Sallys, as a lot, are far afield. There’s the long tall one and the one who rode into space, the first woman and youngest person ever to do so. There was the one named Rogers who was Rob Petrie’s co-writer on the Alan Brady Show. There is a broad named Bowles. And Hawkins. And Kellerman. And Kirkland. There is Charlie Brown’s little sister. And a female photographer named Mann and a man named Sally – Sally Tomato – created by Truman Capote in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And then there is Sally Field who is a lot herself: a two-time Oscar winner, a Broadway star, a loving mother, a three-time Emmy winner, and a political activist.
She is a lady who can, you know, use language. She can foist a “fuck” upon us with the finest of nuance and fiery intent and finally a so-the-fuck-what flair. Nina Simone sang a song called “Mississippi Goddam.” Sally Field is Gidget Goddam. And God bless her for it.
She flew into our lives early on and and has been a kind of cultural touchstone for us her whole adult life. She is there when we need her in roles that make us laugh and make us cry and make us angry and arouse something deep within us: joy and outrage and concern and something deeply human. She is not only a great actress, but there is a profound goodness to her art – and in it. She indeed taps into our longing to be good ourselves – or, at least, better. But she never denies in her work that goodness is not enough. She lets us know that life is both a grind and it is grand. Say her name and watch people grin. She is who we want to be when we grow up.
Bobby Harling, who wrote the screenplay based on his play, Steel Magnolias, told me, “Watching Sally filming the cemetery scene was one of the most extraordinary events I’ve ever witnessed. Steel Magnolias is a true story and the director Herb Ross chose to shoot the script in chronological order to heighten the authenticity of emotion and the bonding of the characters. The day of the shoot, I noticed Sally off by herself amongst the gravestones before the ‘big scene’. Her preparation was quiet, personal, private. She suggested a tiny, tiny dialogue adjustment which would make M’Lynn’s crisis more urgent. And she was right, of course. Then we rolled on the scene and she unleashed a tsunami of fear, anger, pain and humanity. Sally proceeded to do take after take – again and again in the stupefying August Louisiana heat – each take’s interpretation growing in nuance and complexity. All of the crew was shattered, exhausted and drained and in awe of her. Then! When we turned the camera around to film Dolly, Shirley, Olympia and Daryl, Sally gave even more performance ferocity to her fellow actors to support their reactions – the camera wasn’t even on Sally – and she was giving 150 percent. I’ve never seen such generosity from an actor. The story of Steel Magnolias is about women coming together to support and enrich each other’s lives. And I realized I was watching Sally do just that in life and in her art. It was incredible.”
KEVIN SESSUMS: You’ve told me, Sally, that you took the role in Steel Magnolias because of the cemetery scene.
SALLY FIELD: Yes. This movie came right in the middle of my movie career and there was a real feeling coming inside me that my movie career was going to wane. I was also just in this transition place in my life anyway. I had just had my third son. I was 41 years old. My oldest son was in his freshman year in college. I was sort of starting all over again. So a part of me was going, “What in the holy fuck was I thinking?” I don’t know if I was having postpartum depression or not, but I really had this panicky feeling at one moment. I was sitting on the floor of the nursery holding my new baby, and a part of me just wanted to run away. I wanted to escape. All the years that I had taken care of my children and worried about money and worried about my weight and worried about where my next job was coming from – I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t want to want things so much. I had spent so much time in my life wanting and working toward something that was impossible to get. Everything was just outside of my reach. And I couldn’t quite get it. And I had to find way to reach a little bit further and a little bit further. And when Sam, my son, was born, I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t even want to take care of him. I just wanted to turn. And go. Because of that, I got really frightened that I really was going to put him down and run away. And yet, I never ever put him down. I held him so tight because I felt this fear. Steel Magnolias was the movie that come up right after that. I took him with me to the set and he was six months old.
When I look back at my work, everything sort of relates where I was at the time in my own life. Something in each film I’ve done is giving voice to something inside of me – either something that I am trying to figure out or I’m trying to own or I can’t quite fit together. In this particular instance with this film, it was about the love of a child. And something that I didn’t see until later was it was about something that I have worked on all my life. And I am only now, at 70, trying to figure it out and get out of the kind of quandary that I have been in. And that thing is I have never been able to figure out how to have friends. I was isolated from people. I also had a troubled childhood. I never really had any friends. I had one in high school but then I got discovered and she went on to college. I went to work when I was 17. I was around people who would go out to dinner and talk about the friends that’d had forever and ever and ever. But I didn’t have any, and I didn’t know how to make them. I didn’t know where they came from. And I basically didn’t know what to do with them once you had them. What do you do with these people? I had my children. And I would hide in my children. And I had these various people I would marry for a while. So I think Steel Magnolias was, in a way, this wish fulfillment. I so wanted to feel what that was like.
KS: And yet it is also a film about loss.
SF: It’s also about moving on. It’s about a lot of things. The part of me that took that role was for the love of a child and that fear of losing it. And, even more, that fear that I was going to walk away from him. I had this weird fear I was going to walk away from him.
KS: From Sam? You love him so much that it is a hard thing to fathom now seeing the two of you together.
SF: Yes, from Sam. But not just from Sam – from everything. But that was always my go-to feeling whenever I was in transition or something was troubling me: run.
KS: Eve Ensler is the mother of Dylan McDermott who played Julia Roberts’ finance in the film. She wrote the Vagina Monologues and is both an artist and feminist. You’re a feminist. You sit on the board of Vital Voices, which is an organization that works with women leaders in the areas of economic empowerment, women’s political participation, and human rights. Do you feel a responsibility to meld your art with your social concerns, or do you think it important to keep them separate?
SF: As I’ve gotten a little older, I do feel more responsible as an artist. It think that really started when director Mary Ritt [Norma Rae, Back Roads, Murphy’s Romance] came into my life. He opened me up to see the world in a more political way. I grew up in a Republican family. My stepfather campaigned for Goldwater. He was a stuntman. He was a colorful guy. There wasn’t really a lot of political talk. There was just a lot of rigidity about everything. So when I got out of the house and into my life in the motion picture world – and even in the television world – I began to be around people with different thoughts. And certainly Marty Ritt was a big, big influence in my life. As I got older, I realized I had to participate in some way.
KS: One of the people who influenced you even before Marty Ritt was Madeleine Sherwood, who played the Mother Superior in The Flying Nun.
SF: I had done Gidget before that, as a fluke really, and I had loved every minute of it. Gidget was such a little diamond to me. She was so optimistic and she had a father who loved her and family that was welcoming. She had a yellow and pink bedroom. She was terrific. She knew what her life was going to be and she had all these cute boys who were after her. She was appealingly inept. Something in me was changed by that experience because of her optimism and her ability to move into the future, when I didn’t have that ability for various reason.
When Gidget was cancelled, they wanted to find another show for me, so they went to Harry Ackerman, who did Bewitched and The Donna Reed Show and I Dream of Jeannie and The Partridge Family and The Monkees. He was Mr. Situation Comedy. He said, “I just happen to have this little show I just developed. It’s called The Fifteenth Pelican. How about if she plays that fifteenth pelican?” The Fifteenth Pelican was the name of the book the series was based on before they changed its name. And. I. Did. Not. Want. To. Do. It. Every fibre in my body did not want to do it. There were a lot of connections to my life that I didn’t like. My real father was Catholic. And I didn’t get it. And I didn’t quite get him. I had to kneel down for hours until my knees were bent and bloodied. I was hitting myself in the chest and asking God to forgive me. I couldn’t figure out why I was doing it. I was five years old. What the hell could I have done? I did not want to do this show.
Besides all that, it was 1966. My generation was worried about Vietnam. They were dropping acid. And eating granola. And running wild. Experiencing free love. And I was going to be a flying nun? This is not what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be a part of the establishment, and that is what I would be declaring by doing that show. But then my stepfather came to visit me in my tiny little apartment. I had just moved out of the house. He said these words to me: “If you don’t do this show, you’ll never work again.” I had just turned 19. So I did it because I was afraid. The times in my life that I have made decisions because I was afraid have not been good decisions.
It was a huge success instantly. But everyone was joking about it too. And at the time I couldn’t tell the difference between the jokes and me. I felt like I was the joke. Plus, those are important years when you’re 19 and 20 and 21. I was trying to grow up and figure out who I was. My sexuality was going to come out in whatever way, and there I was dressed in a nun’s habit. I was so confused. And so depressed.
I had discovered acting in junior high school and found, in it these magical little fleeting glimpses, moments of living outside of my body where I wasn’t telling it what to do or where to go and not caring what anyone thought of me. I just was alive. It was like a bell rang. I’ve spent my lifetime looking for those moments where I could shepherd them and care for them. But on The Flying Nun it was all such nonsense, that I could no longer hear that voice and that voice was actually the only thing I ever had to myself and it let me know what I felt and what I thought. I had been so shut down by the 1950s and by the family I was raised in that I couldn’t hear myself unless I was onstage. When I was doing The Flying Nun, I lost it.
I even developed an eating disorder. Who knew what an eating disorder was back then? I’d certainly never heard of such a thing. I would binge eat so much food over the weekend, but I couldn’t make myself throw up. I guess, that’s the good news. I just couldn’t make myself, although I tried. And I’d arrive on the set the next week so swollen to the touch. My body hurt everywhere. So the next week I’d work all week, but I’d eat nothing but cucumbers. I then went to doctor and told him I had this weight problem and asked him to help me. He said, “Yeah, I can help you. I’ve got these pills here. There about this big and they’re dark green.” It was Dexedrine. He told me to take them and then take a maximum strength diuretic. So I became a babbling idiot who had to pee all the time. That’s who I was the first year of The Nun. That’s how I got through it – except my hands started to shake so much in the scenes that I couldn’t even pick up a cup of tea from its saucer and put it back because my hand was shaking so badly. So I knew I had to stop using the drugs.
One day I was doing the same old nonsense – the same nothingness – in the Mother Superior’s office. Madeleine was frightening to me. I didn’t think I liked her and I was pretty sure she didn’t like me. But that day in that scene, all of sudden I couldn’t do it anymore. I just couldn’t do it a second more. I folded up and fell to the floor and just sat there with my head in my hands. There was a voice going, “Get up, Sally. Get up. Go, ‘Whoopee! Just kidding!’” But I couldn’t make myself do it. I started to say – almost against my will, “Please let me go home. I’ll be better tomorrow. Just let me go home. Please let me go home …” I was so embarrassed to be doing this, but I couldn’t make myself stop. I had folded in on myself and couldn’t even look up because I was afraid to see the looks on people’s faces because I knew that I was shocking people. And then I heard this voice – and not in an angry way but in a way that would not be denied – say, “Get her a car. She’s all finished for the day.” Then I felt these hands come under my arms – not to push me in any forceful way, but simply and gently to urge me to get up. And she wrapped her body about mine, but she didn’t hug me. She didn’t coddle me or coo at me. She just sort of led me to the car and pushed my head down and put me in it and I drove home. That was Madeleine.
The next day I came to work and I tried to pretend that it had been nothing, even though everybody was giving me funny looks. After lunch, Madeleine pulled me to the back of our big soundstage. She slipped a piece of paper in my hand and looked at me sort of fiercely and said, “Be here. Next Tuesday. It’s ten minutes away. You can make it. There’s no excuses.” Honestly, I felt sort of repulsed by her. But I looked at the paper and what she had written on it. She said, “It’s the Actor’s Studio. Ever heard of it?” I felt challenged. I said, “Yes.” She said, “Be there.” I said, “I will.” I met her there that Tuesday. And it began to change my life.
KS: So she literally saved it, your life.
SF: Yeah. Yeah, she did.
KS: Some people might not realize who she was – she died in 2016 at the age of 94 – and what a great actress she was, if they only know her as the Mother Superior from The Flying Nun. She joined the Actors Studio in 1957 and was a lifetime member. She made her Broadway debut as Kim Stanley’s replacement in Horton Foote’s The Chase. Tennessee Williams loved her. She was Sister Woman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She was Miss Lucy in Sweet Bird of Youth. She succeeded Bette Davis as Maxine in The Night of the Iguana. She was the original Abigail in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Plus, Sshe was blacklisted during the McCarthy era for her politics and demonstrated in the south for Civil Rights where she was jailed.
SF: She was the first white woman defended by an African American lawyer in the south.
KS: Could you say that Lee Strasberg and The Actors Studio saved your life as well?
SF: Yes. Lee was just beginning to spend about six months out of the year at the Actors Studio in LA at that time when I was in The Nun. I slowly began to work with Lee. It was slow. The first time I did anything for him is such a monumental moment in my life because I had felt so disgraced and trivialized by The Flying Nun. At that young age, you’re trying to find out who you are and your identity anyway. It was between the first year of The Nun and the second year of The Nun. It was the hiatus, and it was the only time I had to do anything. I was excited to do a scene. And Lee was going to be there. Everybody wanted to do a scene when Lee was there. He sent out an edict that no one could do a scene longer than fifteen minutes, so that more people could be up. He would stop people sometime after three minutes or four minutes. Everybody would feel, “Oh, boy, here we go.” He would then discuss what he’d seen. The whole process is that it is never to be taken as a finished product, but as a rehearsal, a work-in-progress. Each of the actors would have something specific that they wanted to be working on that night. Then you’d sit down and he’d discuss it and offer his suggestions. And then it is opened up to people who are members to have comments as well.
So I was going to have a scene in front of Lee. I could have been crushed. I was already in a vulnerable spot. I chose a scene, as I would oft times do at that point in my life, without reading the whole play. I was looking for a two-character scene. It was great. It was long. It was perfect. It was from a play by Jean-Paul Sartre called The Respectful Prostitute. I rehearsed the scene with someone I’d been working with at the Studio in the exercise class. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. Not one clue – except I got to do my work again, something I had not gotten in touch with since high school when I was onstage. When I look back on it now, it was a time – because I have sort of a fragmented personality – when all the pieces in me came together because they could come together onstage when I was calling on parts of myself, and I could be more whole and united with myself.
When the scene was over, I realized he had let the scene go on for 45 minutes. I sat down on the stage and my fellow actor pulled up a chair and brought out a paper and a pencil to take notes. I then realized I had nothing in case I needed to take notes. I realized that Lee was probably going to turn to me and I didn’t know what I was going to say in response. I hadn’t planned any of that. If he asked, “What were you working on?”, I would have no idea. But when he got to me, he didn’t say that. He said, “Why are you here?” And my heart stopped in my chest. Because I thought he was about to say that I didn’t belong, or that I wasn’t the right person to be there. I said, “I want to be a better actor.” And he said, “But you work all the time. Lots of people here don’t work.” I said, “I know I do, but I want to be better. I’m not good enough.” He said, “Well, I let this scene go on because I wanted to watch you.” Lee had a tendency to mumble at the most inopportune times, like he had a popcorn kernel stuck in the back of his throat. He sort of mumbled at me, “I wanted to watch you. And you were quite, quite brilliant” I thought, wait a minute, that can’t be what he said. But I didn’t have the courage to say, “I beg your pardon.” So I thought, no, no, he couldn’t have said that. And the room, which was packed, suddenly went still. Completely still. He clicked the back of this throat and mumbled again, “Quite brilliant.”
I had no idea what I had done. But it was the beginning of my work with him. I went through some intense work with him. He was an amazing teacher and an important figure in my life.
KS: Strasberg said it’s 75% work and 25% talent. Is it the rigor of The Method that appealed to you? If Madeleine had put you down in front of Stella Adler or Sandy Meisner, would you have had the same experience with them since they did come out of the same Stanislavski tradition? They just had different interpretations of it. Could you have crossed paths with Adler or Meisner and still have gotten as much out of it? It seems ou just needed to be seen by someone at that point in your life.
SF: Definitely that. When I was trying to make the transition from television into films – which was incredibly hard – I was also seeing a teacher named David Craig who taught musical acting. An incredible teacher. But I also went to Stella Adler. I thought I’ll just keep adding stuff. How many things can I add? If I just keep doing all this, I’ll get good enough and something will change. The power to change my life lies within me. I can’t be blaming them because I’m not getting a job. It has to be because I’m not good enough. So I went to see Stella Adler and did a monologue for her. The reason I didn’t stay with her is because when I finished, she said, “Boy, do you need me.” I thought, “Hmmm. No. No, I don’t.” But I probably did need her. I probably would have benefitted greatly.
KS: You’re more than good enough, Sally. I think that you and Meryl Streep are two of our greatest actresses. One of the things that Meryl has said is what she loves about acting has nothing to do with vanity, but it is because each time she does it she gets to create a soul. Is your approach a bit different than Meryl’s? What I am hearing you say is that you’re imbuing your own soul to the character, not creating a new one.
SF: Yes, I think I do. It is also my way of being alive. It’s my way of being on the planet.
( … to be continued)