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Marisa Tomei mines her New York roots for patient-but-strong ‘Staten Island’ mom

Marisa Tomei co-stars with Pete Davidson in "The King of Staten Island."
“It’s just a different kind of pace,” Marisa Tomei says of working with Pete Davidson and Judd Apatow on “The King of Staten Island.” “But once it clicks in, it is so exciting,” she adds.
(Mary Cybulski / Universal Pictures)

Brooklyn-born Marisa Tomei has certainly played her share of memorable New Yorkers. From her Oscar-nabbing role as the brash Mona Lisa Vito in 1992’s “My Cousin Vinny” to famed Queens “dingbat” Edith Bunker in the 2019 TV special “Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s ‘All in the Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons,’” Tomei has winningly mined her Big Apple roots.

Tomei again shines in her latest New York role as Margie, the widowed mom of 24-year-old Scott (Pete Davidson), a would-be tattoo artist with a wicked case of arrested development, in director Judd Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island.” (Davidson co-wrote the semiautobiographical film with Apatow and Dave Sirus.)

The versatile actress brings a lovable mix of warmth and spirit to the patiently supportive Margie, a nurse whose fireman husband died 17 years ago — and has been single ever since. That is, until another fireman (Bill Burr) enters the picture.

So why hasn’t Tomei, the bright and beating heart of this well-received comedy, been more of a fixture in this year’s awards chatter? The Envelope spoke to the actress recently by phone from Atlanta, where she was shooting the latest “Spider-Man” sequel (Hey, Aunt May!) to help her beat the drums for Margie.

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Marisa Tomei, Pete Davidson, in back, and Bill Burr in a scene from "The King of Staten Island."
(Mary Cybulski / Universal Pictures)

You had a cameo in “Trainwreck,” but this was your first full role in a Judd Apatow movie. What was it like working with him, given his particular directing style?

[His style] is very freeing. I was very scared about it — I was with all these professional stand-up comedians. He keeps the cameras running; you’re not really stopping. He knows with these performers when you get a run on that’s when you’re going to catch lightning in a bottle.

For someone like me who’s not used to that, it was daunting at first. It’s just a different kind of pace. But once it clicks in, it is so exciting. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so relaxed on set.

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In a recent virtual roundtable chat, I heard Judd say that you “claim not to be good at improv but then are awesome at improv.” How would you rate your improv skills after doing this movie?

Well, I still feel quite tentative about them. [But] making Judd happy puts a little pep in my step! I feel really changed by him, too. I feel that a certain part of the anxiety that was part of my process … just kind of lifted, thanks to him.

"The King of Staten Island,"
Much of the story in “The King of Staten Island” takes place in a fire station.
(Mary Cybulski / Universal Pictures)

You seem to play Margie so naturally and, in the best way, effortlessly. She’s kind and patient but also capable and strong. Was there anyone you drew from to play her? Like a family member?

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[Laughs] Oh, God, I wish she was like a family member! I spoke to Pete’s mom [Amy Davidson] a bunch, and she blew me away with her level of patience, not just for him but for doing service, for doing good. Maybe because Pete had challenges growing up or because [he and his sister, Casey] lost their dad, she just had infinite space for him to grow into his own, which really is parallel to the movie. But she really, genuinely is like that. I marveled.

In the end, how much of Marisa would you say is in Margie?

She feels so distant from who I am. Even with the beloved Edith [Bunker] there was a part of me that was cringing. I just didn’t understand people who were taking a lot of s—. I actually aspire be more like Mona Lisa Vito [laughs]: to speak what’s on my mind more often.

In playing Margie — and Edith — I really had to put myself into another era, frankly, and relate more through my mother and grandmother’s generation. That’s how I found my way in. And, through that, actually came to a more compassionate understanding of what they went through.

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Pete Davidson and Marisa Tomei star in "The King of Staten Island"
(Mary Cybulski / Universal Pictures)

Staten Island has always felt like the least known New York City borough. Growing up in Brooklyn, what was your impression of Staten Island? Has that changed after shooting there?

[Growing up] it seemed so far away. It seemed like this bucolic “other” place that we never went. It still feels like a bucolic “other” place. There’s more grit than I had realized. There are a lot of economic differences on that little island, and I wasn’t aware of that. But for the most part it was pretty sleepy for us. It was summer, it was hot, it was quiet. We were shooting in neighborhoods that were just neighborhoods. Nobody was around.

Each of the five boroughs has its own variation on the “New Yawk” accent. Did you feel the need to match the Staten Island inflection?

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Judd wanted a heavier accent, which I didn’t really want to do and [Staten Island-born] Pete doesn’t really have. So Pete being the anchor, Judd and I talked about it, and where we landed felt really good to me and to him. It wasn’t anything pushed.

It sounds as if Judd Apatow came calling again you’d be right there for him.

Oh, in a second.


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