Marisa Tomei is the quintessential movie star, with an Academy Award for her 1992 performance in “My Cousin Vinny” and two more Oscar nominations for “In the Bedroom” (2001) and “The Wrestler” (2008). She has had hysterical cinematic bedroom romps with Mel Gibson (“What Women Want”) and Steve Carell (“Crazy Stupid Love”). And even Lady Gaga has been quoted as saying she would want Tomei to play her in the movie version of her life. But Tomei is, in many respects, also a quintessential theater geek—and an awfully accomplished one at that. The Brooklyn native has been a founding member of the downtown theater troupe Naked Angels since 1986 and has critically acclaimed Broadway leads in “Wait Until Dark,” “Salome”, and a 2008 production of Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls” on her resume. This spring, the 49 year-old actress is back on the floorboards in playwright Will Eno’s Broadway debut, “The Realistic Joneses,” opening at the Lyceum Theatre on April 6th. The play follows two sets of neighbors with the same surname—Jennifer and Bob (Toni Collette and Tracy Letts) and John and Pony (Michael C. Hall and Tomei)—as their lives become profoundly intertwined. Here, Tomei chats about her latest role.
So the play has Jennifer and John and…and then there’s you, Pony. Your name stands out.
It’s the best character name ever.
What was your first reaction when you read your character’s name was Pony?
It was just pure delight. Even without reading it, I had to do it. A character named Pony!
How would describe her now that you’re deep into the play?
Someone who has put a lot of her pain in a box and managed to get through life with the help of a loving husband and by not really facing her fears directly, just deciding that the painful part of her life is over and the rest is going to be sunny, by hook or crook. And through the course of the play, she’s quite courageous. She really steps into the next phase of her growth. And we’re all Pony’s, at one point. We’re all going to grow up and get to the next level of maturity and wisdom.
The brilliance of the writing is that the lines seem so prosaic, but then when you deliver them, they have a hidden, double meaning.
And that’s why I think the play is so magical: the laughter is working on a banal level but there’s this other portion that’s kind of doing its medicine on you.
I’d read that musical theater was the reason you wanted to become an actress.
Well, A Chorus Line anyway. That was one of the sparks. In the summertime there was a lot of political community theater that I was exposed to, so that had a huge influence on me.
Was this in Brooklyn?
That was in the summers in a place Upstate called Goldens Bridge. It was a little like the movie A Walk on the Moon. It was kind of an unusual upbringing: Flatbush in the winter and a kind of utopian collective in the summer. And my parents truly loved the theater. They brought me to a lot of plays and A Chorus Line was something that we saw many times together. And probably seeing how happy it made them had an influence on me. Being in a musical is still on my bucket list, but it would have to be something quite specific because I’m not a Broadway voice.
Something to look forward to…
Yeah, another reason to terrify myself. Like, Why did I decide to do this?!
Were you terrified when you decided to do this play?
It is very scary. We had a short rehearsal process and that’s scary because you’re still trying out different moments and trying to find the character in front of other people—performing and rehearsing at the same time.
You released a hula hoop workout DVD in 2010. Do you still do it on a regular basis?
I don’t do anything on a regular basis, but yes, I still hoop. I have it in my dressing room. It’s a great way to warm up, open up.
Have you taught your cast mates?
No, I don’t think they know I have one in there!
You recently said that you only want to do comedy from now on. Why?
I like the rhythm and the possibility of making people laugh. Comedy is really hard, but I just like it better. I don’t really think I’m good at serious things. I fret a lot more about that. Maybe that’s not true. I probably fret about everything.