You’ve spoken in previous interviews about conflicted feelings you had about your stepfather. He was kind of a fearsome person. Can you address that?
Sally Field: He was a terrorizing person. He was a very charismatic person. In my now 60-some odd years, I think he’s been the biggest source of conflict, as a person, in my life, in trying to sort out what my feelings really were. He destroyed a lot of good things about his children — his stepchildren and his own children. Oddly enough, I think I owe a great deal to how difficult he was.
What made him difficult?
Sally Field: Boy, it’s almost impossible to say right here. He was very aggressive. He could be incredibly tyrannical. But I think, as a child, the biggest, most damaging part of him is that he loved to humiliate. He loved to pick you apart and deeply humiliate you. I don’t really know why. I think he thought he was parenting. I’m not really sure. I was the one that stood up. I was the one that wouldn’t take it. I was the one that fought for my brother, for whatever reason. Then, for other reasons that will go in the book, I became a focus of his tyranny. I was terrified. I was terrified all the time. I was terrified asleep, I was terrified awake, I was just terrified that I would be forced to fight, and yet I did. Something in me wouldn’t be quieted. He was a very big man, almost six-five, and very handsome and charismatic in his way.
Wasn’t he a prominent stuntman?
Sally Field: He was probably one of the finest stuntmen that ever lived, athletically gifted beyond belief, and a gorgeous male. He would say to me, as this little 15-year-old girl, pointing at me in this big threatening fashion, that he had this magic to identify everyone’s Achilles heel, and I was like, “Wow! What is that?” And that is to identify where it is you had this deep flaw. And if he were able to tell you what that deep personal flaw was, it would destroy you, because you wouldn’t be able to handle that truth. And I remember sitting there hearing that at 15, going, “Bullshit.” Part of me when — first of all, I’m not going to believe that. Second of all, could it possibly be true? Could there be something about me that I don’t see that’s so horrifying that I don’t want to know, that if he told me, it would destroy me? And I think what it did is it made me so that every flaw that I had — every weakness I had, every part of me that I didn’t want to see — it was going to be what I rode in with first. No one was going to be able to say anything to me that I didn’t already know and accept about myself. So, I think a lot of the things that were damaging to maybe my brother, ultimately turned out for me to be the fight, the part of me that just simply wouldn’t sit still. Even to this day, I have to watch myself. If someone says something that triggers me I’ll come flaring up in this way that I don’t want to be that person. That’s not what I want to be. But it triggers this old language that I had of survival and I have used it in my acting. It is my anger, my fury, my deep resentment at being manipulated like that. I have learned to own it, to use it to propel me. And I think some of my siblings, it really was damaging.
Do you know where that strength came from?
Sally Field: I don’t really know, except that I was the second child and I adored my brother. My older brother I worshipped. He was the sun and the moon and the stars. If he played with me that day, I was like, “Oh my God, I had such a good day!” And I think that early on in our lives, if something happened to him, I didn’t care what happened to me. I would just kill them. And I think a lot of my ability to jump on the table and fight with my stepfather came from the fact that he was hurting my brother. I think it was probably a very female thing, and in a lot of ways, maybe it comes from the fact that I was female.
When were you able to leave home?
Sally Field: I left home as soon as I could. I started to earn a living when I was 17, and I think I left home just as I turned 18.
So could you have anticipated when you took the role of Gidget what a cultural phenomenon it would be?
Sally Field: I didn’t have the maturity to be able to think like that, I was so new. Boy, I was pushing my envelope! You’ve heard from a lot of people who started companies very young. In some ways that was me. I was too young to know that I should be desperately, deeply, profoundly frightened. I was just too young to know that what I was doing couldn’t…it was going to destroy me. And I just kind of blithely went along, because it’s what I had done in high school to survive, and I was really good at that. I was really good in high school, so surely I was really good here, and didn’t know to be as terrified as I probably should’ve been. I knew that Gidget was a character I loved. I had watched the movies with Sandra Dee, and oh my gosh, it was so great. Gee whiz, I wanted to be that. She was so cute and gosh…so I was simply lost in that. I was simply lost in the amazing fun. I got to do that, and couldn’t really incorporate in my head the magnitude, in that it was going to reach millions and millions of people. But something in me had some kind of strength, that I don’t know how or why. I don’t know why, except that I had this gift early on. I had a gift and it held me, this little sparkling gift that I had when I left my body. It held me safe. It said, “I’ll be with you, you’ll be fine, you’ll come home to us and you’ll be fine.” And it’s always been there.
What was it like, playing Gidget? She was really an icon for young girls.
Sally Field: I didn’t ever think of that. I’m sure she was an icon to me. I think the most important thing in Gidget is that she had a father. I think it was this really turning point for me because I got to play a girl who had a father, and I didn’t have one. It was Don Porter, who was the most lovely, lovely, lovely loving man. And he was so terribly supportive to me in my awkwardness, in my newness. I didn’t read very well, because I realize now, I am like slightly dyslexic in a way, especially when I get nervous. We would do readings once a week for a while — when we had time — of the script. We’d sit down and do a reading, and I didn’t know a lot of the words, and I was so unsophisticated. I remember to this day some of the words I stumbled on, like “mundane” — I didn’t know what that word was. And “symbiotic,” I didn’t know what it was. Everybody got such a big kick out of me, ’cause I was 17, sort of out there. And when they laughed, it deeply affected me, because I was so used to humiliation. It was what I lived with, the threat that humiliation would come toward me in the form of my stepfather. So when we’d sit at the table and they’d laugh, it would be my trigger. I’d be like, “Oh, my God!” And he somehow — he couldn’t have known — but he would sit next to me, and he would whisper the word to me before a word would come up. It could be something simple. It could be like, he would whisper it to me. It was truly one of the most loving things from a man that had happened to me to that point.
He was a likable father on the show as well.
Sally Field: When you do things like a television series, which is so relentless, a lot of what you see is the reality of what’s happening. I learned that a lot of that can’t be acted. A lot of that chemistry is because it is real.
The Flying Nun was your next role. Can you talk about playing The Flying Nun?
Sally Field: Well that’s an interesting journey. I didn’t want to do it. Gidget stopped sort of prematurely oddly, and I didn’t have enough connection with my own voice to know that I needed to go and study and become what I wanted to become. I didn’t know how to do that yet. I was 19, and I kept turning it down. I didn’t want to be a nun. I, I was a burgeoning young woman. It was the ’60s. Everyone was running around naked! I didn’t want to do that, but I didn’t want to be a nun at all! I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to be this silly thing.
I turned it down. It took great strength. I was already living on my own, in an apartment by myself down the road and not that far away, and I said, “No, no, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do that.” You know, now, very brave of me. I’m going to find something else I want to do. And my stepfather came over to my apartment one time and told me — and I subsequently realized it was because the producer, Harry Ackerman, had called him to do it, so I felt betrayed ultimately. He’d said that I should do it because I may never work again. I mean those were like…I didn’t know it then. I should’ve burst out laughing because that’s like the cliché in the town. You know, like, “Shall we lunch?” you know. It’s like a cliché, “You’ll never work again.” But, I was too young to know that I should’ve laughed. Instead I got scared. And I thought, “God, really?” and called them up and said, “I guess I should do this.” They were already filming the pilot with somebody else and they fired her, and they put me in the next day and there it was. And I was really unhappy for all three years that I did it because a part of me knew why. I had listened to a voice of fear. It changed my life. It changed my life. I knew then that that voice of fear was something that I must never listen to — fear of that. I must go to what desperately frightens me. [What] desperately frightens me is the chance of failure, is the chance of not knowing. But not going to what is safe, and that’s what my stepfather had urged me to do. And I tried to learn that.
As an actress, was The Flying Nun a setback in a way? You were inclined to being typecast?
Sally Field: Well, you know, ultimately you look at these things. You look at these paths and these journeys you go on, and I think it’s up to you to find the value in them, ’cause there is value in all of them, even those that you would call, “Godsh, I shouldn’t have done that. I should’ve done that, I need to do that.” I did that, and I was there for three years. And it was an invaluable education. It was not a very glamorous one. It was a successful one, in that the show was successful for three years. It would’ve gone on, had I not begun to drag my feet so terribly and, you know, every night wish it ill. But what it did for me — besides learning a kind of facility with the craft of stepping in front of a camera, of learning dialogue, a facility that I didn’t have yet — is that I met Madeleine Sherwood, who was the actress who played Mother Superior. And I was so desperately unhappy. She said, “Come with me.” And at the end of the first year of The Flying Nun, she took me to the Actor’s Studio to meet Lee Strasberg, and that was a monumental change in my life. From then on, I would work in the daytime, in between The Flying Nun, and at night I would be at the Actor’s Studio in L.A., because Lee Strasberg would be, six months out of the year in L.A. I would be doing just outrageous material that I still didn’t quite understand. I was doing Sartre’s Respectful Prostitute, or whatever I could do that I thought was completely outside of what The Flying Nun was. But ultimately, I worked with Lee on and off for about ten years. And ultimately I learned a craft. I learned to hear my voice of what I really wanted to do. And finally, when I was given the opportunity to do the work, I really knew how to do it.
In those days there seemed to be a real schism between TV actors and film actors. These days it’s almost reversed, because there’s such great television and so many great actors, including yourself, on television. But back then, it was a stigma almost.
Sally Field: It was a stigma. I mean television was thought of as, you know, the poor relation to film. And there is still a little of that. There’s still a little of that. It’s a little snobbery, a class system that existed. But in 1960, you know, late ’60s, early ’70s it was impossible, especially if you came for something called The Flying Nun. It was impossible to make that transition. It just couldn’t be done. It wasn’t that I couldn’t get the part, I couldn’t get in the door. I couldn’t get on the list. Most especially because I was the Flying Nun. It was an important journey to change that. It made me learn some really valuable lessons, and that is that if I wasn’t where I wanted to be, it was because I wasn’t good enough, period. Period. It wasn’t because they weren’t letting me in the door. It wasn’t because they were against me, or they thought I was something else, or, “They, they, they.” It was simply because I wasn’t good enough. That the minute I gave my power away to them I was lost. And I didn’t try to get in the door. I didn’t try.
You know, I barely had an agent who cared whether I lived or died. And what was bizarre is that that’s how it happened. That I’d worked so hard at the Actor’s Studio, that I started to get this kind of little underground reputation. It was also during this incredible time in American film in the ’70s when American film was changing. And at the Actor’s Studio was Ellen Burstyn and Jack Nicholson and things were changing. And I got in on an audition, not because of my agent, but because of someone who had worked with me at the Actor’s Studio and told someone that people thought they knew who I was, but I wasn’t that. And I came in on the audition. By then I knew how to audition. I knew that I couldn’t come in as Sally Field, this still rather unsophisticated person. I had to come in as the character. It was for a film called Stay Hungry. Bob Rafelson, a wonderful director certainly, at a really important time in American film. I had to come and convince him that I was this absolute floozy, this tart, this sleep-around kind of girl — uneducated, Southern, sleep-around little floozy girl. And I was uneducated, but I wasn’t any of the other things, but I knew how to be that character. I knew how to play the role. I also knew that an audition starts from the moment I started to get dressed and leave the house, and that the acting had to be…that he had to then believe that everything else I’d done to that point, Gidget and The Flying Nun, was an incredible acting job. I mean really I was just this absolute tart. And that’s what I did. He did everything he could do to not hire me.
We’ve read that you overheard him saying, “Why did you bring Sally Field?”
Sally Field: Exactly. I heard him yelling at the casting person. She’d brought me in because of someone who’d worked with me. She was Diane Crittenden, who was a wonderful casting person who would do these outrageous things because she heard something. I heard him yelling at her saying, “Why would you waste my time? This is Sally Field! What are you thinking?” Of course, by then I had had Lee Strasberg in my life, who was one of my important mentors, a really important and phenomenal teacher who taught me how to use that in a way that wasn’t going to get in my way. Actually, it was fuel. It was like, “Open the door and watch out!” I knew how to do it, and I did it.
So he did hire you after all.
Sally Field: He did. It wasn’t easy. I had to test and test and test and test and test. And he called everyone he knew saying, “Could this be possible?” And he would say just outrageous things to me. He would call me and say, “You can’t possibly be the best one. It must be because you’ve auditioned more than anyone else.” I said, “This is the second audition I’ve ever been on in my life.” First one was for Gidget. So bless his heart, Bob Rafelson, he had the guts to do it. They were really gritty, raw films — to come through The Flying Nun and that — and that was my first real role.
This was a time of activism for people in the film industry, and for people in the country as a whole. Did you have any role at all in the activism of the 60s?
Sally Field: I didn’t really understand it. I tried a little bit. I came from a Republican family that was kind of involved, but not really. I wasn’t ever encouraged to think about my country or my fellow man. I had a journey to go before I could get there. I had some people to meet to change that. One of them came up later that was the, probably the most important, other than Lee. Lee Strasberg was incredibly important, but Marty Ritt, who directed Norma Rae, changed who I was. Not only my career, but changed me.
Before we get to Norma Rae, can you tell us what you learned from Lee Strasberg? We know it’s hard to encapsulate ten years of study in a few minutes, but he really is a legend.
Sally Field: Rightfully so. I don’t believe that teachers like that exist today, certainly not in acting. He was dedicated to it and he was brilliant.
Was he an actor too?
Sally Field: He had been, and he later went back to acting, later in his life, and he was wonderful. He was in The Godfather II. He was in a lot of movies then. He was a wonderful actor, but I’m sure he was a better teacher, only because he was a phenomenal teacher. A lot of people said he was cruel. I saw him sometimes being ruthless, because he just wouldn’t put up with it. I guess he could be cruel. But, I never called it cruel. I called it “tough love” in a way. Acting? Come on, you know? You either got it or you don’t, in a lot of ways, and it’s not going to help you to get coddled. It’s not going to help you for somebody to pat you on the head and hear you, tell you some words you want to hear. What really is going to help you is for someone to kick you right in the rear end, and tell you the truth, and tell you a great deal of information about this complicated craft called acting that has been here since Greek days. It is, I believe, an important art form that human beings need, to see other human beings telling stories through their bodies, and that’s what Lee Strasberg taught how to do.
Who worked with you at that time with Strasberg? Were there other actors at the Studio who had an impact on you?
Sally Field: Oh yeah. Gosh, lots. They were in and out all the time. I think I was more possessed than a lot of them. But you know, Richard Dreyfuss was in and out, Jack Nicholson was in and out, Ellen Burstyn was there all the time, and Bruce Dern was there all the time. Ron Rifkin, who I work with now (in Brothers and Sisters), I saw in and out all the time there. He lived a lot in New York, so I was the Los Angeles version. But I’d run into people all the time. Those days don’t exist like that, because I guess Lee isn’t there, and because film was changing. Film was just this lively vibrant thing. Movies were not made with the budgets they are now, and things were changing fast and acting was changing. The Actor’s Studio in Hollywood was just lit up with the thought of it, and people pushing out of their own boundaries.
Before Norma Rae you did Sybil, a role that brought you your first Emmy. Could you tell us about taking that on?
Sally Field: After I did Stay Hungry, I serendipitously was reading — at the same time I got this call — this really interesting book, Sybil. And as luck would have it, Diane Crittenden, who had brought me in on Stay Hungry, against Bob Rafelson’s wishes, was casting this mini-series — one of the first mini-series’ that television did, actually, called Sybil. I knew in my heart that it was mine. I knew that I was the girl to play it. For so many reasons, I linked with her. Even just physically, because I have a childlike quality that I have fought against all my life, but there it is, and because of some troubled things in my life, I knew that this had to be mine. Diane Crittenden called me in, and again, it was this amazing battle to get the role. They didn’t want me in there. What was I doing? Had Diane Crittenden lost her mind?
Hadn’t they seen you in Stay Hungry?
Sally Field: Stay Hungry wasn’t out yet, I had just finished it. Most people didn’t know that I’d even done it. All these wonderful actresses wanted to do this role. Vanessa Redgrave wanted to do this, and here was little me! But I just knew this was mine. I came in as Sybil, which was difficult, because I wasn’t sure which one of her personalities I was going to be. But I came in and auditioned as the Sybil herself.
Sally Field: The core Sybil that is without people, that is just a vapid, vacant soul that’s frightened of people, that can barely look up, that’s dour, dirty, and cannot deal with mankind, because all of her gifts and all of her colors are somewhere else, with other voices that will be revealed. I decided to come in as her. People were like, “Oh, my goodness! We had no idea that Sally Field was so terribly drab and depressed. I think Diane Crittenden knew what I was doing, and I came in and read. And they said, “Oh my. Okay, we’ll have her come back.” And of course…
I came back and came back and came back and came back and came back. And they kept saying, “This can’t be true. She can’t be the one. It can’t be her.” But some magical thing happened, and that is that I had the opportunity to do a test with Joanne Woodward. And again, it was one of these moments in my life where I instantly fell in love with someone like Don Porter. She opened her heart and her arms. I hadn’t met her, and I did one of the scenes with her that one of the characters was emotional and carrying on and crying. And I remember kneeling on the ground, and the video camera that’s trying to video you to do the auditions, trying to follow me around, and I’m like running all over. And he kneeled down on the ground and laid my head in her lap and sobbed. And she picked my face up and I took her sweater and wiped my nose on her sweater, snot off the thing. It wasn’t a costume. This is Joanne Woodward who’d come in. And there wasn’t a pause of, “What are you doing?” It was this enveloping. She enveloped me as this sobbing person. And it wasn’t Sally who looked up at her so desperately saying, “Don’t shut me out.” Or was it Sybil who looked up at her, one of Sybil’s characters desperately saying, “Don’t shut me out.” And I remember this sort of magic heat of that moment. They cut the audition, and I remember the quietness of the room. Joanne and I looked at each other. When I left the room, Joanne had said, “Don’t even dare thinking of someone else. That is Sybil.” Joanne made sure that it was me. It was a huge turning point in my life. It was a huge turning point in my career, but most especially because it was the first time I really got to do my work. It was the first time I got to do what I had studied so long to do, and what I was so sure I could do. It is the time that I learned how you throw yourself so deeply in your work that it doesn’t matter if you ever come back. It doesn’t matter if you ever come home, and that it’s more important that you be gone. And I was gone. And many times, I would have to call my mother to come pick me up and take me home. People would be worried about me, and how would I get out of there, the day’s work. And it was a very important time. It was Joanne Woodward and it was Dan Petrie, the director.
Did that role change your attitude toward mental illness or schizophrenia?
Sally Field: Sybil had something that was a personality disorder. At that time it was called “multiple personality” and now it’s called something else, which is a very real thing but not called multiple personality. I wish I could remember exactly what it’s called, and it’s not schizophrenia. But Sybil — I think if you work in the arts, especially if you’re in the performing arts, especially if you’re an actor — I understood the illness so much, because I have those voices in those parts of myself that contain certain colors. There’s certain characters I’ve even given names as a child, that could be the strong one, or could be the sexy one or could be the shy one. And we, as human beings, accept that. I mean we don’t name them, and we don’t tell anyone that we feel that when we deal with our teachers we deal with somebody, and when we deal with our friends we deal with somebody. But I felt it very distinctly. So I really understood that particular mental illness, and subsequently have played other people with mental illness, and have felt very connected to it. I mean, thank God I can get out of it and go home, to an extent, but understand that there is this link between creativity and madness, and I have walked on that delicate line. I really understand that in the brain there is a place that, that madness and creativity sort of go like this with each other and have read about it. Later on, when I played someone who had bipolarism, I have great regard for people with mental illness and dealing with it. I am so lucky that I can flirt with it and come home.
You’re referring to your ER character, and your second Emmy, I believe. What was it like to get an Emmy the first time?
Sally Field: It was very weird after all the time I’d worked for it. That was the year that the Emmys were cancelled for some dispute that was going on, and then they had some other awards show. I thought, “Well, I guess I’ll go to that.” Jane Alexander won that one, and rightfully so for the magnificent performance she did playing Eleanor Roosevelt. And okay, that’s fine. Then there was an Emmys all of a sudden, and I was actually working in Northern California. It was such a confusing year. None of us really knew if it was a real Emmys or what was really going on. So I didn’t go down for it. I wasn’t there. It was bizarre.
You mentioned having a strong side and a shy side and a sexy side. The sexy side came out very early in the movie Smokey and the Bandit. What was it like to show that side of yourself?
Sally Field: I don’t know if that was really sexy as much as it was just there. I did Smokey and the Bandit because Sybil was coming out, and everyone said, “Whoa, the work is extraordinary. It’s really good work…” or something like that, “…but man is Sally Field ugly! Man!” And I thought, “Oh God, okay.” And then Burt Reynolds, who was this really big box office star at the time, called me and said would I consider doing this, which I was completely flabbergasted that he would call me and do that. And there was no script. There was virtually no script. Since I wasn’t a person that had come from the New York stage, and I came from this sort of weird unorthodox background, I wasn’t one who stood on principle and said “Hmm, there seems to be no script here.” So I just took a leap of faith, and thought, well, you know, “If I play this character that Burt is supposed to think is attractive, maybe the world will think I’m attractive, and somebody else will hire me.” So I did it. And it was a great fun romp, journey, and certainly a good experience. And then it was all improv. It was almost entirely improvised.
Who was the director?
Sally Field: It was Hal Needham, who was a stuntman, and he was never there because we would go off with the car and the camera mounts and it would be Burt and I. “Bye! We’ll let you know how it turns out”! We were just gone. So it was a very peculiar experience. But there it was, this iconic ’80s film that people loved.
Did not having a script mean you had time for romance to blossom?
Sally Field: Yep, he and I dated for many years. It was an important influence in my life, an important character in my life. But ultimately not the character in my life. He was a great deal like my stepfather, interestingly enough. I haven’t spoken to him in a gazillion years. Oh, what am I saying? This is not true. He’s very much like my stepfather, and I think there’s a lot of sadness about Burt as a person. I think the country feels that about him. I think the country loved him, and I think he’s a very damaged person that couldn’t move on out of it in a lot of ways. I think the nation wanted him to be okay, and I think he’s an example of someone who couldn’t be. He couldn’t be okay. And I think the country feels sad about him.
Can you tell us how you got the part in Norma Rae?
Sally Field: I was working, just as a working actress, doing the girl roles in most of Burt’s movies, which luckily is keeping me alive, ’cause now I have two little children. I get a call when I was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, doing like a “girl role” I call it. And that Marty Ritt, who at the time I knew, and considered one of the great acting directors. He really was offering me a role. I mean they were offering a role! Offering me a role? It wasn’t an ordinary event. I hadn’t read the script. I said, “Okay, I’ll come home.” I got to go home for two days. I hadn’t read the script. I didn’t have it; they couldn’t send it to me. I got home, my mother was there with my two sons while I was three weeks in Alabama, or wherever the heck it was I was. So I’m dashing about trying to get ready, not knowing what character to play as I go in. I know I have to be the character, but I don’t know what the character is. So I just decided to go in in beige. I remember, “I’ll just be beige. I won’t be anything. I’ll just be nothing.” And my mother sort of screaming to me that she read the script. And it’s about this like Southern girl, works in a mill. “What kind of mill?” So I went to meet Marty Ritt, and I hadn’t even read the script. I was just trying to fake it. But Marty Ritt was Marty Ritt. He was maybe more influential even than Lee Strasberg. He was a very, very important person in my life as a person. He taught me who I wanted to be. And as an actor, he took me on a journey.
So he got more out of you maybe than you knew was there?
Sally Field: No. Everyone always says he got more out of me than…he would be the first to say that isn’t true. I knew it was there. He complicated my work in ways that I hadn’t done. And more than anything else, I think he applauded me. And I don’t know that I heard that kind of respect that I had worked for so hard from anyone as I did from him. He would watch me do my work as I created a character, and he directed me in the most subtle of ways to complicate things. He would add things. And in acting terms he kept throwing balls at me to see how many I could keep in the air, how many things I could do at the same time. Because now I had gotten adroit at being able to do, at complicating the work. How many things can you actually be working on at the same time? And so it became our language together of — when he would give me one too many. Would I mess it up or could I keep them in the air? And it was this love affair of the father I didn’t have, really, the real father. I mean what you want a father to be is someone to be a task master in a way, but to be…teach you in the most loving… but he was a terrible curmudgeon.
If anybody knows Marty, he was known for being this, like, curmudgeon. So it wasn’t like ooey-gooey loving. It wasn’t at all. It was, you know, if you complained about anything, he’d say, “Hey Sal, I’ll run you a benefit.” You know, it was about pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep on moving. By then it was a kind of practicality about life that I understood, that I appreciated, that I would rather live by. There was no sniveling. You just did your work and then you went home. But you did your work. You didn’t make any excuses, you did your work. And I became Norma. I lived there. I learned how to work in the mill. I learned, I lived with the people. I didn’t look for anything, I just did my work. I didn’t look for anybody to say anything to me, ’cause I wasn’t used to anybody saying anything to me really, except, “Get out of the room.” And one day Marty came into my little motor home. I was scared that he was coming in, like, what had I done? Had I done something bad? Still terribly afraid and intimidated that somehow I wouldn’t be good enough. Somehow I would be found out. I wouldn’t be good enough. And he came in and, and sat down for a minute. And I was drinking a coke or something, getting ready to get back out in the heat, and he said, “Sal, I want to tell you…” I said, “Yeah?” “You’re first rate.” And I was so utterly stunned. It was all he said. “You’re first rate.” And he got up and left. And then it was shattered. It was the most important thing anyone had ever said to me. It changed me and I was forever his daughter, his other child, his protégé. He said few things to me of encouragement, but I knew how deeply he cared. And all I ever did, all I wanted to do, was to be enough for him.
He must have been more than proud when you won an Oscar for that role.
Sally Field: He was sitting right there. He was nominated. He was nominated for best film. And it was his, in that the work was mine and I don’t give that to him, and he wouldn’t allow me to give that to him. He would be the first one to not allow that. I owned that. I earned it. It was mine. But he was Norma Rae. I played Norma Rae. He was Norma Rae. He was this amazing hero character in this gruff, curmudgeon kind of goofy character. He was. He walked the walk and talked the talk. And few people are like that today in my industry. He made films about people that mattered, about people who struggled. He made films that couldn’t be made. And he almost couldn’t get them made. And I think ultimately they killed him, but he got a lot of them made. And that kind of director, with such a clear knowledge and appreciation for acting and for cinematography, he didn’t take over to be the cinematographer. He loved the people that he hired, and he nurtured them the same way he did me — not by going “ooey gooey” or giving you a whole lot of, you know, blowing a lot of air up your skirt so you went, “Ah!” Ultimately, you didn’t believe anything they said. He said so few things, but he so deeply meant it that, it took a while before you could come back to the planet. He was rare. I hear him with me all the time. He talks to me. He says things. I hear him.
You’ve mentioned that he helped you become more socially aware. Is that so?
Sally Field: Yes, he did. He was very political. He’d been blackballed. He was around the set, the wonderful Ravitches — Harriet Frank and Irving Ravitch. They wrote Norma Rae and they were tremendously political. Wonderful writers, very good friends of Marty. And the set was alive with political thought. I had never been around that. I had never been around political thought, and I just absorbed it. I heard what it was like to care about your fellow man, and maybe more than that, for the first time I stood in someone else’s shoes that struggled in a way that I hadn’t. I had struggled, but not like this. And Norma changed me. To live in that kind of environment, with that kind of struggle in that kind of life, changed me.
She changed a lot of us. It was a very inspiring movie. It looked hot there. Was it hot?
Sally Field: It was very hot. It was real, it was what it was. We were literally in the mill. Most of the people in the film are the people there. They’re the people in the town, which was so incredibly invaluable to me because here you are — this Los Angeles kid who grew up in a working show business family — living for months on end. I’m living all day long, every day, sitting on the ground, eating lunch, going to have dinner, going to the drug store with so-and-so, and, “Hi, how are you?” You talk that language. You have that accent. You are one of them. You wear those clothes. You know them and love them. And it’s only acting that does that. Name another profession where you go do that. You live in their homes, you understand their lives, you eat with them, you shop with them. An economic state that luckily I haven’t had to endure. The way our country is going I may have to, who knows? But to understand them, and they talk to you. And a lot of people in the film that Marty used — you knew, when you had scenes where people were sitting around and talking about their problems — they didn’t know you were doing a movie. They would just raise up and start talking. They were really talking about what really… you know, that they didn’t have any opportunities. It was a town, that one industry, and they were stuck in it. They went in it early and they died young, and they had no other opportunities, and that particular industry was eating them up. And they weren’t given a chance to even go pee during the day. You don’t live that for three months and go away and be the same person.
Could you tell us about your role in Places in the Heart?
Sally Field: Just a gift of an opportunity because, now I had Robert Benton, an unbelievably eloquent, beautiful writer, a wonderful man who was really telling the story of his own life. It was emotional for him. I was his grandmother, and it was such an interesting…we had this huge ensemble cast. When the film originally started out, it was Edna and Moze, and the story of the blind man and the sharecropper and big gorgeous black man, and this little woman was a tiny part of the story. And then there was these other stories, the things that were happening in town. Benton would tell me we all shot it, and ours — the thing in the farm — was the last one to shoot, and we shot that. We were there all the time in Waxahachie, Texas. And then when Benton went to make the movie, Moze and Edna took over. It was some odd thing that they became more the center of the film than some of the other stories. And I think it was Benton, subconsciously, because he was examining his grandmother that he was much more emotionally connected to than any of the other characters in the town. This did happen to his grandmother. Grandmother lost her husband, almost lost her children and — he believed — had a really long relationship with this man who came to farm her land. We don’t show that in the film, but we’d always go, “All right, come on, he doesn’t just leave here. Doesn’t he come back?” And it was an important, obviously important film for me, but also because it actually was the story of my grandmother in a way. So, it really linked up with things that were deeply ingrained in my person.
When you accepted the second Oscar, you gave one of the most famous acceptance speeches of all time, and it’s almost always misquoted.
Sally Field: I know. It is. They’ve made it to be what they want it to be. What it really is is about performing. It is about the struggle of performing, and how hard it is to hear the applause really, when you spend all of your time with your head down, trying to be better, trying to get to a place where you can do the work. You have to pause yourself, to hear when you actually achieve what it is you set out to do. And that is that the character worked, the film worked, the work worked. My problem with this is that I wasn’t terribly eloquent about it. But then I’m not really terribly eloquent. The lights were flashing, and I think I said exactly what I really meant, that the first time it happened to me, I was so scared, and it was so overwhelming that all of this was really happening to me after I had come from what I had come from, which was an impossible place to be, when people wouldn’t let me in the door. And I was winning my second Oscar. I said to myself, “If I go up there, I must own this. It must be for me, and not for them. It must not matter whether I’d be pleasing to them.” And that’s what came out.
Maybe one of the reasons it’s so famous is that it was so authentic. It was very endearing, and we felt your soul it in. Recently you won another Emmy. Could you talk about how you were censored in accepting that?
Sally Field: Right. I think being censored for that really does speak of our time right now, which is very frightening. These are very, very frightening times. I won an Emmy this year, most especially because my character is the mother of a son who was in harm’s way. And if I won it — there were so many wonderful actors that were nominated for that Emmy — it was solely because of the impact of what that woman went through. And I owed it to the mothers who wait for their children to come home from harm’s way, from danger. And what I said was that, “As I owe this to those mothers, those brave mothers who wait for their children to come home from danger, from harm’s way and from war.” And they censored “war.” It made no sense. And it is really illustrative of Fox. It’s really illustrative of some of the networks and corporations that are running our institutions that should not be run by people who are going to say what should be heard and not heard. It’s kind of remarkable. The interesting thing was is because I was censored, so many more people heard it. It was huge. It was everywhere. It was huge. It was like the biggest seen thing on YouTube and all of that because they did that. If they would’ve just allowed me to say that, it was just simple. “From danger, from harm’s way, and from war.” Duh! And the mothers who stand there and wait for their children to return, how is that political?
In Absence of Malice, you worked with Paul Newman. Can you talk about that?
Sally Field: Just one of these really lucky wonderful moments. A remarkable, wonderful man who is absolutely an icon, who had continued to represent not only a really wonderful actor, but what it is to be a wonderful human being. He’s learned from a lot of painful things that have happened in his life, losing a son, and being a big sexy icon kind of thing, which was a huge invasion in his life. He has taken all that information, and it has made him one of the most important people I’ve ever known as a human being, an example of “Who are you in the human race?” That’s Paul Newman, and I am lucky to know him and lucky to have worked with him. God gave me a gift. And isn’t it interesting, it was Paul and his wife, Joanne Woodward. Just really remarkable people.
When you got the script for Forrest Gump, was Tom Hanks already attached to it?
Sally Field: Yes. Tom and Bob called me together. Tom is also one of those people that is just simply remarkable. And how hard he works at it, to be human. Tom and Bob (Robert Zemeckis) called and said, “We want you to read this. Now don’t be mad, because you’d play Tom’s mother. Now don’t be mad.” I was doing Mrs. Doubtfire at the time. Of course I read it and said, “I’m there. I am honored. It is a wonderful piece. Tom will be beyond belief. Can I make muffins? What can I do?” That’s all there was to it.
How much older than Tom Hanks are you?
Sally Field: In real life I’m 10 years older.
That was an interesting casting choice, wasn’t it?
Sally Field: Yeah, but it was great fun, because I got to play much younger than I was, and then I played much older than I was. I was incredibly honored that Tom and Bob (Robert Zemeckis) would want me to do it.
On ER you played a character with bipolar disorder. You’ve also spoken out recently about osteoporosis and are often seen on TV talking about it.
Sally Field: Yes, I am, I am, I am. I care very much about women’s health issues, and probably because it relates to me, and because I am a part of the baby-boomer generation of women that are growing older. I feel kind of lost, like we don’t really have enough information. First they told us to take this, and then they said, “Oh God, don’t take that. No, don’t take that.” So what are we supposed to do?
I felt outraged at the lack of research that had been done for women in the past about heart disease and God knows what. So I was diagnosed with osteoporosis at the same time when I was really approached by — if there are like good drug companies, and I think there are, these two companies are really good in that they try. They’re a business, yes. But they wanted me to be the spokesperson, but they allowed me to say there’s other choices. What’s the important thing is to understand what a huge threat this is to women. It is a huge threat, that one out of two women — that’s half, folks — are going to suffer an osteoporosis-related fracture in their lives. And there’s 16 billion dollars spent a year in trying to repair fractures that happen to people from osteoporosis that could be prevented. And in many cases — and I get on this rampage because it becomes part of the healthcare system, which is so terribly, terribly broken in this country. If you would pay for the bone density test — healthcare plans — and help people to pay for these medications, then you wouldn’t have to pay 16 billion dollars to help these people if they do fracture a hip, a spine, a leg. Which doesn’t mean you do that because you go skiing. If you have osteoporosis that goes undiagnosed or untreated, you can break your hip or your spine from sitting down on a hard bench. It becomes that porous and that dangerous, and ultimately can greatly impinge on your lifespan. So, I go, “Whoa! What is wrong with this country?”
You may be playing Mary Todd Lincoln in a Steven Spielberg film about Lincoln. Is that right?
Sally Field: If Steven ever does it, and he keeps saying he’s going to. Janusz Kaminski would be the cinematographer, and I hope he does it. I told Steven once, I don’t know what’ll happen, but I know that Mary Todd is mine. I’ve always felt physically Mary Toddish, and because I understand the kind of mental place she was in. Steven asked me to do it and I was, “Whoa! I will absolutely be there.” He’s working on the script. It needs to be done in this country. And it needs to be done by Steven Spielberg. We need to see what it was like to have a fine and brilliant leader who rose to the occasion in great adversity. We need to see that, and how that strength, and that brilliance, and that tremendous sacrifice really allowed us to be the country we are — still, I hope.
Speaking of Lincoln, what does the American Dream mean to you?
Sally Field: You know, it’s changing. I’m frightened for the American Dream. I’m so terribly frightened for America. The American Dream really was to have possibilities, to be safe and have possibilities. It is what — my children say this to me sometimes, that I shouldn’t have said, and I can’t help it — I will still say it, but you can be whatever you want to be. If you want it, work on it, devote your life to it. And anything’s possible. And my children say, “Well, we’re the generation that you’ve said that to, and that was bad because we expect that anything’s possible.” Well, God damn it! And I would be censored if that were Fox. I do think that anything is possible. It doesn’t mean you won’t be drug behind the wagon for some length of time. That’s what America once was. I am very worried about our country though. We need some leadership. We need some bold, brave leadership. We need Abraham Lincoln.
Miss Field, thank you so much for this interview. It’s been delightful.