Marisa Tomei stars in 'The Lincoln Lawyer'

Actress Marisa Tomei arrives at the 83rd Annual Actress Marisa Tomei arrives at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards held at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, California. (Feb. 27, 2011) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Marisa Tomei asks lots of questions. About "5 million," director Brad Furman jokes, recalling their first meeting, when she grilled him on every aspect of his filmmaking process. No wonder she nabbed that Academy Award, he thought.

His film, "The Lincoln Lawyer," based on Michael Connelly's bestseller and due out March 18, stars Matthew McConaughey as Mick, a slippery L.A. lawyer who spends so much time in his car that it's become his office; and Ryan Phillippe as his client, a spoiled rich kid who may -- or may not -- be a freaky psycho killer.

Tomei, 46, plays Maggie, a prosecutor and Mick's sultry ex -- and a far cry from the big-haired, foot-stompin' Mona Lisa Vito, the role in 1992's "My Cousin Vinny" that earned her an Oscar for best supporting actress.

Since then, she's done big studio comedies ("Wild Hogs"), indie dramas (with Oscar nominations for "In the Bedroom" and "The Wrestler") and Broadway ("Top Girls," "Salome").

This year's roles prove just as diverse. She opens next month in the emotional Off-Broadway play "Marie and Bruce" at The New Group (thenewgroup.org); co-stars with Steve Carell in the screwball comedy "Crazy Stupid Love," out this summer; and is currently shooting "The Ides of March," a political drama directed by and starring George Clooney.

She recently chatted with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio about leading men, Mom and her link to Lady Gaga.

What drew you to this script?

It's a good mystery. A brain teaser -- a really good popcorn movie, you know? And I like how it's shot. It's not the L.A. you usually see. It's the underbelly. These odd neighborhoods. [Furman] almost brings an indie spirit to a classic mystery.

And working with Matthew McConaughey?

He's really loose. He does a lot of improvising.

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Do you prefer that to rehearsing?

Well . . . it depends on the piece. Sometimes it's better to come to it fresh and see what happens. I'd met Matthew once or twice and was impressed with his ease. He's done a lot of romantic comedies, and I like the way he's so good at throwing the ball back 'n' forth. He's strong, but he's not too cool to engage.

So, what's a nice Brooklyn gal like you doing living in L.A.?

Yeah. But I'm coming back to New York this month. For "Marie and Bruce," Off-Broadway.

You're Marie?

And Frank Whaley is Bruce. I LOOOOVE him. He is soooo gooood. We play a couple having . . . a miserable moment in their marriage. But they still love each other very much. And trying to decide if they should stay together. It's . . . tough.

What do you crave from New York -- what's the first thing you do when you get back?

Oh, this is gonna be . . . so corny. My parents live around the corner from me in the Village. So, the first thing I look forward to doing is . . . I get to go over, have a home-cooked meal and reconnect with the family. I like that. My mom, she's always luring me over with something. She'll call me up and say, "I made some fresh lentil soup." Or, "We have fresh pasta today." [Laughs.] She knows what works.

How goes "The Ides of March"? It's about the dirty dealings of a political campaign, right?

I play a political reporter. I'm going back and forth between shooting that in Cincinnati and rehearsing this play. They were able to work it out -- I'm so grateful I'm able to do both.

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Must be lousy working with that Clooney guy.

Ohhhh, it's just awwwwful. . . . I've never had a worse job in my life. Big laugh. I heard, "How lucky you are to be in a George Clooney film. He has the best crews, he has the best this and that" -- this is all what George Clooney told me, mind you. And I said, OK, we'll see. But he really lived up to all those promises. It's been a fantastic experience.

And then there's . . . your recent surprise from Lady Gaga. How'd you hear about it?

Actually, I heard because my Aunt Arlene, who lives in Park Slope, sent the family an e-mail about it. So . . . I dunno. Aunt Arlene knew about that one.

It's a nice compliment -- Gaga's asked who she thinks should play her in a movie about her life, and she says you. She's a big fan.

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I was thrilled when I heard. I love her. I love her music. And she's a smart businesswoman. So, I was so touched, really. I think it's incredible that she likes my work and that she'd think of me in that way. I thought it was great.

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