NEW YORK — Sally Field knows a little something about facing life’s changes, and one thing she’s learned is that they’re never easy to navigate. Still, the Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress, celebrated for her fierce portrayals of crusading women who fight for their families and the values they believe in, has managed to guide her career through the shoals of a finicky and unpredictable Hollywood without sinking her boat.
“Everybody has a difficult time transitioning from one place to the other,” Field says during a recent conversation in Manhattan, the Empire State Building rising through the window behind her. “There are lots of people who are hanging onto what they were or how they looked or any part of them for way too long. Let it go! There’s something else there that you have to explore.”
In Field’s latest film, “Hello, My Name Is Doris,” her character, Doris Miller, a shy, eccentric loner and recluse, stands at just that kind of crossroads. Her ailing mother, whom she devotedly cared for, has died, and she’s facing an uncertain future. Field calls the Michael Showalter comedy, which opens Friday, “a coming of age story about a woman of age.”
“For human beings, the challenge is always about how we transition to the next stage of our lives. Growing up, you always think that there’s one big stage, adolescence, and once you’re out of that, you’re on the adult boat and you’re just sailing out to sea. And it’s just wrong,” she says. “The invitation for us as human beings is: Will you be open to what is waiting for you there? Will you be open to exploring those changes, or will you be hanging onto what you were because it’s comfortable?”
Throughout her half century in the business, Field, 69, has sought to reinvent herself as an actress when the time came.
In her early years, Field was a perky-cute star of ’60s sitcoms like “Gidget” and “The Flying Nun.” Then there was her breakout from the typecasting straitjacket, thanks to her Emmy award-winning portrayal of an abuse survivor with multiple personality disorder in “Sybil” (1976) and, later, the irrepressible, tough-talking women in “Norma Rae” (1979) and “Places in the Heart” (1984), for which she pocketed a pair of Academy Awards.
Those Oscars and the box office success of “Smokey and the Bandit” (1977), where she sassed a smitten Burt Reynolds, helped turn her into one of Hollywood’s big female stars. She was America’s sweetheart before Julia Roberts assumed that mantle in the late ’80s, before she matured to headlining roles in films like “Absence of Malice” (1981), “Murphy’s Romance” (1985), “Steel Magnolias” (1989), “Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993), and “Forrest Gump” (1994).
As juicy film roles for older women became scarce, Field turned to television, playing Maura Tierney’s turbulent bipolar mother on “ER” and a warm yet steely matriarch Nora on “Brothers & Sisters,” both of which earned her Emmys. She fought to land the part of troubled first lady Mary Todd Lincoln in “Lincoln” (2012), going to great lengths to convince director Steven Spielberg to take a chance on her. It led to a third Oscar nomination.
“I fought for lots of roles, most of the ones I cherish,” she says. “If you’re an actor, people usually try to typecast you in what you have been rather than what you can be. You’re always trying to push yourself out of those boxes. So in that way it forces you to have to redefine yourself all the time.”
With Doris, she found another role that may not redefine her, but may usher in the next phase of her career. “I’ve never seen a character like this,” Field says. “It’s such a unique story and a very unusual character.”
As a mousy New Yorker with several cats, a bit of a hoarding problem, and borderline personality issues, Doris commutes daily from Staten Island to her Manhattan office, where she works as an accountant. She lives a lonely existence, except for the presence of her best friend Roz (Tyne Daly).
“She’s used to being ignored as this old, weird woman who her co-workers just avoid,” Field says. “You can see she’s incredibly awkward at the beginning. She hardly can look anybody in the face. So she lives completely in a fantasy world.”
That obsessive fantasy life kicks into high gear when a new art director, John (Max Greenfield from “New Girl”), joins the company, and Doris falls head over heels for him, even though he’s half her age. Doris stalks John on Facebook with the help of Roz’s 13-year-old granddaughter and then shows up at a Williamsburg nightclub where he’s seeing his favorite indie band. While Roz fears her friend will get hurt, Doris is eager for all the experiences that she’s missed out on and believes she’s following her heart. Besides, she having too much fun to care.
For writer-director Showalter, Field was always his pie-in-the-sky choice to play Doris.
“You need to love Doris and relate to her, and Sally’s had an incredible career where I think everybody in the audience has a deep connection to her,” he says. “It’s one thing to be in awe of someone’s acting abilities; it’s another thing to have them draw you in and actually make you care about them in a way that creates empathy. Sally just has an absolute ability to reflect back at people a part of themselves that they can identify with.”
In many ways, Field says, Doris is “very much like me.” She relates to the way Doris still thinks of herself as young. “Whatever happens to the exterior of your body when you age, inside you stay the same. You have more experiences to talk about and maybe you understand yourself a little bit more, but you’re the same person you were when you were 17 or 20.”
She also deeply identifies with Doris’s painful shyness. “I have a lot of social anxiety, and I’m a notorious hermit,” Field says. “People in show biz will tell you, ‘We don’t ever see Sally.’ When I became an actor, I would step outside of the shyness to find other pieces of myself, but it never really vanished.”
Sally Field, infamous recluse? You wouldn’t have guessed it watching her recent appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” when the actress made out with Greenfield during a charades-like parlor game, raising the eyebrows of a clearly amused host.
On the cusp of 70, Sally Field has still got game.
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.