In the opening scenes of Tennessee Williams’s 1951 play The Rose Tattoo, a tempestuous Italian immigrant named Serafina, is sitting in a state of decadent anticipation. Wine is chilling in an ice bucket; a bowl of roses is overflowing; the room is swathed in rose-patterned wallpaper; her hair “glitters like black coal.” She is waiting for her husband, the love of her life, and every detail of their Gulf Coast home reflects her ardor. But it is both the enduring force of love and its precariousness that Williams seeks to capture; that husband is killed within the first act, and Serafina soon slips into a reclusive, unkempt state. “Snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting is the great magic trick of human existence,” Williams wrote in the forward to the play.
“This play was written for me,” says Marisa Tomei who will play Serafina in the revival when it opens next month at Broadway’s American Airlines theater (previews have already begun). Tomei, an Italian-American romantic who sees the work as a powerful tale of the redemptive power of love, spent part of her summer with her friend and collaborator, make-up artist James Kaliardos, thinking through not only what shade of blush Serafina would have applied, but considering what herbs she would have grown in her garden, how she would have rubbed her elbows with lemons, and softened her feet with pumice stones from the volcanoes of Sicily. (Tomei’s own allegiances are to clean brands such as Intelligent Nutrients and Weleda.) “It’s been so fun to build this character from the inside out,” says Kaliardos. But to really “drop in” to the role, she does her own hair and makeup in the theater to achieve “full Serafina wildness.” In a further commitment to her craft, Tomei—somewhat inadvertently, due to an injury that limited her mobility—spent the summer growing out her underarm hair. “I love it,” she says. “I don’t think I’m ever going back.”
I spoke with Tomei from Paris about her preparation for the role (pasta), the power of building a character from the inside out (and the outside in), and her creative collaboration with Kaliardos.
For someone who is coming at this play knowing just a bit about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or The Glass Menagerie, how would you describe it? It has some ingredients of a classical tragedy, and yet it is transplanted to the American South.
Strangely, this is to me his most joyous play, where sensuality isn’t a death trap, where falling passionately in love can be a fulfilling, life-giving experience. In some other plays, you’re carted off to the mental hospital if you feel that strongly.
Serafina is an immigrant who came to America with her husband and lives in a cloistered enclave. She is madly, madly in love with her husband, and according to the actual dialogue of the play, has sex with him every single night. That bed is the most beautiful heaven that she could ever imagine. That is her religion; but for most of the play, she has pretty much given up religion. She hasn’t really done anything but work as a seamstress and care for her daughter since her husband’s death. Now her daughter is assimilating and coming into her own sexuality, and it’s triggering a lot of feelings for Serafina. The play is about rebirth.
Tennessee Williams wrote the play when he was head-over-heels in love with a man named Frank Merlo who was from a big Italian family. They met when they were overseas, and lived overseas. The play is dedicated “To Frank for Sicily.”
Can you describe how you’ve prepared for this role?
Really it was a lot of eating a lot of pasta—a great gift to be given, so thank you Tennessee Williams! I didn’t know much about the immigrant experience for people who came over between the late 1800s and the late 1920s—what the conditions were, the kind of poverty they were coming from. I watched a lot of great Italian movies and documentaries, particularly about the immigrant experience during that era.
And then in terms of thinking through the physical preparation, James [Kaliardos] has a background in theater and performance, so we’re always delving into characters together. Just today we were vintage shopping, and James said, “What about this for Serafina?” We have a great costume designer, but since we’re here in Paris, we’ve been looking at peasant blouses and ‘50s skits, pieces that might be out of date, but that would also be appealing for a seamstress who could adapt them.
For this character, in terms of fragrance, it’s all about roses—any kind of rose cream, any kind of scent. She’s an intoxicated person, and I love that. When you get that clean, really organic rose smell, not with that edge, it’s really just so heavenly. Skin is very important for this character, and I feel that way for myself. I use Intelligent Nutrients, and a lot of homemade products. Serafina is coming from a tradition of women who know the plants and how to turn them into natural remedies and beauty products. She has her own garden, she has vegetables with a goat, and she is still connected to the land. I have a friend who would say that when Italian women make the salad, they mix it with their hands. Then they have the olive oil and lemon on their hands, when they touch their faces and their chests, and it sinks into their skin.
There's a major transformation in this play; can you talk about how that played out for you in terms of thinking about her self-presentation?
At the beginning, when she’s waiting for her husband, Serafina is perfectly dressed. She’s well-groomed, well-perfumed, her skin is soft, the bedroom is prepared, the antipasti is prepared; she really setting the table for love. And then after her husband is killed, she spends years in just her slip, not leaving the house very often. There’s an incredible scene where she’s trying to get ready for her daughter’s school graduation and she winds up looking like a sad clown with a very dilapidated hat. She can’t even look at herself—this person who at one point was taking such good care of herself.
She lets it go raw. I love her because she goes raw, and then she comes back to herself with that rawness incorporated. Before there’s almost a baroque quality to the quality of her love, and then she returns to the earth, and comes out anew. I injured my arm earlier this summer and it was kind of hard to move it. All my armpit hair is growing back in, and it’s allowed me to be in full Serafina wildness. I love it. I don’t think I’m ever going back.
Originally Appeared on Vogue