When Sally Field was cast as Mary Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, she knew she had to come to Lexington, the mercurial first lady's hometown.
"What I wanted to really do was be inside of her house," Field said by phone last week. "I know what an important place that was for her in studying her, and I really wanted to step inside the house and look at all of that and have the feeling of space.
"I had seen pictures of what it looked like in those days before, before there were like parking lots and things connected to it, so that I could have a feeling of where she came from. It's important in understanding her makeup as a person that you take a look at her home."
Gwen Thompson, executive director of the Mary Todd Lincoln House, says Field's visit to the Main Street museum was a low-key whirlwind during summer 2011. Thompson received a call one day asking about the home's hours and a second call a few minutes later telling her the two-time Academy Award-winning actress was coming.
"She showed up the next day in a hat, kind of incognito," Thompson said. "There were other people in the house taking tours while she was here, walking around, and nobody noticed it was her."
Thompson guided Field on her tour of the house and says Field was drawn to a number of objects that are highlights to tourists in general: Lincoln's Tiffany chocolate pot, a mug that was given to her son Tad Lincoln after his brother Willie died in the White House.
"It speaks to their own tragedy that they experienced while they were in the White House," Thompson says.
That is what Spielberg's film, which opens Friday nationwide, aims to do with the Lincoln story.
Based partly on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the film stars another two-time Oscar winner, Daniel Day-Lewis, as the 16th president, who is in office as the Civil War rages.
Field, 66, was cast as Mary when Liam Neeson, 60, was slated to play Lincoln. But that almost changed when Day-Lewis was brought on board. As numerous outlets have reported, Spielberg was concerned that Field was too old to play opposite Day-Lewis, 55, because Mary was 10 years younger than Lincoln.
That's where Field says she drew on the feistiness of her character to go after the prized role.
"She was so under-examined and misunderstood, and a very important woman in American history," Field says. "You add to that a screenplay that is an exquisite piece of writing by the brilliant Tony Kushner — it is a piece of writing that really should be published. Then you have a cast that is led by the really towering example of uncompromising excellence, Daniel Day-Lewis, and you add the mastery of Steven Spielberg.
"So it was kind of a no-brainer. You'd fight like hell to be a part of it. So I did."
Landing the part required Field to gain 25 pounds. She and Day-Lewis got into synch as the Lincolns through a high-tech method: texting in character.
"It wasn't really so unusual because Daniel was in Ireland, and I was in Los Angeles," Field says. "This film was done on a very tight budget; there were very few shooting days. We did not have the luxury of any kind of rehearsal time, really. We knew we needed to create the feeling of some form of familiarity with each other because we would be launched into space as this couple who had been married 20-some odd years when we were thrust into the midst of their lives. ...
"We have a task ahead of us as actors," she says of the texting, "and we have to use whatever tools we can find."
Those tools included traveling to Kentucky even after filming wrapped.
When CBS Sunday Morning approached Field about profiling her in the context of Lincoln, she insisted they do so at the Mary Todd Lincoln House.
"I think it's important that we as a country respect our own history and preserve it," Field said of the segment, which aired Sunday morning. "I wanted to bring her home in the public awareness.
"I know it's hard for these places to really keep them alive and keep them for posterity," she said of places such the Mary Todd Lincoln House, which sits in the shadow of Rupp Arena. "Progress, the way we are, you'd want to bulldoze it under and put in another parking lot. I wanted to talk from my own perspective that it's important that it be there, that you could sort of walk around and feel Mary Todd's history."
Thompson was grateful that Field thought of the house.
"She's in the spotlight," Thompson says, "and we appreciate that she lets a little bit of that light fall on us."