More than a quarter of a century after earning an Oscar for My Cousin Vinny, Marisa Tomei continues to bloom.
The Spider-Man star has returned to Broadway in Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Tennessee Williams’ 1951 play The Rose Tattoo. She plays hot-blooded seamstress Serafina Delle Rose, a grieving widow who gets another shot at love with a fellow Sicilian immigrant, banana-hauling truck driver Alvaro Mangiacavallo (Emun Elliott).
Next seen in Judd Apatow’s King of Staten Island, Tomei opens up to NewNowNext about playing a classic role with queer roots—and her own deep connection to the LGBTQ community.
The Rose Tattoo/Joan Marcus
Serafina is a force of nature who loves hard, mourns hard, and fights hard. Playing her eight shows a week, has any of her spirit rubbed off on you?
Yes, actually. There’s so much poetry and musicality in the writing. Just saying the words, with those vibrations and rhythms, it’s like some kind of an elixir.
It wasn’t until college when I realized why, as a gay man, I loved and identified with Tennessee Williams heroines—that they reflected and spoke for him as a gay man of his era. Was that on your radar while finding your character?
Tennessee had a sympatico relationship with women and projected himself into his female characters because he understood their sexual repression. Serafina lives in a world where she’s not supposed to have pleasure, not supposed to have sex again after her husband passes away. So her being held down and repressed sexually is very Tennessee. There are also some double entendres that tickle me, like when Serafina says, “I’ll leave the back door open for you so you can come in”—a few lines like that throughout the play that are wink-winks from Tenn.
He dedicated the play to Frank Merlo, his Sicilian-American lover, so it seems fair to compare Tennessee and Frank to Serafina and Alvaro. Has that given you a window into these characters and their relationship?
Yeah, to a degree. That dedication reads “To Frankie in return for Sicily.” Tennessee had fallen in love not only with Frank but also with Frank’s family and the Sicilian culture, so he wove that into the character of Alvaro. I don’t think it’s as literal as any one character representing any real person. But I did have the great pleasure of meeting Frank’s grand-nephew, and he has this incredibly buoyant energy. Being around him, seeing his glow and beautiful spirit, I could see Alvaro, I could see Frank, and I could see the special quality that made Tennessee fall in love with the Merlo family.
The Rose Tattoo/Joan Marcus
Serafina might be as close as you ever get to playing a gay man.
[Laughs] Well, I do hope to play some other Tennessee Williams characters.
Is Serafina your first?
Yes. It’s funny because I feel so close to Tennessee, his spirit, and his writing. I feel like I really understand his rhythms. So it doesn’t feel like my first, but it is.
Which one do you want to tackle next?
I’m thinking Blanche [in A Streetcar Named Desire].
I’d love to see it. Speaking of juicy roles, you played Mimi Whiteman, a powerful lesbian billionaire, on Empire. We don’t see many lesbians on primetime TV who are both masculine and seductive. Did you have conversations with creator Lee Daniels about Mimi’s sexuality?
The only conversation we really had was when he was like, “Naomi Campbell is playing your wife.” [Laughs] I got a kick out of how much taller she is than me, so we made quite the duo. But I did work a lot with the costume designer, coming up with Mimi’s look and picking out her graphic suits.
You also played a butch lesbian 25 years ago in Tony Kushner’s off-Broadway play Slavs!
I did! She wasn’t that butch though. I just happened to have short hair at the time. And she was a security guard. And she wore a mechanic’s jumpsuit. [Laughs] That was so great. I mean, what an incredible honor just to be in a Tony Kushner play.
You and Élodie Bouchez played a lesbian couple in the 2013 short film She Said, She Said, which tackled something else we rarely see onscreen: gay divorce.
That’s right. We were very wealthy, fighting over every little thing in our house. We had a great time shooting that. There was a lot of great fashion, and I got to flirt with Aubrey Plaza.
When playing a queer role, or while part of a queer film like Love Is Strange, do you feel a responsibility to do right by the LGBTQ community?
I think that’s already in the writing, and my job is to give my whole heart to the project and make my character as multidimensional as possible, whether it’s a villain or a heroine. I think it’s in accepting the job where I’m honoring the community: Yes, I want to play this character, I want this story brought to light and accepted in the culture.
There’s increasing pressure on Hollywood to cast LGBTQ actors in LGBTQ roles. What’s your take on the argument that actors should share the same sexuality and gender identity as their characters?
I don’t agree with that. I wholeheartedly disagree with that. To me, that’s not what art is about. For me, the gift of being an actor, of bringing many different stories to life, is in being able to walk in many different peoples’ shoes, being able to understand all different kinds of experiences. So I do not believe that any actor should be limited in that way. That’s like limiting someone’s soul, and I don’t think that does society a service.
Growing up in Brooklyn, what was your introduction to the LGBTQ community?
I can’t remember a time when gay people weren’t part of the fabric of my life, whether it was my parents’ friends or my own friends as we grew into our full selves. My aunt was a fashion designer, and her business partner and best friend, Felix Arbeo, was gay. I was a very young girl when I met Felix, so he was always part of our family. He died during the AIDS crisis.
How were you impacted by AIDS while living and acting in New York in the ’80s?
Right as I was graduating high school, the AIDS crisis started. I sadly lost my high school boyfriend to AIDS, and also one of my best friends, a female. AIDS wasn’t limited to the gay community, as it still isn’t. As a young woman living in the East Village, being told there was this plague amongst us, I had to go many times in a panic to get tested.
David Crotty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images
When did you become aware of your gay fans? Does that stretch back to your ’80s stints on A Different World and As the World Turns?
I certainly had an awareness after She Said, She Said because it won some awards, so that was a prominent reception. But I’ve always felt supported, nurtured, and inspired by the gay community. It means so much to me. In every aspect of my life—physically, psychologically, artistically—I get great inspiration from the community and from my very dear friends in the community. At one point my whole team—my managers, my agents—was gay, so I have been literally supported by gay people.
The Rose Tattoo is your fifth Broadway show, but they’ve all been plays. Is a musical too much for your gay fans to ask for?
I did musicals in high school. I’m more of an Ado Annie than a Laurey—let’s put it that way. I’m always going to be the belting character role. So if Broadway ever needs that, maybe we can pull it off.
Lady Gaga has said she wants you to play her in a biopic, so you’d better start training your voice.
[Laughs] I’m working on it!
The Rose Tattoo runs through December 8 at the American Airlines Theatre in New York.