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The Last Word: Marisa Tomei on Nude Scenes, Playing Moms, and the Tao of ‘Spider-Man’

We all need our moms sometimes, even legendary, Academy Award-winning, forever-crush-worthy actors. It’s been 30 years since Marisa Tomei took home a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in My Cousin Vinny, and now she has no idea where the little gold guy is. But she knows someone who might. “I put money on it being at my mom’s, but the thing is, I actually haven’t seen it at her house,” she says over Zoom, smiling in her sleek aviator-style eyeglasses (which are prescription, by the way). “Glad you brought it up. Let me send a quick text.”

A few minutes later she gets a response from Mom — and laughs reading it out loud: “‘I just saw him yesterday, moved him to the closet.’ I didn’t know she was on a friendly basis!”

For our March “Icons & Influences” issue, Tomei spoke about the anniversary of My Cousin Vinny, the healing powers of Spider-Man, nude scenes, and more.

Why do you think this latest Spider-Man movie has been so insanely popular?
It’s a cathartic film because there’s so much about healing in it. And it’s caught this moment in time: How can we reweave ourselves? I guess that was a spider pun, not even intended [laughs]. But that is the essence of it — taking those kinds of franchises from a mindset of “us and them” to a concept of healing. That’s all super-subliminal, but I do think that’s resonating.

The biggest secret in the lead-up to the movie was the return of Tobey McGuire and Andrew Garfield. How hard was it to keep quiet?
It’s an exercise in boundaries, which I welcome. Because you really have to say to people, “I really can’t tell you, and you can’t ask me.” But it’s a good tease, too. It’s a fun little nugget.

My Cousin Vinny turns 30 this month. If you’re flipping the channels and you see it’s on TV, do you watch it?
I have actually never caught it. I guess I’m on the wrong channel. But I do have some of my older aunties who tell me, “It was on! I hope you’re getting your residuals!”

When was the last time you watched it?
Probably 30 years ago.

Did winning the Oscar change your life?
Well, I got to work. I got to work in films after knocking at the door for what felt like an eternity for the first half of my twenties.

My favorite movie of yours will always be Only You, the 1994 rom-com where you traipse around Italy with Robert Downey, Jr. Is Hollywood even making midmarket movies like that anymore?
I don’t think so. Not that I see. Sometimes I think it’s been all downhill from there [for] me [laughs]. Because I was living in Positano! Doing a romantic comedy with one of the great directors! But yeah, I see articles from time to time that say the genre’s coming back, and character-based comedies and romances are coming back. But I don’t see it as much. We’re all going to need it after this [pandemic], though.

People really have to unlearn all of these romance films, thinking that in life we all need to find our Damon Bradley. It’s thankfully not like that now.
That’s a positive. But still, companionship and soul-mate-ship and high adventure is always on the menu, isn’t it?

What challenges did you face early in your career that actresses don’t have to face now?
I feel for a lot of actors now, because there’s cameras. Everyone has a cell phone, so you can be as mischievous, but you have to be aware that you might get caught. So it’s a little bit of a reverse on that. I’m glad that was not around when I was younger.

It really would’ve sucked if you had Instagram when you were 20.
No. No. No. I would’ve made a fool of myself many times over.

What advice do you wish you could give your younger self?
Meditate more. The pandemic certainly brought up my percentages. . . . It puts me more in touch with my heart. Time — the urgency and the grind — becomes less the thing that’s pushing me.

How did you first get into it?
Even when I was a little girl, one of my best friend’s mom was into TM [transcendental meditation], and she would always have to say, like, “No one can bother me!” And she’d go into her own room, lock the door, and for an hour, the kids [were] able to run around the house. And then we’d have to try to be quiet, but [we’d] basically wreak havoc. But it was always very mysterious to me what was going on. “What is Shirley doing behind that door?” She was really the first person I knew who was a dedicated, daily meditator.

Do you think there’s been real progress in Hollywood for women?
It’s certainly shifting. I get inspired when I see Fran McDormand, Jean Smart, Reese Witherspoon and people changing the rules [about] our time limit that we were supposed to have before.

You received a lot of praise later in your ­career for Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and The Wrestler, films where you appeared nude. Did you feel like a sex symbol?
No. When I did The Wrestler, I was like, “What the hell am I doing?” When I was younger, I thought, “No, don’t.” . . . It really was something to stay away from if you wanted to show that you were a serious actress. And then [The Wrestler] came around at the age of, what was I, 43? And I thought, “Now? Really, now?” But I had my legs under me and I thought I would be more able to handle something like that. Although, ­physically, I was terrified. But then I was pleasantly surprised to find that the old bod was still there and I was up to it. Doing it later in life, it was the opposite of when you do it younger, because it brings a certain kind of cred in a way. It was an interesting reaction.

You signed on to play Gloria Steinem in an HBO miniseries in 2015. What happened to that?
I want that! Gloria and I pitched it together, and George Clooney was involved. We really wanted to see that happen. I would [still] love for it to happen. I would die. It would be my greatest honor.

Who are your heroes?
I’m thinking a lot about [Buddhist monk] Thích Nhất Hạnh, because he just passed away. And in an interesting juxtaposition, I have his [self-help] book called True Love on my treadmill [laughs]. That’s how I roll. And also, Maggie Gyllenhall’s one of my heroes, because her film [The Lost Daughter] is so beautiful, and the way she’s spoken about her journey as a woman, not even knowing she had the option to be a director… It’s inspiring to me. But the heroic part is that she took that leap and changed.

You were born in Brooklyn. What was it like before the hipster, bourgeois transformation of the last decade or two?
We used to go in Williamsburg with my mom to these underground shoe sales that these Hasidic women would have in their homes. That was Williamsburg to me — like, we’re going to get some really great shoes at a bargain.

When I was 14 and sneaking into the city and going into nightclubs, the last thing that I would ever say is that I was from Brooklyn. Because it was frowned upon. So to come from those days, Brooklyn’s always had soul. It’s always had such an enormous amount of diversity and can-do spirit. And it’s really pretty. A lot of areas are really actually green. I grew up in Midwood, so there’s a lot of trees. I grew up in a Victorian house with carved oak banisters and all of that. People could never really believe that that happens in Brooklyn. 

Later, you lived for a while right by Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, where you frequented the legendary Eighties club The World. What are your memories of that time in the city?
It was so fucking great. It was such a great club. I could just walk down, because I was right there on [Avenue] B. I mean, I’m still friends with a guy who was bartending at the time. They had a lot of really great performance art. I saw Karen Finley there for the first time. I saw her do her yam piece then, and it cracked me up. It was one of the funniest and [most] profound things I’ve ever seen. There was also a Japanese restaurant that Keith Haring and Madonna would go to a lot that was on 9th [Street]. It was a great place to hang.

You played Pete Davidson’s mom in The King of Staten Island. What was that like?
I actually just was talking to Pete today, because I was like, “I never got paid for that. Did you? In this age of transparency, can we talk?” But despite that, I had a rollicking good time. [With director] Judd [Apatow]’s approach to improv — which is extensive — I was ­intimidated. I’m with all these stand-ups. It was so freeing. Really changed how I approach each character going forward.

Besides In the Bedroom, was this your first time playing the role of a mom?
Let’s say yes, because I want it to be [laughs]. I love that that’s perhaps the truth.

Even though you played his mom, do you get the whole Pete Davidson “thing”?
He’s just so fucking real, and he’s unfiltered, but very sensitive. So he’s almost an irresistible combination. And he’s good-looking, even though I played . . . let’s just put the mom thing aside. Let’s, like, never mention that again.

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