Academy Award winner Marisa Tomei is currently unleashing a tour de force performance as Serafina Delle Rose, an Italian widow who rekindles her desire for love and life, in Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of The Rose Tattoo. She recently sat down with Roundabout’s education dramaturg, Ted Sod, to discuss her process, her personal connection to the role — and what it means to bring this fiery Tennessee Williams woman to life.
Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated, and where did you get your training as an actor?
Marisa Tomei: I was born in Brooklyn. My training is an ongoing process learning from many different teachers and different sources: literature, feminist studies, spiritual texts, inspired by Carol Burnett, Giuletta Mesina, and many others. More in the vein of traditional acting: Fred Kareman, Nancy Donahue, Natsuko Ohama, Joan Lader. As well as my Aunt Eileen Delgado and Fred Albee, who taught me to tap dance. I have studied with Kate McGregor-Stuart for most of my life. She is someone who I still work with to this day. I met her when I was in my early twenties, and we’ve had a life long relationship of pondering plays and movie scripts and laughing and learning together.
TS: Why did you choose to do this role? Why do you feel it is important to do this play now?
MT: Tennessee Williams wrote this when he was very much in love with his longtime companion Frank Merlo. It’s a real journey of rebirth. It lifts my spirit. This play is about pure joy, ecstasy, the Dionysian spirit, and the human heart bursting open. It’s the joy of Feeling. I think it’s important to do this play now because the play’s mysticism and poetry are extremely uplifting, especially in the context of the intense grief in our world right now.
Also, I’m a quarter Sicilian, yet that part wasn’t really paid attention to in my family. It was certainly not honored; it was a bit degraded. Through this play, I reclaimed Sicily and a part of my mother’s lineage. Great roles bring so many things to your life that you were never expecting. They start to whisper to parts of your soul that you had tucked away. I experienced that with this play. I think that any great work is going to give the performer – and all the theatre-makers – surprises for their souls.
TS: What research did you do in order to play Serafina?
MT: The name Serafina means “fiery one.” She is a character who is re-experiencing joy through laughter and eroticism, getting out of the depths of her grief and the betrayal she experiences. I studied Southern Italian song, dance, history, and Healing Ways, as well as the Black Madonna Herself. I am diving into the feelings of what it means to emigrate. Serafina is an immigrant finding her way. She’s a self-made woman supporting herself and her daughter. She’s been ostracized and degraded. There’s a too-long tradition of women being repressed by the culture and the church. For example, a lot of women shut down and one of the ways they found to come back to life was through song and movement. Tarantella is a “Spider Dance.” The Dance was a mini-exorcism for women to come back to their life force and unleash their repressed sexual energy. Serafina taps into that energy.
TS: What is your understanding of the relationship between Serafina and her daughter Rosa?
MT: Serafina probably met her husband and immigrated to America when she was very young, around her daughter’s age now, and her daughter is coming into her own raw sensuality. There’s some kind of resistance and transference going on that is enraging Serafina, but at the same time, she understands. Her heart is so soft. Serafina has so many opinions and she is fierce. She really melts when love is brought into the conversation. She understands where her daughter is coming from ultimately.
Also, there’s a disconnect because her daughter is first-generation Sicilian-American. All the rules that Serafina grew up with, which are very strict regarding how women are to behave in relation to men and what their place is in society, are absolutely up for grabs now. I don’t think she was expecting that her core customs were going to be shaken by her own daughter.
TS: What do you look for from a director when you are working on a role like this?
MT: A sense of play and humor in the rehearsal room throughout the process is paramount. I look for a collaborative spirit, a director who creates a safe space where actors can make mistakes and surprise one another. I look for someone who is not solely intellectual; someone who respects the instincts that the body brings forth. Trip is a joy to work with. He has a great laugh and unending passion for the project.
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