-Lewis won his third Oscar playing America’s iconic 16th President who outlawed slavery and was assassinated in 1865.)
Sally is regarded as one of the leading actresses of her generation, but at 66 still has one unfulfilled ambition that has nothing to do with Hollywood. ‘I would love to get a degree,’ she confides when we meet for lunch in a New York hotel. ‘I never went to college. I’ve spent my whole life acting and earning enough money to raise my three children. I think my journey would’ve been different had I been to college. Fate came in and grabbed me and my path was my path, but I have always very much wanted a liberal arts education.’
Articulate, literary and highly intelligent, Sally has nothing to prove, but it’s a measure of her tenacity that she refuses to rest on her laurels. She was born and raised in Pasadena, Southern California, along with her older brother, Richard. Her mother, Margaret, an actress, and father, Richard, an army captain, divorced when she was four. Margaret remarried actor and stuntman Jock Mahoney. ‘College was not presented to me as a possibility,’ says Sally, explaining that during the 1960s her parents — like many others — viewed college as a priority for boys, but didn’t consider it for girls. ‘My brother went to Berkeley [ University of California] and became an elemental particle physicist but no one said to me, “How about you, Sal?” My parents at that time were having a hiccup in their relationship and they didn’t notice me.’
They did foster her natural acting talent and she grew to love her work, but not right away. Sally’s first professional job was the 1965 TV show Gidget. At 19, her volatile stepfather — whom she describes as ‘both cruel and loving’ — ‘ frightened’ her into accepting the starring role in the 1967 series The Flying Nun. It became a big hit, but according to Sally was an ‘insipid, stupid situation comedy… I was a walking sightgag. He said I probably wouldn’t work again if I didn’t take it. The assumption was that I wasn’t good enough. I wanted to study and become a serious actress.’
She spent all her spare time taking classes with renowned acting teacher Lee Strasberg (who also taught Marilyn Monroe) and drew the attention of leading directors. She appeared in several TV movies before winning an Emmy in 1977 for her role as a schizophrenic in the TV drama Sybil. Her impressive credits since then include Absence Of Malice with Paul Newman and 1994’s Forrest Gump with Tom Hanks. She won two Best Actress Oscars in the 1980s for Norma Rae and Places In The Heart and Emmys for the TV series ER and Brothers & Sisters. She also played Aunt May in The Amazing Spider-Man and returns in next year’s sequel.
Now single, Sally has two sons — Peter, 43, and Elijah, 40 — from her first marriage, to builder Steven Craig. She married her second husband, film producer Alan Greisman, in 1984; they had a son, Sam, 25, and split up nine years later. She was also famously involved for several years with her Smokey And The Bandit co-star Burt Reynolds. ‘I’m not good at relationships; what can I tell you?’
Petite and very pretty, Sally orders a prawn salad, assiduously avoiding the cakes and pastries laid out for us on the coffee table. She had to gain 25lb to play Mary Todd Lincoln — all of which she’s now lost.
‘It was not easy,’ she says. ‘It took six months and there was no way on earth in my mid- 60s I could take off the weight just by dieting. I had to work out a lot. I had two trainers; I did a lot of cardio, weight training and pilates — basically a lot of huffing and puffing.’ Her dark hair is shoulder length, framing her heart-shaped face and large eyes. There are faint lines around her eyes and mouth. ‘Do I want to do artificial things to try to make myself look younger? No. I think if I weren’t an actor, I’d be tempted because there are these signs I should look younger,’ she smiles, touching her forehead. ‘But I have to look like a woman my age or it would be weird. I would never get the great roles like Mary Todd Lincoln.’
My mother was a real working- class actor. She was never as good as she wanted to be, but she loved acting. She had been discovered and put under contract to Paramount Pictures studio in the 1940s and was lucky enough to study acting with Charles Laughton [the English actor and director] who was brilliant, arguably one of the finest actors who ever lived. His legacy is being challenged now by Daniel Day-Lewis! My mother had a collection of little ‘portable library’ hardback books of Chekhov and Ibsen and Shakespeare, which I still have. She played the maid in The Cherry Orchard and her scenes are marked off with directions: ‘ Cross downstage right…’ She quit acting in her mid-30s but her love of literature and the classics was instilled in me. I think she was very proud of me. She was always terribly supportive and loving.
When you have parents who are struggling financially, you watch what it’s like. My parents were both actors. It’s a really hard life because you have a job one week and then months go by, you don’t get hired and you wonder how you’re
going to pay the rent. It meant terrible insecurity. Since I grew up in that environment, the experience stays with me as a cautionary tale. You think you have some position in the industry, then you don’t and there’s always the fear that you will have to sell the house and the cars. That happened to my family and it does something to you inside.
I hated The Flying Nun. I was terribly depressed and the series ran for three years. I was 19 and didn’t want to play a nun. It was the Sixties. Everybody was taking acid and dropping out. As far as my generation was concerned I represented the establishment that they were rebelling against. They were wearing miniskirts — I was wearing a habit. Working with Daniel Day-Lewis is heaven. We all do the same thing as actors — the difference is that Daniel does it better than anyone else! He does magnificent character work. He seems to wrap himself up in silk and hang upside down from a tree until he emerges as a completely different person. He also has the ability to bring his own personal emotional life into the role, so he never creates a caricature as other actors might do who are sort of imitating another person. Daniel is able to create another human being. When we were filming I called him ‘Mr Lincoln’. He called me Molly mostly, sometimes Mother. Tom Hanks still calls me Mama [she played his mother in Forrest Gump] and I’ll go, ‘Tom, stop!’ He’ll pick me up and hug me like Forrest would do.
Daniel is a hysterically funny rascal. He always wants to do something funny and I’m always going, ‘Daniel, we can’t do that!’ He’s outrageous. He’s also a phenomenal father and as good a man as he is an actor. So there you have it. It’s disgusting, actually! He has it all. It was hard to put on weight to play Mary Todd Lincoln. She was around my height [5ft 2in] but she was heavier and rounder. I did it in a very disciplined way — I didn’t eat banana cream pie and cheeseburgers. I went to a nutritionist, who made me eat revolting things. I’d have a milkshake sort of drink twice a day; I had to add two scoops of nut butter and a banana to up the calorie intake. At meals I ate lots of brown rice and nuts and avocados. I thought, ‘If I just do this willy-nilly and eat French fries, I’ll die of a heart attack halfway through the production — and that won’t be good.’
Mrs Doubtfire has become an iconic work because it is about families being torn apart
when their parents split up. Children want to love both their parents and don’t want to hurt either of them. But in a lot of cases divorce is really for the best because it’s not healthy for children to be in an environment where their parents are really not happy. At the same time the film is really, really funny.
To have a successful divorce is a difficult
task. I’ve been lucky to have kept contact and close friendships with my children’s fathers. When they were growing up we’d all go on vacations together and we were one great big extended family. I’ve spent a lot of time with my children and grandchildren. I’ve always been very hands- on with them, even when I’ve worked. I’ve never been a workaholic. I think I was a better parent to my youngest son, Sam, who is 18 years younger than my oldest son, Peter. I had Peter in my early 20s. I say to him, ‘Gosh, I’m surprised you’re doing so well and are such a happy, productive human being. You had a young mother.’
I campaign for gay rights for my son Sam
and all the parents of gay children. There are parents who shut their children out of their lives, and a horrific number of these young people are committing suicide. Gay marriage is a human rights issue. God knows, marriage is hard whoever you’re with — and, God bless you if you get married, I hope it works.
There are very few roles for women of my
age or any age. It’s just the way that it has always been. I don’t accept it, but I just don’t think change is going to come by asking for it. I don’t know what the answer is. Just be as good as you possibly can. If I felt as though I had done my best work, I really would quit, but you can’t feel like the best work you’ve done is behind you. Yikes. That would be awful — what would you do?
I don’t really want to be married — I’m gun shy — but I wouldn’t mind having a
playmate. I would love to know what it’s like to have a good relationship. I would sure like to meet someone; that would be great. I never meet anyone, though, because I am not very social. So if somebody knows anybody who might be right for me, just speak right up!
Lincoln is out on Blu-ray and DVD on 10 June
High flier Right: Sally as Sister Bertrille in the 1960s TV series The Flying Nun, a role she hated. Far right: As Mary Todd Lincoln alongside Daniel Day-Lewis in Spielberg’s film Lincoln
SonandSon and stars Above: Sally with her youngest son, Sam Greisman, who inspired her to campaign for gay rights