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Interview with Concetta Tomei

By Beth Herstein

Concetta Tomei (right) with Jennifer Garner in Cyrano
Concetta Tomei exudes warmth. From the moment I meet her, just inside the stage door of the Richard Rogers theater, she puts me at my ease. During the interview she not only talks but listens, expressing an interest in my own goals and passions. She stops periodically to chat with the lighting director, the company's masseuse ("You saved my life today - again!"), and co-producer Barbara Manocherian, who tells me, "We're so blessed that she flew in from Los Angeles to be in this show." And, until the interview ends and she has to hurry backstage, she acts as if she has all the time in the world to talk to me about her career, her current Broadway role as the Duenna to Jennifer Garner's Roxanne in the current production of Cyrano de Bergerac, and the importance of pursuing one's dreams.

Beth Herstein:  You're from Wisconsin.

Concetta Tomei:  Kenosha, Wisconsin. Right between Milwaukee and Chicago.

BH:  And, you started out as a teacher.

CT:  Yes, I graduated from University of Wisconsin and then taught seventh grade English and social studies. I loved teaching. In fact, I still get messages from my students. I get notes and some of the students come and see me perform. A few of my students came to see me perform at ACT, in Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession. It was great fun. Of course, it shows you exactly how much time has gone by, but it's great to know that they have taken such an interest in my life. I always write back to them.

BH:  Did you plan on becoming a performer?

CT:  No, never. I have always had the dream. I owe my entire career to my mom and dad, because they allowed me to follow that dream, and then they supported that dream financially. They wanted me to go to the University of Wisconsin. That's where all my cousins went. They wanted me to get a degree first. I always wanted to be an actress since I was 16, but I honored that. Then, after four years of teaching - I loved teaching, but it's not my passion. I wanted to see if I had any acting talent, or anything to offer. My parents said ok, holding their breath. I auditioned at the Goodman School in Chicago. When I was accepted, I thought there was a mistake. (Laughs) I read the letter and thought, "Oh, this couldn't possibly be right." I put it in the drawer, but then they rewrote me and asked for my fee, which was about $50. So, I thought, "Oh, my gosh, I guess I did get accepted." My mother and father gave me their blessing, and my dad worked two jobs to put me through.

BH:  What did he do?

CT:  He was a law enforcement officer in Wisconsin, for 34 years. I lost him six years ago, on November 1, which was the same date as my opening night for Cyrano. I thought it was a great sign, because my mother and father were so supportive. I had a wonderful early morning dream, the morning of the opening. I went into my childhood bedroom, and I pulled open the drapes, and there, outside my window, hundreds of white roses were growing. My parents always sent me roses on my opening night, [wherever I was working]. I woke up and I told my husband [Norman Moltar, Jr.], who'd flown in from L.A. to be with me for that week, "Norman, my mother and father are here. They gave me a sign." It was very profound. Of course, I was weeping the whole day. But everything went fine. And I'm so proud to be doing my fourth Broadway play.

BH:  You first appeared on Broadway in 1980 in The Elephant Man, which starred David Bowie. You went on tour with him in the show as well. What was it like working on that show with him?

CT:  David Bowie was a gentleman par excellence. I worked with him for eight weeks. What a wonderful actor, and what a really enlightened person. Quite spiritually grounded, and so down to earth. This is a person you could talk to like a person in your family, or a friend. He was available to everyone. There was a sort of shyness about him, but he probably had to learn that because of his fame. He was an event in and of himself, just walking down the street. But, just like Jennifer [Garner] comes out after Cyrano and signs autographs, David did the same thing. He is a really fine person, and a generous actor to work with. Also, he was always willing to learn. He didn't have all the answers. That was his first Broadway show. I was stunned [at what a natural he was].

A gentleman and a gentle man, in all the best sense of those words. I understand he lives in New York. It would be lovely to bump into him and say, "Remember me? I played your Madge Kendall!" He signed an 8 by 10 glossy for me, "To my one and true Madge."

BH:  You also have had a long association with the Public Theater.

CT:  Oh, yes! My beloved Mr. Papp. I never called him "Joe," I always called him "Mr. Papp." He was, I believe, responsible for my theater name in New York City. It took me three years to get into the Public Theater. I did all these auditions, and I couldn't get arrested. Then, all of sudden (claps) I couldn't get out of the Public Theater. Working four shows [Richard III, A Private View, Fen and The Normal Heart], and with the crème de la crème. Richard Jordan, Caryl Churchill, David Strathairn, Pamela Reed, Robin Bartlett, Kevin Kline. It was quite an honor.

BH:  I'd noticed that you'd performed with Kevin Kline before.

CT:  I played Queen Elizabeth opposite his Richard III, and Marian Seldes played Margaret. She was fabulous, she's always fabulous. If anyone was born with panache, it was Marian Seldes. That was in 1983 - so, 24 years ago, which was the last time I worked with Kevin. He hasn't missed a beat, from then till now.

BH:  You also were in the original production of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart at the Public [in 1985].

CT:  Yes, I was, with my beloved Brad Davis. What a consummate actor he was. It was a great, great production. And, it was an event.

BH:  It must have been something, performing in that show back then, just four years after Gay Men's Health Crisis was founded.

CT:   Sure, that's exactly when it was happening. We had people sitting in the audience that had Kaposi's Sarcoma; they had spots all over them. People who were dying of the disease in the audience, every night. They just filled the house. And, then we'd talk to them afterwards. It was a really profound experience.

I left New York not long after that show, in December of 1985. I did Noises Off on Broadway with Carole Shelley, and I did The Normal Heart. Those were the last two shows I did in New York. Then I took off for Los Angeles to do a play [Peter Parnell's Romance Language] at the Mark Taper Forum, that Jack O'Brien directed. And, I just stayed there. I never thought I'd get any work there. But, I'm based there now.

BH:  You've worked very steadily.

CT:  Yes. I was in China Beach and Providence, shows that were so well written and had such good production values.

BH:  I saw Cyrano with a friend who is a big fan of your work in [the 1988-91 television series] China Beach.

CT:  That was a great show. I loved being in that show. It was really brutal work, 18 hour days. But the production values were so wonderful. [Co-star] Marg Helgenberger said it was like a film noir, the way it was filmed. It really was. And all the stories were true, based on Vietnam stories from veterans. Bill Broyles, the executive producer and creator, and John Sacret Young, the co-creator and executive producer [made sure of that]. Bill Broyles was a radio dispatcher in Vietnam when he was 17. It was a really powerful show.

BH:  I also wanted to ask you about The Clean House at Lincoln Center. You were wonderful in that part. The whole cast was terrific.

CT:  Fabulous cast, wasn't it? It was a great ensemble production. It was a blessing in so many ways, to do that show. Blair Brown, whom everyone calls the Mayor of New York, because she's been here and has done so many plays. Even though she has had a wonderful career in film and television, she really bases herself in theater and loves the theater ... Jill Clayburgh, too, I'm such a fan. John Dossett is just a dream of a human being. And Vanessa Aspillaga was brilliant as the Brazilian maid Mathilde.

When I was offered the audition, I worried about the Argentinian accent. I began working in Los Angeles with a dialect coach. I had two weeks [to get the dialect right]. When it came time to audition, I was alright, but I still wasn't sure. I auditioned anyway, just because I wanted to meet [playwright] Sara Ruhl and [director] Bill Rauch and Daniel Swee, the fabulous casting director from Lincoln Center. When I got the part, I got two more dialect coaches. It was a tidal wave of a role.

My mother died of the same thing as my character, bone cancer. I was so grateful that she was able to fly out here and see the show. She complained a little [about pain] while she was here, but [when she got back home] she found out that she had cancer and I flew back home to be with her. She died December 14, and the show ran until January 28. I had to die the same death that she did, every night. Some people have said maybe it was a part of my healing.

BH:  Do you think it was?

CT:  I don't know. It's still probably too close. But, on some level it probably was a healing experience. We were very close. She was my best friend. After my father died, she moved into a guest house on our property, 20 feet from my house. My husband, who is a prince, [welcomed her there].

BH:  What does your husband do?

CT:  He's an attorney and a businessman in Los Angeles. He owns a business called Trader Boys [a successful office furniture store] that his father, Norman Senior, started 60 years ago in Los Angeles. He was an attorney, went to school at USC and became a partner at a maritime law firm. Then he didn't want to be a litigator anymore. So he and his younger sister Melissa run the family business now. He loves it. It's so important to have a passion. You have to have a love of what you do. So many people hate their jobs ... I was so lucky to find an occupation that I love with all my heart.

BH:  It's also wonderful that you have the ability to appreciate that.

CT:  That's why I owe so much to my parents. Being from the Italian culture, family was first, and education. For me to leave the professional world after four years of teaching in Wisconsin and then hit the streets of New York and Los Angeles to be an actress! (Laughs) It was startling, to say the least. My parents were dumbfounded. Except they always knew me, and they knew my dreams. I had honored them with the degree, and then they honored me by letting me follow my dreams.

BH:  Which was a gift.

CT:  It was a great gift, because if they had said, "No, you can't do it," I wouldn't have done it, Beth. I wouldn't have fought. I would never have fought, because I adored them and respected them. So, I wouldn't be sitting here doing my fourth Broadway show if it weren't for them.

BH:  How did you get this part?

CT:  It was wild. I was cast in Richard II at Yale Rep [this fall]. I was going to do the Duchess of Gloucester and the Duchess of York. I was all set to go to Yale, and I got this call from my agent saying, "We're doing Cyrano de Bergerac and they want you to audition." We hadn't signed any contracts [for Richard II yet] ... So I came to New York on the 13th of August, to audition on the 14th. On the 15th I found out I got it. I sent Evan Yionoulis, the director of Richard II, a bonsai plant, and I wrote her a letter, apologizing profusely. I just saw her at the opening night party for Cyrano, and she introduced herself. So I met her, and I met her two daughters, which was lovely. [Yionoulis] is a wonderful director, I understand, and she's a very sweet woman. And, her husband is Don Holder [the lighting designer for Cyrano]. A brilliant lighting designer. I didn't know they were married before that night.

And, so that's how I got in here, and I feel so honored to be part of this production.

BH:  What has it been like? The show has such a large cast.

CT:  It's one of the sweetest groups of people I've ever worked with. You know, the leads and the director dictate the climate of the show. When you have the divine Mr. Kline and the gorgeous Ms. Garner and the devoted Daniel Sunjata - also a really sweet man. And, David Leveaux loves what he does. He's a wonderful director. He loves actors. He loves staging. It just runs through his pores. So, that dictates what your production will be like. If you don't have happy leads and a happy director, you are capsized. But, these people all have a passion for what they do, exactly what we were talking about before, and it showed throughout every day of the rehearsal.

Then we have Charlotte Wilcox, the general manager. My gosh, she knows the name of everybody including the little mouse who lives in the corner of the Richard Rogers basement. Not that we have any mice here, but she does.

All of us are very grateful to be here, and Kevin has really led us through this maze. Kevin is so much fun, and he makes everyone feel at home. That's so important when you have a star like that.

BH:  He also is such a great actor, and he has such a facility with the language in this show.

CT:  Absolutely! Consummate. He's like a musician. Actually, he is a musician. He is a phenomenal pianist. His father owned a music store.

Also, you have Jennifer [Garner], who comes from television and film, but loves the theater and is so committed, really, to doing this show that she turned down the lead in a motion picture to do this show. Jennifer has a two-year-old daughter, Violet, who's absolutely the smartest little thing on wheels.

BH:  Is her daughter around?

CT:  Oh, yes. Jennifer's a hands-on mother and Violet's always here, except at night when she has to go to sleep. Really, a sweet girl. From West Virginia, down to earth. Kevin is from the midwest, I'm from Wisconsin. It just feels like I'm in my hometown.

BH:  You're also working with Euan Morton, whom I interviewed when he was in Measure for Pleasure and he had just released his CD, New Clear. He's so charming.

CT:  Oh, my God. The birds off the trees, the bricks off the walls. He's such a great actor, such a wonderful character actor. There's never a stigma in New York when you say someone's a wonderful character actor. There's a stigma in Los Angeles about that, because the film mentality is a completely different one. I always think of myself as a character actress, and yet I know [as part of that] that I could do a leading lady role ... You also work a lot longer if you can do that. And, Euan is a great actor, but also a great character actor. His range is enormous. We also have the same agent, so I hope we get cast in something together that we have more to do in. That is the challenge to me of playing the Duenna.

BH:  I want to ask you about that. How do you create a full character with a few scenes?

CT:  And no lines, basically. The show was cut and cut and cut, and of course the smaller supporting roles had to be sacrificed. Some of Kevin's lines were cut and some of Jennifer's lines, but ours are usually the first to go. With that little to do, it's a real challenge.

And, also, the costumes! They're cloud nine costumes, like you're on cloud nine. You float through them, even though they're about 25 pounds apiece or more. They're just so spectacular. But it threw me as the Duenna because I thought of her as wearing earth tones, as if she were an earth mother. The costume informs you, as does the dialogue, everything that you could possibly use. The props, the footwear, everything. So, when I was given these costumes and I look like this fabulous, expensive French pastry, I had to work against what I had thought of the Duenna to be. I thought, "Oh, my God. I guess I'm not an earth mother." But, this was how [costume designer] Gregory Gale and David Leveaux had envisioned her. So, you've got to go with both your conception and theirs, and compromise. It still has to work for the actor, or else it doesn't work for the audience.

All of that was a challenge, and that's why this was one of the hardest roles I've ever been given.

BH:  How did you work through that?

CT:  Instead of trying to be "creative," I listened to the dialogue and what everyone else on stage was saying about my character. Not much was said there. I read other adaptations of Cyrano, and tried to get more of a background of who she was. Kevin had another adaptation, I can't remember which one it was because there are so many of them, and he said, "Look at these scenes with the duenna." So I looked at what he had found and what I had found myself, and then I let her flow through me. I let her inform me.

What was so terrifying was that she didn't come quickly. It wasn't until the performing of her that she surfaced. In a rehearsal, you usually get the character, and then it changes. Then you go into previews, and it changes again. Then, you go into tech and it changes again, and then you have 1300 people [in the audience] and it changes again. Normally. But, usually you have it early on. Or, I do. This time, I didn't have her. So, I was a wreck. It was a great lesson to me as an actress, to be able to garden with rich dirt but very little seed.

BH:  I have had to learn the same lesson with my writing. You don't have to answer all the questions at once. You have to trust that the answers will come.

CT:  Yes. You have to have faith, and you have to trust. You trust the character. You trust the dialogue. You obviously have to trust the director and the other actors around you. But, you've also got to trust the inner voice. You don't have to be an actor for this to be true. Actors may hear that voice more, because we have to create and give birth to many different lives. That's our job. But all of us have an inner voice. And, if you listen to it, that's what's the most truthful. What it boils down to is instinct. You have to trust your instincts. Don't try to position your instinct, don't try to direct your instinct. Just embrace your instinct. Even if it's something that may not feel right, the intuitive knowing is always accurate. That comes from the spirit. And, I believe whatever people believe in the spirit, in the light, it surrounds all of us.

BH:  Speaking about trusting your instincts and going with your heart, I understand you're a huge animal lover and animal rights activist.

CT:  Oh, yes. I rescued about 200 cats in New York and 200 in Los Angeles. Dogs that were tied to parking meters and abandoned, I'd take them off the parking meters and bring them to my vet and try to find homes for them. I used to have six cats and a dog. Now, I'm down to one cat and one dog. But, I love animals.

Today, it's hard for me to do [rescue work] myself. So, I give my money to organizations that really need it. Some of my dressers from The Clean House rescued cats at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. They need a lot of help there, so that's my new interest. It's important because this is hard work to do.

I also delegate now. If I see an animal who needs help, I know a lot of the rescue workers. I call one of them and say, "Go to 48th and whatever." I always do that. I never walk by. I can't.

BH:  You mentioned how good it is to be back in New York. Do you think you'll be sticking around?

CT:  I would love to. I hope there's a wonderful project just around the corner to surprise me with. My husband is so supportive of my dreams, just as my mother and father were. The only hard thing would be that it separates us. It's 300 miles away, and he's only able to come once every five weeks, which is hard. But, he says, it's just so important for you to fulfill your dreams. There's nothing worse than a dream unfulfilled - or deferred, as Langston Hughes said. That road taken, or the road not taken. It makes all the difference in a life.

Cyrano at the Richard Rodgers Theatre through December 23. For tickets and schedule, visit

Photo: Carol Rosegg

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