THE WRESTLER—Interview With Marisa Tomei

Although my vote for Best Supporting Actress at this year's Academy Awards would be for Viola Davis for her powerhouse performance in Doubt, there's no question that Davis will receive stiff competition from Marisa Tomei, whose performance as strip dancer Cassidy—the love interest in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler—recently garnered her a win in that category from the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. She's likewise running neck and neck with Davis for that honor at this year's Golden Globes. I recently had the opportunity to discuss how she developed her character for The Wrestler.

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Michael Guillén: Marisa, you are so fine in The Wrestler!

Marisa Tomei: Thank you.

Guillén: You're such a brave and committed actress. Can I ask how the role of Cassidy came to you?

Darren and I also realized that we clicked and then realized that was because we were both from Brooklyn and had gone to the same high school. Now I know that he knew my brother and that they shared a mutual good friend. So we had a tie and a language; that was on the positive side. Then a few weeks later he sent the script and it was one of the easiest scripts I've ever read. They're so hard to read normally, which doesn't mean they're not going to be a good movie but sometimes it's hard to just get through the script and to picture it. But the script for The Wrestler was so evocative and I really liked it. I was intrigued by my part. Shortly thereafter he offered it to me and that was it pretty much. I mean, he took a little longer than I would have liked. I thought, "You've just asked me to go through Hell for you…."; but, it finally came through and we decided to do it.

Guillén: Between this performance as strip tease dancer Cassidy and your previous performance as Gina Hansen in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, you've been absolutely fearless.

Tomei: I don't know if I was fearless or insane!

Guillén: You're so much more bold that most actors around. How do you approach something like the amount of nudity you had to do in The Wrestler? That can't be comfortable for you?

Tomei: [Sighs.] We talked about it in detail. First of all, I was flabbergasted that the mystery of life should bring me a second movie in succession where I would be asked to do something like that. I had never in my whole career been interested in that or not so much that I wasn't interested but I didn't think it would create the kind of career that I want, which is to hopefully be taken seriously to do a range of roles. Because I started in a comedy, it was already hard to be taken as a serious actress. I thought, "Please let me have a range of roles." But that's hard for anybody anyway. So I was always against nudity for myself but without being judgmental. But then it came up later in my career and I guess I was like, "Well, you have to do everything once. What the hell." And there was something of an adventure about it so I was more intrigued by the adventure and couldn't resist working with Sidney Lumet. I thought, "Okay, I'm just going to do it." I was shocked when I saw what I had actually done. I didn't realize in a way. Because it's in the acting. I was doing what the character would do. I was living a normal life. People have sex and that was part of my job—the naturalness of it—but I didn't really think about how there it is.

Then when it came to me a second time by another director who I simply could not resist, someone with so much to say and someone with whom I wanted to be aligned and be part of his vision, I just had to laugh. I thought about it long and hard, "What am I saying with this? It could really go the wrong way." But ultimately I decided to trust Darren and to trust myself. It almost became a hat trick the second time. It was like, "Okay, can you do it again?" I made it into that kind of challenge. With The Wrestler it was interesting because Cassidy has to be so comfortable with it, that's just how she lives, she's naked most of the time. She's naked at her job all the time so she has to be completely comfortable. When I went in, it was just 100% and I didn't really think about it again.

Guillén: Aside from the nudity, Cassidy is quite a complex role. I was intrigued by the parallel structure between her and Randy the Ram (Mickey Rourke), between your bodies and the ruin you're both putting your bodies through. To research for the role, did you have to collaborate with actual pole dancers? You got the technique down pat. What was that process like?

Tomei: I had danced as a teenager and so that was part of my tool box in a way. I have that in my muscle memory. I didn't strip but I went to my dance classes and I've always wanted to do a musical and that's why I actually wanted to be an actress. I loved Singing in the Rain. I loved Gene Kelley. I would write fan mail to Gene Kelley and not Scott Baio. [Laughs.] My body has always been a part of my expression. Also, I started in the theater. On film a lot of times you're only required to act from your neck up really. So I was still very connected to my body through my training in dance and theater and I was excited about expressing my character through her body and her feelings through her body. Because I could dance, I knew I could learn the kind of moves Cassidy required. Mickey always talks about how he was a boxer and how he had to relearn and unlearn the boxing because in boxing you hide your punch and in wrestling you show it. For Cassidy's movement I had to do hyperextensions, something you ordinarily would never do in ballet or jazz dance. I had to hyperextend my chest and walk certain moves that were her "go to" moves, her carriage. I had to catch on to that a bit. I knew that I was flexible so I wanted to use that as much as I could. I knew I could do splits and things like that pretty easily; but, for the pole stuff, I knew I didn't have much gymnastic training. When I did gymnastics as a kid, I was always a balance beam-floor kind of gymnast; I was never an uneven bars type of person. My upper body wasn't that strong.

The pole is very very hard and I have a new respect for that. I went to a lot of clubs and hung out with a lot of dancers and also just watched a lot. It was kind of an osmosis, an absorption. Seeing what kind of style I might like, getting inspiration, observing whether it was always tawdry. I had no idea really. It wasn't clear in the script. It was open to interpretation. I sprang from the point of the parallels that you're talking about. He loves his wrestling so I went with she loves the dancing, even if it was just the dancing and not the whole world of the strip tease joint, maybe not the lapdance, maybe not always having to be on and be servicing; but, maybe in those two minutes when she's dancing, there's a transcendence for her at times? Maybe that's been a safe place for her expression when she was younger and got into this? I decided to build the character of Cassidy on that. I would look for who was connected to their bodies and into it. In a certain way you have to be into it for yourself to make the dance really good. It's not just posing or an external thing. You have to be connected inside. So I looked for different styles and for someone who I could say, "That's someone I would like to go for." But I never found someone who was that person and was going to be able to teach me so I just got a variety of visual experience and then I had a friend who is really into strip clubs and she teaches pole dancing. She teaches yoga and is a masseuse also and she had the same build that I have so that gave me a little more confidence because my idea of what a stripper was supposed to look like was not what I look like. I talked to Darren about that. He said, "You just haven't been to enough strip clubs is all. [Laughs.] There's all shapes and sizes. You're going to be fine." But I was worried that I was going to disappoint people. But he said it was going to be okay.

When I found this friend of a friend who then became a good friend of mine, it was great because I could see her moving in a way that was similar to my body type. It inspired me. The reason my friend teaches pole dancing is because she sees it not only as great exercise but because she sees women becoming liberated and empowered by it. They're not living the life of a stripper—they're just women who go to these classes—but, I was able to touch in on some of that and let that be part of Cassidy. Just in that little area of her life. I don't think she has it together—she's a mess, for sure—but, that little area might be something that's sacred to her. That's a performance thing too and I could relate to it as a performer.

Guillén: So you've described how you developed the dancing; but, in general and specifically for this role, how did you go about creating her character? You only had so much time and you had to suggest an entire life.

Tomei: Yeah, proportionally there was not that much screen time for this role.

Guillén: And it was a psychologized physicality, for which I must compliment you. It's not like you were mimicking someone else or—as you said—posing. The physicality did indeed express Cassidy's psychology.

Tomei: Thank you. I worked hard on that. I talked with Darren, of course, to see if he had a specific direction in mind. We went through the script line by line, which he does with all his actors, and I found that really helpful because it creates a space where you can bring up any questions. There was one person in particular that I met at Crazy Girls in Los Angeles who had a great sense of humor. She was almost a tomboy, like a goof I could hang out with, and I liked that it could work for Cassidy with him because I guess I just thought they were more pals even though it changes into something else that confuses her. That's why she's back and forth with him. In the end it's a feeling of comradeship. So I went with the idea that Cassidy was somewhat a goof who could be funny sometimes.

Guillén: And she likes her '80s metal.

Tomei: And loves her '80s metal! I watched a lot of Rock of Love. I don't know if you've ever seen L.A.'s Bret Michaels' reality TV show where all these strippers try to marry him? [Laughs.]

I write a lot and think about the history. You can see a lot of the history in the tattoos. Darren had said he wanted Cassidy to have a lot of tattoos. He wanted her to be like a Suicide Girl. I didn't even know what that was at the time but they're these young girls who would now be considered cheesecake? Light porn? They're all tattooed up and they're real cute with short hair. Punky porn. But I told him, "This is not my character's generation." So my tattoos are totally built on, "This was when her son was born. This was a drunken mistake one night. This was her first effort to get clean. These are the musical notes from her favorite song." We built them up layer by layer.

Guillén: I regret we don't have more time so I'll wrap up by praising again your wonderful performance in The Wrestler.

Tomei: It was a pleasure talking with you.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.

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