When Steven Spielberg asked Sally Field in 2005 to play Mary Todd Lincoln, the two-time Oscar-winning actress knew deep down that the road to playing the contentious first lady in

Lincoln

wasn't going to be easy. Writers on the film project came and went, as eventually did Liam Neeson, the actor originally cast to play Abraham Lincoln. When Daniel Day-Lewis agreed to come on board, Spielberg wasn't sure Field still fit, owing largely to their age difference. Lincoln was nearly 10 years older than his wife; Field had more than a decade on Day-Lewis.

Field, though, wasn't prepared to give up the role without a fight. Over coffee in a Santa Monica cafe, the actress, 66, whose youthful appearance immediately made Spielberg's initial concerns seem beside the point, lays out her determination to get the role.

Question: Why was playing Mary Todd Lincoln so important to you?

Answer: There are just certain characters that I feel belong to me. Sybil, I felt like that. No one else could have done it. Norma [the factory worker in the 1979 movie Norma Rae] belonged to me. And Mary, too. The size, the roundness of the face. Steven had a legitimate reason for feeling as he did. I understand that. But I also knew there was no other Mary to be had. So I had to step up to the plate. I said, "Test me."

Q: In full hair and makeup and in costume, right?

A: Yes. Steven gave me a Saturday afternoon, and [cinematographer] Janusz [Kaminski] came in, and [costume designer] Joanna Johnston found me a dress from Western Costume, and I did the monologue from the scene with Sen. Stevens [played by Tommy Lee Jones].

Q: Did you feel good about how it went?

A: I did. But Steven called the next day and said, "We put it with some footage of Daniel, and it just isn't going to work." I thanked him for the opportunity. I wanted to kill myself, of course, but I didn't, which is the good news. Because Steven called the next day, saying he had walked around the lot for hours and hours, thinking about it. And that he had sent Daniel the tape - yikes! - and that Daniel wanted to meet me.

Q: To talk or test together?

A: Originally, we were just going to have coffee in New York. Then Steven's office called and asked, "Do you want the same hair and makeup people?" And I said, "For what? A cup of coffee? I was just going to put on some mascara and hope for the best!" And they said, "No one told you? Daniel wants to film with you."

Q: So your first meeting with Daniel Day-Lewis was in costume?

A: Yes! We met at Amblin and were introduced to each other as Mr. Lincoln and his Mary, and we had a long improv for an hour or two that became this kind of magical reality. To this day, neither one of us remembers what we did or said. But as a human and an actor, what it felt for the two of us to be together, doing these two people, was magic. And that was the beginning of the relationship in the movie.