Ask Marisa Tomei to outline the stages of her career over the last 30 years and she rattles off a pretty complicated path: “New kid on the block, being inspected, being on the outs, rebirth — not sure if there was a hermit phase there or not — and now, I think I’m pretty solid.”
But that’s not to say she isn’t looking for a new direction. In a conversation at the palatial Casa Marina hotel during the recent Key West Film Festival, where Tomei came to town promoting her supporting role and producing credit on the low budget comedy “Loitering With Intent,” she found herself in an introspective mood.
The actress, who turns 50 in December, won an Oscar for best supporting actress in “My Cousin Vinny” all of 22 years ago — and she’s been largely relegated to supporting roles ever since. “I didn’t guide myself to that in an earlier incarnation,” she said. “The philosophy of any good part is interesting to me. To a degree, it was conscious. I really felt like I’d rather be the sidekick, the one with the mouth, who gets to be more articulate, smarter, sexier or nuttier. But it’s hard to be a supporting actress.”
Hence the second wind. “I’m happy to do supporting parts, but I kind of need to do some lead roles now,” she said.
More than that, she wants to take the initiative to create them — and her producing credit on “Loitering With Intent” is the first indication of how she could make that happen. In the movie, which The Orchard releases on VOD next month ahead of a limited theatrical opening in January, struggling actors Raphael and Dominic (Ivan Martin and Michael Godere) lie about a project they’ve written for themselves to secure financing, then suddenly find themselves forced to cobble together a screenplay on a tight deadline. Desperate, they hole up at the upstate home of Dominic’s former flame Gigi (Tomei) in the hopes of getting some writing done. Instead, they mostly just fool around, drink, and argue, while Dominic launches an ill-conceived plan to win back Gigi from her confident boyfriend (Sam Rockwell).
Written with a knack for snappy dialogue by Martin and Godere — far more talented at speedy one-liners than the characters they play — “Loitering With Intent” is a slight but endearing paean to creative block. Tomei imbues her energetic character with a high pitch voice and cartoonish gestures on par with the giddiness of the screenplay. Overall, with its action largely unfolding over a single location and involving endless verbal sparring along with physical humor, it looks like it was a lot of fun for everyone involved. Tomei, who has known Martin for two decades, said she helped the writers workshop the project and seek financing during its early stages. (She also wound up driving most of the way when the trio took a road trip to flesh out the story.)
“This movie was made with my dearest friends and it was a dream for all of us to work together,” she said. “It was a piece of my dream to be a part of something from the beginning, to work with my friends more, and start to venture into producing.”
The timing is particularly apt, since Tomei said she doesn’t receive a lot of roles through her agent that appeal to her, anyway. “There’s the rub,” she said, and laughed. “Yes, I rely on my agents, but most things happen through people that I know. I’m trying to set up some projects for myself and we’ll see how that goes. I don’t know if I’m going to like doing it. I don’t know if I’m going to be successful at doing it. But it could open up a whole new world.”
She also spoke enthusiastically about grabbing hold of her work routine. “When you’re on the road so much, you miss your friends,” said Tomei, who splits her time between New York and Los Angeles. (In Key West, she arrived fresh from a trip to Cambodia and jetted off to L.A. shortly afterward.)
Tomei has certainly stayed busy lately. She spent most of the past year in the Broadway production “The Realistic Joneses” opposite Michael C. Hall and Toni Collette. Additionally, she took on a memorable role as the skeptical niece of an aging John Lithgow in Ira Sach’s tender New York drama “Love is Strange,” in which she alternates between supportive and snippy over the course of the movie’s wrenching plot.
It’s the latest example of Tomei’s interest in playing complicated women whose allegiances are never entirely clear: In Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 “The Wrestler,” as a jaded stripper, she romanced a somber Mickey Rourke and landed her most recent Oscar nomination. Mark and Jay Duplass’ 2010 comedy “Cyrus” found Tomei adapting to the sibling directors’ bold improvisatory style as the unwieldy single mother of a clingy Jonah Hill.
Tomei said that working with the Duplass brothers, who act on the side in addition to producing smaller projects, inspired her current thinking. “The Duplass brothers are producing things on the micro level,” she said. “That’s interesting to me. I could use that kind of model.” But she’s approaching the idea carefully. “I’m a neophyte, but I am getting there,” she said. “It’s a natural thing after you’ve done this for a while. It’s also the nature of the business — with all these different media platforms, there’s an opportunity that you can have a little more of a hand in it.”
Despite this idealistic stance, Tomei has faced some tough prospects lately. She was recently scheduled to reteam with director Brad Furman, with whom she last collaborated on “The Lincoln Lawyer,” for a new project that failed to coalesce. Another, smaller feature, attached to actor-director Joshua Leonard, also fell by the wayside. And while she recently completed a role in Judd Apatow’s upcoming “Trainwreck,” Tomei said she only spent a day on the set and filmed one scene.
But she’s undeterred by a marketplace notorious for the limited number of lead roles available to actresses above a certain age. “I don’t really get offered those movies anyway, and haven’t for a long time,” she said. “They have their own challenges. It’s a big debate in my head: What do I do as the whole business morphs and changes? Where am I headed? What’s great is that I don’t have that much control over what comes along.”
These days, Tomei sees better opportunities for women roles than when she first garnered attention on the sitcom “A Different World” in 1987. “The eighties were definitely a bloated, overly testosterone, weird, greedy kind of era to be starting out,” she said, citing the careers of Lena Dunham and Tina Fey as particularly inspirational. “I’m much happier now with what I see in other people’s roles.”
Her own options are a different story. Tomei was hesitant to get too ambitious about her acting-producing aspirations. “I admire people who take so much initiative,” she said. “That doesn’t really come naturally to me because I don’t have that much confidence. But I’m going to try.”
At that moment, the hotel surroundings came to life as a horde of bridesmaids — fresh from one of multiple weddings taking place at the Casa Marina that day — passed the table where Tomei was seated. A red-clad young woman galloped away from the group and approached. “You’re Marisa Tomei, aren’t you!” she gushed. Tomei nodded. “Oh my god,” the woman said. “I’d know this woman from a mile away. You’re gorgeous!”
As she frolicked back to her cohorts, another bridesmaid lingered behind. “Wait,” she said, “which actress was that?” Tomei chuckled softly to herself.