Sally Field: When Larry Met Sally
Writer Lawrence Grobel talks to Sally Field about the film she stars in, Soapdish, the film she produced for Julia Roberts, Dying Young, and the secret of her success: "Talent."
Sally Field answers the door to her rented house on a quiet street in Santa Monica with her three-year-old Sam, still in pajamas, trailing behind her. Her own house in Brentwood is undergoing renovation. "It started just with the kitchen," she says, "but you know where that leads." Still, she and her husband, producer Alan Greisman, have managed to settle in nicely in their temporary home. Sally's even moved her acting awards to the mantle of her current living room--all 13 of them. There are her two Oscars for Norma Rae and Places in the Heart, her two Golden Globes, two American Movie Awards for Favorite Female Star, an Actors Studio Award, a 1976-77 television Emmy for her performance in "Sybil," the U.S. Film Distributors Top. Box-Office Award (1981), the 1982 People's Choice Award, the National Association of Theater Owner's Star of the Year Award, a Women in Film Crystal Award (1986), and the 1986 Hasty Pudding Award from Harvard University.
I interviewed Sally back in 1986, for Playboy, but then we had a few days to get to know each other. This time we've only got a few hours because she's promised Sam she'd take him to Disneyland in the afternoon and the child is not about to let her renege on that promise. In fact, he's not sure he even wants her to begin our conversation. When she suggests he go to his room and take a nap before their trip, he says he'd rather stay next to her on the couch. But once we start talking, Sam remembers he has a question of his own to ask her. "What do animals in the zoo eat?" he wants to know. Sally tries to reason with him: if he doesn't let her do this interview, she won't be able to take him to Disneyland. But Sam really wants to know and Sally looks exasperated.
"What," she asks, "all animals? I'll tell you one. A zebra. It eats hay. Okay?"
"What does a lion eat?" Sam says, smiling coyly now.
"Meat," Sally says.
"Is that all?"
"And water. Meat and water."
Sam is about to ask about another animal but Sally cuts him off. "This isn't going to work," she says to him. "I want you to go upstairs and take a rest. You can look at books if you can't sleep." When Sam begins to whine, Sally picks him up and carries him upstairs to his room. That's when Sam starts to really cry. Not shy tears. A full-blown temper tantrum.
Sally comes down by herself and we try to begin, but her mind isn't there. "Just another minute," she says. "Let me try one more time." She runs up to Sam and manages to quiet him. It takes 15 minutes. Then she comes down and the doorbell rings. It's the TV repairman, who tells her he's fixed her cable wires, but the power ground is not right and if there's rain her TV could blow up. He suggests she call the company to have it fixed, then he recognizes her and asks for an autograph. She tries to tell him she's busy but realizes it's easier to just sign. When she finally sits down, she looks her age. She's 44.
Field has been acting since she was a teenager. It's still possible to catch the early Sally Field on cable in her first TV series as "Gidget." And once in a while you can even find a rerun of Sally as "The Flying Nun." It wasn't until she played the schizoid "Sybil" that she got recognized as a serious and truly talented actress, and established the basis for what would turn into an enduring movie career.
Her breakthrough film was Stay Hungry, which co-starred unknown Arnold Schwarzenegger. She then did a few of her boyfriend Burt Reynolds's pictures, like Smokey and the Bandit and The End. She made Heroes with Henry Winkler, Norma Rae (her first Oscar) for director Martin Ritt, Absence of Malice with Paul Newman. She also appeared in less well-known films like Back Roads, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, and Kiss Me Goodbye. Then came her second Oscar-winning performance in Places in the Heart, where she immortalized herself at the awards ceremony by standing before a TV audience of perhaps a billion people and sobbing, "You like me. You really like me!"
But in spite of becoming fodder for late-night TV talk show jokes, Sally Field continued to grow. Her second marriage, to producer Alan Greisman, flourished (her first marriage to her childhood boyfriend produced two sons, both in college now), as did her production company. She produced two films in which she starred, Murphy's Romance with James Garner, and Punchline with Tom Hanks. She acted in Steel Magnolias, where she was instrumental in discovering Julia Roberts, and she is currently starring in Soapdish with another old boyfriend, Kevin Kline. But what makes her especially interesting is that instead of focusing exclusively on projects she could produce and star in herself, she found a property that called for a young actress and got Julia Roberts to do it. In fact, in developing and producing Dying Young, she set her sights on Julia before the rest of the world did. So, people are now pointing out that Sally Field has figured out how best to survive in this business--and they're right.
In talking about producing her own last film, Demi Moore recently said that Sally Field was one of her role models. Her "courage and strength and feistiness paved the way for others," according to Moore.
But don't count Field out as an actress. Her inspirations are Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, and Barbara Stanwyck, and her talent is such that she will probably have the same kind of long, long career on-screen as those formidable women.
Lawrence Grobel: The interview we did for Playboy showed you as a pretty tough, self-assertive, determined woman--yet the image you still seem to have is somewhat more doe-eyed and simplistic. How do you think you're perceived?
Sally Field: I'm probably still perceived of as rather normal, as wholesome.
LG: And how do you perceive yourself?
SF: As a working mother, basically. I'm a professional and I'm good at what I do and I have three children and a husband and a house that's under reconstruction. And I'm sort of maintaining, keeping all the balls in the air as best I can.
LG: With all your juggling, what's the toughest ball to keep in the air?
SF: Probably just putting it all together. When it comes to acting, I'm good at that. But I'd like to be tested a little more. And When I'm doing it all-- acting, producing, dealing with Sam, the kids, the house-then I want to shoot myself.
LG: Do you still prefer to act, go home and hide rather than deal with people?
SF: I'd still prefer doing that, but I can't. But I do have strong feelings of wanting to run away.
LG: The word that keeps cropping up in articles about you is survivor. Is that how you see yourself?
SF: It's a word that underestimates why I'm here. I don't think I'm here because I have the ability to keep my head above the water. I can survive in a storm. I'm here because I have talent.
LG: Does the word bother you?
SF: I don't care if they're calling me a survivor or cute or spunky or All-American. All I care about is that I have a role that I want to do this year.
LG: Since we last talked, a lot has happened to you: you produced and starred in Punch-line, had a child at the age of 41, made three other pictures, and you're now producing Julia Roberts's next film. Your "tentative" relationship with your husband has proved to be solid, your two older sons are now in college, and you were involved in a terrifying plane accident. How much has all of this changed you?
SF: You know, everything changes so gradually that it's hard to remember where you were five minutes or five years ago. It's not like, BAM! there's this huge change. That happened twice in my life: when I first began, when "Gidget" went on the air, there was a real profound difference from Sunday to Monday and I had to cope with how different things were. And then when "Sybil" went on the air, there was this profound difference in how I was treated and how people looked at me. But now I find that everything happens so gradually. Life goes on and things change, but you don't realize it.
LG: What about your creative self--are you satisfied with the way your career is going?
SF: I don't think a person should ever be satisfied. I never feel, great, I think I'll go take a year off, sit on the back porch and knit. I never feel that I've made it. Or that I am where I want to be.
LG: Do you know where you want to be?
SF: No. [Laughs] It's not like there's this place where I'll know when I've arrived. It's a feeling that's always there. Probably all actors who stay successful for a length of time have some degree of it. You talk to a lot of actors. Does Al Pacino feel happy with where he is? They don't. You just go, when am I going to get there? When can I get to it? Where's the work? And it's always gnawing at you.
LG: Do you feel that you never have enough, that you always want more?
SF: Yeah, I definitely have that. But not like I want more jewelry, more houses, more money. I'm never looking for that. It has something to do with adventure, because acting to me is an adventure, it's a never-ending hunger. Also, as my life gets older and I get braver in the world I think I'd also like to travel and see things, to live fully. Like going to Tibet like Goldie [Hawn] does. Goldie's always had the ability to act out on those things. She's an adventurer in that way. My adventures have remained in one area, and that was always my work.
LG: Your latest work, Soapdish, is an adventure into new, comic territory for you. Was the high-strung TV soap opera queen you play any-thing like the person you are when you're at home after a bad day and your temper's flying?
SF: Part of her is an imitation of myself. I try to be more rational than she is, but I'm kind of a volcanic personality, I am emotional. There's a side of me that, if I let go, is that crabby and put-upon.
LG: You let it all hang out in this picture--your makeup is smeared, you look your age. Do you ever worry about playing older than you are?
SF: No. The only thing that matters is the role, the picture, and how do I feel being in it? Because it's always been, to me, about acting, not about my ego. There are starting to be more and more roles for women in their forties and so I will continue to be my age. I would be very frightened if I thought I had to pretend I was something that I wasn't. If I had to pretend I wasn't in my forties, I'd be terrified. But also, this is a different era and we don't know where it's going. We don't know what women are going to be allowed to do. Shirley MacLaine is a really good example of someone who is just walking the point. It's very new territory. Used to be that when female stars started to get older they'd try to dress them down and make them look younger and it got really awful, humiliating, and embarrassing. It happened to Doris Day and a lot of other really commercial box-office people, rather than just seeing if there were films for them as older people.
LG: Your husband, Alan Greisman, is a co-producer of Soapdish. Was he easy to work with?
SF: I really loved working with him. It made everything so much easier.
LG: Does he tell you what's going on to promote the film from a business angle?
SF: He doesn't tell me any-thing. They are working and negotiating now on publicity things, things that, as the producer of the picture, he would like me to do, but he's dealing with my publicist, Pat Kingsley, instead of with me. He knows enough now to never bring that home and talk to me about that.
LG: You used to go out with Kevin Kline, who plays your old lover in the picture. Was there any jealousy or tension between you and Alan during your romantic scenes with Kevin?
SF: I don't think so. Which seems strange to me. Alan liked the work, so he was tickled by it all. It's kind of funny stuff, it's not like real unbridled passion.
LG: Did it stir any old feelings that you had for Kline?
SF: No. We saw each other for a while. I adored him then and I adore him now. He was so much fun to work with.
LG: Did making this film remind you of your early TV days with "Gidget" and "The Flying Nun"?
SF: Not really, because this one is really a cartoon.