Marisa Tomei doesn’t want moviegoers to get the wrong idea. Sure, just more than a year ago she memorably opened Sidney Lumet’s dark tale of brotherly loathing, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, in coitus with on-screen husband Philip Seymour Hoffman and spent much of the film in various states of undress. And, yes, in her new film, The Wrestler, directed by Darren Aronofsky, her first scene has her giving Mickey Rourke a lap dance. But really, Tomei insists, she didn’t plan on any of this.
“It just happened and I was like, well, I guess it’s now or never—I really want to work with these directors,” she says of her back-to-back in-the-buff performances. “After I did the Lumet film, I wasn’t intending to do anything like that again, and certainly not sequentially. I was worried about how it was going to be received. Like, ‘Who does she think she is? Why is she doing this? What is happening to this person?’”
It would appear that what is happening to Tomei’s career, at least, is something of a new high. In addition to the Lumet drama, the past year has held a string of meaty projects including Will Eno’s Oh the Humanity and Other Good Things at New York’s Flea Theater, a Broadway revival of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls and the political satire War, Inc.
In The Wrestler, Tomei, 43, gets to sink her teeth into yet another fulfilling role. The film, which is slated for a December release and is already generating Oscar buzz, stars Rourke as an aging professional wrestler. His character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, was once the subject of late-Eighties stardom and is now resigned to grim live performances and a solitary Groundhog’s Day–esque existence in a New Jersey trailer park. Tomei plays Cassidy, a stripper who is also dealing with the implications of a profession that takes its physical toll. When Randy’s health suffers, the two find themselves drawn to each other.
Considering Cassidy’s livelihood, it’s not surprising that the actress’ early discussions with Aronofsky were very specific.
“We started really talking in earnest about, OK, what do you really mean when you say ‘striptease?’” says Tomei, who admits she was hesitant to say yes. “I definitely felt like, do I really want to go there and expose myself that way?”
But Aronofsky was persistent—so much so that he gave her an ultimatum.
“He said, ‘Text me tomorrow, and if you’re gonna do it, text me: Rock ‘n’ roll. If you’re not gonna do it, you might as well text me: Easy listening,’” she recalls.
“I’ve been a big fan for a long time,”explains Aronofsky of his dogged pursuit. “She’s got incredible range and complexity and she’s got a sweetness, but it’s surrounded by so many colors and flavors. She was not only a profound performer, but also a sexy performer. The role could have very easily been cliché.”
Not one to be likened to elevator music, Tomei accepted the challenge and began her research with pole-dancing lessons from a “masseuse-yogini” friend who teaches in Los Angeles and visiting clubs.
“Believe me, a lot of people wanted to come with me—I wasn’t lacking for company during that time,” laughs Tomei, who did all her own stunts, including a moment when she hangs upside down by her legs.
Her on-set preparation was equally integral to her transformation: She donned prosthetic nipple rings and underwent an intense makeup process to appear covered in tattoos. She also used the opportunity to explore a world she admittedly never found all that compelling.
“I thought that [stripping] wasn’t very sensual or erotic, like really coming from inside someone’s being. I thought it was all performance and shallow. It wasn’t a realm of sexuality that I was drawn to. And so I wanted to try to find something for myself that would explore deeper aspects of that, just for my own personal pleasure,” she says. “There’s a lot of really creative women who do it for a living, people who are artists and they’re very expressive, kind of free spirits. I’m not saying that they’re healthy and whole and integrated, but they have that urge.”
If it seems that Tomei is accepting gutsier, more demanding roles, it is not a product of, say, experience, or even boredom. “It’s come with desperation—I f—–g need a job!” exclaims the actress. “I feel up for the challenge. I’m ready to go.”
Indeed, it was 15 years ago that the Brooklyn native picked up a best supporting actress Oscar for her fast-talking auto-mechanic whiz in My Cousin Vinny, beating out the likes of Vanessa Redgrave. It was an achievement that was followed by an uneven slew of films that didn’t always do justice to Tomei’s comedic or dramatic talents. She received another Oscar nod in 2002 for her dramatic performance in In the Bedroom. She also has found success on the stage and tries to do at least one theater piece a year.
Though she has no projects slated for the immediate future, it’s safe to say that Tomei has picked up some new wisdom from her recent turns in both Before the Devil and The Wrestler.
“I thought people wouldn’t take me very seriously [if I was nude]. I just felt, for a young actress, I didn’t think that was the way to get serious roles,” she says, pausing for comedic effect. “But apparently I was wrong.”