Sally Field Speaks Up
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Sally Field Speaks Up

The award-winning actress and star of Brothers & Sisters speaks movingly about the wisdom and might of mothers, and why it took her a lifetime to really know who she is.

Feisty Sally Field

"This is my favorite tree," Sally Field says, gazing out at the magnificent gnarled oak behind her hilltop Malibu home. She points out a broken limb here and there, and scorched bark from previous California wildfires. "It's been around a long time and as you can see it's come into contact with some struggle and hard times over the years. But it's still alive and still enjoying life."

Field flashes that exuberant smile of hers, enjoying her metaphor. The actress, looking youthful as ever despite a few laugh lines, has been famous for more than 40 years, a period that's seen staggering success as well as some personal setbacks. On one hand, she's lived a picture-perfect Hollywood existence, including her latest hit TV drama, Brothers & Sisters. Off camera, though, Field has seen relationships come and go, and worked hard to juggle her big career with caring for three children. (Sons Peter, 38, and Elijah, 35, are from her first marriage, to Steven Craig; youngest son Sam, 20, is from her second marriage, to Alan Greisman, which also ended in divorce.) Her family tree has grown to include three grandchildren, whose gear -- tubs of colored markers, pink princess toys, and fabulous noodle art -- is a key element of her decor.

Now 61 and single, Field shares her homey upscale farmhouse with her octogenarian mother, Maggie, who moved in last year, and two dogs: a delightful golden retriever named Phoebe, and Roxie, her mother's distinguished-looking standard poodle. Field, dressed in a formfitting purple cardigan, brown sweats, and fuzzy moccasins, invites me to make myself at home on a rattan couch with plump cushions and needlepoint pillows. Though she's only 5-foot-2, Field commands attention, and her humility is enough to make you (almost) forget the gleaming statuettes on a nearby bookshelf: the Oscars for 1979's Norma Rae and 1984's Places in the Heart, which prompted her famous "You like me!" speech, and three Emmys, including the one she earned last year for Brothers & Sisters. That, too, inspired a memorable speech. Winning for her role as Nora Walker, the mother of five children, including a son suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after fighting in Iraq, Field dedicated the award to mothers everywhere. "If mothers ruled the world," she said that night, "there would be no god----ed wars in the first place." Over the course of two hours Field proves to be passionate and feisty away from the podium as well.

Speaking Out

Ladies' Home Journal: Who's more outspoken, you or your TV character, Nora?

Sally Field: Sometimes I can't tell the difference between us! Nora's very much someone who tells you what she's thinking. She talks first and lets the chips fall where they may, and that's me. She's also deeply involved with her children's and grandchildren's lives and so am I. The big difference is Nora doesn't have a career or a life outside her family, and I've always had my own life. Nora at 60 is trying very hard to figure out who she is as a woman because for most of her life it was all about her husband. There are precious parts of herself she never developed. I feel a little bit more peaceful as time goes on -- but just a little. My friends and I talk about what happens when you hit 60. You begin to have the privilege of owning your own history.

LHJ: Has playing Nora allowed you to meet real mothers of war vets or have they reached out to you in any way?

SF: Just the other day, someone stopped me in the airport to tell me about a family member who's still over there. Or I'll hear that a son was killed. I hear it all the time and I pray for those families. It must be just awful for them. What's really awful is how poor the help is for these brave men and women once they get home. This country has never respected the mental health of its returning soldiers, and they deserve all the help they can get after serving their country. They need sophisticated, ongoing treatment but the expectation is, if you're a soldier, you swallow your feelings and move on. That's a disgrace, an absolute disgrace, and I hope we can address that issue on Brothers & Sisters.

LHJ: You've always appeared to be so grounded and sane. How have you managed to stay normal in a place like Hollywood?

SF: I don't really know. I'm not sure I agree that I'm so sane. If I am, it's certainly taken me a long time to get here, to develop a sense of self. I went through most of my life not knowing who I was. But what saved me was my children. I had children so young -- I was 23 when I had my first and had two by the time I was 25 -- that I didn't have time for anything else. Even when I was having success with Gidget and The Flying Nun [her popular TV series during the '60s and '70s], I didn't have time to get real precious with myself. You have to make lunch. You have to get the kids to school. You go to work.

LHJ: How do you think life would be different if you were starting out today in show business?

SF: I can't imagine the pressure these young people are under. I thought it was rough, juggling a high-profile career with raising a family, but now you look at someone like Britney Spears and think, we had it easy. When I began, there were a few fan magazines but there was no Entertainment Tonight and certainly not the 24-hour media force that the Internet has become. Entire industries have been created to make money on Britney Spears and that's grisly. I can't imagine what it's like for her children to be caught up in that gossip.

Being a Mom Is Everything

LHJ: You caused a bit of a stir yourself last fall with your speech at the Primetime Emmy Awards. You certainly have a knack for illustrious awards show speeches!

SF: Tell me about it! [Laughs.] Give me a gold statue and it's, hey, look out everybody!

LHJ: But unlike your famous "You like me!" speech, your Emmy speech was the talk of the blogosphere and TV news programs. Did that surprise you?

SF: I was shocked! Because my intention wasn't to be political. The problem was, people who watched the show thought I said something terrible about President Bush and the war in Iraq because they pulled the camera away and bleeped me. People still ask, "How could you say something so hurtful about our country?" And I'll say, "Well, do you know what I said?" And they'll say, "Yeah, but do you think celebrities have the right to spout off politically?" And I'll say again, "Do you know what I said?" What I said was, "This award belongs to all the mothers of the world, may they be seen, may their work be valued and praised, especially the mothers who stand with an open heart and wait for children to come home from danger, from harm's way, and from war."

LHJ: Is there a reason you have that memorized?

SF: Because I've had to defend myself so much! I went back and looked at it again and again. The only mistake I made was in the next line when I put god in front of damned. But I do think if God would ever damn anything it would be war. Unfortunately, what was lost in the tumult was my intention to pay homage to mothers. Because, let's face it, it's not just the mothers of soldiers who have it rough out there. It's the mothers of police officers and of firefighters and of everyone else whose child is in service to his or her country and community. Motherhood is given the brush-off in our society. "Oh, I'm just a mom," you hear women say. Just a mom? Please! Being a mom is everything. It's mentorship, it's inspirational, and it's our hope for the future. I wanted to applaud them publicly.

LHJ: Given your high regard for mothers, is it safe to say you're a Hillary supporter?

SF: I am a Hillary supporter. I've met her many times and we've worked together for an organization she started called Vital Voices Global Partnership [a group that empowers women leaders around the world].

LHJ: What impresses you about her?

SF: First of all, she's brilliant. But what dazzles me is how resilient she is. The times she gets slammed, she takes it and grows from it. She gets stronger. We need to get out of some terrible, terrible situations as a country, and I want a president who can take those blows and be stronger. Not stronger in the sense that I'm going to blow your head off. But stronger in the sense that I'm going to be more informed, more honest, more honorable, and those blows won't weaken me. Showing our might clearly didn't work over the last four years. I want stronger in the way that only a mother can be strong. Whoever the next president is, man or woman, it needs to be a mother.

The Love of a Grandmother

LHJ: What do you mean by that?

SF: I don't think mothers are only female. I think mothering is a quality, a character trait. Mothering is about responsibility. There are plenty of men who are great, great mothers. Nelson Mandela is a great mother. People who care more about their children and their children's children than about getting money in their pocket are great mothers. That's how you protect your people. That's how you move into tomorrow.

LHJ: Your sons have managed to build solid relationships and loving families. What's that like to watch?

SF: Amazing, astonishing, wonderful...shall I go on? As they get older, I learn more about my children, and what I've learned is they're compassionate, loving people. That feels like a real accomplishment.

To watch your own children parent is a beautiful thing. You really see if you were successful or not. You see them addressing the issues they had as children, and that's fascinating. For instance, my middle son, Eli, always felt that I didn't give him enough structure and discipline. I wasn't tough enough on him. But now his son, Noah, is 2 and Eli's giving Noah a real structure for everything. Noah can't have a bottle except at night. He can't have a pacifier unless it's a certain hour. I was like, "Oh, you want your pacifier, here you go. Take the pacifier."

LHJ: Do you ever stop worrying about your kids?

SF: That's lifelong. The emotions toward our children are so strong. I just took my youngest, Sam, to the airport a few days ago on his way back to New York [Sam is a college sophomore]. And I stood there watching him go through security. He stopped at the end and turned around and waved to me. I waved back and he was gone and I started to cry because my baby, my last baby, was gone. I miss him terribly. I like it much better when he's up in his bedroom here shuffling around or asking me what's for breakfast.

LHJ: But you have your grandchildren. That must be a joy.

SF: I think I'm a good grammy. That's what they call me. I'm probably like every other grammy. I give them too much. I let them run all over me. They love to come over to the house and swim in the pool. And the girls are different. For Christmas we have big buckets for art projects. I also make them sewing baskets. Different fabrics and ribbons and little needlepoint needles and lots of threads. One girl is now almost 10, the other is almost 7. Their art-project basket is almost too big now. When I can be with them I am a great grandmother.

Single and Happy

LHJ: You're part of the sandwich generation with grown-up children on one side and your mother on the other. What's it like caring for your mom at home?

SF: It wasn't a hard decision. It was the only way for us. She gets to be with the family -- she wouldn't have been happy living somewhere else. My mother and I always had a highly evolved relationship.

There's a real crisis with elder care in this country but having her at home makes me realize how much we all have to learn from our aging parents. I feel women, especially as they get older, have so much to offer to their communities, to their town, and most of all to their families. They've raised kids or they've not raised kids. They've had jobs or not had jobs but they've seen so much in their lives and experienced so much, we need to soak up that wisdom from them.

LHJ: Do you think you'll ever settle down again?

SF: I can't imagine that poor fella. [Laughs.] It's not that I'm difficult. I just have such a full life. I don't have any room to let someone else in. My children, my priorities, my work, my mother. Where would he fit? I don't know that I'll have someone again. I don't look for it, I don't go out, so whoever my soul mate will be, if he's out there, he'll have to come up here and find me.

LHJ: Do you ever feel lonely?

SF: [Long pause.] I do. Well, I should say I'm not sure. My problem is, I taught myself very early on to not feel certain things in relationships. As a little girl growing up in the '40s and '50s, I learned to read the tiniest shades of emotion, of needs, and then to respond to those. I read people around me before I read myself. If someone needed me to be quiet, I'd be quiet. If they needed me to be sweet, I'd be sweet. Gone, I'd be gone. Or I'd entertain them. So my relationships were spent trying to figure out how to please that other person and at a certain point I realized I was incapable of reading myself -- of knowing myself. And when you're incapable of knowing yourself you lose the ability to think about your partner. Learning to know what you want as a woman, as a wife, as a mother, as a person -- it's a lifetime achievement. In many ways, the hardest task in being a woman isn't in raising your children, in making a home, in having a career, in getting your needs met. The task is to be present in what you want and who you are. So maybe I'm lonely sometimes, but at least I know who I am.

LHJ: Do you still feel sexy?

SF: That's the part that really gets challenged as you get older. But the feelings are still alive and thriving. And certainly, feeling that excitement with someone, that heated attraction -- I miss that a lot. But too often in my life I've given up things for that. Women often give up pieces of themselves to feel the rush of excitement that comes with sex, usually because they mistake it for true intimacy, and they end up losing. I won't do that again.

Someone Who Cares

LHJ: How do you feel when you look in the mirror? Do you generally feel good?

SF: Noooo! I mean, every once in a while I'll think, oh, okay. Just fine. But mostly I'm hugely self-critical of my looks, the way so many women are. It's funny, though. You spend all this time worrying about how you look. But then you see a picture of yourself when you were younger and you think, you were running around saying "my hair looks awful, my makeup's not good!" Now you look and say, "oh, God, give me one more day with those legs!"

LHJ You made a vow a while back to not have plastic surgery. How's that going?

SF: I think about it all the time because I see friends who've done it and they look great and younger. And I think, oh, look at me. Look at my neck or my chin or whatever. I have an ego but it's an actor's ego more than a woman's ego. It's about roles. I'm 61, and as I get older I'm obviously going to be playing older characters. What I would like is to age into roles I want to play the way the great ones did, like Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish. I've been an actor for more than 40 years and I'm going to die doing this.

LHJ: Do you ever wonder how you'll be remembered? What would you like your great-great-great-grandchildren to say about you?

SF: Honestly, I hope they're here to say anything. All this war and violence. All the ways we're destroying our planet. And it feels like nobody gives a rat's hind end whether we make changes or not. People shovel money into their pockets while other people starve to death. We're in a mess. I just hope our children's children's children are here to experience the world.

LHJ: Let's be optimistic and say they'll be here.

SF: Well, then, I'd like them to remember me as someone who cared. I want to be remembered as someone who participated in the world.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2008.