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

Sally Field Mary Todd Lincoln

It sheds an interesting light on the making of this film, because you’re playing a real historical figure who led such a specific life, and yet you have to spontaneously “be” that person in your performance with little to no rehearsal with your cast mates.
Well, it wasn’t really spontaneous in that way. I think what it is, is absolute and utter regard for the actors that they had all hired. By the time we stepped in to do that, I was so ready to play it – I was like a racehorse. I think that’s what Daniel and Steven sensed. I had done so much research. I had gained 25 lbs. and done so much work with the costumer to own the costumes, to own the amount of crinolines and hoop skirts, to understand how to work in it and the mores of the time. I had owned the dialogue in my head for so long and pieced together her psychology for months and months and months and months — it’s almost like to rehearse it, I would have left it somewhere there on that floor. My director friend Marty Ritt, who I worked with a couple of times, used to say that the highly trained and tuned actors are like racehorses, and once they get into the gate, the bell goes off and bam! They’re gone. I was so ready to do it. If I’d had rehearsal, I would have done it because you can’t hold it back anymore. Let me do it, let me do it, let me do it! By the time we did that scene, Daniel and I had done a number of our scenes so our relationship was very much in place. I was very aware that he was standing not far behind me. I was very aware of Robert, of Joe [Gordon-Levitt] by me. You work with these exquisite actors and you really don’t need a lot of going over it and over it. Tommy walked in and he was Thaddeus Stevens, and I have something I’d like to say to you. [Laughs]

Mary Todd Lincoln is certainly much more complex than we even get to see in this movie, but were there aspects of her story that you discovered that fleshed her psyche out further for you, even events that we know happened after the timeline of Lincoln — such as what happened after Lincoln’s death, with her going broke and being institutionalized?
They wouldn’t give her her allotment, her pension. But with all the research I did, I stopped [after Lincoln’s death] — I had to read a little bit, because I had to know some of the ingredients with Robert, what went on that led him to do what he ultimately did to her. But I couldn’t know any more than that, because I didn’t want any of that in my head. When I went to visit the Ford Theatre, they said, “Do you want to go into the theater?” I said no – I don’t ever want to see it. I feel I’ve played that scene, I’m not going there again. So all of what is real about Mary after Lincoln dies, I never would allow any of it. I couldn’t have done my love for my oldest son had I known fully of his betrayal.

Lincoln’s sexuality has been a subject of debate, and you’ve observed yourself that he rarely grabbed Mary Todd in passion — did your research give you much insight into the romantic life of the Lincolns?
Yes! Mary had a real appetite. She did! There are some letters that were kept where she says something to the effect of something that could be interpreted about she wanted him “with” her more often. He was gone a great deal of the time, and it’s not an uncommon place for men and women — she was always beseeching him, “What are you thinking? What are you feeling?” She was so full of emotion, and one of the things she said about him was that he showed the least what he felt the most. And so that is the two sides of the coin that they played for each other. He would come in and tell her about these horrible nightmares that he would have, and she would shake all over, horrified. She wouldn’t be able to sleep, she’d be absolutely terrified, and then he didn’t have to feel it. And he would always come in and tell her because it was a way of unburdening his own emotions and fear and grieving; Mary grieved for the both of them. And he finally had to say, get out of that damn bed or I’m going to put you in the booby hatch, but she was grieving for him because he couldn’t grieve, so she felt it for everybody – and that’s what Mary was, she was this sponge. I will feel everything that you don’t allow yourself to feel, and then some. So when she was angry at Thaddeus, it was because she was angry at the way she was treated, at the way Lincoln was treated, and he couldn’t show of it — I’ll show it! It’s not a conscious thought, but a personality thing – part of her psychological makeup.

Mary Todd’s relationship with Mrs. Keckley is significant in Lincoln, partly because Mrs. Keckley is her only confidante and a black woman but because she’s also the only other female figure in this male-dominated cast.
In reality, it’s interesting — he actually was very friendly with her, in a distanced way, because he would lean on Mrs. Keckley a lot to help with Mary when Mary was having a hissy fit. He would go, “Would you go in and try to talk her out of this?” He leaned on her to advise him about Mary’s condition, because Mary had to tolerate the loss of a child and this White House that so belittled her and tried to put her in jail. She felt it important that she had a White House that was substantial, a place of royalty almost because it represented the weight and worth of the country, and therefore, yes, she spent a little too much money. Okay, that’s alright! These things happen. She felt it was her job to have banquets and these gatherings because she knew enough about politics to know that’s where the work gets done, when you bring all these people together in a social setting. So she did that all the time! First of all, she was the first First Lady — she was the first to get that title, and it was given to her not out of affection. And it stuck! She always was the hostess of these many gatherings she had, and yes, she had to have the best gowns. She looked like a Christmas tree most of the time!

She was a fashionista.
She totally and completely was!

Mary Todd is such a complex and fascinating character – how are you finding roles like this, and has it gotten any easier during your career?
No. No, and also because I’m older, that really complicates the situation because there are no parts for women, and there are no parts for women of age. At all. So it’s always been a struggle for me, always. And I don’t believe it will ever be any easier. I think it’s defined in myself as a person, because I have to constantly say, how much do I really want to be doing this? It hurts your feelings and you get discouraged and all that kind of stuff, then something comes along that you can’t let go of. You will go down bleeding and bloody to do it, or they’ll have to literally drag you off to the booby hatch because you’re not letting go. But they’re rare.

Lincoln is in theaters now.

Follow Jen Yamato on Twitter.
Follow Movieline on Twitter.

Pages: 1 2


  • 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.