Marisa Tomei is in her early 50s: I have to keep telling myself that as we speak. She exudes warmth and health, along with an ageless quality that makes her seem simultaneously stylish, sexy, and cute — not an easy combination to pull off, and one I’ve come to appreciate even more with age. For a generation of wiseass Brooklyn brunettes like myself, Tomei was a Hollywood anomaly, the rare breakthrough character actor who didn’t apologize for or abandon her New Yorkiness. And like many in her Gen-X cohort, she almost seems to thrive on being underestimated. After her 1993 Oscar for My Cousin Vinny became the object of controversy (a held that it had been awarded by mistake), Tomei went on to earn two more Oscar nominations, for In the Bedroom in 2002 and The Wrestler in 2009.
She’s had more than 80 credited roles in film, television, and theater; and like anybody who’s stayed steadily employed in show business for as long as she has, Tomei has industry secrets and crazy beauty routines, of course, but also wells of stamina. She works all the time, turning up in projects as varied as Spider-Man and The Handmaid’s Tale. This year she’s in two summer movies, The First Purge and Behold My Heart, and she’s about to start filming a movie with Isabelle Huppert. She’s also just sold a show in which she’ll play a “death doula,” a role she created with the playwright Amy Herzog, and which Plan B has just signed on to produce. “The character is flailing about in life trying to find her purpose, and lo and behold it’s to help people die,” Tomei says, pausing to laugh before continuing. “She’s able to zoom out and have a bird’s-eye view on this situation where things are ironic or very funny, as well as very moving.”
Funny and moving are right in Tomei’s wheelhouse. She laughs all the time, not because things are great, but precisely because they aren’t. As we spoke, I found myself wondering how many times over the years she’s used that laughter as a conversational peace offering — inviting people in, but also letting it surround her, like a force field.
Stella: I don’t want to talk about food, or what you’re wearing, or your beauty routine just yet — even though your hair is amazing and we’ll get to that in a minute. I want to go straight to the patriarchy.
Marisa: [Laughs] Oh my God, these are scary times!
They are! But there’s been some good changes to come out of it all.
Yes! One of the best things about this moment is that actresses are talking to each other. We’re so alone most of the time on a set — I cannot even tell you, with every cell of my body, how wonderful it is to be in communication with people I’ve admired all these years but never had a chance to get into this kind of stuff with. Just today I was able to reach out to someone to ask her advice about a negotiation. I never would have done that before!
Was there shame about talking to each other because you might discover that you were being treated worse than someone else?
Yeah. No one really wants to talk about money, it’s very taboo and you’ve got to respect those privacy lines.
Do you think that sex scandals and money scandals are tied together, in the sense that nobody wanted to air any of the dirtiness?
Yes. Both things are telling you that you’re not worth very much — that you’re disposable.
Why do you think the entertainment industry treats women like that?
Well, it’s probably economics. You’re gonna pay people who are just starting out a lot less, so try to get rid of the people who’ve been around and replace them with a cheaper, fresh face that probably saves time in make up [Laughs]. But also, when you’re older, you have more opinions. You’re more able to to speak up. You have experience and the experience does count for something — you’re worth something and you want to have a conversation about things, and it’s probably just a headache for some people.
So you think it has more to do with economics than anything else?
No, no, no. I think it has to do with internalized misogyny! [Laughs.] More than anything else. But I’m trying to break it down to what could maaaaybe be the justification, like, “Oh, it makes sense on paper.” But no, I think it’s absolutely just internalized misogyny. But even now, speaking to you about this, I feel vulnerable.
Vulnerable like if someone reads this they will think you’ve said too much? Stepped over a line?
I have all of these little negative voices, doubts, and it makes it — it’s my internalized misogyny — like, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Let’s talk about some of the work you’ve done. You’ve made a career of playing strong supporting roles that could have been main roles if a different person was writing, or if there were more of an emphasis on women’s stories.
Well, I never intended to get into only supporting roles … [Laughs] that wasn’t really my goal. My feeling was, all roles are great and it’s just what you want to do with it and whether you want to be part of a certain project or you feel like this would be a fun character to try on. Usually the “wing man” has a lot more interest, is funnier, has a lot more character. I want to know that person’s life and their insides.
What do you look for in a role?
Usually what the whole piece is talking about. Do I want to be part of The Handmaid’s Tale, for example — what’s the discussion around it? I’m still looking for those Barbara Stanwyck roles, which are very rare. I think it’s great that a lot of women are starting to create their own production companies and creating roles for themselves and for other women. I’m taking a swing at that now. We’ll see how that pans out.
Was that something you thought you might ever do or was this something that came up post-Weinstein?
It doesn’t have to do with Weinstein; it has to do with the business in general and what kind of material there is. Right after the Harvey stuff broke, I went to work with a male producer and I felt, actually, like my whole body relaxed because we joked about it. We were both like, “Oh, we’re not going to have to flirt.” Either of us. [Laughs.] Of course it’s fun to flirt sometimes, but it’s not the thing we have to lead with.
And it would have been before?
Yeah! I realized — and again, this is my internalized stuff — that I would go to the set and it might have taken a really long time to dance around and see where this person’s ego was. I didn’t know him, so I’d kind of suss it out before jumping in.
Did you and this person acknowledge this new shift or leave it unspoken?
We acknowledged it right away! We laughed about it.
Was this role particularly sexual?
No! Not at all.
Was this the first time in your life that you’ve had that experience?
No, it was just that it was so palpable. It made me able to check in on myself — like, OH MY GOSH, I’ve been carrying all this tension all these years! [Laughs.] And not just first-day jitters, it was a litany of specific things, specific female things that I was carrying.
Can we talk about your role in The Wrestler? I read that Darren Aronofsky told you he saw parallels between Mickey Rourke’s character, who’s a wrestler, and yours, who’s a stripper, in that they were both forced out of their jobs —
Due to their bodies.
Yes. And you had said, at the time, “That’s an actor’s story.”
And yet that was like ten years ago, and here you are, still making work. Do you revise that thought? Have you overcome that?
I think it was different at that time. I feel differently now. I think that the consciousness has changed. It might take time for all the people who are being hired at the agencies, at the studios, who are being given female directors and for their work to make it out into the culture and for people to be mentored … but I see it happening.
How do you think being from New York helped you navigate Hollywood?
It didn’t! [Laughs.] Well … maybe in terms of the subject of harassment … because when anything occurred in an overt way, hands on a shoulder or a leg or in the back of a car … I was always, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Just very … New York. [Laughs.]
Like a real Brooklyn “Ged-the-fuh-off-uh-me.”
Just a “broad.” A straight-up broad’s reaction. But the subtle things were really taxing. Thinking about things like, Is he really saying what he means? I remember when I first started auditioning I had these Betsey Johnson flower pants. And every time I wore them I got a job and I thought, Oh my God, they’re my lucky pants! And I look back and now I’m like, no, they were just tight and my ass looked good in them, I suppose. I was naïve. I wasn’t really a wise Brooklyn kid, in terms of Hollywood.
What were you thinking when the Harvey story broke? How did you hear about it?
I knew that it was coming, but not to the degree that it was coming. I had been interviewed for it because I had worked with Harvey when I was 21, and someone had seen me crying on the set. Word got back to the reporters, and they thought maybe they should talk to me.
You weren’t named in that article, though.
No, because I just told them, “I probably cried every day when I was 21.” I am sure it was just something else. But I did call some of my longtime girlfriends to ask, “Did something happen that I am actually not remembering right now?” Because I know I would have told them. And nothing overt did.
Did a lot of people ask you about it afterward? Like, if it happened to you? Was that one of the first conversations people wanted to have with you?
Yeah. But I was surprised because I thought people would be pretty concerned for me [laughs], but they weren’t. I’d have to bring it up and they’d be like, “Oh no, I figured you could take care of yourself.” [Laughs] It actually showed me something about myself, because that is not how I was feeling inside. I certainly was young — I needed help and I needed guidance and I was super vulnerable. But I guess I didn’t really seem that way. And I had to really own that, part of that’s true. I can take care of myself even though I can identify with these raw feelings.
Are you in therapy?
I’m not in therapy. Except for this right now with you [laughs].
Can we talk about your hair? Why don’t you have a hair contract?
[Laughs.] Yeah, why don’t I? I’ve only come to terms with my hair recently. I’ve always felt like it was just too much for me. It’s kind of like “babe” hair, and I was like, I’m just not a babe, I can’t work with this. I put olive oil in it to keep it healthy.
Olive oil? This is a very good secret.
Once a month I put it on — not exactly at the root, because it’s hard to get out when it’s really close to the root — and then shampoo it without wetting it; otherwise it’s really hard to get it out.
Any particular olive oil? Does it have to be organic?
I use organic — just because that’s what’s in my house. There’s no particular brand. You don’t have to use the extra virgin either. Scalp massages are really good too, if you can convince anyone to give you them.
I need to work on that.