THE POPCORN REEL CONVERSATION
Polite Non-Contact Wrestling With Marisa Tomei
Omar P.L. Moore/The
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
"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
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.
Excerpts From the conversation With Marisa Tomei, star of the film "The
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