Let's Be Real: Toni Collette and Marisa Tomei Star in Will Eno's New Play The Realistic Joneses

By Stuart Miller
May 12, 2014

Toni Collette and Marisa Tomei stop being polite and start getting real in Will Eno's new play about friends and neighbors, love and life, The Realistic Joneses.



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An interview with Toni Collette and Marisa Tomei was somewhat like an evening at Will Eno's The Realistic Joneses, in which they're co-starring with Tracy Letts and Michael C. Hall: There was warmth and humor and an unusual connection that had them finishing each others' sentences even though they just met, but the conversation also skittered sideways into a curious dead-end or two, creating a sense of unknowing, of life as enigma.

Collette started by offering a cup of tea, a moment of bonding over distaste for our spouse's coffee habits and self-effacing jokes about the mess she keeps making with her own tea. During the interview about the show, she was vibrant and open... until she suddenly stopped.

While discussing being able to "go with the flow" she suddenly said, "I have a tattoo on my body because of this very subject."

"Because you went with the flow?" Tomei inquired.

"No, because I find it hard to go with the flow," Collette explained, adding that "At least I'm aware of it. It's..."

She paused, said, "Oh, why am I talking about my tattoo?" and withdrew briefly. Attention shifted to Tomei who deflected the notion of a potential tattoo on the subject with a burst of laughter.

The morning was filled with her effusive ebullience. Even after the interview, a reference to her brother's long ago high school misdeeds brought out more joking around. She turned serious, even secretive, however, when pressed about her acting.

Both women play neighbors with the last name Jones and with husbands facing the same rare, debilitating illness, but on the similarities and differences between her and her character Tomei said, "I don't like to think about those things, especially when we're in the soup, in the marination process."

Collette also prefers to just "let it happen" though after a role is done, she's comfortable making those connections. But Tomei said, "there's an overemphasis on how transformative you are and whether the character is like you or not."

Acting is magical, she said, and she's distrustful of critics and fans who deify actors for gaining 20 pounds or who, in this information age, overanalyze what makes a performance work. "Parsing it does a disservice that can harm my process," she said. "Sometimes I feel like saying, 'I don't know,' and let that be okay to protect the unconscious. Of course we have our craft, but it's a shamanic act."

Toni Collette
Photo by Joan Marcus

Collette chimed in that it's like a "merging of souls" between actor and character and then the conversation relaxes again, with the two women briefly merging their souls. "There's something of every actor in the role they play because it's their individual take on the character," Collette said, "It's not who they are but it's the way they see it, it's..." pausing to find the image she wanted, Tomei finished the thought, "just their lens."

The two Joneses have been keeping up with each other in terms of accolades and awards: Collette acted in a half-dozen plays from 1990 to 1992 in her hometown of Sydney, Australia, earned Golden Globe nominations for the films "Muriel's Wedding" and "Little Miss Sunshine," an Oscar nomination for "The Sixth Sense," and both an Emmy and Golden Globe Award for the television series "United States of Tara." She has been so busy with movies like "The Way Way Back," "Enough Said" and "A Long Way Down," plus the television series "Hostages," that she has been away from the stage since 2000, when she earned a Tony nomination in The Wild Party, her Broadway debut.

Brooklyn-born Tomei first made a name for herself Off-Broadway, winning a Theatre World Award in 1986 for Daughters, then became a star for her Oscar-winning role in "My Cousin Vinny;" she later earned nominations for "In the Bedroom" and "The Wrestler." An original member of the Naked Angels theatre group, she has maintained a more steady stage presence — despite living in Los Angeles she keeps her New York apartment so she can more easily say yes to plays — with numerous Off-Broadway roles and three Broadway appearances in the last 16 years, including Top Girls, for which she garnered a Drama Desk nod in 2008.

Eno said both women fit his work perfectly. "They're able to take something seriously and see the absurdity or silliness of it. Both can be funny without reaching for laughs, but by opening themselves up."

"Both women have the technical precision Will's writing requires," added director Sam Gold, "but you are able to relate to them like they are the woman next door, which they are in the play."

Rehearsals have been a lovefest — the women sing the praises of their co-stars, Eno, and Gold, saying the process has been truly collaborative. "I love this part," Tomei said of rehearsals. "I like being in this room — the wood dance floors and just an empty space with a bunch of people coming in to play," and Collette, again finishing the thought, added, "and then it takes on its own energy. That's the most exciting part, all these different people come together with their love for one piece of writing and with everyone's input it becomes its own entity."

The conversation was flowing so smoothly at this point but then suddenly the reporter drew a complete blank on his next question, leaving an awkward silence. Tomei laughed heartily. "That's completely like the play — you should just end the interview like that. Just a little head scratch and a sigh and that's it."

So that's it.