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The 'Ups And Downs' Of Sally Field's Career Led To A Starring Role In 'Hello, My Name Is Doris'

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 9/03/2016 Matthew Jacobs
SALLY FIELD © Roadside Attractions SALLY FIELD

After decades in Hollywood, Sally Field is about to make you jealous. Why? Two words: Max Greenfield.

Field's new movie, "Hello, My Name Is Doris," required her to fulfill your fantasies of wooing the "New Girl" star, who is 34 years her junior. Greenfield plays a colleague recently transferred to the titular character's New York office. Doris (Field) is infatuated, routinely daydreaming about a fling that would disrupt her clerical monotony. Convinced they have a future together, Doris enters his social circle and misjudges almost every cue along the way -- all while dealing with the recent death of her mother and ongoing hoarding tendencies. 

Seeing Field in a lead role on the big screen has grown increasingly rare. The 69-year-old's last starring gig was 2007's little-seen "Two Weeks," and before that it was 1996's "Eye for an Eye." Which isn't to say she's disappeared: In fact, Field won an Emmy in 2007 for "Brothers and Sisters," and in 2012 she earned an Oscar nomination for "Lincoln." So it's just fine by her that top billing isn't often the flavor du jour because, in her eyes, those roles weren't easy to find in the first place. The Huffington Post hopped on the phone with Field last week to discuss "Hello, My Name Is Doris" and the "ins and outs" of a lifetime in Hollywood.

What do you make of the fact that this is your first lead role in a decade? And your last one was another decade before that?

I don’t make anything of it. It is what it is. It’s a long-term career. It’s going to have ins and outs and ups and downs, and it wasn’t like I wasn’t doing anything. I did a television series for five years, and I was playing with stage in a way that I hadn’t played with before. It was something I wanted to do. If I had found roles I had wanted to do, I would have done them. But they’re very hard to find and I was in transitional years. I wasn’t young, but I wasn’t old. Because I have a certain quality that maybe isn’t easily definable, I’ve always seemed younger than I was, except now I look my age. It’s hard to define. A long-term career is about riding it. It’s about taking what is there and constantly asking yourself, “Why are you here? What’s compelling you?” And going to the work where it is.

Has the past decade been as professionally fulfilling?

Oh God, yes, definitely. I was really playing with things. I’ve always been playing with things. Five years on “Brothers and Sisters” was incredibly difficult, and it really pushed my envelopes in a lot of ways, endurance-wise. We’re always in stages, like Doris is, and I was exploring what it is to be an older woman onscreen, and what does that mean? It wasn’t in film, but that doesn’t matter so much to me. It really doesn’t. It’s about the work that I do. It keeps transitioning. It doesn’t matter to me that I wasn’t the lead in films. Three years ago, I was in “Lincoln.” I wasn’t the lead in it, but I wouldn’t have changed that for the world. I wouldn’t have said, “Well, I really want to wait for a lead.” I don’t care! It gives me a moment to do something I couldn’t ever have done. I mean, when would I ever have had the opportunity to play such a complex character as Mary Todd? I was doing stuff!

You’ve kept busy, that’s for sure. But have the scripts you’ve received over the past decade mirrored the quality of the ones you saw earlier in your career? I ask that not just to harp on your age, but I do think the economics of Hollywood have changed a lot and we don’t see as many movies like “Norma Rae” or “Places in the Heart" now. 

Listen, it’s always been difficult for women. That’s nothing new. You could look at the statistics in ’79 or ’80, when I did “Norma Rae.” It’s always been difficult for women -- that is just the way it is. It’s a good thing that people are standing up and hollering now. It isn’t just women now standing up and hollering, and I think if it were just women, we would be silenced again, as usual. It’s diversity altogether, and that’s a big thing. There needs to be more stories about people who are not young, not white and not male because movies are incredibly valuable and important. But so is television, and so is everything onstage. Whether it’s a smaller audience or not, they’re stories. Human beings need stories. It’s how we communicate to each other. It’s a very important artistic form that started in Greek times. Before that, it was lore -- they used to do storytelling where they handed it down village to village. This is a human condition, and it has never been easy.

Do you think there are fewer quality adult dramas made now, though?

When you say to me “Now do you notice the difference in what it was in 1976 when I did ‘Sybil,'" no. I had to work my friggin’ tail off to get those roles. Not for “Norma” because I was offered “Norma,” which came from “Sybil.” But that was rare. It’s not like I did a lead role every year. The only one who has had the opportunity, and bless her friggin’ heart, is Meryl Streep. It’s either because she’s better than anybody and works hard, or it’s the luck of the draw -- I don’t know. Bless her heart. I applaud her for it. I thank her for it because she pushes everybody to keep on keeping on.

If you look at my 52 years in the business, it’s not that I had breaks or there was a time when all of these movies were happening. “Norma” happened and then there was a long time before another one happened. I was lucky enough because it was a bubble right there in the early ‘80s when they were actually doing some films with women in them -- there was “Julia” and a bunch of others. Then there was a wave because I did “Absence of Malice,” and not long after that came “Places in the Heart.” But there were always long stretches where there was nothing or there was something awful, but I had to make a living. There might have been something you just want to shove under the carpet. Without a doubt, it has gotten more challenging because now you’re not only female and you’re short, but now you’re older. But you just keep going. You keep asking yourself, “Why am I doing this? What matters to me?” You turn down what you don’t want to do and you work your tail off to head toward the things that you do want to do.

Do you look back and want to shove things under the carpet?

I wouldn’t want to even mention them for fear that you would write about them and someone might look them up. If they’re forgotten, let them die a grisly death. There have been lots of them! Some of them I go, “Oh, sweet mother of God.” I think you may already know which ones they are.

Where did you locate the fine line between Doris' battiness and her relatable search for fulfillment?

She’s a very diverse character. Certainly to find the character, it began with the exterior. It was in finding her look. But you can’t latch yourself onto her battiness. You have to create a full character with a history and a life. How did she get in this situation? How could she be in her 60s and never really have lived a life? She lives very much in a fantasy world -- how do you create that? I talked to therapists about borderline personality issues because I wanted her to be rooted in a reality, where you would believe this isn’t a cartoon or a caricature, but a real, three-dimensional person. You would believe her development from this very closed-off, almost hoarder-like existence, to who she is at the end. This is the kind of work I’ve studied to do all my life. You hang on long enough until something like this comes your way, and then you go, “Okay, this one I’ll do. Thank you.”

The role is mostly light, but Doris does have a bit of a breakdown as her family pressures her to clean out her home and move on with her life. If the movie were a little darker, it would have put you back in "Sybil" territory. Is it easy to calibrate the shift between goofy physical humor and serious emotional turmoil?

It’s in trying to put the ingredients together of a character who’s finally pushed so far. She’s not an emotionally articulate person. She has a lot of emotion going on inside of her that she’s not been able to let out, and it’s the moment where it comes out, finally, and it comes out in a dash.

The really incredible voice in this is Michael Showalter and his skill with comedy, which is extraordinary. I was always talking to him about, “How are we going from this high, almost screwball comedy into Greek drama? How do we do this almost back to back?" And he would say, “Trust me. You go there and I’ll tell you if we didn’t make it.” It was a leap, certainly in my mind, because I’ve been around long enough to know how you blend those styles a little bit. I am aware of when one tone is shifting to another and how it has to be done in gradations.

How much did the costumes bring Doris to life? She starts out a little frumpy, then glamorizes herself as she's trying to impress her new love interest. How did your sense of her change after seeing her wardrobe?

Rebecca Gregg and I created the costumes. We did three days of dressing up, putting this shirt on with that pair of pants and saying, “No, that doesn’t work, let’s do this.” The character emerged out of that. Rebecca didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know what it was. And then, at the end of each day, Michael would come over and look at the costumes that we had put together and he would go, “Yes, yes!” It really was an emergence. Nobody presented me with anything. With the help of Rebecca, because she got all this stuff, they allowed me to really just let her rise up out of all this junk and float to the surface.

"Hello, My Name Is Doris" opens March 11. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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