"Nothing has ever been easy for me," says actress Sally Field as we sit down in the kitchen of her Pacific Palisades home to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "Not one moment of my career, except Gidget - 'Hey, be Gidget,'" the 70-year-old adds in reference to her first professional role, which made her a star when she was just 17. "Everything else has been a struggle. Nothing ever fell in my lap. When I won an Emmy for Sybil, when I won an Oscar for Norma Rae, when I won an Oscar for Places in the Heart, whatever it was, it didn't mean, 'Open the doors, the scripts are falling in!' It never, ever happened for me like that. I don't know if it was me, or that I don't fit into some category, or that I'm not good enough - I don't know what. So I never expected it to be any different."
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Field, the daughter of working-class members of the Hollywood community (her mother was a character actress and her stepfather was a stunt man), first stepped onto a stage - and fell in love with acting - at the age of 12. "Something happened inside of me that was like a bell went off, like something cleared," she recalls. "The chatter in my head to be okay, or to be liked or to be acceptable, or to - I was raised in the '50s, so we had a lot of rules to follow as women, and all of them were gone all of a sudden. I could hear myself for the first time. It didn't last long - it was just this pure, clear ring - and then it was gone. And I then forever after, really, spent my life - certainly the early part of my life, of my career - chasing after that ring, that sound, that clarity."
A week after graduating from high school in 1964, Field auditioned for a summer acting workshop, not realizing that the people she was performing for worked in casting at Screen Gems, Columbia Pictures' TV division. As a result of impressing them, she was cast, at just 17, as the titular peppy surfer girl on the ABC sitcom Gidget (1965-1966), which made her famous. "I don't know what I would have done otherwise," she says, noting that she had no other specific ambitions. "I just lived in a little fog." The show generated poor ratings and was canceled mid-run, but its remaining episodes, upon being moved to a time slot friendlier to young people, became a hit. As a result, the network asked Gidget's producer Harry Ackerman to find another vehicle for Field. That proved to be The Flying Nun (1967-1970).
"I did not want to be playing a nun," Field emphasizes, noting that she was in her late teens and it was the '60s. "I turned it down many times," she says, but then her stepfather, who had a history of being verbally abusive towards her, scared her into reconsidering. "It was the first time I've felt the feeling - and I've felt it subsequently too many times - where you feel some part of you just literally laid down and died. And I called them and said, 'Okay.'" The show ran for the next three years, during which Field became "seriously depressed." She was saved, in a sense, at end of the first season, when co-star Madeleine Sherwood took her to the Actors Studio in L.A., where, she says, she soon "found my home" studying with Lee Strasberg; at the end of the second season, she married her high school sweetheart; and at the beginning of the third season, she became pregnant with first child. A pregnant nun? "As if I wasn't a walking sight-gag before, I sure was then."
When The Flying Nun's run came to an end, Field, having been exposed to a different sort of acting through the Actors Studio, set her sights on more challenging work - but most of it existed in films, and "it was not doable" to jump from the small screen to the big screen in those days. "I knew that the only way that I could get to the work that I wanted to do was to reinvent myself completely," she says, "and to do that I had to vanish for awhile." When she was ready to return, casting director Diane Crittenden, who was aware of Field's work at the Actors Studio, began to champion her cause. She got Field an audition for the part of "a tart" in Bob Rafelson's 1976 movie Stay Hungry, and Field landed the job, which required a nude scene. Audiences and critics were duly impressed, although the compliments she received were "back-handed." It wasn't until later that same year, for her work as a young woman with multiple personalities in Sybil, which helped to usher in "the brand new world of miniseries," that Field first received unreserved praise, even winning an Emmy.
Not even this acclaim, though, opened the door to roles of comparable quality, since, at the time, the best parts for women still tended to go to great beauties, like Jane Fonda. But a "bizarre" offer came Field's way from, of all places, Burt Reynolds, who wanted her to play his leading lady in 1977's Smokey and the Bandit. Despite a flimsy script, she signed on, under the advice that it might reflect well on her to be starring opposite "a bona fide sex symbol." Smokey was the first of four films they made together over the next few years, during which they also became a couple. But the quality of her parts decreased with each passing project, which she only took on with great reluctance. "I was just trying to stay alive," she says. "I had two children, and it wasn't like I was turning down The Sand Pebbles."
Then, out of the blue, came a call from venerated director Martin Ritt, who had seen Sybil and wanted Field for the title role in his next film, Norma Rae (1979), over the objections of its studio. As she read its script, about a Southern textile mill worker who finds a social consciousness, she recalls, "My hands shook." It was Ritt's faith in her and her total commitment to the part that helped her give a performance so powerful that she ultimately won the best actress Oscar. Remarkably, just six years later, after delivering other standout work in films like Absence of Malice (1981), she won that prize again, this time for her portrayal of a farmer's widow, inspired by director Robert Benton's grandmother, in Benton's Places in the Heart (1984).
Field's second Oscar acceptance speech - in which she said earnestly, "I can't deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me," but which is "always misquoted" as "You like me, you really like me" - has become legendary, but its backstory is little known. She says of accepting her first Oscar, "I didn't allow myself to feel it ... so I didn't own it." The second time, she continues, "I just said to myself, 'I'm gonna feel it' ... They had a huge, red, glaring light that started flashing in your face ... so I panicked ... and I remembered the part of me that said, 'You didn't say anything that mattered, you didn't say anything genuine,' and I, without knowing it, said what I said ... It just came out."
In the years since then, Field has played a string of matriarchs - in 1989's Steel Magnolias, 1993's Mrs. Doubtfire ("one of the great experiences of my life") and 1994's Forrest Gump (she was cast as Mama Gump even though she is only 10 years older than Tom Hanks and had played his love interest in Punchline just six years earlier). Then, she was at the vanguard of movie stars moving to television, first with a guest arc on E.R. (2001) and then as a regular on Brothers & Sisters (2006-2011), winning Emmys for both. And then, 28 years after her second Oscar win, she returned to the Oscars as a nominee for her work in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (2012), in which she played Mary Todd Lincoln opposite Daniel Day-Lewis (even though she is 11 years older than him and was 20 years older than her character at the time in which the film takes place).
Now, as she enters her eighth decade, Field is once again the recipient of awards buzz, this time for Michael Showalter's indie Hello, My Name Is Doris, which was made in only three weeks and for just $1 million. The dramedy, which accorded the actress her first leading role in a film in 20 years, was released in March and greeted with strong reviews, especially for Field's portrayal of a socially awkward office worker who becomes smitten with a decades-younger co-worker (Max Greenfield). The part demanded from its leading lady scenes of both high comedy and tragedy, which she had "to weave together without it ever jarring the audience." She says she's grateful for it, since the few three-dimensional roles that exist these days for women over 60 tend to go to Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren - but not for lack of interest on the part of others in that age range, including herself. "It was hugely, hugely challenging," Field reflects, "and in that way incredibly enthralling."