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Marisa Tomei: little preparation, great acting
By Ryan Adair
Executive Editor

     What ever happened to Marisa Tomei? The actress, best known for her Oscar-winning portrayal of the quintessential Italian nag to Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny, has kept a low profile since taking home the golden boy. That was nearly 10 years ago. For many young actresses, winning an Oscar is the kick off to a hot career in Hollywood, but many moviegoers may have forgotten about the spunky brunette from Brooklyn.

    Angelina Jolie, Gwenyth Paltrow and Julia Roberts all come to mind when considering todays A-list of leading ladies. What some dont realize is that Tomei has been active and extremely busy for nearly a decade since that Oscar win, moving from project to project.

    The actress is set once again to hit the big screen next month in the drama, In the Bedroom, based on the short stories of Andre Dubus. Set in a picturesque Maine village, the story centers around a simple family forced to deal with a tragedy of epic proportions. Running parallel to that backdrop, Tomeis character, Natalie, is a single mother who has an affair with a young man almost half her age.

    That was another reason why I was interested in the script, Tomei confessed. I believe that anyone can fall in love with anybody.

    Tomei admitted that she had little time to prepare for the role of Natalie and was very nervous going into the piece with little preparation. She spent two days in Maine, prior to shooting, with a woman who had a similar background to Natalie. There, she worked on her New England accent, in addition to honing her body language and preparing for some of the more dramatic scenes.

    Although the actress is mostly known for comedic turns ranging from the Sylvester Stallone dud, Oscar to last years What Women Want, with Mel Gibson, Tomei noted that she feels the two genres can be crossed and should not be characterized.

    I was just drawn to this story because of its thoughtful writing, she said. I really wanted to work with Sissy [Spacek] too. I really want to get past comedy versus drama, its all part of the same thing. If Im lucky enough to find a script that I like, Ill do it.

    In the Bedroom is directed by actor Todd Field, who most notably played best friend to Tom Cruise in Stanley Kubricks final film, Eyes Wide Shut. Being directed by a former actor is something Tomei prefers, since the director was once in the actors shoes.

    A lot of times directors can be scared of actors. It takes extra care to communicate with us, Tomei said. Todd had a compassion for what actors go through.

    Tomeis career has been a roller-coaster ride of hits and misses, beginning in the early 1980s with her two-year stint on As the World Turns. The actress, however, gained notoriety as Lisa Bonets roommate on the sitcom, A Different World.

    Trying her hand at film, Tomei jumped into the Hollywood scene, taking home the best supporting actress Academy Award, for her role Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny. Rumors did circulate however, that Oscar presenter Jack Palance read Tomeis name by mistake, and that the Oscar was intended for Joan Plowright for her performance in Enchanted April. It was never proven if Plowright was supposed to receive the award.

    Despite that small scandal, Tomei continued on to other film work, appearing in the critically acclaimed Chaplin, Untamed Heart and Unhook the Stars, for which she received a Screen Actors Guild nomination.

    Not staying in one place for too long, Tomei is also known for her extensive work in the theater. Appearing everywhere from Broadway to Off-Broadway and numerous regional locations, the actress said stage work is the one thing that is truly near and dear to her heart.

    Its the purest acting one gets to do, she told the Chronicle. As corny as it sounds, after Sept. 11, I was just craving to be back in the theater. Its about being part of a community.

    Tomei admitted that she will return to the stage soon, but is not currently involved in any project.

    As for In the Bedroom, the film has already generated a lot of Oscar buzz from the critics who have seen it. Not only has Tomeis name been mentioned as a possibility for a nomination this year, but so has her co-star Sissy Spacek. But Tomei casually shrugs off any mention of her walking down the red carpet this year as a nominee, by simply saying, Im just happy people are responding to the film.

    Another unique aspect of the actresss career is her choice of film projects. Tomei has never really chosen a role that has made her a star. She goes after the story that speaks to her the most. This year she has just finished two more films set for release early next year; Just a Kiss and The Guru.

    After the variety of roles she has tackled, Tomei said she still has her eye on several different genres.

    Id like to do more period work, comedies and dramas of different eras. I also would like to work with some accomplished directors, like [Frances Ford] Coppola and [Martin] Scorcesse, she said. But I want to be lucky enough to continue to do independent films and once in a while do a studio movie.

    In the Bedroom opens in New York and Los Angeles on Nov. 23, and hits selected cities in December.