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“I was born in the wrong time,” declares Marisa Tomei as she curls up on a sofa in the Regency Hotel. Dressed in a loose cream blouse, black pants and long dangling necklaces, her Lanvin flats abandoned on the floor, she looks every bit the part of fresh-faced, modern actress. But if Tomei had her way, she’d be playing Forties, fast-talking, sexy broads, the likes of which she never seems to find in her script options.
Her role in Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” out Friday, doesn’t do much to remedy this cinematic dearth. But it certainly continues to demonstrate the dramatic chops Tomei so deftly earned in 2001’s “In the Bedroom” (for which she garnered a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination). In Lumet’s film, Tomei plays Gina, the coddled wife of Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the lover of his brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke). Both siblings find themselves in dire financial straits, so Andy hatches a plan to rob a suburban mom-and-pop jewelry store. The catch? It belongs to their Mom and Pop (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney). Things go woefully awry and the consequences unfold like the most brutal of Aeschylean plays.
Of all the miserable characters — and there are few smiles to be had in “Before the Devil…” — Tomei’s Gina seems most likely to emerge unscathed. Perhaps it’s because her expectations are rather low.
“I think that it was her life’s goal in some ways to not have to think for herself and just have someone else make all the decisions for her,” muses Tomei. “Her kind of basic approach to life is just survival mode…how can she feel good in the next five minutes? How can she feel good through the next day? She’s still a complex person inside, but she’s not someone who knows herself.”
Tomei can sympathize with the latter sentiment. The actress famously won an Oscar at 28 for her supporting role in “My Cousin Vinny,” beating out revered industry vets like Vanessa Redgrave and Miranda Richardson. The aftermath (including speculation that presenter Jack Palance had accidentally read out the wrong name) was less than glamorous.
“There definitely was a lot to adjust to. I just really didn’t know that much about Hollywood. I didn’t really know about the politics of it. I didn’t really know much about myself, I guess,” she says of earning her golden statuette so early on. “I was always really scared of Hollywood and I didn’t like that it made me uncomfortable.”
She has since overcome such fears. Brooklyn-raised and a onetime bicoastal dweller, Tomei, 42, now lives in Los Angeles, though she retains her apartment in Manhattan.
As for the inevitable question of impending kids or marriage, the actress becomes noticeably uncomfortable, shifting her position. She had once remarked on a desire for such domesticity, an admission she has forgotten (“My mother might be putting that out,” she says ruefully).
“I feel very awkward, like some kind of weird social pariah for not having the conventional counterpart to the unconventional artistic life that I lead,” says Tomei.
Fortunately, the unconventional opportunities continue. She recently shot the comedy “War, Inc.” with John Cusack and has just begun rehearsals for Will Eno’s “Oh the Humanity and Other Good Intentions,” which starts previews at the Flea Theater Nov. 3. The roles may not be those beloved Forties broads, but at least Tomei’s furrows get a break.
“I really don’t like my face in a serious repose,” she giggles.