Marisa Tomei Dodges the Devil
(from brinkzine.com 10/23/07)
- Ethan Hawke, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Maris Tomei
- Marisa Tomei
This weekend you might want to check out the opening of the second current seedy melodrama that deals with down-on-their-luck-and-money characters, crimes of greed that go wrong, familial ties, loyalty and betrayal, guilt and morality. Like Ben Affleck's "Gone, Baby, Gone," which opened last weekend, Sidney Lumet's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," has flaws, but I expect it will get its share of rave reviews, too. They are two films that hold our attention because they are populated by lead characters you rarely see on the screen doing things you rarely see on the screen; have intelligent scripts; make strong use of locations; have violence that jars you; are very carefully and very passionately directed (one by a neophyte and the other by an octogenarian master); and feature strong performances from everyone in the meticulously-recruited casts. There's a lot of thunder and angst to be found in the male performances but equally impressive are the quieter turns by two of my favorite actresses: Michelle Monaghan, who I wrongly predicted would find quick stardom after "Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang" (but is finally on her way); and, in Lumet's film, Marisa Tomei, everyone's crush since "My Cousin Vinny." Tomei plays Gina, the unhappy wife of a power broker, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who needs money because of his drug dependency, and convinces his brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to set up a robbery of their parents' jewelry store--with dire consequences. Below is a roundtable interview with Tomei, in which I participated last week. (I note my questions at the end.) That is followed by my asking one question each to her director, Sidney Lumet, and her costars, Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Q: When you were asked to be in the movie, did you ask to read the script or did you immediately agree to be in it?
Marisa Tomei: I happened to be at C.A.A. doing a reading of something when my agent pulled me aside and said, "I have something to tell you." I assumed I was in trouble for something. He said, "Sidney Lumet just called and wants you to do his new film." I said, "What?" I was just over the moon. I was so, so excited. It was one of those "Thank-you-God" moments. I didn’t play hard to get at all. Phil already was cast and Ethan and I were brought in at around the same time.
Q: Do you have a favorite Sidney Lumet film?
MT: This one! Otherwise, his Al Pacino films. I'll go with "Dog Day Afternoon."
Q: How did Sidney rehearse with the actors?
MT: He liked us to be together to work. We didn't go to dinner together or screen movies, we rehearsed. It was two weeks in a room together. You hang out and a lot of work gets done that way. We all felt at ease with that because we're used to being in rehearsal rooms, we like rehearsal rooms… It's nice how he brought that aspect of his theatrical background into his filmmaking. I don't smoke but I wanted to hang out with them when they were smoking because I knew that's when most of the conversation happened and the bonding took place. I didn't want to miss that so I'd take a few puffs.
The rehearsal period was great. But it was a little tough for me because I was doing "Wild Hogs" at the time, if you'd believe it. I had to go back to New Mexico three times during the two-week period. I had to take all these flights and it was draining and I never felt I got in the groove. I wasn't counting on that happening, but there was a schedule change. So I'd go out to New Mexico and put on a cowboy hat and be silly girl in a comedy, and then I'd fly back to get into a gritty world.
Q: What stuck you most about Lumet's direction?
MT: His passion is the most dominant thing. There's his intelligence, his experience that has turned into wisdom, his natural inspiration, and it's all wrapped up in this very, very passionate man. He loves what he does, he loves and is intrigued by every single character, and he loves actors—he's known for that. He set the table for us and then let us act. I always felt he was putting himself into Gina's shoes. That's really rare for a male director. He'd be thinking what's inside her. There was a scene that didn't make it to the movie, in which she walks through the aisles of a little drugstore. The way he was prowling the aisles, taking on my character, who is so desperate at one point that she steals little things. He was saying, "Maybe she should just come and look at this hairbrush for a little while…" He was thinking how Gina would think. He takes it to that level. He put himself into other characters, too, writing their histories and taking care of them.
Q: Did you ever work with Philip Seymour Hoffman before?
MT: No. We'd known each other from New York and from Williamstown, but we never had worked together before this movie.
Q: And your first scene in the movie is a sex scene in which Gina and Andy are nude. Was that really you, or was it a body double?
MT: Yes, that was me. That was us.
Q: You later have a bedroom scene with Ethan Hawke. Had you known Ethan before?
MT: We go way back. We were in the same circles in New York, and hung out some, but we never knew each other that well or played in anything together. The moment was overdue actually, so I was looking forward to it. He's so easy-going and was just so nice to be around. He played Hank so well, as a younger brother who never really found his own way, who means well but still buys into what Andy wants to do. He just adores Gina and thinks she's so great and that his brother pre-approved her. Playing scenes with him was easy because he's Ethan Hawke and he's adoring me. So what could be wrong?
Q: How did you work out your character?
MT: Because of my schedule it was great that Sidney had such a clear vision of my character or I would have I felt I was completely lost at sea. .Even so I had to rely on instinct and what Sidney told me. He had a pretty detailed history that he'd written out for me before we started shooting. He had an idea of how Gina fit into the bleak mix with her husband and her lover.
Q: Your character is the only one who really knows the two brothers. Was that something that was discussed?
MT: It wasn’t discussed. I'm not sure she knew. She's not present for anything, so even though she knows them both, she's "not there." I always thought she is pretty much a dingbat and is aimless. That's how I saw it but don't know how it comes across.
Q: She seems angry at both brothers.
MT: Given that she is angry and disgusted toward the two men in her life, I don't think she is getting enough what she wants at that moment. I don't think it's a positive kind of anger.
Q: In working out her back story, did you think Gina believed she'd benefit if Hank was successful with a crime?
MT: I don't think she knew everything that was going on, so she couldn't have thought that through. She didn't know what Hank was involved in.
Q: If you could write what happens to Gina after the movie ends, what path would she take?
MT: I'm not sure. If Andy is alive, she'd end up back with him because she doesn't have much fortitude or discipline or strength of character. If that's not an option, she'll probably leech onto some other guy, sooner than later probably.
Q: Were you nervous playing a character who isn't bright?
MT: No. It's detrimental to her life's path that she's not self-reflective or hasn't latched onto anything that has real meaning to her. But it was interesting playing someone who relates only on a visceral level and needs a lot of attention and physical comfort and affection. I was fulfilling my goal, being a trophy wife! It's such a funny world to peep into. "Oh, really, a trophy wife!" I liked playing that.
Q: So you enjoyed the challenge of getting into the skin of a woman who you wouldn't like if you met?
MT: Yeah, I actually prefer her to some of the more saccharine things that have come my way, to tell you the truth. Some of those cutie pies repulse me so they're a bigger challenge!
Q: How long have Andy and Gina been married?
MT: I don't remember what we made up. I don't think it was over ten years though.
Danny Peary: And no kids?
MT: No kids.
DP : Is that an important point?
MT: Yeah. I think it important in regard to her lack of self-esteem. Also, kids might have been something to keep them together. I think her not having had kids fits into the barren landscape of the whole film.
DP: I think the film is populated with three characters who are past their primes. You talked about adjusting the back story, so if you back five years were they at a higher level?
MT (laughing): A higher level? I don't know what value system we'd be using with these people to say that. Andy was coasting along, making more money, and the denial was in full swing, so our lives felt better every day. I had a backstory like that in my head but adjusted it according to what Sidney wanted.
DP: Did you ask Sidney why he wanted you in particular for this character?
MT: No. That would have been a good idea!
DP: Sidney, why did you go after Marisa Tomei for Gina?
Sidney Lumet: First of all, I fell in love with her in "My Cousin Vinny," and it hasn't abated a bit. When I met her after I saw that film, I couldn't believe she wasn't that character. Every once in awhile, you see a performance and believe they went out and got a nonprofessional who fits the role. I loved her work from that and subsequent work. She's a superb actress. There was another reason why I wanted her. If you know my pictures you know that I don't do sex scenes. I don't do them because I don't believe them. I think I've believed only one sex scene I've ever seen. But I knew I'd have to have the opening sex scene with Andy and Gina in this movie. It was very important that both actors be relaxed. Because if they weren't it would be like every other movie sex scene that I don't believe. I knew that Marisa is totally uninhibited. She's not an exhibitionist by any means but doing nudity and sex it's just another part of acting to her. I was sure that Philip Seymour Hoffman wasn't used to playing those scenes because he's not the conventional leading man, so that was a concern. After we spent three days around a table talking we got up on our feet and started to block the scene just like we'd do in theater. There on the set was the bed. I had written out the description of what would take place very carefully, stating there would be nudity, because there are instances where actors will say, "Oh, I didn't know I'd have to get undressed," and by union regulations you can't make them. So I wrote it out in great detail so they couldn't say they didn't know. So Marisa, bless her, hops on the bed naked, gets on her knees and elbows, slaps her ass and says, "Let's go, Phil!" That was so great because that not only put the scene in its proper place as part of the movie and part of the performance, but also for Philip that must have been such a relief. I was thrilled with her.
DP: Ethan, would Hank have felt guilty over sleeping with his brother's wife Gina?
Ethan Hawke: I think that's one of the more interesting elements of the film. The whole reason why Hank does the robbery is that he's desperate to be close to his brother. He loves his brother and wants his approval so badly. In fact, he wants Andy's approval so badly that he hates him for it. It's where love turns into hate. He sleeps with Gina to be close to his brother and because he hates him. He looks up to and wants to be his brother, he wants to be smart and tough like him, and he wants to fuck his woman. He wants to hurt his brother because he made him feel bad about himself his whole life. He makes him feel small and pathetic, and he teases him with his love and affection. Hank is not that bright. He's not going to win many awards. But Hank's got a lot of love in him. He could sabotage the robbery on purpose, though not consciously.
DP: Philip, If you go back five years, were Andy, Gina, and Hank in their primes?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: I don't think they had a prime. But there was a time they had options that were real and some promise. I think the relationship between Andy and Gina was a good one once. It was very important to me to know what their relationship was like years before. I think they got together a while back, when in their early or mid twenties, and they really were in love at one time. I always had the idea that she worked for him, that she was his secretary and they had a hot affair that had a lot of risk to it. Their relationship was exciting and satisfying. I also needed to know about the family when he was a kid. I think his relationships with all the family members are complicated I don't think Andy and Hank's childhoods were very good. I get the feeling that they had very nice parents who didn't give them much attention. Andy was considered the kid who wouldn't amount to anything and he's the one who amounted to everything. He was the dark horse who became a very successful guy and he was moving up in the business world. And Hank was affable and got married and thought he could make it. There was an okay time for all three characters. But I don't know if they had a prime, but they had promise and that promise led them to a life they didn't want to be in anymore. That's where the movie picks up their story.