Last month I had the opportunity to sit down with Marisa Tomei and talk about her latest film, The Wrestler. Tomei’s performance was awarded Best Actress by the San Francisco Critics Circle yesterday. The interview was conducted in a two person roundtable with Jeff Anderson.
/Film: I had one question, and I’m hoping it’s not a dumb one or one that you’ve been asked too many times, but say you’re in the middle of shooting The Wrestler, and you’re walking around and people are like “Hey Marisa, what are you working on right now?” What do you tell them? Do you tell them “I’m playing an exotic dancer,” and what kind of reaction does that get? Or do you say “I’m working with Darren Aronofsky.”
Marisa Tomei: It depends who it is. It depends who asks me. It depends what I want to tell them and what kind of reaction I want to elicit.
/Film: Because exotic dancer is a strange thing. There’s this sort of– there’s a lot of them. Some of them win Oscars and some of them– so I don’t know– there’s a weird connotation to that role before people see it, when you’re just working on the film before people know what the movie’s going to be.
Marisa Tomei: Oh, yeah, well what is the history? Do you mean like Julia Roberts or–
/Film: Do they conjure up Pretty Woman or Leaving Las Vegas, or do they conjure up something else?
Marisa Tomei: Right.
/Film: I guess the answer is it depends on who it is. If it’s somebody in high school that you didn’t like, you would tell them “I’m working with Darren Aronofsky.”
Marisa Tomei: <laughing> Exactly, which would really be impressive because we went to the same high school, so…
/Film: Really? Oh, I didn’t know that.
Marisa Tomei: Yeah. We’ve recently– I mean we realized it, but now we really embrace it.
/Film: But you didn’t know each other in high school.
Marisa Tomei: No, because he’s younger than me just by a few years, so he knew my brother and one of my good friends Dave Manalone was good friends with him.
/Film: So you only recently realized this?
Marisa Tomei: In our first meeting I was thinking “God, we really are understanding each other,” and it seems to be a nice rapport, and I was like “This is great, it’s so easy to talk to you.” He’s like “Yeah, because we’re both from Brooklyn, we are speaking the same language. I’m not scared of you. You’re not scared of me. The Brooklyn edge is not freaking each other out. We’re used to it.” <laughing>
/Film: Why did you take the project? Was it the material that fascinated you, or was it working with Darren?
Marisa Tomei: With Darren, yeah. It’s clear. It’s Mickey’s movie so hey, it’s great to be in it, but it’s definitely more that I wanted to work with Darren.
/Film: You’ve been following his career since…
Marisa Tomei: Well, I thought Requiem was fantastic, and–
/Film: Did you like The Fountain? You have to see it a couple times.
Marisa Tomei: Yeah, if you see it a couple times and I liked the ideas, and I love his mind and I love what he’s striving for and his depth, and so it was that I wanted to work with Darren and it was– it’s– I wasn’t going to ever resist working with him even though it was a challenging part to take on, and there aren’t many great things around so it’s pretty clear to say “Yeah, I want to do that.”
/Film: I can vouch for that.
Marisa Tomei: Yeah, you guys probably suffer as much as any actor, because you have to actually watch the crappy ones.
/Film: I’ve seen almost 230 movies this year so far which is low, and I think maybe eight of them were great.
Marisa Tomei: That’s really interesting. I think about that a lot, because in making decisions or, you know, praying for better parts I’m like “Well how many really are there? What are the odds?”
/Film: Did the writers’ strike affect this at all?
Marisa Tomei: The writers’ strike really affected this.
/Film: It’s a year ago so now so now’s the time when it’s catching up.
Marisa Tomei: It’s not because the actors’ strike still has loomed for the last five months, and the looming strike has still made them hold back, and also the power struggle, so the studio is saying “Well we don’t care if you strike,” or, you know, “We’re not– We’re still– We’re just not going to make– We don’t know what’s going to happen so we’re holding back,” and now I just got something in the mail saying that they’re going to– that SAG wants to strike and they’re going to send us our ballots to see if we’re going to authorize a strike or not, so it’s been almost two years of a very kind of– I don’t know.
/Film: It seems like nobody’s job is secure these days. You have no idea if you’re going to work tomorrow or not.
Marisa Tomei: Yeah, well I’m used to that, so that’s nothing new for an actor.
/Film: What did the screenplay read like when you got it?
Marisa Tomei: It read pretty much how I read it.
/Film: It has that realism quality to it.
Marisa Tomei: It did, yeah. It had a lot of detail and it had a lot of the behind the scenes detailed world of the wrestling or the stuff like getting his hair dyed and picking out certain things that he would use in the ring. Those details were in the script. He may have improvised with what they had in the the 99 cents store, but still the scene was written and the details were there; it was very evocative.
/Film: What about with you? Were the tattoos in the script?
Marisa Tomei: No.
/Film: So that was your choice to do all that stuff?
Marisa Tomei: Yeah. We talked about it and he said, you know, “I want to see you more hardcore and I haven’t seen that.” Maybe it came out of the Brooklyn thing. So I just looked at a lot of different tattoos and made them from different point– you know, chose ones and brought them into the tattoo fabricator to say this would be from different times in my life, so you know, they all have different styles. Tattoos have gone through a lot of different styles. I have old ones and new ones.
/Film: And some of them have to be a little bit more faded.
Marisa Tomei: Yeah, so that was really fun because it helped to build the character history too.
/Film: What about the great outfit you were wearing at the 99 cents store?
Marisa Tomei: <laughing> You mean my cap and those boots? Oh my God, I was so excited when I found those. I was like “Mukluks, she has to have mukluks.” The costuming was really really really fun, really fun.
/Film: Did you get to work on that a lot?
Marisa Tomei: I worked on it a lot. I always work on it a lot, I mean if I’m allowed to, and I enjoy it because it’s a tangible way to get you in the zone, get you in the history of the character, and for her of course it’s just going to be such a big statement of who she is. And I had to try to decide what kind of stripper was she, and also I had to coordinate it with my moves. There were certain things that were required in the scene. He had to put money in at a certain point, so I knew that I couldn’t be wearing boy shorts. It had to be a certain g-string because he had to do that action of the money, and I knew that I didn’t want to be stuck having a scene with him completely topless, so it had to be a certain point in the music where I still had whatever bra on, or maybe I had to have all my layers right. It was a lot more complicated. It was a little bit of a Rubik’s cube with the costuming, and then of course you want to pick the things that reflect her and that are flattering, so you have all these– it was challenging, but really fun. It was really fun. I never really was a big lingerie girl and I like got to have all of that brought to my house.
/Film: How big of a production was this? Was it pretty low budget?
Marisa Tomei: Really low budget, yeah, but we had a great team. People were really dedicated.
/Film: And what was it like to work with Mickey Rourke?
Marisa Tomei: I hope people ask him that about me. That’s what I always think. They always ask you, “What was it like to work with blah, blah, blah, Mr. big male star.” <laughing> Do they ask about–
/Film: I totally would have asked him.
Marisa Tomei: You would? Okay, cool.
/Film: I interviewed Tom Wilkinson when In The Bedroom came out and I’m pretty sure I asked him about you, and he had good things to say. But is he like a teddy bear or is he freaky?
Marisa Tomei: He’s like a freaky teddy bear. He’s definitely an eccentric. I mean, I love eccentric people. I adore him. He’s very, very sensitive, he’s vulnerable, he’s funny, he’s street wise, he uses his sexuality, he uses his machismo, he, you know, he’s an artist. He’s an artist to the core.
/Film: You know what I love about him is a lot of actors today try to have this sort of wounded, brooding look to them and it’s all sort of put on. He’s got it for real. He’s really wounded.
Marisa Tomei: He’s incredible.
/Film: What I loved about this movie is that both you and him have these really freaky characters that are actually– they seem to live between the cuts of the scenes, like between the margins of the movie, they’re alive when the camera’s not on. They’re that alive.
Marisa Tomei: Wow, that’s really cool.
/Film: And they both have jobs that kind of like are stuck in the 1980s.
Marisa Tomei: Yeah <laughing>.
/Film: Could you talk a little about that? It’s almost like their time is up and they’re still there.
Marisa Tomei: Well, it’s like that was their peak. That was their best time so, you know, they just kind of stayed with that. Like their hair was the best at that time. They decided to just keep that or, you know, the memories are the best for them. They felt most alive or most powerful at that time, so they froze it to a degree there.
/Film: Yeah, I love that. There was a line about Kurt Cobain and he says “He took all the fun out of it.”
Marisa Tomei: Yeah <laughing>
/Film: It’s like, well I love Kurt Cobain but that’s a good point. It’s not as much fun as Van Halen.
Marisa Tomei: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, they were party people having a great time. Some eras just really speak to certain people. For me I really didn’t like the’80s and part of was that reason. I thought it was like a little bit shallow of a time to live in, and I found it a little bit soulless, but it was a hell of a time just if you wanted to get your party on.
/Film: That’s true, probably the last time you could do that. What was it like being directed by Darren? What was the process like?
Marisa Tomei: He was really– he’s very detail oriented, very meticulous and involved in every aspect. His goal with this film was to be actor-centric more than like in The Fountain, technical-centric, and so that was great because he was very accessible and just there, open all the time and it was kind of just fast and furious; just show up. He likes to do a lot of takes. That was something I only had been asked that one other time by– in What Women Want. Nancy Meyers likes to do a lot of takes, so I had done it before, but it is really challenging. You have to dig really down– Okay, I feel that I have explored and emotionally kind of the well is starting to dry up and you have to like go deeper to get– to bring that water up again, so that’s a great thing, what he is going to keep demanding of you.
/Film: How many takes is a lot of takes?
Marisa Tomei: 30 is a lot of takes. And even just the dance alone was 26 takes and that’s like two minutes of dancing on a pole. That’s really a lot. And that was not one day, that was part of a day. It was a very, very physically challenging shoot.
/Film: Is there a lot of rehearsal in this, and do you like rehearsals a lot?
Marisa Tomei: I don’t really like rehearsing on film, I mean with film. I prefer to just…
/Film: Try to just get the moment?
Marisa Tomei: Yeah, and also kind of just go with the instinct and then get the feedback after. Because if you rehearse then you start talking about it, and it moves from something kind of mysterious and unnamable to like being overly articulated and thought out. Not that there isn’t craft to it but there is– but part of the craft is keeping your mind out of it.
/Film: I thought you were so great in What Women Want by the way.
Marisa Tomei: Thank you.
/Film: Really you were just like “Wow.”
Marisa Tomei: Thank you. She’s doing another movie now. I hope to be in it. We’ll see.
/Film: And you’re great in this film. I really enjoyed it.
Marisa Tomei: Thanks, I appreciate that.