Makes Sure We Know She’s There In Sidney Lumet’s Latest
by Brad Balfour
In a film loaded up with some of the finest New York theater actors, Marisa Tomei made sure she stood out in Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Since its release, the film has stood out as well, garnering serious Oscar-season accolades for the octogenarian director’s return to form.
As the under-appreciated wife and adulterer, Gina, Tomei did a scene that really made her memorable in the film—a really hot, unvarnished sex scene with her husband Andy (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), who goes on to commit a heist that goes terribly wrong.
Born on December 4, 1964, Tomei eliminated her heavy Brooklyn accent but never forgot her roots. Her breakthrough came in 1992 when she co-starred in My Cousin Vinny, as Joe Pesci’s loud-mouthed but sweet New York girlfriend – a performance that won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. From there she went on to her first starring role, in Untamed Heart. Fortunately for Tomei, a solid performance as a troubled single mother in Nick Cassavetes’ Unhook the Stars earned her a Screen Actors Guild Best Supporting Actress nom. Then after some strong work in Welcome to Sarajevo and in Slums of Beverly Hills, she proved her first Best Supporting Actress Oscar win was no fluke – she received her second nod for her performance in the critically acclaimed dark drama, In the Bedroom.
Was that you in the opening scene – with all the sex – because I know a lot of actors use body doubles.
No, no no, that was me. I practice [laughs].
You’ve been friends with Ethan [Hawke] [who plays Andy’s brother Hank] for a long time. How was it to do that love scene with him? [Gina is having an affair with Hank so there is a sex scene with each actor.]
We go back, but we didn’t really know each other that well. We never played in anything together, so it was like the moment was overdue actually. So I was looking forward to that. He’s so easy to be around. I think he plays that character so well – the younger brother of someone who never really found his own way and means well, but only buys into this thing. In his relationship to my character, he just adores her and thinks she’s so great, and his brother pre-approved her. To play the scenes with him were very easy, because he’s Ethan Hawke and he’s adoring me, so what could be wrong?
How were the rehearsals?
The rehearsal period was great. But it was a little tough for me, because I was doing Wild Hogs at the same time, if you can believe it, and I had to go back and forth like three times during the two-week period. It was really draining, and I never really felt like I got in the groove. That’s why it was great that Sidney [Lumet] had such a clear vision in the first place, because I felt like I was completely at sea. I wasn’t counting on that happening. The timing just shifted so I was going there and putting on a cowboy hat and acting like a silly girl in this huge comedy. Then when I got over there, I was getting into this gritty world. Ultimately, I just had to go on instinct and she’s kind of aimless, so it worked for me.
Have you ever worked with Philip [Seymour Hoffman] before?
No, we had never worked together before. We had known each other from places like New York, but we had never worked together.
How was it working with everyone to develop your character?
Sidney had a vision of how he wanted my character to be, and he had some pretty detailed history he had written out before we started shooting. I always thought she was kind of a dingbat, and I still think she’s really aimless. She feels anger and is disgusted with the man in her life. I don’t think she’s getting enough of what she wants at that moment. I don’t even think it’s a positive kind of anger, but that was definitely something that Sidney crafted from how he was seeing her and how he wanted her to play in the mix of the bleakness of the men.
I happened to be at CAA [the talent agency,] and we were doing some sort of reading. My agent pulled me aside and said, “I just have something to tell you.” And I thought I was in trouble. I always get that feeling when somebody says that. But he told me, “Sidney Lumet just called and he wants you to do his film.” I was just over the moon, and so so so excited. It was just one of those, “Thank You God!” moments. I didn’t play hard to get at all.
So did you develop some kind of back-story for her?
I don’t think she knew everything that was going on. I don’t think she could have thought that through. I think she might have thought something was odd or funky. But I adjusted the back-story to what Sidney was talking about.
Was there anything in the script that made you nervous?
No, I felt like I was fulfilling my goal. I always wanted to be a trophy wife. Such a funny life to peep into. [laughs]. “Oh, really, trophy wife?” It’s a detriment to her own life’s path that she’s not really self-reflective or latched onto something that has a lot of meaning to her. But it was also interesting to have someone who relates only on a visceral level and needs a lot of physical comfort and affection and attention – someone who is just comfortable in her own skin, and she’s just not leading with her head. I liked that.
How long do you think they were married?
I think for a while, not over ten years. No kids.
Is that an important point?
Yeah, it was an important point, in her self-esteem. Also it tied into the barren landscape of the whole film.
The movie seems to be about characters who are past their prime. Where do you see all the characters five years before?
I think that Phil’s character was coasting along easier, making more money – more denial going on. I think that the denial was in full swing. Our lives felt better every day, five years before.
If you could write the ending to your character’s life story, perhaps a few months into the future, what would you write?
I don’t know. I think if Phil was alive, she would end up back with him. I don’t think she has a lot of fortitude or discipline or strength of character. She’ll probably leech onto some other guy.
Do you enjoy having that challenge of getting into a character that you might not like?
Yeah, actually, I prefer her rather than the saccharine things that have come my way. That’s usually the big challenge, to play those cutie pies that repulse me.
It’s easier to play the bad girl?
Can you see yourself doing that in real life?
(laughs) Which? I’ve already commented on that.
How does Sidney work in terms of you guys, with rehearsals?
He just kind of sets the table. He likes us to be together. We didn’t do things like go to dinner, but we had the rehearsal time. We had two weeks in a room together, and we got to hang out. A lot of work gets done that way. It’s nice that he brought that aspect of theater stuff into his filmmaking. We felt kind of at ease with that because we were used to rehearsal rooms, we like rehearsal rooms…I don’t smoke, but I would go out with them when they would smoke because I know that’s when most of the best conversation happens. The bonding. [laughs]
It’s a good thing they don’t do drugs.
What intrigued you about Sidney’s direction?
I think his passion is the most dominant thing. His intelligence, his wisdom, his natural inspiration, is all wrapped up in this very passionate man who loves what he does. He loves the characters; he’s intrigued with every character. I really felt like he put himself into my character’s shoes. It’s really rare for a male director or any director to think about “What’s inside her?” He was just taking on my character. He loves actors, he’s known for that. But he takes it to that level where he puts himself in every character. He writes the history, and takes care of the character.
Do you have a favorite Sidney Lumet film?
This one! (laughs) But if I had to choose, I’ll go with Dog Day Afternoon.
You’re doing a play now right?
Yeah, I’m doing a new Will Eno play, I’m really excited about it. He did “Tom Paine” two years ago and now he’s doing this one called “Oh, the Humanity.”
|#1 © 2007. Courtesy of ThinkFilm. All rights reserved.|
|#2 © 2007. Courtesy of ThinkFilm. All rights reserved.|
Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: November 23, 2007.