Marisa Tomei Is the Best Part of 'The King of Staten Island'

Photo credit: Mary Cybulski - Universal
Marisa Tomei has released a new film. The King of Staten Island is a comedy drama staged by Judd Apatow and inspired by the life of SNL outbreak Pete Davidson, including the death of his firefighter on September 11th. But it is Tomei who deserves every award for her portrayal of Davidson's holy mother Margie.
The King of Staten Island is a moving film that shows New Yorkers' resilience after a tragedy at first hand, which feels particularly relevant when we could all use a little inspiration (and frankly, something good that we see in quarantine can). Equally touching and darkly funny, the story is based on empathy for the protagonist Scott (Davidson), who has difficulty accepting his painful loss and waddles through a stunted youth, which causes a lot of excitement for his mother as she tries to keep going . Comedian Bill Burr shows his acting skills as Margie's love interest, who is also a fireman, and Maude Apatow steals every scene as Scott's younger sister Claire (based on Davidson's real sister Casey).
But in the middle of the release of the film on demand, protests continue across the country to respond to George Floyd's murder in police custody, and Tomei has other thoughts during our zoom call. For the past three weeks, Tomei, a longtime activist, has been busy using her platform to guide her 1.2 million Instagram followers to useful resources, including open-ended discussions about the race of the women's group Supermajority and nonprofits such as Black Visions Collective and Minnesota Freedom Funds, hoping to bring about real change.
Here Tomei talks about the King of Staten Island, ageism in Hollywood and how she supports the Black Lives Matter movement.
In the years since My Cousin Vinny, numerous innocent projects have been launched to relieve people who have been wrongfully sentenced. Were you even involved in your Oscar-winning performance at the witness stand?
I wasn't directly involved, but I think it's great. About 15 years ago, The Culture Project had a play called The Exonerated that made the topic more visible and really helped me to understand it better. The arts are very important because they open our hearts and help us understand each other and deep, complex issues.
The King of Staten Island does a good job, especially with regard to mental health. What was it like to film 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, that's the best pizza.
That’s it. What moved you to the project?
It was the whole package of working with Judd [Apatow], becoming part of his company and being challenged with comedy. To be honest, I thought it was going to be a bigger comedy. I loved the comic part, but all of his films have a lot of emotions and a lot about the family. I am so glad that I was allowed to be part of it because its way of working is very unique and liberating. It was a different approach than before.
Photo credit: Kevin Mazur / Universal Pictures
Are you referring to its use of improvisation?
Improv sure. It also keeps the cameras running. There will be a big pause and someone will shout "Action!" and you feel attacked before you actually start. It's so scary like, "Okay! Let's go!" But it's all part of the mood - you're still there and playing around.
Did Pete's mother Amy give you advice on the role?
I spoke to her at Judd's insistence. I really wanted to base the character on what was written in the script, but of course I was curious. She is a great person and her perspective is not an actor's perspective, but: "It was going on, this is my son, I love him so much." I talked to her about being a nurse in the emergency room and got her taste. I wanted to get to know her so that she felt safe and comfortable that I would be in her world.
Staten Island has a fair share of stereotypes. How did you navigate this in the film?
Each character plays different notes in the film, so some people could really push them, like [Lynne Koplitz], who my sister or cousin plays - we never really decided what she was [laughs]. Some are wider and lean in. Pete doesn't even have a strong accent. We didn't try to avoid anything, we just tried to stay true to all the different characters.
Photo credit: Mary Cybulski - Universal
Hollywood is notoriously tough for women as they get older. Do you find it strange to play mothers considering how young you look?
I honestly find it very strange. It's strange in some ways, and unfortunately not weird either, because there aren't that many other options. Especially at IMDb, people see a number and think that it means a certain thing. When Gloria Steinem turned 40, people said, "You are 40?" And she said, "This is what 40 looks like." You are on this island where you are not a full-fledged person or a representative of the different experiences women have had in different age groups. There is a lot of revolutionary energy that we need in every area right now. We saw the women's march and we see this uprising for Black Lives Matter, which obviously has been going on for a long time. This is the moment when we can change a lot, and there are many -isms that everyone faces until the system changes, and ageism is part of it. I will not be out there with my Ageism sign because that is not on the agenda at the moment, but in the scheme of things there is an overarching system that does not allow people to be their whole selves.
On the other hand, Lady Gaga said that she wants you to play her in a biopic and she is 34.
[Laughs] I know! Only she would imagine that. It would be so conceptual. It's so avant-garde, because how would that work? She is much younger. But I think it's fantastic.
Is there an update to a release date for the new Spider-Man film?
We should start shooting in July and for now we should start in October, but it is clear.
Photo credit: Photo credit: Mary Cybulski / Un
How do you compare a Marvel movie to something like The King of Staten Island?
Spider-Man is funny too! [Director] Jon Watts previously made independent films, so he really does [Spider-Man] like that. It still feels like a small group - me and Tom [Holland] and Zendaya - even though it's huge. It could be that my scenes are more about relationships. When I'm there, it doesn't feel that different.
They have campaigned for women's empowerment and other political issues. How do you support Black Lives Matter?
Like everyone else, I was in COVID quarantine at this point, and just as I was about to change gear and return to the world, this rebellion came together. I think it's wonderful because it pays a lot of attention to an important thing. And ... sorry I'm nervous. You're the only one who asked me about it and I think it's really nice. I was whining about other things, but that's the thing. I am happy that we talk about it.
Given the country in crisis, what actionable steps do you recommend to be strong allies?
You can support black owned companies and change their dollars there. You can think about what it means to defuse the police - that doesn't mean we don't have a police force. Here in LA, in a sense, more than 50 percent of our budget goes into a military operation, so we don't have that much money for extracurricular programs or parks. Although it sounds very radical, it's only one way to provide social services to people by distributing money differently. Filling out the census is really important because it helps communities get the dollars where they need to go.
Always take time for self-sufficiency on a personal level. Breathe, move and center your thoughts so that you can think about them and how you can best participate while you are safe. To support one another. Join circles with different groups so that tough conversations can be held. Listen to African American politics. Take part in the protests, but be safe at the same time - wear your mask, bring hand sanitizer and water.
For reasons of clarity, this interview was edited and condensed.
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