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Marisa Tomei on Playing Aunt May in ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming,’ Sequels and Hollywood Sexism

After one Oscar win, two nominations, and roles in more than 60 movies, Marisa Tomei needs no introduction. Yet playing Aunt May in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” has changed the energy around her. She noticed it on the day of her interview with Variety when a disdainful contractor in her Manhattan building in the West Village suddenly offered a welcoming smile. “He pulled out a picture for me to sign for his son,” Tomei recalled, with a laugh.

With nearly $500 million in box office receipts worldwide, “Spider-Man” is one of the biggest hits of the year. The reboot of the comic-book series features Tom Holland as a high-school web slinger. And his Aunt May is hipper, too, than the version played by Rosemary Harris in the 2002 tentpole. Tomei spoke to Variety about not watching other “Spider-Men” films and how she found the character.

How has the reception been to your “Spider-Man?”
I think the most gratifying has been the reaction from the super fans. They are really happy and their standards are very exacting.

Is it true that Marvel pitched her to you as a sexy Aunt May?
I don’t know if Marvel said it. My agents said it to me. I think they were trying to disarm me, because how would they know if I’d seen the comics. And then when I saw the parasol and the high-Victorian collar, I was like, “Is she just loony?” I think they were trying to pre-empt my terror, which didn’t work, because I was like, “Why do they keep saying that?” It’s not like that one quality is a character. I don’t even know what that means in the scheme of things. It’s confusing, because you’re an aunt.

Was there a script when they offered the part to you?
No. It all happened pretty fast before “Captain America: Civil War” [where Tomei had a cameo] was shooting. But there was a concept of Spider-Man being in high school. I didn’t know the franchise. And then I was told about Aunt May, and I said, “The only aunt I really want to play is Auntie Mame, because I love her and revere Rosalind Russell as the broad that I can really get behind.” It took me a while to understand the concept of who she was in the Marvel universe and how much of a blank slate there was going to be in terms of her attitude. I didn’t really know where she was coming from. And then I found out afterward, mostly, the elements that were really important to keep was that she was the home fire and very intimate with him.

Had you seen the other “Spider-Man” movies?
I had not.

Have you seen them now?
No. I kept meaning to, but I guess I ultimately felt like it was more useful to not. I didn’t want to shut myself down in reverence.

How did you and Tom prepare?
Well, it all happened so quickly, at least for the “Civil War” part of it, that was really establishing everything. There was the excitement of being on this large compound in Atlanta, flying down there and seeing this whole world. And how incredibly well oiled and astute the whole team behind these films are. And getting caught up in the whirlwind of the excitement behind it. That first day was about that rush of energy together. He just made me laugh so much. It was very easy to fall into the lovely rhythm with him.

How many more “Spider-Man” movies will you be doing?
As many as they want. There will be a lot of surprises because the end of the film is a new twist. That leaves a creative door wide open. It leads to some really exciting possibilities.

Do you know what happens in the sequel?
No, no. I’m not sure if anybody does.

Would you want Aunt May to have an action scene?
Why are you just limiting me to one? We did talk a lot, [the director] Jon Watts and I, about Spider-Man being a community hero. Maybe May was a community organizer or invested in the neighborhood, getting his values from that. At one point, we talked about her rescuing a kid. It never made it to filming, but it’s all there in the soup. First, we thought maybe she’d be a lawyer for the public interest, but ultimately we stopped on publishing. We questioned how much of the parenting did Ben do and how much did May do. It kind of seemed maybe Ben was someone she met in school. Maybe he was her professor in grad school. And she had a bit of a sisterly relationship with Peter, and took the reigns when she had to, when Ben was killed. That was kind of our backstory.

There’s been an ongoing dialogue about the lack of equality for women in Hollywood. Do you think with the success of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Wonder Woman,” this year can represent a tipping point?
We’ve been at this point before. There’s a groundswell, and it seems to not really tip over. I think it will take a top-down kind of change. For example, what Ryan Murphy is doing with his 50/50 project is incredible, where he’s really making a mandate from inside the studios and have the agents support it, that there be a change.

When did you first notice that you were treated differently in Hollywood because you’re a woman?
When I first started getting scripts to read, and the description of the female characters were very specific about how she looked and said utterly ridiculous things like, “She’s so beautiful but she doesn’t know it.” Really? That’s how you’re supposed to play that? I was very confused by that as a young actress. How do I translate what they’re looking for? You don’t. At one point, I wanted to do an art project, just cutting out all those descriptions, because they were very different than the male descriptions. I noticed they are not as bad now.

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