In 1979, Sally Field had just won her first Oscar win for playing a factory worker turned union organizer in Norma Rae. Seeking some quality time with her two little sons, she began taking them to LA Lakers games, and it quickly became a family tradition.
“I was a single mom and needed a way to communicate with my boys. We watched young Magic [Johnson] play the game, and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. We were there when Kobe Bryant came on board and walked. At that time, my youngest son was also going there. It was a big part of my parenting existence.
So when Field was approached to join the cast of the new HBO series winning time, which chronicles the meteoric rise of the Lakers in the 1980s, she was ready to sign without even reading a script. “I saw the pilot who [executive producer] Adam McKay did it and it was really, really good. Field plays Jessie Buss, the eccentric mother of Dr. Jerry Buss (played by John C. Reilly), who bought the Lakers in 1979 for $67.5 million and would turn the team into a worldwide phenomenon.
But beyond being an avid Lakers fan, Field was drawn to history. winning time is revealing. “It’s about the culture in Los Angeles in the late ’70s, both the black culture, the corporate culture, and the pressure of these young talents being taken from their families and thrown into a big arena. He also takes a look at all the machinery behind what it is.
BAZAAR.com caught up with Field via Zoom to find out how she scouted for the role of Jessie Buss, what it was like to be a working actress in 1979 and why she thinks streaming networks are a boon for independent films and shows like winning time.
There isn’t too much information online about Jessie Buss. What kind of preparation was needed to play it? What did she look like?
She came to Hollywood and took her son with her because she wanted to be a movie star and it didn’t work out, so she became an accountant. She was a single mother and they had a very close bond. Hollywood was this magical world where you had to reach out to something bigger than yourself, and I think that was instilled in her.
I thought there should be a reflection somewhere in Jerry about who his mother was, and you see it. She is a larger than life, mildly narcissistic personality, and he is a larger than life personality. Very narcissistic, not pathologically, but charismatically odd. It had to come from somewhere. So we figured it had to come from Jessie.
The series begins in 1979 when Jerry Buss buys the Lakers. What was it like being a working woman and actor in Hollywood back then?
By the time I arrived in 1979 it was a lot easier than when I started in 1964. I started out in sitcom television which at the time was impossible to get out of, especially if you are a woman. You were always called “below” so I had to work very hard and study, to get through it and even get the opportunity to audition. By the time I arrived in 1979, I had begun to make this transition, difficult as it was. Norma Rae was my first leading role in a film, and it was a real turning point in my life.
winning time does not hesitate to talk about the sexism at work experienced by Claire Rothman and Jeanie Buss or the racism faced by black members of the Lakers. How do you think Hollywood has changed since you entered the industry?
Well, we still have work to do. We need to bring more women to the table at the global level so that we can have a more balanced voice at all levels, whatever arena you’re talking about.
There’s definitely been a change since I started in the industry – there’s never been a single woman on the team or on set. You would think it would be the script supervisor, but often the script supervisor was a man. Great guy, I remember them well. Many times you would have a man in the makeup department.
Now when you go on set it’s not quite equal, but there are a lot of women working at all levels of the crew and behind the camera, and people of color coming in as as directors and filmmakers, and that did not exist before. But it’s really more of a recent change, as you know, when people got angry at awards shows asking, “Where are the people of color?” I think it also went hand-in-hand with the #MeToo movement because people were watching all this bad behavior everywhere.
As you mentioned earlier, you started out in TV, moved on to movies, and kept a foothold in all of them over the course of your career. What do you think of the types of movies and TV series produced with the rise of streaming platforms like HBO Max, Netflix or Amazon?
I think it’s very interesting, what’s happening to the world of storytelling through streaming. The pandemic caused big changes because people couldn’t go to the theater. HBO was, I think, one of the pioneers in creating great stuff: stories that could have been a movie at one point, but now you’re breaking them down so you can tell a deeper story over ten episodes, and then for several years. It’s a different type of storytelling than you could do when television was this kind of episodic world.
It seems to me that the movies currently being made are the big budget comic book movies, and the smaller movies are the ones nominated this year. If you look CODA, the power of the dog Where Tick, tick… Boom!, they had tiny budgets where pretty much everyone was working for free, and that’s going to have to change because people can’t keep working for free – they have to make comic book movies to make a living. But we can’t totally lose the ability to tell a little human story.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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