In high school, she starred in Pippinand A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After graduation, in 1982, Tomei went to Boston University to study theater. She dropped out after a year to work in New York. “Oh, my God,” she says. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I didn’t have any connections. I’d just get the newspaper, and if it said, ‘We need someone to dance for the Grand Ole Opry,’ I’d think I could do it: I’ve taken tap lessons! I would just go on anything. Even as a joke I wouldn’t be able to audition for the Opry now. Where did I get the cojones?” She landed parts in Off Broadway plays, then got a one-line role in Garry Marshall’s The Flamingo Kid. That led to a recurring part on As the World Turns; a YouTube clip shows her playing a dirt-smudged Cinderella in a dream sequence featuring Phyllis Diller as Fairy Godmother.
In 1987, Tomei nabbed a role as Lisa Bonet’s roommate in the Cosby Show spinoff A Different World. She has since become godmother of Bonet’s three children and was present at the birth of two. “She was a stellar support, holding my hand,” says Bonet, who changed her name to Lilakoi Moon in 1992. “My son was born in a major rainstorm at 3 in the morning, and Marisa was there. She’d come with me to my midwife appointments, read everything, watch the DVDs. She has a very thorough curiosity.” Asked to sum up her friend, Moon settles on “delicious. And hilarious. She’s a delicious, hilarious, ethereal delight.”
Tomei has made more than 40 films—from Slums of Beverly Hills and Wild Hogsto The Lincoln Lawyer—all while keeping a hand in theater. “I like all the lives I get to live within one life,” she says of acting, “the little details of cultures I get to learn about, exploring the different themes, the things that are important to a particular character or story. I feel they come to me for a reason, to reflect or bring up something in my own life.”
Her forties find her feeling comfortable in her own skin. “No matter what age you are, there are cycles of where you put your energy, things you’re trying to let go of and to cultivate,” she says. Now her emphasis is on “making more and more heartfelt and authentic decisions. You have to keep your eye on the prize, be more courageous, more connected to life.”
Tomei has two other films ready for release: Love, Marilyn, a documentary about Marilyn Monroe in which she joins other stars in reading the icon’s newly revealed diaries and letters, and Inescapable, the story of a man who escaped persecution in Syria but returns 25 years later to look for his daughter, who disappeared on a business trip. Tomei plays Fatima, the fiancée he left behind. She transformed herself into an Arab woman for the part and perfected the accent. “It was heavy subject matter and took a lot out of me,” she says of the shoot in South Africa.
Over the holidays she’ll have time to lighten up—and cook. Her extended family, who have been known to travel to Italy en masse for vacation (“craziness, but a lot of fun”), are making an effort to preserve their traditional Italian recipes. “We put names in a hat, and someone from the younger generation will pick someone from the older generation who will teach them one dish a year,” she says. “You just have to have that cheesecake, that certain sauce, you know?” Or that zeppole. Two years ago, Tomei and her brother resurrected an old family recipe for the sugary fried dough that had been deemed too difficult for 21st-century schedules (not even the older generations felt that they had time to do it). “Ultimately it wasn’t that hard,” she says, “but the surprise, to see all my aunts and uncles, and my dad, as if he were six years old: ‘My God! You made zeppole!’ They lined up at the kitchen door. It was the most thrilling thing.”