marisa_tomeitw12-16-08As she bills time in big fares like Wild Hogs or Anger Management, Marisa Tomei has been building a stealth career in indie circles. In the Bedroom was the game-changing critical darling. She stole scenes as the two-timing Gina in Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Most stars are happy to get pigeonholed for life, with minor exceptions, because the work is guaranteed. Angelina Jolie will always get suitcases of money to play asskicking femme-fatales. Try to find a variation of middle class manchild that Adam Sandler won’t tackle for a solid script and a good price.

That’s not to say the aforementioned haven’t taken left turns here and there, or that Tomei herself is above a safe, studio gig. But with a project from the Duplass Brothers (writer/directors of Screencrave-fave Baghead) on the horizon and now Aronofsky’s The Wrestler opening this weekend, Marisa Tomei’s trajectory is becoming impossible to predict. She doesn’t have a packaged anecdote for why this is so, and she bristles when she’s pressed about it. She’s attracted by the ambiguous and, for lack of a better term, the ugly truth. She’s inspired by it.

Last week she spoke to ScreenCrave about what gives The Wrestler its edge, and how she managed to take some of the shine off the Stripper with A Heart o’ Gold.

Although it wasn’t an especially cold day in Los Angeles, Tomei was all but vanishing into an oversized grey sweater. The interview starts off a bit slowly. She seems reluctant to talk at length, especially about learning how to striptease.

Yeah. I did.” She replied.

Mickey Rourke can be pretty method. When the topic is broached about how his research compares to hers, she laughs.

“I just had a friend who teaches pole classes.” She says nicely, but succinctly.

New topic: how the world of wrestling as portrayed in the script.

“I thought it was really really interesting. The rabbit hole it went into, that wrestling world. It was so intricate. And done lovingly. I was familiar with it [beforehand]. But not in-depth. That wasn’t really my area. I was in the club and he was in the stadium. We didn’t really get into that part of it [in my scenes].” She had also never met or worked with Rourke until their first day of shooting together.

“That was the first time I met him. Darrin had set such a realistic atmosphere with everyone on-location, and the characters were so intricately drawn that we just showed up and didn’t really rehearse. We didn’t have any meetings beforehand, we just jumped right in. Neither of us really like to talk about what we’re doing, I think.” Tomei admitted. If she didn’t like going into specifics, she wasn’t unwilling. The lack of rehearsals was a bit of a revelation as her character’s history with Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” comes across naturally. How much of that could have been improv?

“I think there was [improv] throughout, but not so much in the scenes that I did. Maybe a little bit, but we’d always circle back to the script itself. Darrin really took the time talking to each of us separately, through each of our scenes. So if he wanted to change something he did it way before we got near shooting it. Sometimes he’d want to do a lot of takes and then we’d let go of the script and mess around and improvise that way. It seems like we always went back to [the script] just maybe to open it up or loosen it up in places.”

Tomei plays a Jersey stripper and single mother who’s slowly realizing her age is catching up with her. It’s a story that’s been told before, but never in close parallel with that of a faded Pro Wrestling superstar.

“That was something Darrin talked to me about. He thought about a lot of different parts that the female protagonist would play, different kinds of jobs she might have, but he kept coming back to that.” She explained, but she was at peace with the director’s final decision to make Cassidy a dancer.

“(Randy “The Ram”) uses his body. They’re both performers. They both have stage names. In any occupation you can be at a crossroads, but these roles are particularly athletic.”

Aronofsky has stated he had a fair share of convincing to do for this picture. He had to get the financiers to back his call with Rourke. He had to let Rourke know he would protect him. Once he set down how Cassidy and Randy would reflect on each other, Tomei really invested herself in the part and did the legwork.

“Some of it was osmosis, just being in different clubs and talking to people. I didn’t really do any interviews or anything like that. I just kinda hung around. There’s a lot of variety. With anything, you start peeling away the layers and get past the stereotype and you see the persons or group for who or what they are. There’s certainly a lot of different types of girls in that business. I don’t really want to generalize but it seems there are some who use a lot of creative energy, who are artists. They just don’t like to be in a normal nine-to-five job.” Tomei chose her words carefully, and further explained how it reflected on her character’s inner life.

“[In Cassidy’s house] there’s a lot of black and white photos on the wall. The emphasis isn’t really on my character so you don’t really see those details, but the idea was that she was more of that kind of creative person. Even if she has a lot of demons, that’s just the way she uses them. It’s not like she’s this great artist because she’s an exotic dancer but it’s a form of expression. It’s a form of empowerment, in certain ways. There are those parts of the job that are degrading, but I think the interesting thing is seeing the parts that aren’t degrading.” For her, part of that process was incorporating the elements of exotic dancing that Hollywood prefers to ignore. Like who cleans the pole afterwards.

“They have this windex thing to clean the pole and [the girls] go up and do it in this sexy way. They shake their asses while they’re cleaning the pole, because you can’t [do moves without it] otherwise you’ll slip. I like those little details, but really didn’t have time for it in this movie. That’s the kind of thing I was looking for.” She may have been overruled on that particular detail, but Aronofsky trusted her knowledge when shooting the onstage performances.

“I didn’t want it to be choreographed. I wanted it to be authentic to the world, not that cleaned-up kind taught at places for regular people. So I went to a lot of clubs to see a lot of different styles, and in the end it was a friend of mine who does teach those classes, who taught me how to do the pole stuff. But she’s, like, a strip aficionado and she’s there every weekend. Also someone who’s an ex-stripper came and hung out with me a bunch. I asked to learn a bunch of different steps and moves so I’d have a vocabulary and make it up myself. There are three different times in the movie when I dance and they have different tones to them. I wanted [the dancing] to come organically from me and from the character, rather than having it be imposed on me or being kind of “heightened,” like burlesque.” She seems proud of the results. The dancing looks real and there are the bruises to prove it.

“You get a lot of black-and-blues. A lot.” She smiled. Tomei started as a dancer (the non-exotic variety) and pursued acting out of her love of musicals. But that’s a dream that has yet to materialize.

“[Playing an exotic dancer] is the closest I’ve gotten so far!” she cracked.

“There were a couple of times, a couple of different projects I almost did, but it wasn’t the right combination or the right creative team. I’m hoping, I mean that’s why I became an actress in the first place, because I worshipped Gene Kelly. I’m like, very very very old school. I was writing to Gene Kelly while everyone else was writing to Scott Baio.” She laughs it off, but a trace of frustration seeps in.

“I’d like to do a musical. But I’m a stronger dancer. I sing well. But not great. I’d like to do some more period things. I’d like to play a leading part!” Her indie work is a strong case to that end, but how did she end up here, with an oscar and a shortage of marquee placement? The response is almost blunt in its pragmatism. She knows when she’s said too much.

“I think it’s kind of the luck of the draw. You don’t really know what you’re gonna get offered. I try to just keep it mixed up because you never know what you’re going to get.”

We move on to the other details, like capturing spontaneous dance sequences. She gives a lot of the credit to her rapport with veteran cinematographer Maryse Alberti.

“Maryse was incredible with the lighting. A lot of it was practical. We had an operator shooting it handheld and I didn’t have to hit exact marks but he had to move with me. It was really more of a tango. If I’m spinning, he’s on the floor trailing me. Or ahead of me. So we had to work out the choreography, he and I. But we did it on the day. Boy, he was sweating. That camera’s really heavy! And we did it twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-eight times, two minutes a shot! It’s strenuous. It was an interesting day.”

Tomei respects the movie that the countless takes and threadbare budget managed to produce. When pressed to give her two cents about the ending, she sticks by it as it stands.

“I think Darrin wanted to leave it ambiguous, for everyone to have their own feelings. I’ve heard a lot of different things from a lot of different people.”

On that note, will she be channel flipping to the WWE a little more from now on?

“I don’t think so. But I think I’ll be going to a few more strip bars.” She has a really good laugh at that one.