When Marisa Tomei was asked to play Aunt May in the recently released Spider-Man: Homecoming, she had never read the comic books. So when she first laid eyes on Peter Parker’s caretaker as she’s traditionally drawn—gray-haired, elderly, and possibly Victorian—she was a bit surprised. “It was a bit like, Has it come to this?!” Tomei, 52, told InStyle editor-in-chief Laura Brown.
But in the new film, Aunt May has been re-imagined as a younger, sexier, high-waisted-jeans-wearing cool aunt—a polarizing decision that, on Twitter, has received outrage, applause, and its very own hashtag: #SexyAuntMay.
It’s not the first age-defying role that Tomei has played. At 44, she famously appeared topless while portraying a stripper in The Wrestler, a performance that won her an Oscar. “I thought: Oh my god, what have I done? I’m naked, freezing my tatas off in some rank bar!” she said, laughing. “But afterwards, women would come up to me and say thank you...It seemed that women felt marginalized after a certain age and this made them feel visible and viable.”
Laura Brown: When you were cast in Spider-Man: Homecoming, people couldn't fathom Aunt May being portrayed as young and sexy. Why do you think fans latch onto a quality like age?
Marisa Tomei: They’re beloved characters. There’s an iconography to the actual drawings of the comics themselves, and it’s cozy. But their function is still the same. That’s what I tried to keep, and I think Marvel tried to keep. She’s still the home[maker], she still cares about him, and she’s really the person he’s most intimate with. All the essentials are still there.
LB: How did the role come about? How do you metabolize a role that’s gone through so many different people and iterations?
MT: It all happened so fast, and within a week [of getting the offer], I was in the project. I discovered May is basically a Victorian character. She basically has a parasol, a high Victorian collar, a low bun, and I thought: She’s an eccentric, old broad. It was a bit like, 'Has it come to this?' And then I thought, 'You know what? I’m down with it!' But Marvel had a very clear vision that just worked, making everybody younger. We had a lot of conversations about what her contribution is to Peter Parker, where he gets his values from—and, of course, I was also very interested in the high-waisted pants.
LB: You said it was going to be Aunt May mixed with Tony Stark. What would you choose as Aunt May’s weapon—high-waisted pants?
MT: I suppose so! I think there’s a place for her in Ant Man, I keep thinking also. I want the cross-pollination.
LB: When have you felt the most physically confident—and the least?
MT: You know, I didn’t feel so great about my body until I met a friend of mine, while in my 20s, who had breasts around the same size as mine—we are on the smaller side. And I saw how she carried herself and how she felt beautiful and sexy. It kind of changed my whole thinking. It also still changes depending on your mental attitude, I think. I got really sick when we shot Spider-Man. I didn’t feel so great because I couldn’t really exercise, but it was fine ultimately.
LB: You’ve said you feel more confident in your body as you’ve gotten older. True?
MT: I felt more confident being naked on screen as I got older, and I was glad I didn’t do it when I was younger. With the things that people say, it’s easier when you get older to go: That’s their projection, not me. It comes back to the word projection—what people want from me and trying to make everyone feel that.
LB: What roles do people most commonly recognize you for?
MT: It’s a lot of, “My grandma loves you from As the World Turns,” which was my first job on a soap opera a long time ago. Then there’s a lot of high-fiving around [the Cosby Show spinoff] A Different World.
LB: Actual high-fiving?
MT: Yes! Then there’s the people that got married in Positano because of Only You, and they’re like, “We went to Amalfi because of that movie!” And there’s single ladies and the women of a certain age who are way into The Wrestler and feel very re-sexualized because of that film.
LB: What was is about that movie that spoke to them?
MT: I was pretty surprised at myself, at the time. I thought: 'Oh my god, what have I done? This is the death knell for my career—I’m naked, freezing my tatas off in some rank bar in Newark.' Of course, it was with a master filmmaker, but it was scary. I went: 'Why did I decide to do this now?' I did think it could be seen as a desperate move. I was 44 when I did it, and I just thought it’s a little long in the tooth to be taking off all my clothes!
But the surprise was that afterwards, women would come up to me and say thank you. I thought: 'Why thank me? What did this mean to them?' Over a number of conversations, it seemed that women felt marginalized after a certain age, and this made them feel visible and viable.
LB: What reaction does Cousin Vinny get?
MT: Little girls do the foul-mouthed killing of the deer speech, and that’s absolutely adorable. People send their little 5-year-olds to recite it.
LB: You were cast as Gloria Steinem in the HBO miniseries about her life that’s in development. Are you still doing that?
MT: Yes—it’s been several iterations, and we’re going to bring it on home!
LB: I think, in a way, she’s quite an every woman. She demonstrates that it’s alright to love clothes—that doesn’t undermine anything. You don’t have to have a manifesto every minute of the day.
MT: She’s an enigma. It’s going to be a challenge playing her.
LB: Do you ever rely on your characters to help you play out real-life situations—like if you have to negotiate something or stand up for yourself?
MT: No, but I do think of other [real] people. The other day, I had to [come up with a difficult] answer, and for some reason I was like, what would Salma Hayek do?
LB: What would she do?!
MT: I perceive her as being forthright but intelligent, with a great sense of humor.
LB: Who are your mates in the business, actors you’ve grown up with? How do you compare your experiences, 30 years into your careers?
MT: Lisa Bonet, her daughter Zoe Kravitz—she’s my goddaughter—Cree Summer, who was on [A Different World]. That was the original [crew] because that was my first, very visible job. The soap opera I was on, As the World Turns, I overlapped a little with Julianne Moore, so we go back a long way.
LB: How do you get over vanity on screen? Was there a moment in your career when you were like: 'Okay, I’m dropping my self-consciousness?'
MT: When I’m dressed up and in character, I don’t feel it as acutely. It comes out more in photo shoots, actually. I don’t like getting my photo taken because it’s less of a character. And then on the set, you just hope that the lighting [is good]. It’s always good to snuggle up to the cinematographer and talk to the gaffer. You have to know your lighting set up—you try to learn that over the years.
LB: Your skin is so good. What do you do for it?
MT: I drink a lot of water. I’m an inside-out person. I think what you eat and how you take care of yourself [matters]. It took a long time for me to learn how to spend time [on that]. I’m also still a Cetaphil person, and there’s this organic line Persephone from LA whose moisturizer I use.
LB: And your hair—do you color it?
MT: Of course I color it! Who knows when I started? I was always dying my hair different colors. I liked that a lot. Now I’ve kind of settled into this warm, [brown shade].
LB: How did you celebrate your fiftieth birthday?
MT: I had a party in LA—a dance party! And also a big brunch. I'm glad I'm still dancing a lot.
LB: Do you believe in dressing your age? How does your style change through different periods of your life?
MT: I'm into more classic lines. And I’ve always been a vintage person, for sure. I still enjoy finding those treasures. I think less—I’m doing a lot of cleaning out of my closets over the past few years, which feels good.
LB: Has your thinking about ambition changed in the last years? You could rest on your laurels and breathe if you wanted to.
MT: Ambition is a very interesting topic. The drive is still there. I still have lots of passion for what I do, and I want to keep doing it, and that requires putting some elbow grease into the business aspect of it. But I also find that lately, I feel like I can say: I am who I am. I’m more comfortable. I have so many interests, and making a mark is not really at the top of that.