The starry cast of The Realistic Joneses—Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts and Marisa Tomei—have made their marks in film and TV, but all four feel equally comfortable on stage. “Theater is definitely my home,” declares Tomei, which might surprise fans who know her only from her Oscar-winning performance as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny and Oscar-nominated dramatic roles in In the Bedroom and The Wrestler. In the Broadway premiere of Will Eno’s quirky portrait of two marriages, Tomei plays the colorfully named Pony Jones, whose banter masks an inner loneliness and desire to find life’s deeper meaning. The ever-beautiful actress, now 49, chatted with Broadway.com about her love of challenging plays, her bond with Lady Gaga and her history in high school musicals.
Welcome back to Broadway, Marisa! How did The Realistic Joneses come your way?
I was lucky enough to have done a play by Will Eno, Oh, the Humanity, a few years back at the Flea Theater, and I’ve wanted to do something with [director] Sam Gold for a long time. This is an incredibly gorgeous play, and it’s a privilege to work on it.
What did you respond to most?
The play is almost like a meditation, because it talks about the existential dilemma of how hard life is and how beautiful it is. All we’ve got is here and now, but there is also a big picture. It sounds trite when I say it, but in Will’s writing, every line can have something that’s banal but also quite lofty and deep. That combination works on different levels of your being. I’ve gone through some hard times with my family lately, and doing this play every night has been a real balm.
Give us the scoop on your three co-stars. What do you love about working with Toni Collette?
Her sense of humor—and she always knows the best places to eat!
Tracy Letts and Michael C. Hall?
Also their sense of humor—and Tracy is so rooted, like a Sequoia tree. Michael and I have a very intimate husband-and-wife relationship in the play. We love our characters, and I’m inspired by each of them. Just coming to work is a thrill.
What do you enjoy most about stage acting?
The rhythm—the way it becomes choreography, even in a non-musical—the actors’ movements and the pattern of the words. It’s like a dance, and the dancer in me likes that.
You were born and raised in Brooklyn. What’s your first memory of going to a Broadway show?
Actually, when I was very little, we went to community theater at the Heights Players. I had a couple of birthday parties there when I was about six. I think the biggest [Broadway shows] were A Chorus Line, which my family went to see repeatedly, and ’night, Mother, with Kathy Bates and Anne Pitoniak, when I was a teenager. They were phenomenal.
We hear you were a stage star in high school, including playing Hedy LaRue in How to Succeed.
That was junior high! In high school, we had a lot of fun productions. We did A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Fiorello, and I played Fastrada in Pippin. I wore a breastplate and came down from the roof on a big swing.
What would you say if you were offered the role of Fastrada on Broadway now?
Oh no, no, no, I don’t have the chops for that! [Laughs.] I don’t know that I had the chops for it in high school, either.
So, a Broadway musical is not on your bucket list?
It’s on my bucket list, but it would have to be a Sally Bowles-type of thing, where it’s more of a performing role, not a real singing role.
What was the best thing about growing up in Brooklyn?
I think it was the sky. There was something about the way the air hits the pavement and mingles with the grass. There’s a very particular smell and feeling—the way the air hits your skin and the way the dusk settles when you’re playing outside with your friends. I grew up in Midwood, in Flatbush. I go back for Di Fara Pizza, but most of my family lives in Park Slope or in the city now.
You got to play the ultimate New York chick in My Cousin Vinny. Do people still come up and quote Mona Lisa’s lines?
The best is when little six-year-old girls do it. They’re so sassy. I’m glad it’s adding to their sass [laughs].
You have a movie debuting soon at the Tribeca Film Festival, right?
I have a couple. The first one is Love Is Strange. I play the niece of John Lithgow, who moves in with my husband and me after he and Alfred Molina get married and lose their apartment.
Broadway fave Cheyenne Jackson is in that one.
He is! I need to invite him to our opening. The other movie is Loitering With Intent, with Sam Rockwell. Two of our dear friends from the nightlife world decided to write a screenplay and asked us to be in it, so it’s very special because we’ve all known each other for decades.
Would you agree that film and TV have gotten more welcoming for women over 40 like you, Robin Wright and Sandra Bullock?
Change has certainly happened, and yet the Women’s Media Center just came out with some strong statistics about the number of roles for women compared to men. [Actresses played only 15% of lead roles in the top films last year, although they are 50% of ticket buyers.] So there’s a lot farther to go.
You starred in an exercise video and you're in fantastic shape. What’s your secret? Do you think you might do more videos?
I hula-hoop a lot [laughs]. That’s it. And I don’t have any extracurricular plans right now. I’m just trying keep the curricular going.
Lady Gaga made a splash when she said you should play her in a movie of her life. Have the two of you met?
We have. She was so kind to invite me to one of her shows, and we got to meet and hang out. I think she’s incredible. She has a lot to say, and I think she’s always on target.
You were great in Wallace Shawn's Marie and Bruce. Do you find it interesting to explore the difficulties of marriage when you’ve never been married yourself?
I don’t think that’s why I do it. I like pieces that raise philosophical questions. It was a gift to do Salome with Al Pacino—it’s a play that has lot of rewards, but you’ll never get it perfect. [Noel Coward’s] Design for Living, which I got to do in Williamstown, is also like that. I would like to do more classics: Lady M in “the Scottish play” and Ibsen. But I also love comedy—this play is a comedy—and it takes a lot of skill do comedy well.
When you look at your life, professionally and personally, is it what you expected?
You know, I never really had a plan. So it’s all going according to my non-plan!
See Marisa Tomei in The Realistic Joneses, opening April 6 at the Lyceum Theatre.