Marisa Tomei, who shifts so easily from madcap comedy (Crazy, Stupid, Love) to dark drama (The Ides of March), is equally adept at shifting in her seat. Arriving at a poolside cabana at the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills wearing cuffed denim shorts and a rose-colored top, Tomei tosses off her leather thongs, folds up her aviator shades and within minutes turns her Jetsons-style molded plastic chair into an ersatz jungle gym. With the agility of an eight-year-old, she hangs nearly upside down, her legs draped over one armrest, her head propped on the other. “I’ll just assume the analysand’s position,” she says with the easy laugh that finishes most of her sentences.
Humorous self-deprecation is not what you expect from an actress who won Oscar nominations for her roles in such serious fare as The Wrestler, in which she played an aging stripper, opposite Mickey Rourke, and In the Bedroom, in which she appeared with Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson as a woman from the wrong side of the tracks. In Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Tomei was riveting as the two-timing wife of a narcotics-numbed husband (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who spends her Thursdays having sex with his brother (Ethan Hawke). She transfixed Broadway audiences with her dance of the seven veils (minus veils) for Al Pacino’s Herod in Oscar Wilde’s Salome.
No, this is conduct more becoming the actress with serious comedy chops, the star who put herself on the Hollywood map some 20 years ago playing Mona Lisa Vito, Joe Pesci’s big-haired, shoulder-padded, Brooklyn-accented girlfriend in My Cousin Vinny. Mona’s rapid-fire court testimony illuminating the finer points of the 1964 Buick Skylark’s axle arrangements and tires is a touchstone of movie-comedy history. Tomei was new to Hollywood, sleeping on a friend’s couch, when she heard that that performance had earned her a nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Her 1993 win was a major upset, given that her conominees were Vanessa Redgrave, Joan Plowright, Judy Davis and Miranda Richardson.
This Christmas, Tomei is back with another family-friendly comedy, Parental Guidance, starring Bette Midler and Billy Crystal. Tomei plays their daughter, Alice, a mother of three. When her husband (Tom Everett Scott) asks her to join him on a business trip, Alice reluctantly recruits her mom and dad—whose parenting style is at serious odds with her own—to stay with the kids. “Where you would say, ‘Quit your whining,’ ” she warns them upon arrival, “we would say, ‘Use your words.’ ” Crystal, who coproduced the movie, came up with the story after a five-day visit from his granddaughters several years ago. Although it’s a comedy, there are touching scenes, too, including a climactic moment between Crystal and Tomei. “It’s a little vaudeville and a little On Golden Pond,” says the actress, who calls the film one of her best professional experiences. The movie’s clash of generations simply reflects reality, she adds. “That’s the way families are: totally sublime and completely distressing—and yours.”
Tomei is not a mom in real life (unless her 11 godchildren count) but often plays one, always with striking ease and believability. “It’s really fun to work with kids,” she says. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. When they’re in the zone, it’s the best.” In Parental Guidance, she was such a natural at nurturing that director Andy Fickman sent her a Mother’s Day card. “Marisa is a gifted actress who makes subtle choices that are sometimes deeper than the lens can see,” he says. “When you’re watching her on the monitor in real time, you’re like, ‘Great!’ But when you project to the big screen, what you thought was a great moment was twice as great because of the look Marisa did or the hair toss or squint of an eye.”