My Lunch with Marisa Tomei: The Actress on ‘The Realistic Joneses,’ ‘Girls,’ and De Blasio’s NYC

In a candid interview, the Oscar winner discusses her hit Broadway play, the thrill of working with Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the changing face of New York.

Stephanie Diani/The New York Times, via Redux

Marisa Tomei is just as sweet and complaisant as you’d imagine. Her smile is, in person, just as infectious as it is onscreen; a trait that’s helped make her one of those unique actors who inspires tremendous goodwill in audiences. The Oscar winner has only just settled into a corner table at Morandi, the cavernous Italian trattoria in New York’s West Village that she chose for our lunch, when we begin confabulating over our favorite local Italian joints.

“Bar Pitti is a classic,” she says. “And dell’anima? SO good. It has a sister restaurant too, whose name is escaping me.” She hits pause. “I haven’t eaten all day and I’m starving.”

It’s hard to describe Tomei’s aura without coming off like a toadying hack, but she really does look about two decades younger than her age, 49. She’s sporting reading glasses and a worn-and-torn white tee, whose sleeves she rolls up to her shoulders, like a greaser.

The actress is here with me to discuss her excellent new Broadway play, The Realistic Joneses—playwright Will Eno’s singular meditation on the absurdity of mortality; like Sartre by way of David Brent. Directed by Sam Gold, it centers on a pair of seemingly disparate married couples: steely pragmatists Jennifer (Toni Collette) and Bob Jones (Tracy Letts), and fabulists Pony (Marisa Tomei) and John Jones (Michael C. Hall). Bob, who’s suffering from a degenerative disease, finds himself at odds with the acerbic John, and attracted to the cheery Pony, which causes havoc among the newly minted neighbors.

The New York Times praised the play, writing that Eno “burrows into the heart of his characters to reveal the core of their humanity: the fear and loneliness and unspoken love that mostly remains hidden beneath the surface as we plug away at life, come what may.”

After perusing the menu, Tomei reaches her verdict: “I’ll do the Cacio e Pepe… and could I get a side of scrambled eggs with that? Whatever eggs you can rustle up!”

Over the next hour-plus, we discuss her love of the theater, career highs and lows, and much more.

I enjoyed The Realistic Joneses because I’m a fan of that particular brand of sardonic, deadpan humor. It’s a style of comedy that’s a bit British in a sense, but has really become big in the States in recent years.

Right. With Colbert, The Daily Show, and even Community, to a degree. I agree, very British. It’s something that I hadn’t been super interested in. My character is a little more physical, a little more animated, but you really have to dry out the language, because the way it’s constructed and the ideas that Will is talking about, they only really seep in without the spin of actor-ly antics. It’s not so much about the “flair” of acting, yet it takes so much discipline to deliver the humor that he wants, and also make it hit you on a gut level. The poetic and absurdist way that he’s able to frame it, it almost works on a metaphysical level as opposed to an intellectual level. I find it a very soothing balm every night to do it. I had some very tough things going on before opening night—someone in my family passed away—so every day I would be going to a show, saying words, and dealing with a situation that had to do with death and illness. This play coincided with a time when my heart really needed it.

Have you had other moments in your life when the work’s really helped you get through a personal issue? Not with movies, and usually more thematically. With Top Girls, it made me think about the feminism of the ‘70s and how feminists have given us so much, and helped change and shape our world. And I consider myself a feminist.

It’s strange and more than a bit disheartening that some have twisted the word “feminist” around to give it a negative connotation.

I know. But it’s not stopping. Women—and men—are interested in solutions for interpersonal problems and societal problems, and even Obama signing in an equal pay law was big. There are incredible young women like Lena Dunham, Tavi Gevinson, and others who call themselves feminists.

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As a Brooklyn gal, are you a Girls fan?

Huge. I love the writing, I love Lena’s timing, and I love her insight into female behavior. She has a way of showing selfishness and manipulation and some behaviors that aren’t usually shown in context, as well as the ups-and-downs of intimate friendships. Plus, I just think it’s really funny. And she’s a genius. She’s even off writing New Yorker articles on the side! She came to one of our shows, too. Our director, Sam Gold, played the theater director when Adam goes on Broadway, and she sits in on the audition when she shouldn’t have and is kicked out. He’s not as mean as he came off on the show!

The Brooklyn depicted in Girls is very different from the one you grew up in during the ‘70s and ‘80s? It’s changed a lot.

Brooklyn was a great place to grow up, but I’m hoping there’s still a spot for me!

It’s gotten quite expensive to live in certain parts of BK.

I actually want to move back to Brooklyn. Whenever I saw that Manhattan skyline from the BQE I’d get a palpable adrenaline rush. I have my apartment in the West Village that I’ve kept all this time so I can do plays because it’s so hard to find a place with that amount of regularity. I’d like to move to Brooklyn, but I haven’t put enough time into planning it. The real estate gambit will always be a New York pastime. But I was looking a long time ago in Williamsburg, and then I went through a breakup and wound up not moving with that guy, and then went to L.A. instead.

I’ve read that you’re a big de Blasio supporter, and he famously called New York City “a tale of two cities,” with millionaires on one side and people at or near the poverty line on the other. How do you feel about the state of New York City?

Well, I think these lamentations have been happening since probably the turn of the century. Throughout New York’s history, it’s always changing. For me, I feel like I’ve been lucky to hang on to this apartment, and at the same time, I don’t get as much inspiration from just walking around the streets of New York City as I used to. Look at Times Square.

I have to walk through the Meatpacking District to get to work, which has really changed. And I can’t even handle Times Square anymore.

The Meatpacking District was a lot of darkness—but good darkness. Every off-Broadway or off-off-Broadway show I did early in my career, I would walk through Times Square on the way to the show, and I would be fed by the characters. Now, I don’t even want to leave the dressing room between shows. It’s not for me.

Speaking of Girls, and television—the TV landscape has changed so much since back in the day. Are you interested in doing television?

I would love to be on a show. I would really like that, actually. The right role just hasn’t come along yet.

Back to The Realistic Joneses. The play debuted at the Yale Repertory Theater prior to Broadway. How did the new cast develop such great chemistry?

We only had three weeks of rehearsal. It was craziness. It was good that Sam had directed it regionally and Tracy [Letts] came over from the original cast, but we still had rewrites and we still had to be able to nail this unique tone. To have a voice like Will’s on Broadway, and to be in a new American play on Broadway, is so wonderful.

There does seem to be a lot of regurgitation on Broadway these days. Lots of star-studded revivals.

I think Broadway was always, to a degree, more of the “boulevard” pieces, and Group Theatre in the ‘30s was a reaction to those boulevard pieces, but I don’t think it’s quite on the scale that we’re experiencing it now.

By the way, when it comes to plays, I spoke with Ralph Fiennes recently who said that he found it a bit cruel that critics review opening night, and not midway through a play’s run.

It’s a little bit sad on opening night now. When I first started doing plays back in the Naked Angels days, I was at the very tail end of the generation where you could run up to The New York Times’ print plant in the West 40s and go to your opening night party without a care in the world and have the classic opening night antics, and then at midnight, go to the plant and have the guy’s give you the paper right off the presses—it was literally hot in your hand. Now, 20 minutes into the party everyone is checking their BlackBerrys and telling you what’s happening. You have to fight for the space now to be stupid, and drunk, and fun.

What keeps luring you back to the stage? It seems like you return every few years.

I think about it a lot, “Well, maybe I’ll only do plays?” and then life takes you in different directions. But it’s where I started, and the reasons are myriad, but I love everything about it—being in an intimate group, the rehearsal period being in a spare dance room, and I like the hours, so it’s not super early in the morning. It suits my nocturnal proclivities.

You’ve had such a rich film career, too. I still have family friends who watch My Cousin Vinny religiously. That was really your breakout role, I think?

I’m excited when you say that! It’s great to hear that. I think the trick is to not be defined by an iconic film, and I think I’ve gotten to do a range of things, so I’m grateful that that role made lots of people laugh. I hope I get another role as good as that one soon!

At this point, Tomei takes off her reading glasses and motions towards my dish, prosciutto on rosemary focaccia. “You know what… can I have a piece of that? I see that you’re not eating it.”

I give Tomei a big square slice of the prosciutto on focaccia, and she takes it down in two forkfuls.

I felt like people did try to pigeonhole you because of Vinny for a while, because it’s such an iconic role, and there was a bit of a lull in your film career in the late ‘90s when you went back and did some plays. But then I remember seeing you in In the Bedroom and being blown away because it was such a different side of you as an actress.

I was here and doing a lot of plays, but I think the mess I’d made for myself was starting to come to an end around that time. Hollywood was so alien to me, like another planet. I had no relationship to it at all, and then after one movie, I was in the thick of it. There was no time to adjust or step back and see what it was all about. But I was excited to do In the Bedroom because one of my old friends from Naked Angels, Fisher Stevens, was a producer on it.

Did you feel vindicated, in a way, after getting that second Oscar nomination for In the Bedroom?

Yes. Just to have knocked those walls open and be able to do a range of things was great. And now, ironically, I’m like, “Please, more comedies!”

And your third Oscar nomination came for The Wrestler, which was also a risky move.

That could have been a disaster. Aronofsky was at the helm so it wasn’t going to be a disaster, but in my mind, I was thinking, “What the fuck am I doing right now?!” I’m finding myself in January in Jersey in a place less than strip club—like a flophouse. I thought, “This could be the worst thing I’ve decided to do,” just being at that age, and playing that kind of role, and doing nudity, which was something I hadn’t done before. But I’m really happy that I got to be a part of it, and it’s all thanks to Aronofsky, who’s one of our finest filmmakers.

How’s it been for you, as an actress, getting older in Hollywood? It’s an industry that’s historically been pretty tough on women as they age.

It’s getting better though, isn’t it? Sandra Bullock was the biggest actress last year. Our whole population’s aging, too, so perhaps it’s a different kind of audience. And how about Cate Blanchett in her Oscar speech saying, “The world is round, people!” as far as roles for women? But as far as my career goes, I always joke around with my brother that I’ve scratched and clawed my way to the middle!

Oh, three Oscar nods and one win isn’t too shabby. Is it weird, too, to see Robert Downey Jr. be this big, global star now? To be Iron Man? That was pretty early in your career when you two were dating and appearing in films together like Chaplin and Only You.

It is a trip! For someone who is that unique to have that kind of mainstream success is amazing in these franchise films, and he deserves it because he’s one of the best. That would be a good dream for me, huh? To be in some oddball franchise? [Laughs]

Sounds good to me! You’ve also acted with the great Philip Seymour Hoffman twice—in the highly underrated Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and also The Ides of March. What was he like to work with?

It was weird, like a little blip, and then it evaporated. I just think it didn’t have the right distribution and publicity plan. I don’t think they got behind Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead enough to make a difference. [Hoffman] was definitely ferocious and unyielding in that movie. We’d met ages ago at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and have known each other through the theater for a long time.

Tomei takes a long pause and begins to tear up.

Because I knew him as a friend and as a fellow stage actor, and for so long, I guess I didn’t think of him that way. I just thought, “If Phil’s going to be in it, how exciting! I get to do this with Phil!” and I didn’t realize it until his passing how he was such a standard-bearer. There was this unconscious thing that I, and many other actors who were his peers, were holding inside, which was, “I want to be in this because Phil’s in it” and “I hope to be as good as Phil” and “I hope Phil likes this.” That standard and his unyielding hold to keeping up those standards made me want to work harder, but I only realized that after.