Marisa Tomei, who won an Oscar for her memorable role as Joe Pesci’s streetwise girlfriend in 1992’s “My Cousin Vinny,” has since appeared in a long list of both comic and dramatic features, but one might have expected that even she might have been a bit nervous about doing an extended scene in the sack with Mel Gibson, as she does in Paramount Picture’s holiday offering “What Women Want.” (She plays a coffee-shop clerk whom Gibson’s character has long romanced, and who finally agrees to go out with him, only to prove more aggressive than he is.) But in a recent Dallas interview, the soft-spoken star–very unlike her brash “Vinny” character–said no.
“I didn’t really think about that part until later,” she said, smiling. “It was more like, ‘I really like the role, and I think this is funny.’ I knew he was in it, which made it exciting. But I didn’t think specifically about the day I would be in bed with him. I didn’t think ahead that far. So it was a bonus when I got to that day.”
Tomei has a relatively brief role in “What Women Want”–a few dialogue sequences with Gibson (who plays a chauvinist suddenly able to hear women’s thoughts) and two larger scenes further on, the first in the bedroom and a second when she tracks him down to find out why he didn’t call her afterward–but buzz has already begun that she might be in the running for a second Oscar nomination. The actress credits producer-director Nancy Meyers for much of the success of the picture as a whole (preview audiences have embraced it), and of her own performance.
“Nancy really wrote a lot of it,” Tomei noted. “You could really say ‘written, directed, produced by Nancy Meyers.’ I think the movie’s really smart, much of which is Nancy. It has her all over it.” And, she added, her own contribution depended a great deal on Meyers’ instruction and later editing.
“That was definitely the director,” Tomei said of her scenes. “I didn’t know whether the pitch was going to be right at all. I was worried. I just tried to be real. Certainly that first scene in the bedroom is a really key moment in her [Lola, her character’s] life, so there I felt a little more comfortable with it being big and the pitch being strong. It was just one of those mind-blowing experiences. But in the last scene,” she continued, “I wasn’t sure at all. And Nancy got like thirty takes per angle, not even per scene…. So we did it a lot, to the point where you didn’t even know. So my pitch was probably all over the place, and I asked her later, ‘Was it always the last few that you used?’ And she said, ‘No, it was all over–beginning, middle, and end.’ She would…pick from all over [in editing].”
“The director is always involved in the pitch of the scene,” Tomei went on to observe, “because it’s their vision. They know what the climax of the movie is going to be, they have a sense of where they want to go, what they want to emphasize, what they want to throw away. I find that in choosing a pitch for a scene, the director has to have a clear vision for it in order for you to play it.”
As for doing comedic or dramatic parts, Tomei went back to her cardinal acting rule. “I think it’s just good to keep it real, whatever it is,” she said. “Just go for reality whatever genre it is, and that’s what will work. If the material or the circumstance [in a comedy] is funny, the scene will be funny. And when it’s not funny, it’s not real.” Thanks to Tomei, Gibson, and a large supporting cast (including Helen Hunt and Alan Alda), many viewers are sure to find “What Women Want” both very real and very funny.