Marisa Tomei has a new movie out. The King of Staten Island is a Judd Apatow-directed comedy-drama inspired by SNL breakout Pete Davidson’s life, including the death of his firefighter father on 9/11. But it’s Tomei who deserves every accolade for her portrayal of Davidson’s saintly mother Margie.
The King of Staten Island is a moving film that shows New Yorkers’ resilience after tragedy firsthand, which feels especially pertinent at a time when we could all use a little inspiration (and frankly, something good to watch in quarantine). Equal parts touching and darkly funny, the story is grounded in empathy for its protagonist Scott (Davidson), who struggles to accept his painful loss and waddles through a stunted adolescence, causing his mom a great deal of agita as she attempts to move on. Comedian Bill Burr proves his acting chops as Margie’s love interest, who’s also a firefighter, and Maude Apatow steals every scene as Scott’s younger sister, Claire (based on Davidson’s real-life sister Casey).
But in the midst of the film’s release on demand, protests are continuing across the country in response to the killing of George Floyd in police custody, and Tomei has other things on her mind during our Zoom call. Over the past three weeks, Tomei, a longtime activist, has been busy using her platform to guide her 1.2 million Instagram followers toward useful resources, including candid conversations about race from women’s advocacy group Supermajority and nonprofit organizations like the Black Visions Collective and Minnesota Freedom Fund, in hopes of effecting real change.
Here, Tomei discusses The King of Staten Island, ageism in Hollywood, and how she’s supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
In the years since My Cousin Vinny, there have been a host of innocence projects established to exonerate people who’ve been wrongly convicted. Have you been involved at all given your Oscar-winning performance on the witness stand?
I haven’t been directly involved, but I think it’s great. About 15 years ago, there was a play at The Culture Project called The Exonerated that started to make the issue more visible and really helped me understand it more. The arts are very important because it’s what opens our hearts and helps us to understand each other and deep, complex issues.
The King of Staten Island does a good job of that, especially with regard to mental health. What was it like filming there? Do you think Staten Island actually has the best pizza?
[Laughs] Well, my brother happens to be a pizzaiolo, so I think he has the best. But I grew up near Di Fara in Flatbush so that’s the best pizza.
That settles that. What drew you to the project?
It was the whole package of working with Judd [Apatow] and getting to be part of his troupe and being challenged with comedy. If I’m being honest, I thought it was going to be a broader comedy. I was excited about the comic part, but all his films have a lot of emotion to them, and a lot about family. I’m so glad I got to be part of it, because the way he works is very unique and freeing. It was a different approach than I had been involved with before.
Are you referring to his use of improv?
Improv, for sure. He also keeps the cameras rolling. There will be a big pause and someone will scream, “Action!” and you already feel assaulted before you actually start. It’s so scary, like, “Okay! Now we’re gonna go!” But it’s all part of the vibe—you’re still in it and you’re playing around.
Did Pete’s mom, Amy, offer you any advice for the role?
I did speak with her at Judd’s urging. I really wanted to base the character on what was written in the script, but of course I was curious. She’s a terrific person and her perspective isn’t an actor’s perspective, it’s, “This is what was going on, this is my son, this is how much I love him.” I talked to her about being an ER nurse and got her flavor. I wanted to know her and for her to feel safe and comfortable that I was going to be in her world.
Staten Island has its fair share of stereotypes. How did you navigate those in the film?
Each character plays different notes in the movie, so some people could really push those, like [Lynne Koplitz] who plays my sister, or cousin—we never really decided what she was [Laughs]. Some are more broad and lean into it. Pete himself doesn’t even have a strong accent. We weren’t trying to avoid anything, we were just trying to be true to all the different characters.
Hollywood is notoriously tough on women as they age. Do you think it’s odd playing moms, considering how youthful you look?
I find it very odd, frankly. It’s odd in one way and also it’s sadly not odd because there aren’t that many other options. Especially with IMDb, people see a number and think that means a certain thing. It’s like when Gloria Steinem turned 40, people were like, “You’re 40?” And she was like, “This is what 40 looks like.” You’re put on this island where you’re not a full human being or representative of the different experiences women have at different ages. There’s a lot of revolutionary energy right now that we need in every area. We saw the Women’s March and we see this uprising for Black Lives Matter, which has obviously been going on for a long time. This is the moment we can make a lot of change, and there are a lot of -isms that everyone faces until the system changes, and ageism is part of that. I’m not going to be out there with my ageism sign, because that’s not what’s on the agenda right now, but, in the scheme of things, there’s an overriding system that doesn’t let people be their full selves.
On the other hand, Lady Gaga said that she’d want you to play her in a biopic, and she’s 34.
[Laughs] I know! Only she would conceive that. It would be so conceptual. It’s so avant-garde, because, how would that work? She’s much younger. But I think it’s fantastic.
Is there any update on a release date for the new Spider-Man movie?
We were supposed to start shooting it in July, and right now we’re still scheduled to begin in October, but it’s up for grabs.
How does doing a Marvel movie compare to something like The King of Staten Island?
Spider-Man is funny too! [Director] Jon Watts did independent films before, so he really approaches [Spider-Man] that way. It still feels like a small group—me and Tom [Holland] and Zendaya—even though it’s huge. It could be because my scenes are more about relationships, so when I’m there, it doesn’t feel that much different.
You’ve championed women’s empowerment and other political causes. How are you supporting Black Lives Matter?
Like everyone else, I was in this COVID quarantine moment and, just when I was about to shift gears and get back out in the world, this uprising came together. I think it’s wonderful because it gives a lot of focus to an important cause. And…sorry, I’m flustered. You’re the only one who’s asked me about this and I think it’s really beautiful. I’ve been yammering on about other things, but this is the thing. I’m happy that we’re talking about it.
With the country in crisis, what actionable steps do you recommend people take to be strong allies?
You can support Black-owned businesses and switch your dollars there. You can start to think about what defunding the police means—it doesn’t mean that we don’t have a police force. Here in L.A., more than 50 percent of our budget goes to a military operation in a certain sense, so we don’t have as much money for after-school programs or parks. Even though it sounds very radical, it’s just a way to get social services to people by distributing money differently. Filling out the census is really important, because that’s how communities will get the dollars to where they need to go.
On a personal level, always take time for self-care. Breathe, move, and center your thoughts so you’re able to reflect and think about how you can best participate while staying safe. Support each other. Join circles with diverse groups so that hard conversations can be had. Listen to African-American policy. Join the protests but be safe at the same time—wear your mask, bring hand sanitizer and water.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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