Marisa Tomei is quirky as Aunt May in Spider-Man: Homecoming

Actress Marisa Tomei plays the guardian of Peter Parker, a student who moonlights as the superhero in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Actress Marisa Tomei plays the guardian of Peter Parker, a student who moonlights as the superhero in Spider-Man: Homecoming.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - "Pardon my glasses," Marisa Tomei said one morning as she sat down for breakfast in an oversized pair of tinted prescription spectacles.

"That's the touch of Aunt May."

This summer, Tomei becomes the latest actress to assume the mantle of Aunt May, the kindly guardian of Peter Parker, a student who moonlights as superhero Spider-Man.

In her earliest comic-book appearances, Aunt May is presented as a delicate older woman. In previous iterations of the Spider-Man movie series, she has been played by Rosemary Harris and Sally Field.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) reboots the franchise and restores Parker to an adolescent high schooler. A new Aunt May was called for too.

Enter Tomei, 52, the Academy Award-winning star of My Cousin Vinny (1992), who hopes to put her stamp on the role while respecting the character's roots.

Her Aunt May can be exuberant and quirky and still sometimes wears her hair in a bun.

"I'm bridging the concepts," said Tomei, who can turn on a dime from self-deprecation to quiet introspection. "You've got to pass the torch."

Tomei also spoke about sustaining a 30-year acting career and her Oscars experience. These are edited excerpts.

How did you feel when you learnt who Aunt May was and how she was depicted in the comics?

I went through the whole negotiation without knowing. They just kept saying "an iconic character".

It sounds kind of ridiculous, but it all happened very quickly. Everything happened within maybe 10 days. And then the illustration was revealed to me.

But you did not feel they were asking you to play a dowdy widow?

There is nothing wrong with that depiction of the character. I don't want to be coming from an ageist point of view about that at all.

It was my own personal cross to bear at that moment. But in the scope of things, why not?

I thought, maybe I should lean into that and go full-on silver hair. Instead, we gave her long hair.

How do you maintain longevity over an acting career?

Once actors become known, they often get pigeon-holed. They get depressed. Morose. Bitter. No, we're staying away from that. I did two plays this past year (The Rose Tattoo at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and How To Transcend A Happy Marriage for Lincoln Center Theater) and Spider-Man.

All of them were very rich experiences and very different.

Of course, I'm always fighting whatever stereotypes one gets into and trying to change them. Not because of some cerebral approach to it, but more from a soulful approach.

You also got to play a villainous executive on TV show Empire, which I imagine was a fun departure for you.

It was also challenging to me, to be that authoritative and b***hy, really. The suits helped. I have played a handful of sunny people and I would like to do something where I get to be either obnoxious or dark and angry.

It is hard for me to feel that way. That is a whole other psychological dive, I suppose.

What is it like to win an Academy Award so early in your film career?

I don't know what other people were expecting of me, really. I certainly was just at the beginning, so I didn't have any of those strange expectations of myself.

You were the victim of a false, nasty rumour that you had won your Oscar for Best Supporting Actress because a presenter said your name by mistake and nobody corrected it there and then. Did this year's Oscars mix-up (La La Land was announced as Best Picture winner, but that was quickly corrected to Moonlight) provide some validation: Now we really know what happens when the wrong name is announced?

When I was younger, it hurt my feelings. It made me quite ashamed. But, on the other hand, it is a load of (expletive).

I think it had to do more with the role that I played (in My Cousin Vinny) - that it was comedic and that it wasn't upper-class. I think it was more of a class thing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2017, with the headline 'Marisa Tomei's take on Aunt May'. Print Edition | Subscribe