Sally Field Gets Candid About the Struggles and Triumphs of Her Historic Career: ‘I’m an Actress, so Pain Is a Good Thing’

Photographs by Art Streiber

Sally Field is so happy to be reunited with Dashiell Hammett.

The two-time Oscar-winning actor had been missing her cuddly Cavapoo — who’s nicknamed Dash — all morning while she was away rehearsing for “80 for Brady,” a road-trip movie she stars in with Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Rita Moreno about four best friends who travel to the 2017 Super Bowl to see New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in action.

Sally Field Variety Cover

When Field arrives at our Variety studio, she is joined by her furry companion (brought to her by her assistant), who winds up sharing some screen time with the actor for our cover shoot and video interview. The two had bonded during the pandemic.

“When I got him, I think it really saved my life because my focus was on this little dog,” Field recalls.

Field says that COVID presented a unique set of challenges, but the actor is no stranger to struggle. As she wrote candidly in her raw 2018 memoir “In Pieces,” she was sexually abused by her stepfather, Jock Mahoney, and battled depression and self-esteem issues throughout her life.

Professionally, Field, who has also won three Emmys, first captured hearts as the plucky California teenager in TV series “Gidget” (a part she loved) and cemented her small-screen stardom with “The Flying Nun” (a role she loathed), then spent a decade in the wilderness. She reemerged with commercial hits such as “Smokey and the Bandit” and then earned her way onto the A-list with indelible Academy Award-winning turns as a labor activist in “Norma Rae” and a Depression-era widow in “Places in the Heart.”

From there, Field moved seamlessly between starring roles in “Murphy’s Romance” and “Steel Magnolias” and supporting turns in “Forrest Gump” and “Lincoln”; the latter earned her a nomination for best supporting actress.

“As an actor, she dared this town to typecast her, and then simply broke through every dogmatic barrier to find her own way — not to stardom, which I imagine she’d decry, but to great roles in great films and television,” says Steven Spielberg, her friend and “Lincoln” director. “Through her consistently good taste and feisty persistence, she has survived our ever-changing culture, stood the test of time and earned this singular place in history.”

Perhaps it’s because she was counted out so many times during her career, but Field has shown a particular flair for portraying women who find hidden reserves of strength after being dismissed or diminished by the world around them.

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Field won her second Oscar for her role in “Places in the Heart.” ©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Ever

“Ordinary is the most difficult thing in the world to act, but Sally knows how to be ordinary in the most heroic sense of the word without putting quotes around it,” says Robert Benton, who directed Field in “Places in the Heart.” “Most people get points for acting ordinary on screen, but you always see the acting underneath. Not with Sally. She’s just there, absolutely present and flawless.”

Jane Fonda, who first met Field in the 1970s when the actor rang her up to get her advice about launching a production company, says that she admires her curiosity and drive, as well as her willingness to tackle new challenges.

“Sally is raw,” Fonda says. “Exposed. Brave as an actress. She is absolutely unafraid to turn herself inside out.”

At 75, Field shows no signs of slowing down. Not only will she be sharing the screen with Brady, whom she has yet to meet, but she also appears as Lakers owner Jerry Buss’ mother in HBO’s “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” and in “Spoiler Alert,” an adaptation of the memoir of Michael Ausiello, founder of PMC’s TVLine.

When you won your first Oscar in 1980 for “Norma Rae,” what was it like to hear your name read out?

I really wasn’t there in my body. I didn’t exist. It was so overwhelming. I don’t know that I actually allowed any of it to sink in and feel it. All of that time onstage or hearing my name … I was on some autopilot just to make it through.

When you won again in 1985 for “Places in the Heart” you seemed to have a very different experience.

I told myself that if this happens again to me, I must take the time to feel it because it’s a hard industry. It had been a struggle because I had to work to get out of situation-comedy television. It was hard. And the business can really kick the poop out of you. And it will diminish you and your talent if you don’t let yourself feel the good things. Because believe me, you really feel the bad things, and you take them to heart, and you own them and they fester. So then I knew you have to also allow yourself to feel the glory of a good thing.

In my mind, I pictured the struggle of how it was for me to get out of the whole “Gidget,” “Flying Nun” world that I had to like claw my way out of because they wouldn’t let me in a door. And it just made me work and work and work and do things maybe I would not have done before.

And that’s the speech that is frequently misquoted as “You like me. You really, really like me.” Is that frustrating? [Her actual words were “I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me.”]

Sometimes I want to punch them in the nose, but mostly because they don’t ever say the context of what I said before. When I’m there talking about it, I say I haven’t had an orthodox career, that this has been a struggle for me, but for this one moment in time, I have to allow myself to know and feel that you like me. And I could’ve been more eloquent. I should’ve used a word like you “appreciated” my work. I don’t know what the word was. To me, what mattered was for that one moment in time I did it. I did it. I landed it, and I thanked them for feeling it. A lot of people didn’t have a clue of what they were talking about. They didn’t know what it is to be a performer and have your nose and your ears and your legs out there to be ridiculed and criticized. They don’t know what that feels like. They’re not in the arena. They’re handing out the deodorant in the stands.

Where do you keep your Oscars?

I have like a big TV room with a lot of bookshelves, and I have pictures of the kids, and I have things that you keep of a little statue that somebody made in the seventh grade and a lot of career stuff.

Do you ever look at them and think, “Oh, my gosh”?

Not really. I sit there with my grandsons and play video games, but I don’t go, “Hey guys, did you see those Oscars? How about those over there? How about those Emmys?” They just sort of fade into the woodwork. It’s just part of your life.

How did you keep yourself from going crazy during COVID?

I think I did go stir crazy. I talked to my sons and my grandsons, and everybody was battling a sort of low-level depression all the time. Not only because you were locked in and isolated, but you didn’t know what was going to happen to the world, to any of us, before there were the vaccines. It was such a hard time.

Was there any good that came out of the dark times?

My second-oldest grandchild, Sophie, who was doing her sophomore year at Columbia here in L.A. because it was all online, spent a great deal of the semester in my house because she wasn’t going out and knew it was safe. For me, the good that happened out of this was Sophie and I spending one-on-one time living together.

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Art Streiber for Variety

Looking back over your illustrious career, what were the highlights for you?

I have had so many moments that were important. I mean it’s obvious that the films I had the opportunity to do were complicated, interesting work with good and strong directors. It all started with “Gidget” in 1964, and that was a pivotal moment. I loved “Gidget.” The fantasy was so ideal. I had a yellow-and-pink bedroom, and I had all these cute boys that would hang out with me.

You have said, however, that you hated working on “The Flying Nun.” How did you get yourself keyed up to go and perform every day?

It was a job. And I learned to survive things. It’s important to learn how to survive things, things you like, things you don’t like. I just had to put my head down and go to work and do the very best job I could. And those are the times when you realize that there’s a reason why you’re eating so much but trying to hide. You’re trying to cover up your depression. But at that point in my life I didn’t have the skills to recognize what was happening to me … and being able to see what your dreams are.

When did that happen for you?

It wasn’t until “The Flying Nun” that Madeleine Sherwood, who played Mother Superior, took me by the hand because she recognized what was going on with me at the end of the first season and took me to The Actors Studio, where I began to work with [director] Lee Strasberg. It was this big transition into my recognizing I wanted to be a real actor.

How challenging was it to make the transition from being the star of two situation TV comedies to the movies?

It was so parallel to things that were going on inside of me, about conquering yourself, about knowing how to move out of patterns from your childhood into something that is designed by you and not a pattern thrust upon you. After “The Flying Nun” was over, it wasn’t that I would fail an audition. I couldn’t get in the door. I couldn’t get on the list. And I had to change that.

How did you do that?

I felt in my heart that if you blamed other people — “They won’t let me do this” … then you’re dead. Then you give away all your power. You’re powerless and helpless, and that is a recipe for depression. You always have to be the one that has the power. It was about me getting skilled enough that I got the role because that’s how good I am.

Is it true that you fired your first agent because he said you weren’t good enough for the movies?

I knew I had to get away from the public eye. I couldn’t be in situation-comedy television anymore. The only way to make the transition was to hope they’d forget about me. So I wanted to back away from other television offers altogether. I said to my agent, “I’m not going to do this. I am studying. I want to be in film,” and he said, “Well, that’s never going to happen.” It wasn’t quite that cruel, but he said, “Eh, I really advise you against that.” Basically, he said, “You’re not good enough and you’re not pretty enough. … Situation comedy is the place for you, you cute little girl next door with the brain of a pea.” I mean that’s what he thought.

What did you do from the time “Flying Nun” ended and you got the lead role in “Norma Rae”?

I had done films in between them. I finally got my first film, which was “Stay Hungry” [with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jeff Bridges].

How did you land that role?

Dianne Crittenden, the casting director, had let me in on it, even though I could hear [director Bob] Rafelson in the background screaming that I was a waste of his time. But Dianne had heard from a friend of hers about the reputation I was creating at The Actors Studio. So she called me in … and I finally did get in the room and read for him. It was sort of jaw-dropping because I knew how to own my anger then. I knew how to use it. It wasn’t going to triumph over me. It was going to come out of my hands, my face, my feet and my body. I wasn’t going to hit him. He just wasn’t going to know what I was going to do. He called me back for another audition. … I remember he said to me, “Clearly, you can’t be the best one. You must have auditioned more than anybody else.” Needless to say, I did finally get the role. It was a tiny, tiny little film that no one really saw.

Crittenden was also the casting director on “Sybil.”

Again, nobody wanted me in the room, but Dianne Crittenden asked me in the room, and again, I came so armed with emotional information that they couldn’t write me off. Ultimately, I won the Emmy for that.

There were so many great films in the early to mid-1970s when you were trying to break into movies, such as “The Godfather” and “All the President’s Men,” but they tended to be about men. There didn’t seem to be as many great roles for women.

There are lots of theories that it’s because the industry was run by men and they weren’t interested in developing stories for women. Which kinda sounds right to me.

And then, of course, there’s always been talk about pay disparity, where women were getting paid less than men.

Oh, yeah.

Did you experience that?

I had to make a living, so I never felt the luxury to say, “Well, I’m going to hold out for more money.” I felt like I was a poor kid. I’ll take anything you’ve got.

Do you think there will ever be true parity in Hollywood, which is still dominated by men?

We’re never going to not be fighting.

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Art Streiber for Variety

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

I don’t even know what the definition is anymore. I’m certainly pro-female on a world level and [always] have been.

The #MeToo movement exposed all of the horrific sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood that went unchecked for decades. Have you ever been sexually harassed at work?

Yes, of course I have. Absolutely. Many times in different ways. Some less horrific and some more horrific.

You were very candid in your memoir about having been sexually abused by your stepfather as a young teenager. What prompted you to finally speak your truth?

When my mother passed away, I thought I had done all the things that we should do before a loved one goes … all the conversations that you have. You hope to solve things. And yet when she was gone, I felt terribly disquieted. I couldn’t rest. … I couldn’t forgive her, and I needed to forgive her or at least understand her. So I wrote the book to forgive her.

You worked on the book for seven years. There must have been a lot of pain.

I’m an actress, so pain is a good thing.

Let’s talk about your social activism and how politically engaged you’ve been for many years, whether it’s being an advocate for LGBTQ rights, speaking up about the AIDS crisis, climate change, nuclear weapons. And at the recent premiere of “Winning Time,” you wore the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

Yes, I sure did. I didn’t think anyone noticed.

So clearly, you’re still very political.

Well, to a degree. I mean I’m not Jane [Fonda] at all, even though I go where she tells me to go.

Even to jail!

Yes, I went to jail for her.

Right, you got arrested at one of her climate change protests.

That was fun. But when I worked with Marty Ritt and did “Norma Rae,” it opened up my brain to things, to the world, to things that mattered outside myself and my own little world. I can’t call myself a huge activist, but I’m not a nothing either.

In your autobiography, you wrote about going to Tijuana when you were 17 to get an abortion. What do you think of these abortion bans in Texas and other states like Florida?

Those men who are doing that, and they’re mostly male governors who are doing it, are so backward, so ignorant and really just power hungry. I think it’s criminal. They’re so wanting to roll back the achievements and important progress for women, for Blacks, for the LGBTQ community. I can’t say enough horrible things about what I feel about those men. If you see them coming toward me, those two governors specifically [Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis], lead me out of the way because I cannot be responsible for what I would do. Heidi [she addresses her publicist, who is in the room], do you hear me? Lead me away.

In your book you talk about your difficult relationship with Burt Reynolds, who was so controlling. Did you worry about being so candid?

I didn’t worry because I didn’t think I was going to publish it.

After he died, you were on “The View” and said how the two of you hadn’t spoken for 30 years. Why was that?

He was not someone I could be around. He was just not good for me in any way. And he had somehow invented in his rethinking of everything that I was more important to him than he had thought, but I wasn’t. He just wanted to have the thing he didn’t have. I just didn’t want to deal with that.

• • •

In a series of rapid-fire questions, Field provided the following answers:

Best screen kiss

James Garner (“Murphy’s Romance”)

Favorite Sally Field movie

Ick, I wouldn’t be caught dead watching those.

Favorite line delivered

“Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch!” (“Norma Rae”)

First movie ever watched

The Disney cartoon of “Cinderella,” which is very, very disruptive to a little girl’s psychology.

TV shows recently watched

“The Dropout,” “Pam & Tommy,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Best audition


Part that got away

If there was a part that got away, I don’t want anybody to tell me because I don’t want to know.

Some mentors

Martin Ritt, Jane Fonda

Last book read

“Oh William!” by Elizabeth Strout

Best Dash moment

When I first got him and he was 6 weeks old and weighed 4 pounds, I just kept him in my shirt because it was cold outside.