Polite Non-Contact Wrestling With Marisa Tomei
By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel
November 25, 2008                                                         

SAN FRANCISCO, California --

Don't let the occupational portion of the above headline fool you: Marisa Tomei isn't a wrestler, and the conversation that a couple of journalists had with her yesterday morning was accordingly peaceful and non-combative.  She's the complete opposite of the media-created image of her as a truculent, controlling diva that has circulated in the past.  There's a sense that the Academy Award-winning actress who turns 44 next month has been hard done by over the years courtesy of some unfavorable press, including accusations that her 1992 best supporting actress Oscar win for the comedy film "My Cousin Vinny" was undeserved, or in error.  Despite some of these charges, the Brooklyn, New York-born actress keeps moving -- except at this moment in the warm, comfy suite at a local hotel here, Marisa Tomei has just finished eating and is seated comfortably.  Wearing a beige-colored loose-fitting sweater and black leather pants, an easy, polite smile emerges.

The actress once described as "sort of fearless on stage" by Joe Mantello, who directed her in Nicky Silver's play "Fat Men In Skirts", assembles a memorable portrait in her latest role in director Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler" as Cassidy, a single mother and stripper whose rule "never date the customer" is put to the test by the film's protagonist and title character played by Mickey Rourke in a special performance.  When it is said that Ms. Tomei has played some assertive, strong-hearted women who have often propped up, stabilized or taught a not-so-strong man a thing or two, she briefly laughs.  It's uncertain if the laugh is because the questioner was off the mark with the observation or whether Ms. Tomei found the comment funny.  In any event it's neither here nor there, just a small flourish of Ms. Tomei's personality.  Marisa Tomei, who is single, is not one to talk about her personal life publicly, managing to avoid the airing of her private laundry.  Way back when, she had dated Robert Downey, Jr., America's film star par excellence these days, but aside from Mr. Downey and one or two other actors on the dating circuit over the years, Ms. Tomei has otherwise maintained a low offscreen profile, while her acting work speaks for itself.

Speaking of her "Wrestler" character Cassidy and her relationship with Mr. Rourke's beaten-down wrestling character Randy "The Ram" Robinson, Ms. Tomei gave these thoughts: "She might be like a few steps ahead of him but . . . in trying to help him and being touched by his story, it saves her as well . . . sometimes Darren says she's like a mentor but I don't really see that entirely.  Maybe there's a flavor of that but it's more like comrades.  And like two people in the battlefield and one is picking up the other one who's like wounded and going, 'okay, we're gonna like, try to get out of this foxhole!'" 

She's giggling now and does so throughout the conversation, perhaps a little nervously at times.  Ms. Tomei will explode with laughter a little later when asked about blessings, curses and Oscar -- not "Oscar", the disastrous 1990's film she starred in with its director Sylvester Stallone.  Like every film actress, Ms. Tomei has had roles in one or two poorly received films, including "Zandalee" with Nicolas Cage, a film which essentially went straight-to-video in the U.S. and Canada, but her role as Cassidy in "The Wrestler", which is stripped of the visual affectations that marked Mr. Aronofsky's earlier work, is an important one. 
Cassidy is tough, a different kind of night nurse for the male patrons who visit the strip club where she dances and undulates her near-naked body for adoration and more importantly hard-earned cash.  For the role, Ms. Tomei, who has a lean, streamlined build, had to train extensively.  "Physically, it's really -- it's quite a work out -- it's really kind of difficult to do the tricks on the pole and things like that, so yeah, I practiced a lot," she laughs. 

"I got very black and blue and pulled a few muscles."     

Ms. Tomei added that while it's true "that most (strippers) have been abused at some point and wind up like, connected to this life, because of that and their history . . . there's a way of using it to kind of transform their lives like art does . . . ", revealing what if anything surprised or altered any preconceived notions she had about the life of a stripper.  She said that she used some of the dancing she did in the play "Salome" a few years back, incorporating the sexual energy from her performance into the stripping that her character does in Mr. Aronofsky's new film.

"The Wrestler" is set in New Jersey, and most of it was shot there, with additional scenes shot in New York City and Philadelphia.  Released by independent studio Fox Searchlight Pictures, the film opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 17 and in San Francisco on December 26, with an expanded release to additional cities in the U.S. and in Canada in mid-January.

"Generally in films I don't like to rehearse," admitted Ms. Tomei, and true to form, neither she nor Mr. Rourke ever rehearsed for "The Wrestler".

She rates the process of rehearsing and methodology in a polite way, stating that it is "overly examined", but at the same time acknowledges that "there are processes, there is craft but there's also a lot of mystery, a lot of imagination, a lot of just absorption -- and best not to even articulate it."  There's a certain question that some journalists have about the acting craft, about that je ne sais quoi -- the intangibles of it all -- that fascinates them to no end.  The ethereal essence of conveying truth, authenticity and vulnerability is something that Ms. Tomei's response has only hinted at, especially with those last half dozen quoted words -- punctuated by another hearty laugh -- that analyzing and picking apart how an actor does what an actor does is both a meaningless and destructive exercise.

In this conversation Ms. Tomei remains natural and unscripted, allowing for a glimpse of herself as is -- a refreshing departure from the often-scripted and canned responses some actors and filmmakers bring with them to an interview.  She stretches, arms aloft and skyward in the middle of answering one question.  She is comfortable and relaxed.  At one point during a response to another question, she cheerfully speaks of Oscar-winning director and fellow Italian-American Martin Scorsese, whom she has yet to work with, ebullient about him.  "I knew that I worshipped Scorsese, but who doesn't??"

Ms. Tomei lives in Los Angeles, a far cry from the Midwood, Brooklyn neighborhood where she was raised and grew up.  An independent spirit, Ms. Tomei in past interviews has referred to her parents, crediting them for allowing her "to be my own person".  Her mother is a teacher and her father a lawyer, and she has a younger sibling, Adam.  She once received an honorary degree from Boston University.  Years ago she dropped out of school as her acting career began to move forward, and has not looked back since. 

Moving between American independent film and Hollywood film has been something of an effortless journey for Ms. Tomei, who has played a diversity of roles ranging from a Cuban prostitute in Mira Nair's "The Perez Family" to perplexed journalist in this year's film "War, Inc."  Besides her role as Mona Lisa Vito in "My Cousin Vinny", Ms. Tomei has stood out in Hollywood hits like "Anger Management" and "Wild Hogs", and independent films such as "In The Bedroom" and "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead", the latter two films for which she received plaudits, including a second best supporting Oscar nomination, this time for her work in "In The Bedroom".  Along with her work on the Broadway stage, Ms. Tomei has amassed a resume of credentials in a relatively short period of time, working alongside such actors as Mel Gibson, Helen Hunt, Sissy Spacek and Philip Seymour Hoffman, all fellow Oscar winners.

Speaking of Oscar, what does Marisa Tomei think about what winning him brings: blessing or curse? 

"It definitely comes down on the side of blessing.  It has some challenges, but overall it's a good thing and it's -- I don't know, I guess for every single person it would be different.  It depends when it comes in your life, at what point in your career, and for me I would just say that for me it was kind of overwhelming.  And it was . . . I had to -- I didn't really know anything about Hollywood, or Hollywood politics -- even beyond that, which is more important is that I didn't really have a vision for myself.  I was just still in the phase of acting where I was like, 'just give me a job and just let me do my best', and I didn't really have a long-term 'this is what I'd like to put out' -- I didn't even have like a 'these are the directors I want to work with' . . . so it was kind of a naivete that I think is a good thing to have, but at times it was also overwhelming on a lot of levels," said Ms. Tomei, who elaborates on this in the audio segment below.

"The Wrestler" opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 17, and opens in San Francisco on December 25.  The film, which is directed by Darren Aronofsky ("∏", "Requiem For A Dream", "The Fountain"), expands its release into Canada and the rest of the United States in mid-January.

Audio Popcorn:  Excerpts From the conversation With Marisa Tomei, star of the film "The Wrestler"


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