Crystal first met Tomei when he was in preproduction for 1992’s Mr. Saturday Night. “No one knew her very well,” he says. “It was before Cousin Vinny. She was too young for what I was looking for, but I was so moved by her audition I called her agent and said, ‘I can’t cast her, but she’s great.’ A year later she wins the Oscar. When we thought of her for this part, she came in and said, ‘Great. Now I’m too old.’ Not at all. She’s a perfect fit for Bette and me.”
There’s an ageless quality to Tomei, on camera and off. “Marisa’s in her Hollywood-late-thirties,” says producer Dan Bucatinsky, a friend who has known her since they were six-year-olds at summer camp in upstate New York. (Translation: She turns 48 this month.) “She doesn’t snuff out the youthful spirits she’s always had.”
Many actresses have difficulty finding satisfying roles as the decades pass, but Tomei does not. “My career has gone against the grain,” she says. “It’s really working out for me so far. There are seasons for everything. You recognize that things pass, opportunities flow, and there are times to seize them and times to be fallow. I’m not working right now, and it’s not just [because] ‘Oh, I’m really tired.’ It’s a deeper recognition of a cycle, like a field that needs to lie fallow for a while to have another really good crop. I’ve learned to be easy on myself with that kind of timing.”
She gravitates toward projects that “don’t maybe satisfy in a very tidy way,” she says. “I prefer a beautiful mess. I’m drawn to things that are really not conventional.”
John Cusack had known Tomei for years before costarring with her in the 2008 political satire War, Inc. “Marisa dug the politics of the piece,” he says. “It’s a dumb sports analogy, but there are a lot of gym fighters who talk a good game when the pressure’s not on, but when you’re into day 40 of a grueling shoot in Bulgaria and you see someone continually caring about what she does that much—Marisa cares so deeply about doing good work. She wears everything on her sleeve and says, ‘Take me as I am’—and then just brings it.”
That’s even harder than it sounds. The Wrestler, she says, “was gut-wrenching material, emotionally and physically challenging.” Before she did her first striptease, in front of a room full of extras, “I downed a number of shots of whiskey,” she admits. “I definitely felt the dual thing of feeling so vulnerable but also empowered, because the guys, when they’re watching you, they’re really like little children, wide-eyed, and you could see where they’d give you anything you wanted. There’s a certain kind of freedom and control: You’re hovering over them; they’re little and you’re tall. I had heard strippers talking about it, but I didn’t know I’d feel that way acting it.” Rourke sent her a bouquet of flowers afterward. “He was a complete gentleman,” says Tomei.
There’s a searching quality at the heart of Tomei’s characters, both the comedic and tragic roles, a vulnerability that softens the contours of even their most questionable behavior. Take the lusty middle school teacher who has her way with Steve Carrell’s recently separated character in Crazy, Stupid, Love. “Marisa brings real humanity to the people she plays,” says Carell. “When you watch her in a role, there’s a sense that you’re only seeing what her character is allowing you to see, but there is much more that’s hidden.”