Sally Field was filming a movie last year when something didn’t feel quite right.
The Oscar-winning actress, 76, was playing the mother of a gay man in Spoiler Alert. With a gay child of her own, she realized there was an opportunity to be even more authentic as she rehearsed the lines in the script. Luckily, one of the film’s writers had worked with Field on the 2006 drama series Brothers & Sisters and knew that for Field to do that Sally Field Thing — when her palpable sorrow tilts into rage, and then rage melts into I’m taking control now! — she had to stay true to herself. So Field began reworking some of the language.
Truth is Field’s North Star. It’s guided her entire career, Norma Rae to Steel Magnolias to Mrs. Doubtfire to even Spider-Man — films where she used her training to find authenticity in her performance. Field discovered the power of acting in seventh grade. Saying her lines onstage was the only time she could truly hear herself. “I found a place where I could be me. But when I got off the stage, I lost track of who I was,” she says. “I would just try to be good, nice, sweet. Try to be cute, try to be nothing, try to evaporate.” At 19, she found herself suddenly famous, surfing into the American consciousness as Gidget in the 1965 TV series. Then she took to the skies on The Flying Nun. “That was just nonsense,” she says of her second series. “I felt totally lost. Afraid. And I was humiliated.”
A costar on The Flying Nun, Madeleine Sherwood, sent her to a class taught by the famed Lee Strasberg. His theory, method acting, was based on sense memory. “I can learn from me,” she realized. “I wasn’t looking to be a big star; I didn’t say, ‘Oh, I wanna be in movies, I wanna be a big success, I wanna win awards.’ I just wanted to act.”
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Field’s pursuit of her truth has also yielded important “nos” along the way. She turned down The First Wives Club, with Goldie Hawn and Bette Midler, in the ’90s. She says, “Goldie really wanted me to do it. Maybe it would have been fun, but they were all so musical, and I’m not. And the movie wouldn’t have been the same.” She also said no to Romancing the Stone, with Michael Douglas, in the ’80s. “My instinct was there’s somebody else out there who’s better. And that somebody was Kathleen Turner. That long-legged Kathleen, with her husky voice. I mean, she’s still breathtakingly good. And she’s so sweet. There’s nobody else like her.”
Field says she’s also said no to similar films to her new 80 For Brady movie, in which she stars alongside Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Rita Moreno. “I have avoided some other films that are groups of ladies because I have certain feelings that women are about so much more than just looking for a date or who’s my next husband.”
“I know there’s a territory that I can own, and some where I dare you to be as good as me, and then there’s some I can fake. But really, I would rather not be faking it.”
80 For Brady is in theaters Feb. 3
For more about Field, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.