Today I got to go to a followup on Hello, My Name is Doris (which I loved, in case you missed it yesterday), a SXSW panel with star Sally Field and writer/director Michael Showalter. It was called “A Conversation with Sally Field” because Showalter was really there as more of a moderator, although he talked about his experience directing Field plenty.
Also shown were two clips from the film, in which Field proved the answer to one of Showalter’s first questions: Are you able to enjoy a movie you’re in. “No.” I stole a couple glances at Field during each clip, and every time she had her head in her hands, not watching.
To be fair, she did elaborate on that answer, saying she wasn’t really able to sink into a story when she’s acting in the movie. It didn’t sound egotistical at all when she quipped, “I pretty much focus on myself.
A lot of the conversation centered on Field’s method for getting into character, especially one as complex as Doris, and particularly when most films (as it was with this one) are shot dramatically out of order. Field keyed on the emotional progression of her characters, telling us that she does her own script breakdown, beginning before she even develops the character. She said she starts by writing down a sentence or two of basic action and emotion for each scene, and fills in details as she discovers who the character is. The end result is a sort of cheat sheet, a shorthand for how each scene fits into the overall film. “That’s what’s so fun – the challenge – in playing a character like this,” she said.
Showalter also asked her about a peculiar habit she had on set, especially when filming high-tension scenes: clapping her hands aggressively between takes. Field spoke about how, for a stage actor, the emotion is allowed to build over the course of a play. But for a screen actor doing multiple takes, high emotional moments have to be maintained between takes; there’s no time to push back up to an emotional high. The clapping is “almost like a physical effect to bring up the emotion.” “If you sit down, it all goes to your feet.” Showalter also asked her about her mindset while doing this. Was she fully in character, or were there tools which allowed her to access such a raw emotional place? This was one of my favorite questions of the whole panel, and the answer was appropriately interesting. ” Field says she tries to stay within “the now of where she [the character] is, but most probably drawing on my own emotion.” Understandably, she demurred when asked what memory she tapped for a particularly emotional scene.
Both last night and today, Field also talked about the costume design as a key element of finding the character of Doris. She spoke about going through old studio costume hoards with costume designer Rebecca Gregg, spending days trying on old clothes until she became familiar with Doris’s style. “All Doris’s clothes stank like everyone who’d ever worn them,” Field said. There’s one costume, however, Field said she was very unsure about, but Showalter insisted on.
There’s a scene in the movie where Doris goes to a club to see an electronic music show. So she wears lots of bright colors. Including a yellow jumpsuit straight out of the ’70s. Field said she insisted Doris wouldn’t have anything like that, but Showalter stuck to his guns, saying it would be funny and it wouldn’t be alien to the character. After seeing the movie, Field now says he was right.
“Someone else became part of my life,” said Field about the character of Doris. Here’s hoping Doris makes it into a lot more lives sometime soon.