Marisa Tomei stepped into Jean Stapleton‘s shoes to play Edith Bunker on “Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All in the Family and The Jeffersons.” Tomei is a previous Oscar winner and three-time nominee.
Tomei recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Zach Laws about playing Edith Bunker, the impact of “All in the Family” and her past awards success. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Marisa, did you feel any kind of intimidation about filling Jean Stapleton’s shoes?
Marisa Tomei: Yes, major intimidation. As deep an honor as it was to be asked It was also an equal amount of hands off. It’s perfection. The thrill of being asked and wanting to participate was also matched with, “How do you even approach this?” The sense of sacredness that I think most people feel for her and for her performance and honoring that sacredness but then stepping into the arena was challenging.
GD: Why do you think it was something that Norman Lear, who created the show, and Jimmy Kimmel, who produced it, why it was something they wanted to do today? This show that was almost 50 years ago, why did it have resonance today?
MT: When you look at the year, that was around 1972 and the country had just been through so much and the year of 1968, everything went wild. Here we have a family trying to figure out how to get along with each other as they love each other but have different political views and making sense of the world around them, which seems to have suddenly been ripped wide open. We have a lot of parallels. A lot of Americans are feeling that way now, how to stay in a family and communicate and love each other, if you feel differently about certain issues, and also how to make sense of the world around us. That can be very anxiety-provoking when things are not how they were.
GD: It’s really striking. I grew up watching the show in reruns. I had a background in it. I know there’s a lot of people who haven’t seen these shows before and to see it performed today, it’s really striking to hear these really frank and open discussions about race and sex and politics and all these kinds of things. Can you talk a bit about the impact of it back when it came on and how that impact is still striking today?
MT: Yeah, I don’t really know what the impact of it was then. I guess I was a little girl when it was on and when I was watching I didn’t understand any of the political overtones. I didn’t understand any of those references and my world was so simple and didn’t realize the world outside our house was so fraught. I was concentrated on Gloria, her sexy relationship with her husband, they were always making out, and who was gonna come to the door next. It was all in that living room. Who’s coming to the door? What’s the outside world going to bring into their little world? I always related more probably to Gloria, although I certainly wasn’t thinking about feminist issues or anything like that but thinking more intensely about Edith and understanding how her heart was with every member of her family and every member of her neighborhood, how much she was the glue in that neighborhood and what her perspective was, how she grew up in so much of a different time, which would be more like my grandmother’s time, what the role women had. It was kind of, “Wow, Archie’s speaking to her like this.” I didn’t know how that was going to affect me and how the audiences were going to hear it now, too. Are they going to be with her? Is there going to be a weird feeling about Edith? There wasn’t because she has such a giant heart which everyone can feel and know it’s written into the fabric of the show that she doesn’t lie and that she’s non-judgmental. They put her on a jury because she would never lie. Criminals melt in front of her. She’s just that person. That strength is underrated but it comes across when the players start playing it.
GD: Yeah, I think one of the endearing qualities of the character has always been she is from a different generation and she grows up with a different worldview of how women relate to men but she has this real strength of character. She’s not simply subservient to Archie’s every whim. She’s a very strong, active character.
MT: Yeah, because love is stronger than politics.
GD: Absolutely. In terms of playing the character, you talked a bit about honoring her legacy and all that stuff. Did you have to set all that stuff aside in order to play it yourself so that you wouldn’t get hung up on how you were doing it?
MT: Yeah, looked a lot to the script itself, looked to some of the early episodes to understand the beginning of the construction of the whole show and how everyone fit into it. Then, I purposely set aside thinking about Jean or really even communing with her. We rehearsed for five days so the third day, a friend of a friend is friends with Jean’s son and he sent a very nice blessing towards me that came through the spirit airwaves that meant a lot to me. It did give me some confidence. Other than that, I just thought, “Let’s just play this. Let’s see how the jokes play. Let’s understand Edith.” Of course, it’s always going to be Jean though too because Jean created Edith with these writers. It’s the long-term relationship. That’s just how it’s going to be. I was hoping that was going to take care of itself and start to sink in and come really from the root rather than from the external. “This is what Jean did. This is how she moved. This was her choice on this line.” I purposely didn’t look at the choices on the lines. I watched the episode we did when Norman first sent it to me but then I said, “I don’t wanna see it.” And then, at the very end before we performed with the audience I did have some time to put aside to kind of commune with Jean and ask for her blessing. That’s how I approached it. The show itself has a lot of the history in how Archie and she and met, where she grew up. One of the big keys for me, it wasn’t necessarily how Jean did it but that the character of Edith loves Kay Kyser and loves Deanna Durbin so she loves these kinds of singers that sing in the way that she sings. That’s what she likes. That was the pop music of her time. When I understood it from its root and then also understood with the costumes, for example, Jean wore green a lot. Edith wore green. Maybe that was just the color that looked good on Jean Stapleton. Who knows? Maybe I should try this color or that color. As it turns out, no. It’s a very well thought out choice because that’s the color that looked really good on the set. It was almost a full circle thing but it had the depth of understanding where it was all coming from. It really made it a joy.
GD: it’s an interesting idea for a special because it’s treating these old shows like they’re a piece of theater. Obviously, we see thousands of productions of “Streetcar” or “Death of a Salesman” but the idea of taking these works and having other actors perform them, it’s an interesting concept. You’ve done theater before. How did those experiences and that training help you with this?
MT: It did help me because I felt like I knew how to pace myself. Five days is not enough rehearsal. I did call Norman and Brent [Miller] and said, “Let’s do a reading, even a week before so that it’ll start marinating.” They went, “That’s not gonna happen.” It certainly helped also knowing that there might be different audience reactions. We had a Tuesday show and we had a Wednesday show and our Wednesday was our live show. Tuesday was our taped show and the audience was a little more subdued. I think all of us on the Wednesday, whether we’ve done theater before or not, and I think everyone has had experience with live performing whether they’re comedians or did theater, we could feel that amped up. We had to listen for the laughs to rise and fall at a different space and timing. It was challenging. It was very out of body, really.
GD: I must assume that rehearsing it is one thing but then actually doing it front of the audience, they change everything.
MT: Of course just feeling out of body for the first time stepping on the set, crying, the nostalgia, how much it means to all of us. It was a very bonding experience because we were all there for the love of the show, the love of the character, the love of Norman. It’s some kind of trippy thing. I was a little kid watching the TV and it’s almost like I swam into the television somehow and I landed on this set.
GD: You get to work with some really great actors in this episode but I wanted to ask specifically about working with Woody Harrelson. That’s such an iconic relationship with Archie and Edith and Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton. How was it working with Woody playing these characters?
MT: It was fantastic. He knew I was scared about the song and that I was tearing my hair out, had Jimmy Burrows wanting us to do it live. That was not at all what we talked about. We did it taped like we had spoken about but each day, Woody would be like, “Come on. Let’s do it. It’ll be fun.” He just had my back. I had his. You have to fall into that right away. On top of all the layers of what you’re talking about, about these iconic characters, there’s also knowing that you’re gonna be live and you have to be there for each other.
GD: You both have to depend on each other, in a sense. You’ve gotta know your stuff, he’s gotta know his stuff and you’ve all gotta be able to work together.
MT: We were all cracking each other up, also. It’s a comedy and we’re all still laughing and having a good time all day long.
GD: You mentioned Jimmy, that’s James Burrows, the man who directed this. He’s directed hundreds if not thousands of hours of iconic sitcoms, going all the way back to the days when “All in the Family” was on the air. Had you worked with him before on anything?
MT: I did one time before. I did a failed pilot with him and I always felt kind of embarrassed. So I felt slightly redeemed after this.
GD: What does he have as a director that helps you as performers perform to this kind of material?
MT: He’s great because he really has you and he’s holding you but he’s also very laid-back and giving you space to explore, letting you go with your instincts but giving you a little nudge here and there, keeping you in the right direction.
GD: He must know what he’s doing. He’s got this, “Mary Tyler Moore,” “Will & Grace, “Cheers.”
MT: And it’s beautiful, too, to see his relationship with Woody and how they have such a history and you see their fondness for each other.
GD: I have to wonder when all this was over, did Norman Lear say anything to you afterwards?
MT: Lyn, his wife, actually. She was the surprise after the Tuesday show, the dress rehearsal. She gave me a lot of encouragement that day. I could also just tell from her smile, too. But of course, Norman was with us at every rehearsal and gave us feedback and kept us honest. There was one day I was like, “Let me see just how far I can go with this,” and he was like, “Bring it down, kid.” (Laughs.)
GD: Given the success of this one-off thing do you think this is something that you guys would ever return to do again, maybe if not necessarily “All in the Family” some other classic sitcom?
MT: I think that Jimmy Kimmel and Norman and that group, that’s why they’re calling it “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” so maybe they might do other ones but I don’t know what they have up their sleeves. This troop of us going and doing all these different ones.
GD: Maybe you could do “The Golden Girls” with you and Woody. Before I let you go, I wanted to ask you, you are an Academy Award winner for “My Cousin Vinny,” you’ve also been nominated again for “In the Bedroom,” “The Wrestler.” First, that victory, what did that mean for you and then the subsequent nominations, what did those mean for you?
MT: These things help your career, or as Ruth Gordon said, “They’re very encouraging.” It gives you a little encouragement but it also helps longevity, which is what all of us actors really want, just get to keep doing what we love to do. They were great experiences within themselves, of course. It’s nice to celebrate that with the troop who made the films together.
GD: Marisa Tomei, thank you so much for your time. Congratulations on your work. It was a pleasure talking to you.