Table for Three: Misty Copeland and Sally Field on the Social Significance of Their Success

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Table for Three: Misty Copeland and Sally Field on the Social Significance of Their Success

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Table for Three

By PHILIP GALANES

After the lunch plates were cleared away and the tape recorder was switched off, Sally Field turned to Misty Copeland, the first African-American principal dancer in the history of American Ballet Theater, and quietly said, “You may think you’re fighting for a select group of women — for girls and women of color — but you’re fighting for me, too, and my granddaughters.”

Ms. Field, 70, a popular and critically acclaimed actress for more than five decades, winner of two Academy Awards and three Emmy Awards, was circling back, at the end of her conversation with Ms. Copeland, to underscore its guiding spirit: the common cause of women in the face of inequality.

Now starring on Broadway in “The Glass Menagerie,” the classic Tennessee Williams play, Ms. Field has traveled about as far as one can go (and worked tirelessly to get there) from her beginnings in light sitcoms such as “Gidget” and “The Flying Nun.”

Ms. Copeland, 34, considered a dance prodigy as a child, rose quickly through the ranks of classical ballet, overcoming chaotic family circumstances and injury before taking her place at the top tier of dance in 2015 — a black ballerina, and a lingering rarity among premier dance companies. Her performances with the American Ballet Theater, which begins its spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House next month, draw large, diverse crowds, reflecting her pop-star appeal.

She has used her influence to advocate greater inclusivity in dance and in society, not only through her performances, but also in endorsement deals, most notably with the clothing company Under Armour, and with her three books: a best-selling memoir, “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina”; the children’s book “Firebird”; and, most recently, “Ballerina Body,” which was released in March.

Over lunch at Charlie Bird in SoHo (grilled octopus and burrata for Ms. Copeland; roast chicken with arugula salad for Ms. Field), they discussed the social significance of their success, the complicated childhoods that spurred them, and the political meaning of their work in the early days of the Trump administration.

Philip Galanes Do you know why we put you together?

Sally Field Oh, dear.

PG Because you reinvented the way people see you. That a prima ballerina can have brown skin and curves. That a major dramatic actress can start out in silly sitcoms. When did you first understand you’d have to fight for that?

SF Well, it’s harder for women in any arena than it is for men. It just is. And even more so in show business, where they shove women into stereotypical little boxes. But I was also battling television itself. If you had any success on TV in the ’70s, you could never transition into film. My agents and managers said: “No, no, no. You’re not pretty enough; you’re not good enough.”

PG Did you believe them?

SF Of course not. I fired them. But I believed them, too. We all have so many pieces inside us. One piece was injured because my feelings were hurt. Another piece, a driving one, was freaking angry at being told I wasn’t good enough. But even stronger than those was my desire to find the butterfly inside me, the one I’d first found in the seventh grade, doing my first scene on a school stage. Something happened. I found my own voice. All the other ones that said: Don’t do this, and don’t do that; they were gone. I felt the sparkle of being alive. Then it was gone. But I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to find it again and grow it and use it.

Misty Copeland When I first came into the ballet world, I didn’t feel any limits, which is interesting, because there are so many limits for black women. Growing up the way I did, struggling for day-to-day survival. Where are we going to stay? What are we going to eat? That made me such an introvert and so nervous about life. But when I came to ballet, at 13, it was the first time I felt calm and protected and beautiful.

PG I felt profound kinship with you when I read that you asked your mom to drive you to middle school the week before it began, as a test run. I did that, too.

MC I wish I’d known you. We would have been best friends.

PG I thought if I could just get everything perfect, you might not hate me.

SF We all sound very similar, and insecure.

MC My fear was that people would find out what was actually happening in my life. I was so ashamed of everything: the abuse of my stepfather, living in a motel. I was constantly hiding. I thought: If I’m on time and perfect, no one’s going to ask me any questions. Ballet was the first time — I know this sounds crazy, standing on a big stage, under bright lights — but it was the first time I felt safe. No one could touch me; no one could say anything to me. I could express myself. And nothing else mattered.

SF Exactly! My family was colorful, too, not as challenging as Misty’s, but there was a large degree of abuse. But I was lucky enough to go to school at a time when public school kids were introduced to the arts. And I was voracious about it. I could be me onstage. I could be ugly. I could be mean. I could be all the other colors that little girls weren’t allowed to be.

PG And people encouraged you?

MC Oh, yes. None of the other stuff was thrown at me until I became a professional: You’re too short; your boobs are too big; you’re too muscular. And oh, you’re black. There’s never been a black woman to reach this level at a ballet company before. That’s when I felt defeated. But then this fire appeared inside me. It was like, “No, I am going to make this happen!” Once I realized it wasn’t about me, but what I could represent and change in the ballet world for others, that gave me an even bigger push.

PG You were both young juggernauts. Sally starred in popular sitcoms as a teenager. Misty flew up the ballet ladder, arriving in the corps de ballet at A.B.T. at 17. Then there was a stalling. Misty stopped moving up so fast; Sally didn’t transition to serious roles. How did you deal with that?

SF When I got discovered — like “wham!” and just stepped into a television series — I couldn’t see enough to dream. But as I worked, my dreams began to open up. I wanted to be a real actor. I wanted to learn the craft, and all I knew was what I learned in high school. But it wasn’t until I got to the Actors Studio and began working with Lee Strasberg that I really knew where I wanted to go. I was “The Flying Nun” during the day and doing weird exercises at the Actors Studio at night. But I couldn’t even get on the list to read for serious roles. I said to myself: “That’s because I’m not good enough. When I’m good enough, it will change.”

PG And did it?

SF It did, but I don’t know if it was because I was good enough. Eventually, I got in the door, but I had to fight like holy hell. I’d hear people say: “Who let her in? We don’t want her here.” But I’d swallow my anger and use it to focus myself, because I knew the only way I’d be hired was if I was better than everyone else.

MC I can’t imagine dealing with outward, verbal attacks like that. In the ballet world, it’s all so hidden and sugarcoated.

PG Like when they told you to “lengthen” when they meant “lose five pounds?”

MC It’s all coded in ballet.

SF But that’s almost worse, isn’t it? Because you can feel the intention underneath, but can’t use it.

MC No, I used that same fuel to prove that black dancers are just as capable, even though I knew I would have to be much better than the others to succeed. For years and years, I watched as white dancers came in — when I knew I was more talented or brought more depth to a role — but had to sit back and watch it happen. But I didn’t stop working.

PG Did you reach out for help, like Sally did with Lee Strasberg?

MC Oh, yes. Coaches in particular and former ballerinas from the company. I worked with acting coaches to help me tell stories onstage. When you become a principal dancer, it’s about carrying the company in telling a story through movement. That’s what I’m good at. Not just going out there and dancing technically, but really becoming a character. I fell in love with that, and it came from reaching out for help.

PG You’re both political advocates. Sally came of age in the late ’60s and starred in one of the great political films, “Norma Rae.” Misty’s refrain in her memoir about her first solo role at A.B.T. is, “This is for the little brown girls.” Were those your political awakenings?

MC It was absolutely when I woke up. Those brown girls held me up. Knowing you have a bigger purpose — that it’s more than just about you on that stage, it’s all the dancers who came before and the ones who’ll come later — it makes the struggle much easier to deal with.

SF Coming of age in the ’60s, I very much felt the marching feet of my generation. I wasn’t in the march, but I could feel the unrest. Vietnam and the women’s movement had a huge impact on me, even though it was like a conversation going on down the hall. I was hidden for so long, and so focused on work, then I had my children so early and they were my focus. It wasn’t until the end of the ’70s, beginning of the ’80s, when I began working with [the film director] Marty Ritt that I really woke up. He taught me that your work should always represent you and what you want to say, personally, about being alive.

PG So, by the time you were making “Norma Rae” and “Places in the Heart,” were those films representing what you wanted to say?

SF No, I was being taught by those characters I was playing. And I learned so much from them because I spent so much time getting into their shoes.

PG That willingness to see reminds me of a time after I came out, when I spoke up at work about an issue that was unfair to gay people. My boss said, “Oh, I don’t even see you as gay.” Do you ever get that?

MC I get it all the time. “Oh, I don’t see you as black.” Like it’s a negative thing to be black, but I know you, and you’re nice, so I don’t see you that way. It’s completely insulting.

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SF It’s saying: I refuse to see you.

MC Years ago, there was an article in The New York Times titled “Where Are All the Black Swans?” It really hit home. I was stuck in the corps de ballet, and the article called out all the major ballet companies, including A.B.T.: “Where are the black women? We don’t see them in your companies.” I felt completely defeated, like there was no hope for me. And when I went into work the next day, a co-worker who’s a good friend said, “Did you see that ridiculous article?” I remember feeling so angry and breaking it down for her, letting her know how the issue affected me personally. It’s harder to do that with higher-ups without their feeling attacked, but they’ve come a long way.

SF All of this goes down so deep into what’s wrong with our society now, whether it’s about race or women, gay issues or worker’s rights. This failure to see each other.

PG It’s like Misty’s Under Armour ad. Finally, a company says: “This is what a ballerina looks like; this is an athlete!” And the next thing you know, the company’s C.E.O. is saying President Trump is an asset to the nation. Was there any way you could let that slide, given the president’s comments on communities of color and women?

MC No, I had to say something. I could never be me and continue the path I’m on if I hid under the radar and kept cashing the checks. I didn’t want to go out there and defend the company, either. I wanted to make the point that not only do I represent Under Armour, they also represent me. I would never be part of an organization that didn’t truly represent what I stand for. And knowing the company and Kevin Plank, the C.E.O., and all the work they do in Baltimore and underprivileged communities, it seemed like there was something wrong with the story.

PG You said you’d have private conversations with Mr. Plank. Did you?

MC Yes. And if you see the whole interview, his comments were taken out of context.

SF I’m glad to hear that.

PG Still, these are tough times. When I saw Sally’s “Glass Menagerie,” I thought: These are the most desperate Wingfields I’ve ever seen. It felt almost symbolic of the Trump presidency. This family is pushed into a corner; they’d try almost anything. And you dramatize that so effectively.

SF Well, I’m dramatizing a woman who refuses to see her children the way they are. She can’t learn from them or love them as they exist in the world. That’s a tragedy that cripples her daughter and forces her son to leave. And [the director] Sam Gold has upped the stakes in every way.

PG Exactly. The family is in dire straits; it’s not genteel poverty. Does it change what you’re doing on stage, having President Trump in the White House?

MC As artists, it gives us more power and responsibility to bring people together, to fill the void of love and unity.

SF Yes, the arts have a powerful role now. Onstage, in particular, we must voice things that are hard to hear, that are hard to know. But when Misty is dancing, so present and alive, its message is there for us to take. And with “The Glass Menagerie,” it’s a chance to say something important and really mean it.

PG Is there such a thing as political dance? How would it express itself?

MC Well, dance can tell a political story. But there’s only so much I can say when I’m onstage performing. Dancers aren’t given a voice. So, it’s been an interesting path for me.

PG In many ways, you’re the first dancer I’ve known who’s had a voice, through your books and speaking engagements and endorsements.

SF She didn’t wait to be given it, either. Misty said: “This is my voice. Hear it.”

MC The company has also made stands of not traveling to certain places at certain times, even if it means taking a financial hit. I stepped down from the President’s Council [on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition] when Trump was elected. I don’t want to represent his administration. If A.B.T. were asked to perform at the White House, I doubt we would.

PG Well, it’s in the air. The women’s marches, the immigration protests — concerned people are watching and speaking up. Do you see yourselves as part of that movement, or do you have more impact on stage?

MC For me, it’s a combination of the two. Thanks to the platforms I have and the opportunities to voice what I stand for, when people come to the theater to watch me dance, I think they feel, even more, the power of what I’m doing offstage.

SF I also feel a certain responsibility now to stand up and speak up. Because things are happening right now that are wrong. Defunding Planned Parenthood, defunding the arts, public radio. It’s disgraceful. And I love this country.

PG Let’s end by circling back to the beginning. Is the stage still the place you feel freest, like when you were girls?

SF It’s the place I’m most me. The place I most genuinely exist, even though I’m playing another person. But they’re most truly my insides.

MC Absolutely! It’s evolved a bit, but performing serves the same purpose in my life as it did when I was 13: I feel free. I feel loved. I feel confident. I feel beautiful.

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