Mary Todd Lincoln and Sally Field. (Public Domain/Gregg DeGuire (AP))

Surprised? We were, too. Back in 2007, the Oscar-winning actress was rumored for the plum role in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming movie about Abraham Lincoln — but not a peep about it since then, not even when Dreamworks announced last year that Daniel Day-Lewis would play the title role.

But Field confirmed it Tuesday when she visited Ford’s Theatre. We learned the actress took a private tour of the theater and museum with executive director Paul Tetreault and Sarah Jencks, an expert on Mary Todd Lincoln, in order to better understand the former first lady.

The studio acknowledged the casting choice to us Wednesday. “I’m excited to be working with Sally for the first time,” Spielberg said in a statement. “I’ve admired her films, and she has always been my first choice to portray all the fragility and complexity that was Mary Todd Lincoln.”

A fan belonging to Mary Todd Lincoln. (Carol M. Highsmith)

“To play one of the most complicated and colorful women in American history is simply as good as it gets,” Field said in a statement also released by the studio.

She spent about an hour at Ford’s trying to get a sense of Mary’s day-to-day life: carefully examining her dishes and a blue fan she owned. “She was absolutely riveted by that,” said Tetreault. But the actress declined a chance to look at an exhibit about the assassination. “That was just one incident in her life, and I don’t want to obsess on that,” Field told them. And she skipped the theater’s most popular attraction: The presidential box where the Lincolns were sitting when he was shot. “No, I don’t need to see that,” she said.

The long-delayed project, based on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestselling “Team of Rivals,” is finally scheduled to start filming this fall with a release date in late 2012. The script by Tony Kushner will focus on the Civil War years. Liam Neeson was originally slated to play the 16th president but, after several delays, bowed out last year because he thought he was getting too old for the role.

Spielberg visited with Virginia film officials in Richmond last November, although no one would confirm anything about the movie at that time. But last week, the General Assembly approved an amendment that puts $1.5 million in the state’s motion picture opportunity fund; $500,000 had been set aside for Spielberg's production, reports our colleague Anita Kumar. Doesn’t mean that filming in the state is a done deal — but looks promising.