Sally Field: How her pluck won her role in "Lincoln"

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Actress Sally Field fought for the role of Mary Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's new biopic of the 16th President.

CBS News

(CBS News) Sally Field has come a long way from her early days on "Gidget" and "The Flying Nun." She's a respected actress now starring in the movie of the moment - "Lincoln." Our Mo Rocca interviewed her at a suitably appropriate spot: Mary Todd Lincoln's childhood home in Lexington, Ky.:

In Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," the role of the imperious, difficult, mercurial first lady Mary Todd Lincoln is played by Sally Field.

It's a rare historical role for Field. "I had put on a lot of weight. I put on over 20 pounds, I hope it shows in the movie!" she laughed.

In real life there's nothing regal or standoff-ish about her: "I want to be wanted by everyone!"

She's built her career on playing ordinary women in extraordinary circumstances. Struggling to give fellow factory workers basic rights in "Norma Rae" . . . saving her family farm in "Place in the Heart" . . . taking charge on her daughter's wedding day, then mourning that same daughter at her funeral in "Steel Magnolias."

You can't not root for her.

But if you thought two Oscars and three Emmys meant the part in "Lincoln" was hers for the asking, well, the story of how Sally Field got the role opposite Daniel Day-Lewis is itself a classic Sally Field tale of struggle.

"I am ten years older than Daniel (Day-Lewis)," she told Rocca. "Mary was ten years younger than Lincoln. I automatically knew that age was going to be somewhere in it, was going to be an issue."

And it was. After Day-Lewis was cast as Lincoln, Spielberg called with bad news: The part of Mary Todd Lincoln wasn't hers.

I said, 'I can't let you walk away. Mary belongs to me. I am Mary. I won;t let you walk away. And I, you know, somewhere brought Mary up inside of me to be feisty enough to say, 'Test me. You owe me a test.'"

Her pluck paid off. Daniel Day-Lewis flew from Ireland to screen test with her, and when they met for the first time they were both in full costume.

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Sally Field as first lady Mary Todd Lincoln in "Lincoln." DreamWorks

"I was in this high-back chair with a shaft of light coming in on me. And I thought fine, I'm just going to sit right here. And I heard a hubbub across the hallway a ways away. And I didn't turn and look. And finally I slowly turned to look and there he came, my beloved Mr. Lincoln."

"And was it like Abraham Lincoln coming towards you?"

"Yes, it was. Everyone fell away and it was only him walking toward me with this hat on, head cocked to the side and a slight smirk on his face. And I gave him my smirk back and waited till he was at my side. I rose and gave him my hand. He kissed it. I said, 'Mr. Lincoln.' He said, 'Mother.' And that's the way they addressed each other in real life - except he either called her Mother or Molly."

"I wanna see the movie about you getting this role," Rocca said.

"I know, I know. I've had some times of my life. But that was one of them for sure. And it was magical."

Mary and her Abraham connected instantly - in a very modern way.

"He started texting me, he would text me all the time, totally in character, which was hard to do," she said, "because the language was so different than how we speak. And I would text him back totally as Molly, constantly. Sometimes he would just send me bizarre limericks. And I, as Mary, would write back, usually criticizing him," she laughed.

And she signed her texts Molly. But she didn't tweet as Mary Todd Lincoln. "No, I don't tweet as anyone. I'm a tweet-less person," she laughed.

We met with Field at Mary Todd Lincoln;s childhood home in Lexington, Ky., where we continued talking about her own history. During her almost five-decade career in the business, Field says she hasn't just struggled for roles; she's struggled with some costars - literally.

She admits she bit Tommy Lee Jones: In 1981 Field and Jones costarred in "Back Roads." Field says he was something of a "wild man" man back then, and at a rehearsal the 5-foot-2 Field was having none of it.

"Tommy's a big, strong man, and he had a hold of my little wrist to show me how I couldn't get free. And I was, you know, twisting it." Biting, she said, made him let go. "I got free!"

Of course the southern California native was already known to audiences - as surfer girl Gidget, "Flying Nun" Sister Bertrille, and as Sybil, the woman with dissociative identity disorder - what back then was called multiple personality disorder.

Truth is, the woman who now hawks medication for osteoporosis looks a lot younger than 66.

"You look like you're 40, tops," Rocca said. "I mean, if I didn't know about the Boniva Osteoporosis thing ..."

"But my bones are strong!" she laughed.

She's been married twice, and had a high-profile romance with Burt Reynolds.

"Was your relationship with Burt Reynolds as fun as the 'Smoky and the Bandit' movies?" Rocca asked. "I mean, were you just tearing down country roads in Trans Ams?"

"No," she laughed.

She is single now. "I am the traditional woman in a lot of ways, desperately looking for the traditional man, and then hating his guts when I find him," she laughed, "because he asks me to be the traditional woman. So, go and figure that one out."

"Do you not ask guys for a lot in return? I mean, do you not say, 'Hey, you gotta do this for me?'"

"I do now. I learned!" she laughed. "I learned how. Yeah. And notice, I'm alone."

She may be single, but one thing is sure: Whatever Sally Field sets her sights on, she goes for it - and that's why people like her . . . really like her.

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