Marisa Tomei is concerned that I might freeze to death, and that makes me feel fantastic.
It’s winter in Washington, D.C., and as a true Texan, I’ve remained stalwart against buying a heavy coat despite how obviously idiotic this makes me look. I also must be shivering because upon meeting me – stretching out a small hand from underneath an afghan or three – Tomei furrows her brow and asks if I’m alright.
It’s fitting, though. Her latest acting work for The Wrestler is downright motherly. She plays Pam – Cassidy when she’s on the job as an exotic lap dancer – a woman who is as run down by life as her male counterpart, Mickey Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson. A sort of small town sex-thing that might have had her name written on bathroom walls a few wrinkles ago.
It’s a role of great nuance and vulnerability. In her own words, Tomei plays a martyr of a woman who “has to never think about what she needs, and that’s a mindset that’s harwired into her..she feels sacrificial, like a sacrificial lamb. Not in control of her own fate. Out of control most of the time.”
She claims that there’s a sense of arrested development to the character, and when she opens her eyes romantically to The Ram, she experiences “the vulnerability of feeling something for the first time in a long time.”
‘Vulnerable’ is an apt term for a role where – as you may notice – Tomei is naked throughout 65% of. Moreso than the obvious physical vulnerbility, Cassidy is a character stalled in life by inertia, forever dancing to earn just enough to feed and clothe her kids. That inertia is interrupted by the possibility of a man caring for her on a level that doesn’t involve folded dollar bills, and Tomei does a strong job of bringing that to life.
As soon as I begin to dwell on the innocence and empathetic nature of Cassidy, Tomei reminds me that she’s also the ultimate shill, “manipulating her clients,” – which I take to mean psychologically and erectionally. She then speaks at length about how, “it’s a sacrifice [for Cassidy] to give up dancing,” giving me a new perspective on a character who I’d otherwise want to bundle up and keep warm myself.
Beyond the emotional complexity, Tomei relied heavily on her dancing background to play the role. She tells me that she started dancing as a little girl and claims that her experience doing The Dance of the Seven Veils for a stage version of Salome (alongside Al Pacino) prepared her immeasurably for the sensual nature of Cassidy’s particular stagecraft.
However, she did go through rigorous training with professional strippers and faced a few challenges. “I had to learn the pole moves and learn a different kind of carriage – sticking your breasts out really high all the time. It’s really uncomfortable.”
Tomei herself is a cultural anomaly – gaining the spotlight by avoiding it. She won’t be featured on the cover of any tabloids soon, but the actress managed to make Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Wildhogs in the same year while maintaining a strong stage career. It would seem that with her role in The Wrestler, and the award buzz surrounding it, she’s cementing herself as a go-to for the legitimate indie world.
Regarding the future of her career, despite the praise she’s getting for this particular role and her dramatic roles in the past, she claims that she’d rather be doing comedy.
“I find [dramas] more challenging, but not in the way I’d like to be challenged,” she says.
I also ask which one of her stage performances she’d be interested in adapting for film, and she mentions Noel Coward’s “Design for Living” – a comedy about two men living with a woman and competing for her affection that was adapted for Gary Cooper back in 1933. Tomei would like to see it on screen again because it displays, “true love, art…it’s so picturesque and so bohemian.”
While we’re talking, I can tell how Tomei was able to deliver the soft moments to a hard character for Darren Aronofsky’s latest. She’s a delicate presence that appears to be able to shift to feisty when necssary. She speaks quickly, but softly. It seems reasonable to assume that she carries some of the insecurities and vulnerabilities that her character from the film does if not to the same degree.
At the end of the interview, she stands up, stepping out of the warmth of the cocoon she’s built on her hotel sofa, and makes another comment about me staying warm. I shake her hand, thank her, a step out into the cold.
The Wrestler opens Friday, December 19th.