The confusing thing was that having seen Tomei perform live only a couple of weeks before in a stirring production of the 1935 Odets play Waiting For Lefty, I had somehow been convinced that she was an exception to the rule - easily 5ft 10in. So it was hard to believe that the woman who had commanded the stage was the same person as the delicate creature who appeared before me now, wearing a nervous smile on her face, very little make-up and only a pair of sunglasses pushed up above her forehead to hint at star status. Noticing me, she smiled more broadly and held out a slim hand, which I shook, hoping I wouldn't crush hers. I felt oddly as though I should apologise for daring to be a wee bit taller than a woman who'd won an Oscar the second time she'd ever acted on film - in the comedy My Cousin Vinnie.
"I'm starving," she announced and we ordered a massive tea; lemon curd tarts, pesto and tomato sandwiches, scones and a pot of tea. She is slim, had her brown hair pulled back and wore a white leather jacket over a black turtleneck and cigarette pants with low-heeled mules in a zebra ponyhide print. I noticed a tiny tattoo near her ankle, but by then I already knew she was far too decent a person to subject to undignified queries about body decoration. Anyway, there were other things I wanted to know more.
It was not her performances in My Cousin Vinnie, or Only You, or The Perez Family, or even her upcoming films Unhook The Stars and Welcome To Sarajevo that had made me want to meet Tomei. It was the fact that she had chosen to perform in Joanne Woodward's off-Broadway play when she might have been acting in films; that she was living in New York, not to mention my neighbourhood, when she should have been in California; and that she had been hanging out at Mare Chiaro and Anarchy Cafe when she could have gained entry to the Viper Room, or some other celluloid Olympus.
What could possibly make an in-demand film actress hide out from Hollywood in order to take ill-paid, left-wing theatre jobs in non-Broadway locations? "I want to be a hoofer," she said, then burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of the word. "Really. It's always been a secret dream of mine. When I was a kid in Brooklyn, we didn't have a VCR, so my brother and I would stay up late and watch musicals on television. I took tap dancing lessons and acted - I wanted the whole triple threat; acting, dancing and singing. That was my goal: to relive the Forties model of how it used to be done in America. Besides, I grew up here, and my family is here, and my friends are here."
She sounded rather like an innocent in an MGM oldie, explaining why she had chosen to marry her high-school sweetheart and settle down; which did not make what she was saying seem any less reasonable. In her opinion, she explained, the whole field of acting has strayed too far from what she calls "genuine feeling, passion, and action". "A lot of the new plays don't show people taking direction in their lives," she says cautiously. "They all seem to be about being afraid, caught in inner struggle, and feeling impotent. As an actor, its frustrating, because your role is not to be strong or passionate, but to be confused. I think the best parts are in the theatre," she says, but she is the first to acknowledge that admirable film roles do exist, and that she has found some of them. "I was glad to work on The Perez Family because the director was a woman - Mira Nair - and because my part was not only a leading lady, she was a strong character role." However, she is on the look-out for another play back in her hometown. As a few other stage and screen hybrids have discovered lately, she who can make movies while the sun shines can do O'Neill, if she wishes, in winter.
Tomei began her acting career here in the late Eighties, hooking up with a rising theatre group called Naked Angels, most of whose actors and playwrights have since gone on to wider fame. The group performed new and old plays throughout the city, and in the past few years, when a few other young Hollywood actors - among them Ethan Hawke, Mary Louise Parker and Matthew Broderick - evinced a taste for theatre, Naked Angels reached out to work in association with assorted small acting companies, such as the Manhattan Class Company, Woodward's Blue Light and Hawke's Malaparte. "I believe all these different theatre companies should all help each other," Tomei says, and points out that, unlike London, New York's theatre is not state-subsidised. Hollywood actors who yearn for the footlights have to subsidise themselves on off-Broadway until they can make it to the Great White Way itself - as Glenn Close, Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker have already done. Tomei has not acted on Broadway - "Yet," she says meaningfully.
Since her speaking and singing role in Lefty "liberated" her, as she describes it, her post-high-school fears of singing in public are in abeyance, and she is now contemplating a musical. Which musical would she want to perform most of all? "Sweet Charity," Tomei smiles. And then, rising, she collects herself, says goodbye and, smiling tentatively again just as at the beginning, clasps my shoulder and treats me to a friendsy New York cheek-cheek goodbye kiss volley. As she leaves, I could swear - she's taller than me again.
Unhook The Stars opens on 4 July.Reuse content