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Young at Heart: Sally Field on "Hello, My Name is Doris"

Michael Showalter, one of the masterminds behind the 2001 cult teen-sex comedy parody “Wet Hot American Summer” and its recent reincarnation as a Netflix miniseries, probably wasn’t the only grade-school boy who developed a crush on Sally Field after seeing her runaway bride hitch a beer-run ride with Burt Reynolds in 1977’s “Smokey and the Bandit.”

“That was my introduction to her, those Burt Reynolds movies from the ‘70s like ‘Smokey’ and ‘Hooper,’” says the 45-year-old director and co-writer of "Hello, My Name Is Doris," his big-screen collaboration with the two-time Oscar winner that opens in limited release on Friday.

“Later on, ‘Punchline’ got on my radar,” he says of the 1988 film about stand-up comics. “I was a huge Tom Hanks fan and I must have seen it 100 thousand million times. Then, when I was older, I saw ‘Absence of Malice,’ ‘Norma Rae’ and all those amazing movie performances she has done.”

Perhaps his own childhood attraction to Field, now 69, along with the fact that Hanks as a younger comic develops feelings for her housewife character in “Punchline,” helps explain why Showalter immediately thought of the actress for the poignantly offbeat role of Doris. From the moment the film begins, the actress makes herself right at home as an introverted, never-wed 60-ish data entry worker in New York City with a penchant for Minnie Mouse hair bows and cat-eyed glasses who finds herself romantically drawn to a new co-worker (Max Greenfield of the sitcom “New Girl”). 

“Sally is an amalgam of so many emotions that Doris begins to experience after being released from being a live-in caretaker following her mother’s death,” he says of the sheltered character whose eclectic wardrobe that consists entirely of vintage garb is seen as hipster chic by the under-30 crowd who suddenly embraces her companionship.  “She is funny, sexy, fierce, vulnerable. She also has that mouse-that-roared kind of thing and achieves something incredible in this tiny movie. I realized that this role almost acts like a retrospective of her career, since Doris has a teenage quality to her.”

As a result, the Baby Boomer icon who got her start in such TV shows as “Gidget” and “The Flying Nun” in the ‘60s stars in her first lead movie role since the 1996 thriller “An Eye for an Eye,” even if some might argue her Mary Todd Lincoln in 2012’s “Lincoln” qualifies despite earning her a supporting-actress Oscar nomination. Field also gets to display her comedic skills for the first time in ages, including a joyously spontaneous pogo-like jig to electronica music that she improvised on the spot. But there is plenty of drama as well, especially when Doris finally lets loose verbally with all the frustration and disappointment that has been bottled up inside of her for decades. It is an emotional outburst that rivals the power of her cemetery breakdown in “Steel Magnolias.”

Field spoke with about her new film, touching upon topics ranging from what she thinks about the plan by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to restrict non-active members from Oscar voting (basically, not much) to how it felt to kiss her 35-year-old co-star. 

You once said, “When I was born, the doctor looked at my mother and said, ‘Congratulations, you have an actor!” Your mom, Margaret Field, and stepdad, Jock Mahoney, were both actors. You were born and raised in Southern California. Was there ever any doubt you would grow up to be an actor?

No, I had no question. I didn’t think about it. I had access to a stage from the age of 12. In those days, there were theater arts departments in schools and I was involved from middle school to high school. I made my debut on TV in “Gidget” in 1965 and did my first movie, 1967’s “The Way West” with Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Richard Widmark.

I assume, even if your status as a three-time nominee and two-time winner didn’t qualify you to continue to vote for the Oscars, you would be safe because you work regularly. Besides “Lincoln,” you had five seasons of playing the matriarch on the ABC drama series “Brothers & Sisters,” which ended in 2011, along with your appearances as Peter Parker’s Aunt May in the most recent "Spider-Man" reboot. But in a bid to create more diversity among Academy members, some longtime voters who have retired might not be so lucky. 

I have always found a place to put what I do somewhere—on the big screen, small screen or on stage. I have been working fairly steady, not back-to-back-to-back except when doing a TV series. But I don’t think that is the proper way of going about it. I think about all the wonderful people who would be left out. The credentials to get into the Academy used to be very strict. I didn’t get in until I was nominated for “Norma Rae” and was automatically accepted. But back then, you had to have a huge body of work or many letters of recommendation to get in.

Seeing “Hello, My Name Is Doris” just re-enforced a feeling I believe many share, including myself. As you once noted in your acceptance speech when you followed your win for 1979’s “Norma Rae” with a second trophy for 1984’s “Places in the Heart,” we do like you. It is the same effect that Tom Hanks has on us. That likability goes a long way to make us care for Doris, even if she does make some hurtful choices—especially when her efforts to make her fantasy version of her relationship with Max Greenfield’s John come true takes a bad turn.

I love Doris. I love her willingness to be so awful and horrible sometimes. Personally, I found someone I could identify with.

At least Tyne Daly as Doris’ best friend Roz tries to make her see the consequences of her actions and gives her a reality check now and then. 

I wish I had someone like that character in my life. A best friend since high school that says the truth. One who will say, “What’s wrong with you today? You look bad.”

There appears to be a renewed appreciation of great actresses of a certain age by younger filmmakers. In the past year, Blythe Danner, Lily Tomlin, Charlotte Rampling, Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren all had standout roles as leading ladies, not character parts. And now you. TV has been ahead of the game both with cable and streaming services in appreciating veteran performers and providing worthy platforms for their talents. Is it getting better these days for women over 50 when it comes to movie roles as well?

I think it is still hard for to find roles, although I can’t really answer that accurately because only now I’ve become an older actress. It always has been difficult for women and doubly difficult with age. I don’t think it is hugely different now. Television and cable along with Netflix and Amazon are inviting new ways to distribute film. It’s possible to make films that aren’t just for young boys in another country and that don’t necessarily cost $200 million. They can make movies that audiences here want to see.

“Hello, My Name Is Doris” is a low-budget independent film. Why did you say yes to the script?

I’m not making a living doing this. But I made enough in my life to do things I want to do. I almost must pay out of pocket for a film like this. It was literally like working for free. I said yes because it was such an unusual and interesting character. It’s a story unlike any I’ve seen before. It’s so complex, a mix of high screwball comedy and tragedy. I'd never met Michael before but I loved him instantly. It was as if we were separated at birth. We were so united. We shot in L.A. for three weeks …

Three weeks?

That’s what I’m saying. And three days in New York.

You probably had a lot of suggestions about fleshing out Doris’ character.

Absolutely. Costume designer Rebecca Gregg and I really worked on her exterior look. We knew Doris was eccentric but we didn’t really know who she was. We spent three days trying on racks and racks of clothes that we found in studio costume departments and thrift shops. I copied her hairdo from Brigitte Bardot and cut my bangs real short. Then we worked on her interior. Doris seemed to have a borderline personality. She had almost all of the ingredients. I talked to therapists about hoarders and where she might be on the spectrum, from severely impaired to minor-ly. She probably hovered on the borderline of things. Her mother was so dominating her personality that Doris went inward emotionally and came outward when John became the bait. She reached outside. It’s as if she was waiting to flower. Things like her mother’s death make you change. It is a huge upheaval that moves you out of your comfort zone. Either I am going to move to the next stage or go deeper in the hole.

I thought you look terrific in those ‘50s and ‘60s fashions. Did you enjoy wearing them?

No, I didn’t. They were really nasty and disgusting. So vile. They stunk. I asked, "Can’t we get them cleaned?" But they were itchy and uncomfortable, like a hair shirt. Everyone would laugh when I stood around with my arms straight out. The underarms were crusty.

Did you keep anything?

No. Most of it had to be returned because the clothing was rented. We had a budget of about 37 cents. Less than most single TV episodes.

Save for one brief flicker of an actual smooch, we mostly see Doris fantasize about kissing John. But you got to kiss Max Greenfield for real. You have said that James Garner, who was your co-star in 1985’s “Murphy’s Romance,” was the best on-screen kiss you ever had. How does your co-star Max stack up?

Max is a gumdrop of a human being. If he hadn’t been John, there would be no way for me to be Doris. He was so permitting and allowing. But it’s real hard to beat James Garner. No one can beat that one.

With the help of Roz's 13-year-old granddaughter, Doris creates a fake Facebook page so she can friend John and keep tabs on him outside of work. As far as I can tell, you aren’t personally on social media although there are fan sites dedicated to you on Twitter and Facebook.

No, I’m not. If I need to check something, I ask my son to do it.

What else do you have in the works?

Nothing I can tell you right now. Otherwise, they will get angry.

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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