Marisa Tomei built her career turning the characters audiences are most likely to overlook into the characters who are impossible to ignore. A single mother trapped in an abusive relationship. A cash-strapped exotic dancer struggling to quit the trade. Brooklyn’s foremost expert in automotive knowledge and tire tracks. And those are just the parts that have earned Tomei Oscar nominations. “Usually you get a blueprint, particularly with female roles, and you fill it in,” Tomei says matter-of-factly. “You fill it in as much as you can so that it’s a full-dimensional person.”
Tomei had a somewhat different prospect before her playing the mother of Pete Davidson in The King of Staten Island, a semi-autobiographical account of the Saturday Night Live performer’s young adulthood in New York City’s least popular borough. “I did have to call Amy Davidson and ask her on multiple occasions how she managed to stay so patient,” laughs Tomei on the phone from Los Angeles. “What? Why is this okay with you? And why was this okay with you? I could not wrap my head around how patient she is, but she’s a very different person than I am.”
Bill Burr and Marisa Tomei in The King of Staten Island.Mary Cybulski / Universal Pictures
In a surprisingly chic Long Island mullet, Tomei makes her character's exhaustion look effortless. Margie is a widowed ER nurse whose firefighter husband died in the line of duty. Her youngest daughter (Maude Apatow) is leaving for college while her 24-year-old son played by Davidson—“her grown-ass adult son,” Tomei elaborates—still lives in her basement getting high with his friends all day.
Comedies centered on young men rarely incorporate maternal characters in such an integral way. But Davidson and Apatow always saw the semi-autobiographical comedy as much as a story about a mother deciding when it was okay for her to start living her own life again, as a story about a kid dealing with the loss of his father. Tomei is so charming in the role that she ends up stealing the show from its very own King. “I wanted her to do whatever she wanted because she’s amazing and brings so much to the table,” Davidson shared via email. “She was our first and only choice so thank god she said yes.”
Pete Davidson and Marisa Tomei in The King of Staten Island.Mary Cybulski / Universal Pictures
Tomei entered the project with her own impressions of the story and it's attention-grabbing star. “I don’t think anyone could escape Big Dick Energy,” she says referring to the elusive, Internet-coined term Davidson best embodies. “That was definitely kind of a thing, right?” The actor also knew Davidson from SNL as well as his offscreen exploits chronicled by TMZ. But she met a much more “vulnerable” and “big-hearted” individual during the two-week rehearsal period. “He's not a morning person so he was just monosyllabic and didn’t wanna speak to anybody, which I respect,” she laughs. “I'm not a morning person either so we just hung out in our half-grumpy, half-sleepy ways and it just developed into this easy thing.”
“Marisa is very serious about the work. It was very inspiring for Pete to see that level of focus and care,” Apatow told Vogue via e-mail. “She was always looking out for him and making sure he was comfortable with some very tough material.”
Apatow has always enjoyed bridging the gap between adolescent raunch and grown-up emotion in his work, and The King of Staten Island is no exception, combining a running joke featuring grotesque stick-and-poke tattoos with quieter moments like Margie’s teary-eyed goodbye to her college-bound daughter. “Comedy loosens you up for the other feelings, and then these other feelings will occasionally let you get a belly laugh in,” says Tomei. “Watching Pete go through his journey allows us to find ourselves and relate to that experience.”A DIFFERENT WORLD, (from left): Lisa Bonet, Dawnn Lewis, Marisa Tomei, (Season 1), 1987-93. Photo: ©Carsey-Werner Co/Courtesy Everett Collection
As an Italian-American Brooklynite raised by an English teacher mother, Tomei’s version of growing up in New York looked very different from Davidson’s. She started working at 19 when she booked her first acting gig through a newspaper ad. Rising to prominence as Lisa Bonet’s roommate on the hit sitcom A Different World, Tomei spent her twenties in the East Village during the grit-and-glitter late-eighties. Her first—and to this day, favorite—apartment on Avenue B overlooked Tompkins Square Park.
“I was going to The World”—an early incubator of New York club culture frequented by everyone from Madonna to Keith Haring to Prince—"three nights a week because I could just walk down the street and pop in,” Tomei laughs. “I had a focus, an apartment with roommates, and a vision for a life that I was actually living.”Marisa Tomei, in My Cousin Vinny, 1992Photo: ©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection
Her hard work paid off early. Tomei was dangerously closer to turning down Mona Lisa Vito, the gum-smacking, fast-tawkin' fiancée of Joe Pesci’s titular lawyer in My Cousin Vinny. Traces of Tomei’s comedic brilliance in the role can still be found in the DNA of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn or Jennifer Lawrence’s Long Island housewife from American Hustle. Lady Gaga—a fellow wise-cracking Italian from New York who idolized Vito—has even gone on the record saying she wants Tomei to play her in a biopic.
My Cousin Vinny was one of the most unexpected hits of the early ‘90s and a star-making vehicle for Tomei that drove her all the way to the Oscars. Nominated alongside Dame Joan Plowright and Vanessa Redgrave—who many viewed as the frontrunner—in the Best Supporting Actress category, Tomei was happy just to be considered. “I was over the moon,” she recalls. “But I also wasn't really conscious of what the hell was happening.” Presenter Jack Palance even made a crack at Tomei’s newcomer status moments before announcing she’d won: “This is one of the few times in the history of the Academy Awards that five foreign actresses were up for the same award—four English and one from Brooklyn.”Marisa Tomei holds her Oscar. She won the Best Supporting Actress award for her role in the 1992 film My Cousin Vinny. Photo: Steven D Starr, Corbis via Getty Images
Making such a mark so early in one’s career can be liberating in one sense and damning in another. Audiences hadn’t gotten to know Tomei very well by the time she was seared into their minds as Mona Lisa, and she immediately felt the need to prove that she was more than an Italian-American princess. “The fact that I did comedy was a big knock on me because people thought it was all I could do,” she says. It wasn’t until her second nomination a decade later for In the Bedroom that Tomei felt she’d finally defied the critics who questioned her post-Oscar potential.
Tomei’s early drive to prove herself is in retrospect exactly what’s helped her emerge as one of the most durable performers of her generation. “There is rhyme and reason to my decisions, but I can't plot exactly how I would’ve wanted anything to go because I haven't been in that position,” she says. “Some parts are lucky breaks and some of them are long shots but you’ve just gotta play because it’s a give and take.”Marisa Tomei and Nick Stahl in In the Bedroom, 2001Photo: ©Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection
Tomei’s resume has come to mirror the idiosyncratic careers of the women she’s always admired, the Gena Rowlands and Jill Clayburghs. She can bring a human touch to massive Marvel blockbusters then slip into an off-beat indie just as seamlessly. You’re never quite sure where Tomei might turn up next—in 2019 alone she appeared in five films, a revival of Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo, and a live, one-night recreation of the classic sitcom All in the Family.
With The King of Staten Island out now and a Netflix thriller slated for 2021, Tomei is in no rush to jump into a new project anytime soon. Our conversation coincided with her move into a new apartment in L.A., where she’s been based since wrapping up The Rose Tattoo’s three-month run on Broadway in December. “The grind-versus-joy ratio was starting to really go in favor of the grind,” she says. “No matter what job you’re in, you’ve got to move fast. I’m lucky to be able to find time to just center without all the hyper-capitalist pushing that says produce, produce, produce.”Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler, 2008Photo: ©Fox Searchlight/Courtesy Everett Collection
That’s not to say her thoughts haven’t drifted towards what comes next. Tomei is a big film noir buff and would love to tackle a classic femme fatale role. Her dream is to play the Italian stage actress Eleonora Duse in a story about the famous nineteenth-century rivalry between her and French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Maybe even dip into screwball comedy if the genre ever makes a comeback.
“I like a real broad, and I also love when a character is incredibly smart and clever but you’ve completely underestimated them,” she says. “What’s the name for that kind of character? There must be some commedia dell'arte for that type of woman I’m just not remembering.”
If there isn’t already, let’s just go ahead and call her Marisa Tomei.