'Lincoln' First Lady Sally Field On The Power And Passion Of Mary Todd Lincoln

Sally Field Mary Todd Lincoln

The tumultuous America of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln was undoubtedly a man's world, but behind the legendary 16th President of the United States — one of the greatest figures in American history — stood a fascinatingly complex, shrewd, and passionate woman: Mary Todd Lincoln. "Without a Mary Todd," asserts Oscar-winner Sally Field, who portrays the paradoxical First Lady opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, "there would not have been an Abraham Lincoln."

Spielberg's Lincoln, adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner from Doris Kearns' biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, brings the iconic Lincoln to life at the close of the Civil War, just prior to his 1865 assassination. Reenacting Lincoln's precarious inter-party political dealings and dogged commitment to passing the Thirteenth Amendment, Lincoln depicts a pivotal, history-making period in the President's career, taking care to highlight the impact made by his most under-acknowledged political partner — wife Mary Todd.

And what indelible contributions did the emotionally volatile, smart, and savvy Mary Todd make to her husband's legacy? Field sat down with Movieline to discuss the fantastically complicated First Lady of Lincoln — wife, mother, society figure, and trusted advisor — and why, as an actress "of age," roles like these come along far too rarely.

They say behind every great man is a great woman, perhaps especially so in Lincoln’s case, but the world in their time wasn’t quite up to speed with that thinking. Did you feel a certain responsibility to represent strong womanhood knowing that you were one of very few female characters in this cast?
No. It wasn’t my task to do that. I could not feel that. That would have been absolutely in my way. I was given this great opportunity to portray the amazingly complicated, misjudged, misunderstood, maligned, and underexamined by history and certainly on the screen, Mary Todd Lincoln. Without a Mary Todd, there would not have been an Abraham Lincoln. Not what we saw. She was instrumental in his life, in helping him become who he ultimately became.

From your perspective, knowing her this well, where do you feel her sense of moral justness came from and how did that affect Lincoln and his legacy?
What she gave him was not in contributing to his moral justness; he got that on his own. That’s what she recognized in him, and he got that probably from his own upbringing and his survival, which was amazing. She saw his genius early on, when he was a bumpkin – he was gawky and everyone thought she was crazy because she was very popular.

She was a society girl!
She was pretty and popular and in her early 20s, and had her choice of suitors. Many of them later ran for President and lost, against him!

The story about Mary Todd being courted by Douglas prior to marrying Lincoln, for example.
Yes! She picked him, and she recognized his genius, his qualities. Some of them were what we later see in his great humanity, he’s able to connect with humanity. His speaking ability. She elevated him; she groomed him. She criticized his posture and what he wore and that he told too many jokes. He needed to elevate his language and speak out. She understood politics; she came from a powerful political family in Lexington, Kentucky; at that time Lexington was a very cutting-edge city. Her family, the Todds, really founded the city — she sat at the table with Henry Clay as a child and listened. Henry Clay was called The Great Compromiser; she was the one who brought young Lincoln to meet with Clay, and Clay became one of Mr. Lincoln’s heroes. He learned this world of politicking, and she got it — she got it more than he did, as you see in the film.

She always was his coach, his confidante, and it was very difficult for her when he got to the White House, because she was pushed out of the center where she had been before. She was essentially his secretary of state — she ran his campaigns, she was his advisor. And when the cabinet was put into place she was kicked out. They didn’t want her there. They didn’t even want her to come downstairs at the White House! Well, by damned, she wasn’t going to stand for that — so she took it as her task to fix up the White House. It was a pig sty — literally, there were pigs and chickens in it, on the floor of the White House. It was treated with great disrespect and she felt it needed to be elevated because people needed to think of it as this place of power and great importance. She went about to do it and they tried to arrest her and cart her away. Thaddeus Stevens [played by Tommy Lee Jones in the film] tried to indict her several times — so she doesn’t like Thaddeus Stevens, needless to say.

No, and that leads to one of the great scenes of Lincoln, in which you take Tommy Lee Jones's Thaddeus Stevens to task. And that seems like a rare feat, generally speaking, because Tommy Lee Jones is so…
Imposing? [Laughs]

Yes! Take us into that scene, and what’s at stake for Mary Todd as we see her very publicly dressing down on behalf of her husband?
Well, it was an absolutely eloquent and exquisitely-written monologue, and extremely hard to say and wrap your mouth around. We never rehearsed the scene; I think we kind of ran through it once, but Steven [Spielberg] would say, “Let’s just shoot it and see what happens.” That’s basically how Mary and Mr. Lincoln worked together — let’s just shoot it! So Tommy [Lee Jones] and I didn’t work on anything. He’s a wonderful actor as you know and see in the film, he knew his character, he knew their relationship and history, and so we just did it.

Tell me more about this no-rehearsal process. Why opt for that, and is that a preference of yours?
It was sort of decided, I think by both Steven and Daniel — it just was what it was, and we didn’t have weeks of rehearsal time prior. It just was what it was, and it brought about a different kind of energy. It was very interesting. Am I the only one talking about it? Certainly Daniel won’t, because he doesn’t talk about that kind of stuff. I’m the only blabbermouth!

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  • Maligned by history? Maybe, Jen. Maybe. But wasn't it her son Robert who had Mary Todd
    Lincoln committed to an asylum? History usually gets things right, no matter how hard some
    want an edit or rewrite.