Marisa Tomei: Coming Up Roses on Broadway

The stage and screen siren revives one of Tennessee Williams’ more passionate heroines.

Marisa Tomei as Serafina Delle Rose in “The Rose Tattoo.” (©Joan Marcus 2019)


SHE WON AN OSCAR at age 29 for her sassy, breakout role in “My Cousin Vinny” and has made 60-plus films since, but the adored (and ageless) Marisa Tomei has been choosier in her stage gigs. Over the past 21 years, she’s been on Broadway just five times; her current project is a revival of Tennessee Williams’ 1951 drama “The Rose Tattoo,” which runs at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre through Dec. 8. Tomei has brought her abundant sensuality and wit to Oscar Wilde and more avant-garde playwrights, such as Caryl Churchill and Will Eno, but “The Rose Tattoo” is notable as Tomei’s first foray into an American master of Williams’ stature. 

It may also be her most emotionally extreme to date. Tomei plays Serafina, an Italian immigrant living in the small-town South, along the Gulf Coast circa 1950. Serafina works as a seamstress, while her husband is a truck driver who ferries illegal goods. After he dies in a suspicious accident, the widow descends into a spiral of grief and depression. When Serafina’s teenage daughter, Rosa, embarks on an affair with a sailor, the overprotective mother goes into crisis mode. Complicating matters, Serafina becomes entranced with another hunky Italian trucker who appears at her doorstep. Can Serafina find love again, or is it merely lust and loneliness? 

Tomei spoke to IN New York about bringing a lesser-known Williams heroine to life, her surprisingly sexy Aunt May in the “Spider-Man” movie franchise and immigration in America.

How did you get involved with “The Rose Tattoo”?

Through Mandy Greenfield, the artistic director of Williamstown Theatre Festival. I really wanted to do something up there. So we started talking, and thought about this play. We ended up doing a two-week workshop in Williamstown, just playing around with the text, and I got to have a wonderful summer and fall in love with the play even more deeply.

What can you tell me about Serafina? How does she compare with other Tennessee Williams heroines like Amanda Wingfield or Blanche DuBois?

She has things in common with Blanche: a level of sexual frustration and cultural repression in her life. Like Blanche, she experiences great loss, is damaged by it and isn’t able to move ahead sexually in a relationship. And there’s also immense cultural pressure for a female to behave only a certain way, especially regarding sexuality. 

Like Amanda in “The Glass Menagerie,” Serafina is also a very strong mother.

She’s a loving, attentive mother. Well, attentive until grief has overtaken her life. And that same budding, Dionysian, ecstatic sensuality that’s coming up in her daughter, Rosa, is threatening on a really primal level to Serafina.

On the page, Serafina is a force of nature: moody, volcanic, almost operatic.

This was a different time period, without screens and cellphones, where neighborhoods were very, very intimate—almost too intimate for comfort. And the way that human beings could express themselves and were more in touch with their emotions and passions—almost in a queer way—belongs to another time, sadly.

What feels relevant is the play’s exploration of the immigrant experience—for Italians.

Very much so. It’s always a different group, the most recent group, that’s going to receive the vitriol; and at that time, it was Italians. The play takes place around 1950, and for people in Louisiana and that region, there would be a strong memory of the biggest mob lynching that had happened in New Orleans up to that point—11 Italians in 1891. So, after that massive wave of integration at the turn of the century, Serafina is part of the second wave, after Italy’s Fascist period. Italians were called derogatory names, threatened with jail or deportation, made fun of. And there is a very interesting trajectory of assimilating into “whiteness” that takes place over the decades to different extents with different groups. That’s something you see with Italians, because initially, they were considered another race—not black, not white—and people didn’t know what to do with them. It was a minefield for them and for their children.

Some people may know the 1955 “Rose Tattoo” film with Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster. Have you seen it?

Oh, of course. I saw it many years ago and no, I haven’t been referring to it. The play has a different act structure and tone; there’s a lot more comedy in the play. Anna Magnani is one of my favorite actresses of all time, but I have to put [the movie] to the side to move forward in the play.

Speaking of the influence of other actresses, this year you played Edith Bunker in a live TV broadcast of an episode of “All in the Family” on ABC. How did you negotiate Jean Stapleton’s original Edith and make the role your own?

Norman Lear asked us to go back to the script and just work from it as if we were given it today. And so I worked from that point, and when I felt ready, I communed with Jean, and kind of blended our energies.

Being a born and bred New Yorker, you had an advantage. 

But I’m from Brooklyn, not Queens!

True. Still, there’s another Queens character you’ve reinvented: Aunt May in the “Spider-Man” movies. In “Homecoming” and “Far From Home,” everyone loves your “young and sexy” take on Aunt May. When is she getting her own franchise?

Why don’t you start the rumor? An Aunt May Movie petition? Yeah, I don’t believe that’s in the works. But one never knows!

Have you been to New York Comic Con?

Sadly, they didn’t invite me! I was pretty upset about that.

A slightly facetious question. Since tattoos figure heavily in the show—Serafina’s husband has a rose tattoo on his chest—do you have any?

Let’s avoid the facetious. Yeah, I have them.

MARISA TOMEI’S NEW YORK:

“I live in Los Angeles, but when I’m in New York I go to plays on and off Broadway. And I bike around. Now that we’re getting more Citi Bike docks in more neighborhoods, that makes it easier. It’s such a lovely and quick way to get around. Also, I would suggest the Rubin Museum, on Seventh Avenue, for Tibetan art. It’s an oasis, and they have a lovely café there.”

“The Rose Tattoo,” American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., btw Seventh & Eighth aves., 212.719.1300, www.roundabouttheatre.org