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Sally Field immersed herself in the character, gaining 25 pounds to look more like Mrs. Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s biopic.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Sally Field looks like she's seen a ghost. Or, more accurately, is in the grip of one.

On a recent spin through Toronto to promote Lincoln, the historical drama whose release widened Friday, Field, 66, is tiny and tidy in a pink cardigan, grey slacks and grey suede pumps with a sexy low vamp. But when she speaks about her character, first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, her wide forehead furrows, her big brown eyes turn inward, and she gropes for coherence. It's as if she's just woken from an engrossing dream, and is struggling to describe it before it fades away.

"I'd been watching out for the character of Mary Todd for many years," Field says. "I always had an instinct that I would be right for it." Asked why, her answer comes in a torrent. "It's Mary Todd!" she begins, and is off: She was one of the most "under-examined, complicated, maligned, fascinating, important female figures in American history." She was a woman both of her era and not of her era. She came from a wealthy, powerful, political southern family. She was well-educated, raised by slaves. She met Abe when he was a young lawyer, gawky, ungainly, unknown. She recognized his brilliance. Important political figures dined at her home, and she brought Abe into that world. Had there not been a Mary Todd, there would not have been an Abraham Lincoln.

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"And that is simply a fact," Field emphasizes. "She honed him and had uncompromising faith in him, and gave him strength in that way. She was tenacious and emotional, tremendously emotional – she would overreact, to everything – which freed him from being emotional. They were like two sides of this coin that came together to become Abraham Lincoln." As she says this, she presses her palms together and bows her head, almost reverential.

So when Field heard in 2005 that famed director Steven Spielberg had optioned the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, she let him know she wanted to play Mary. Years passed, and by the time Spielberg had his script, by lauded playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America), and his star, two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, he was no longer sure Field was right for it. "He didn't see Daniel and I fitting together," she says.

Field's conviction was unshaken. She knows how rare substantial roles are, and this one was worth a fight. Though Lincoln revolves around Abe's most crucial political maneuver – he wants to end the Civil War, but not before Congress passes a constitutional amendment to outlaw slavery – its marriage scenes are complex and indelible, with Mary exhibiting both ferocious determination and bottomless grief for her dead son (she will go on to lose two more).

So despite being one of America's most recognizable actresses, who has worked her way from 1960s TV star (on Gidget and The Flying Nun) to Oscar-winning film actress (for both Norma Rae and Places in the Heart) and back again – winning Emmy awards for her series Brothers and Sisters, for a guest-star stint on ER, and for the telefilm Sybil – Field agreed to audition. Day-Lewis flew from Ireland to Los Angeles for a day to read with her, and she won the part.

She entered into a spooky communion with Mary, which hasn't let go of her yet. "Most roles can't hold that amount of weight, and it's foolish to try to make them," Field says. "But the ones I've been lucky enough to play that do, you take them home while you're doing them, and you keep them with you all your life. They are huge experiences in your life, and afterward you see things differently. They open doors and move you in directions you would not have gone otherwise. It's one of the things that makes acting so interesting."

Norma Rae, Places in the Heart, Steel Magnolias, Forrest Gump – they were all, Field says, "opportunities where you get to do your work playing a three-dimensional character who's flawed and troubled, and is in the heart of some moment." While she was playing Sybil, who suffered from multiple personality disorder, "someone tried to arrest me on the street, because I'd been walking up and down banging on windows. I've always worked like that. In fact, on Sybil, I was worried I was never going to come back." Field shakes her head at the memory. "Those are the roles I worked my whole life to be able to play. The hard thing is to get the opportunity."

Lincoln was another. Working with Spielberg and Day-Lewis was "so intense and intimate that I had no sense of the crew or the camera," Field says. "Suddenly Steven would whisper in my ear, and I couldn't remember where I was, I didn't know where he'd come from. Or he would be on the ground and grab my hand." She squeezes her eyes shut, reliving it. "All I knew was Mary, and everything Mary wanted and needed, needed right now. I had no other thought. Was there a today? I don't think so."

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During the two and a half weeks it took to shoot the Congress scenes, Field would show up every day in full makeup and costume, whether she was on camera or not. "I found it so powerful and moving, I couldn't tear myself away," she says. In her off hours, she would return to her Richmond hotel room and devote herself to eating enough to keep on the 25 pounds she'd gained for the role.

"People say Daniel's like that – well, I'm like that," Field says. "I don't want to be around people. I would go to my room and shut my door." Because she didn't want to see even a waiter, she cooked for herself with a toaster and microwave oven, making chicken, brown rice and "these horrible milkshakes that had protein powder in them," she says. "Other people, I heard, visited phenomenal historical sites nearby, but I didn't. I had to go to the market!" She laughs. "I pity the people who had the room after me, because it reeked of roast chicken."

How Mary has changed her, Field doesn't yet know. "She's still so embedded in me, I can't even feel the difference between her and me," she says. "I can hardly look at the film. It's so alive inside of me, and I feel so private about it, it feels almost invasive to talk about it."

I press her for one specific change: Did playing Mary make her depressed, give her vivid dreams, make her more grateful for her own three sons? "Basically, yes," she answers. "Yes to all that, yes, absolutely. Sometimes now I feel myself going, 'Hmm, I'm being bold here, I don't do that, who's that?' Then I go, 'Oh, Mary's with me.'" Field pauses, looking me in the eye. "She's with me. She'll never not be with me."

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