December 21, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST

First lady Mary Todd Lincoln is a powerhouse of determination in Lincoln, but she’s got nothing on the woman who plays her. Sally Field was first cast as the president’s spouse back when Liam Neeson was attached to the title role. But after several delays, Neeson moved on, and Steven Spielberg set his sights on the younger Daniel Day-Lewis. Suddenly, the director felt that the age difference between his 55-year-old leading man and his 66-year-old leading lady was too great. ”I told Sally twice that she didn’t have the part,” says Spielberg. ”And twice she came back with the same line: ‘Steven, I’ve known you almost all of my professional life and I’ve never said this to you before, but I’m going to fight for Mary Todd Lincoln!”’ And fight as her. In Lincoln, Mary is plagued by dark moods and blames her husband for the death of their son Willie, but she is also the president’s fiercest champion. In Field’s juiciest scene, she toys with Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens in a reception line at the White House like a sadistic cat swatting at a helpless mouse. Even as the most cutting words cross her lips, the smile never leaves her face. This isn’t just a delicious bit of political payback from a protective First Lady, it’s the showstopping performance of an actress telling the audience, Jones, and Spielberg: Underestimate me at your own peril.

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