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7 Questions with Marisa Tomei

(Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images North America)


When Marisa Tomei won an Oscar for My Cousin Vinny in 1992, she could have embarked on a Meg Ryan-ish career of cute romantic comedies with the occasional big-budget drama mixed in to keep her Oscar cred in place. Instead, she's went down another path, picking up credits in left-of-field entries like 1997's war film Welcome to Sarajevo, the indie comedy The Slums of Beverly Hills, and art-house revenge drama In the Bedroom (for which she picked up her second Oscar nomination).

In The Wrestler, she plays Cassidy, a stripper who befriends an aging pro-wrestler, Randy "The Ram" Robertson, played by Mickey Rourke. Like Randy, Cassidy's body is starting to betray her, and the two strike up a guarded friendship that Cassidy is reluctant to let turn into anything more. We talked to Tomei about preparing for the role, what she looks for in characters, and whether winning an Oscar is a blessing or a curse.

Zimbio: You've played a lot of strong female characters who encourage weaker men to really change their lives in some way. You really push that here with Mickey Rourke with this role. What was your driving force with this character?
Marisa Tomei: It was written into the script that their lives are very parallel. What they do for a living involves their bodies, but their bodies are getting older. They still love what they do, but they're being pushed out by the business that they've spent their lives dedicated to. Because she's a mother, she's more disciplined in trying to reinvent herself. He's not able to break out of this one way of his being. She might be a few steps ahead of him, but trying to help him, being touched by his story, it saves her as well. Sometimes [director] Darren [Aronofsky] says she's a mentor character, but I see it more like comrades. Like two people in the battlefield and one's picking up the other one who's like wounded and being like, "Okay, we're gonna try to get out of this foxhole."

It's really difficult to do the tricks on the pole. I got very black and blue and pulled a few muscles.

Zimbio: Mickey Rourke had extensive training for his role, but did you have to do training yourself for this movie?
Marisa Tomei: Oh yeah, physically it was really quite a work out. It's really difficult to do the tricks on the pole and things like that. I practiced a lot. I got very black and blue and pulled a few muscles.

Zimbio: You went and talked to people who stripped for a living. What surprised you when went and talked to them?
Marisa Tomei: There are a percentage that are quite artistic. They're really just outsiders and making a living in a way that suits them. It's not a broke-down desperation but a choice that allows them to live more freely within the rest of their lives. In the movie you don't really see it, but there's a lot black-and-white photography on my character's wall, and that was something I was interested in, the parts of her that are more free-spirited. Most of them have been abused at some point, and wind up to connecting to this life because of that and their history. But there's a way of using it to transform their lives, like art does, and that was surprising to me.

Zimbio: When you play a role like this, what is it that you're looking for in a character that helps inform your performance?
Marisa Tomei: I guess it's some sort of connection to the themes of the piece. I'm definitely very thematically driven. I like to be able to plug into the greater idea of the film or the play, and this was about transitions, getting older, reinvention. That little spark is the spark that makes me excited and inspired to want to help serve that message.

Zimbio: During the Q&A at the screening, you mentioned that you and Mickey Rourke hadn't rehearsed. What did that allow you to do when you came to the screening?
Marisa Tomei: I didn't really want to rehearse this, and in general for films I don't like to rehearse. I think the freshness out of the gate is kind of interesting. I feel like the freshest stuff, the interesting stuff, is gonna be in the beginning. You don't know what the other person is gonna do, and all your antenna are just sharper. That's how I prefer to do it.

Zimbio: Of all the roles you have played, is there one performance or one character that really speaks to you on a personal level?
Marisa Tomei: Hopefully every one of them does. In Salome, this was on the stage, but that was a really significant part for me. I learned so much about Biblical times, and lot of dancing from that play I tuned into for this part, and I took it another step further. In that play she does the Dance of the Seven Veils. I didn't even know where to begin with that. So there was a process of getting into really female-based fertility dances and using creative sexual energy and what that might have been for Salome in relation to King Herod. So I had that foundation to take that into this stripping, which is the most bastardized form of sacred dance.

Zimbio: Is winning an Oscar a blessing or a curse? Some performers say that there are great things about it, and some say it actually has stagnated their career.
Marisa Tomei: Well, I always say that I didn't really have a movie career until then. My Cousin Vinny was my second film, so I have everything to owe to that jump starting me in a big way. It definitely comes down on the side of blessing. I'll say that it was kind of overwhelming. I didn't know anything about Hollywood politics. More importantly, I didn't have a vision for myself. I was still in the phase of acting where I like, "Just give me a job and let me do my best." I didn't even have like, "These are the directors I want to work with." I knew I worshiped Scorsese, but who doesn't? So it was a kind of naiveté that I think was a good thing to have, but also overwhelming on a lot of levels. Just simple things, like being away from home for long periods of time, which I wasn't used to. Going to fancy parties and things like that, I wasn't used to. Just take it on the level on social anxiety. I show up and I can't blend in, because people are talking to me, because I've been so lucky to have this acknowledgment.  And then there was the whole "It was a mistake" rumor. The great thing is it was just out of my hands. It's certainly a high-class problem. It definitely comes down on the side of blessing.


Watch a trailer for The Wrestler:

Read our interview with Mickey Rourke
Read our interview with director Darren Aronofsky

Read our review of The Wrestler

View Marisa Tomei Pictures »
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