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On Verge Of 70, Sally Field Navigates Aging In The Spotlight

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Actress Sally Field attends the premiere of "Hello, My Name Is Doris" during the 2015 SXSW Festival last March.

From M'Lynn Eatenton in Steel Magnolias to Mary Todd in Lincoln, Academy Award-winning actress Sally Field doesn't shy away from taking on emotionally charged and challenging roles.

All of these characters become a part of her in a sense. "They stay in me and they have always changed me in some way," Fields tells NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro.

Now, playing a woman in her late 60s with some borderline personality issues for her latest film, Hello, My Name Is Doris, part of Doris is already in Fields.

She talks with Garcia-Navarro about love, acting and aging on the verge of turning 70.

Interview Highlights

LGN: So please describe this character Doris for us. She is something else.

SF: Oh boy, where do I begin? Well she's a woman who's my age, which is not young — in late, late 60s. She has spent her life really taking care of her mother but suppressing herself in every way. Doris has some borderline personality issues so she's not totally present in the real world. The story really is a coming of age — of a woman of age.

LGN: What attracted you to playing her?

SF: It just so unique, it's such a unique story and a looks at so many things. It looks at age, I mean, what is age? It looks at transitioning, you know, human beings; our task in life is to constantly transition from one stage into another whether it's toddlerhood into childhood into adolescence and then young adulthood and then middle age. It's just constant movement.

And certainly as I head into this big part of my life, you say, "How do I embrace my 70s? What is there of me that I haven't experienced yet?" And that's what Doris is doing but for the first time in her life. And because she meets a very young man at a moment in her life where she thinks that's what's going to make the difference for her, that's what she wants in her life. And because she lives only in her head, she doesn't really see who she is and how old she is, not until the very end.

LGN: Let's just talk a little about bravery and age. A lot of the critics have talked about your portrayal here and they've called it brave, and one of the elements they've mentioned is your appearance in the film: You look your age and apparently that in modern Hollywood qualifies as bravery.

SF: You know, isn't that sad? I mean I appreciate them saying that rather than them trying to chop me to pieces. But I'm an old woman, 70 is old, and that's OK. ...

I've gathered strength behind my years, I owned them, I've earned them, I've deserved them, I have a right to have them. And I don't like my neck, I don't like a lot of things but it's OK, it's OK. Behind my years I have value that doesn't come when you're 50 or 40 or 30 or 20, it doesn't come until you've been in that saddle for a number of years.

LGN: And what is it? You've talked about that transition that you go through at different stages of your life — what is this stage in your life right now about?

SF: I don't know, I'm just entering it. And certainly Doris is part of it. I think in a lot of ways it's my challenge to find what's there for me that I don't see right now. I know that I felt that in my 50s, I felt that in my 40s, that there's something there that I can't see yet and I can't see until I'm there, but I won't see if I'm not willing to let go of what I was and open up to what I will be.

LGN: One of the things that I thought was very poignant was with her best friend — played by Tyne Daly — there was this really tender, really quiet scene where you both sit together, talking on the sofa, Doris is yearning for love and I think she's actually found it in her friendships. Are these some of your strongest relationships as we all grow older?

SF: Absolutely, and Tyne and I — a lot of that scene is improved, because when we were sitting and talking about it, to me, that's part of Doris' revelation to herself is that she's had this friend always and she's part of her friend's family, the dysfunctional, loving group that they are. And I think that is part of the realization, certainly for me that I thought "You know, you may not ever have the soul mate you were led to believe that was where you wanted to go, but you have other things that are equally as valuable."

LGN: Casting has come under a lot of scrutiny in these conversations about the gatekeepers in Hollywood, who decides who gets what roles. How do they deal with aging actresses in your view?

SF: Well, they don't. You know, the gatekeepers as you say aren't necessarily about casting, and that is true, too. But really the gatekeepers are about what do they put into development? What writers do they hire to write what stories? Forget whether they will be, you know, for what actresses or for what talent will go into it. It's what they put their efforts into develop in the first place.

LGN: Why aren't certain sectors of society being served, do you think?

SF: You know, I can't really answer that question accurately because I've spent my whole life in it and the frustration of it and the way I've dealt with it is just to keep my head down, and the minute I started railing it and wanting to jump up and down, I found it just wasted energy and it hurt my feelings, and I had to just find the work where it was and not spend the time going [grumbling].

I remember once, long ago, Diane Keaton one time in some publication complained and said "This is outrageous, look at how much product there are for men and look at what there are for women," and everybody rose up and called her a whiner. I will never, ever forget it. And I remember in my, oh so not brave way, I tucked myself under and said, "OK, I guess we won't be speaking up, will we?" Instead of standing up, as young women are doing today and saying, "Wait a minute, wait one minute folks," but I think the conversation about women is aided by the fact that it's a diversity issue altogether and that helps that it isn't just women. If it were just women, I honestly don't think people would be paying that much attention still.

LGN: Of all the characters you've played over the years, and I have to ask you because I've seen so many of your films, what's the one that's stayed with you?

SF: You know, they all stay with me.

LGN: Are they like people that you take along with you?

SF: You know, they are. I'll be walking down the street or cleaning the house or in the market and a vision, a memory will just flash through your head the way they do. You know, you'll see the oranges or something and something will flash through your head of an experience that you had or something, and sometimes I stop myself and say, "Wait a minute, that wasn't my experience, that was a character's experience. It was Norma's experience or Edna's experience or Celeste's experience," and it wasn't mine. But I portrayed it so it registered in my head as an experience that I had, so it's an odd thing that actors do when you have the opportunity to really work on a character that you somehow have to plant inside of yourself. They stay in me and they have always changed me in some way.

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