Ever since her breakout performance in 1992 as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny, which earned her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, Marisa Tomei has always made bold and interesting choices on-screen, allowing her to slip in and out of Oscar-bait indies, romantic comedies, Adam Sandler vehicles and even the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Aunt May Parker in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming. The same can be said for the actress’ stage work, which most recently included playwright Will Eno’s Broadway debut, The Realistic Joneses, and a Williamstown Theatre Festival production of a Tennessee Williams play.
Her latest is the new play by Sarah Ruhl, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage, opening at Lincoln Center Theater on March 20, with previews starting Feb. 23. “I'd long admired Sarah Ruhl’s writing and hoped for the chance to work with her someday, and when I saw what this play was about, I was drawn even further under her spell,” Tomei tells ET about joining the production, which at the time of our conversation, was only a week into rehearsal.
A story about two couples who invite mysterious younger woman (Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s Lena Hall) and her two live-in boyfriends to a New Year’s Eve party, Tomei plays one-half of one of the married couples opposite Omar Metwally (The Affair). What happens next will alter the course of their lives as they test the limits of friendships and rediscover their own wildness. Attracted to the idea of rediscovery, Tomei says she’s fascinated by “the longing for transcendence and the absence of wild nature in our culture,” and what it would look like “to touch the fire again.” The mysterious woman -- who has what Tomei calls “a Diana the Huntress energy” -- awakens that feeling inside these suburban couples. And Hall, who has the task of bringing this rumpus to life, Tomei says is “the perfect person to animate and elate the room.”
Directed by Rebecca Taichman, the Off-Broadway play also gives Tomei a chance to work with both a female writer and female director. While not a factor in her decision to do the show, it is a rarity for the actress. “It’s very unusual that it happens, so it’s a wonderful happenstance,” she acknowledges, adding that “it’s a play about a woman’s inner-life, so it’s helpful” to have someone like Taichman at the helm.
Perhaps another happenstance is Tomei’s role in Marvel’s reboot of the Spider-Man film franchise, which sees Tom Holland taking over the role of Peter Parker on July 7. The actress appears alongside her famous ex, Robert Downey Jr., who just so happens to play Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. “It’s very comfortable and everyone’s very friendly,” she says of officially joining this universe, which saw her make a brief debut as Aunt May in Captain America: Civil War. “It’s fun to do the larger-than-life stuff, too.”
Perhaps most interesting to fans is the fact that Tomei, 52, is easily the youngest version of the character the franchise has seen on-screen. And from what audiences got to see in Captain America, there’s plenty of chemistry between her and Downey, possibly setting up even more flirtation to come. “You can make a case for that and I wouldn’t mind,” she says with a slight laugh. “I’m just curious to find out for myself what it all added up to. There are so many layers, and I’m just lucky enough to have stepped into it.”