If Marisa Tomei could be a food, she’d be a hazelnut. ”Because it has a shell, but is soft and sweet inside,” she explains with a giggle. The description sums up her scene-stealing role in the comedy hit My Cousin Vinny in, well, a nutshell. As Joe Pesci’s frustrated fiancée, Tomei is a tough-talking, well-meaning knockout with an uncanny knack for auto mechanics.
The actress grew up in Brooklyn, the daughter of an attorney and a schoolteacher. She attended Boston University for one year, commuting to New York to appear on CBS’ As the World Turns, then dropped out to pursue acting full-time. Though she made brief impressions as Lisa Bonet’s loopy roommate on the first season of A Different World and as the princessy daughter in Oscar, Vinny is her first real chance to strut.
”My friends tell me I’m like an old man,” says Tomei, who is in her mid-20s. ”Sometimes I can be crotchety, but I think it has to do with being attracted to other times and places.” Later this year, audiences will see her range in time from the 1920s — when she plays silent-screen star Mabel Normand in Charlie — to a very modern-day, 16-year-old mother in Equinox.
Tomei, who lives in L.A. and dates a New York writer, is now in Minneapolis ”freezing my tuchis off” shooting The Baboon Heart, a love story that was once slated to star Madonna (until creative differences got in the way). ”Just having my name mentioned in the same article with her completely thrilled me,” says Tomei, who doesn’t seem to be a tough nut to crack.