Lee Jeans Fetes Marisa Tomei at 'The Rose Tattoo' on Broadway

Samantha Casolari
Marisa Tomei backstage at the American Airlines Theatre in New York, where she’s appearing in 'The Rose Tattoo' through Dec. 8. Tomei is wearing pieces from the Reissue Collection by Lee Jeans.

"I'm happy to be in the company of Rosie the Riveter and Marilyn Monroe — what an amazing combination of tough and vulnerable," the actress says of taking part in the denim brand’s 130th anniversary celebration.

She may hail from Brooklyn, but that’s not what makes Marisa Tomei a tough woman, she says. “I have a certain amount of toughness, but I also think vulnerability is an important trait, in men and in women,” the actress tells The Hollywood Reporter. “To me, vulnerability isn’t about demeanor, but about an honesty and softness in your heart, and really just being open. And in doing so, there’s a toughness in standing up for what you care about and for other people and for authenticity. Being in touch with all of that, and with what connects us all, there’s an aspect of toughness in having those qualities.”

Lee Jeans is currently celebrating its 130th anniversary, and in the lead-up to that event, the company was considering who might be a great example of a modern tough woman, someone who could follow in the footsteps of icons like Rosie the Riveter and Marilyn Monroe, who famously wore a jacket from the denim brand in 1961’s The Misfits. Tomei is currently starring on Broadway in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of The Rose Tattoo, Tennessee Williams’ Tony-winning 1951 play, and her portrayal of Serafina Delle Rose unquestionably meets the actress' description, a widow whose combination of strength and vulnerability carries her through a tragedy and then the courage to accept a new love interest. 

With Lee’s official 130th birthday taking place on Tuesday — the brand was founded on Nov. 19, 1889 — that night’s performance of The Rose Tattoo seemed like the perfect opportunity for a celebration, with a backstage champagne toast featuring Tomei capping the evening. “What we love about Marisa is she exemplifies the confidence and the grace of the modern-day, lovely tough girl,” says Betty Madden, global head of design for Lee Jeans. “She speaks to us as a woman who has broken with tradition and carved a path that is honest and true to herself.” 

That’s certainly true of her latest role, a demanding performance that requires Tomei to be onstage for all but a few minutes of the play’s two-hour, 15-minute running time. “When I first read Tennessee’s words, I wanted so much to be part of Serafina’s world,” Tomei says. “It’s so rare to be able to do everything, from the deepest depths of grief and betrayal and madness and losing your mind to [in the second act] going into something that’s practically screwball comedy. Being able to stretch in all those directions and switch back and forth, every night ends feeling like a wonderful high. It’s a wonderful feeling, like a rebirth.” 

The actress added that part of the fun comes courtesy of the chemistry she enjoys with Emun Elliott, the actor who plays Alvaro Mangiacavallo, who enters at the beginning of The Rose Tattoo’s second act to alter Serafina’s world. “He’s a Scottish actor who came over from Europe to join us in this production,” Tomei explains. “It’s very rare to find somebody who matches your rhythms so wonderfully; he’s like my Fred Astaire. It’s a thrill to play with him every night, because his character is all about disarming Serafina, while also wanting to take care of her and make her laugh. He reawakens her.” 

If Lee needed any further confirmation that Tomei might be the woman to represent a tough, modern ideal, the discovery of a late-1980s photo of the actress in a Lee denim jacket helped seal the deal. “That was right when I was starting out as an actress, when I first went out to L.A. on that first round of auditions,” Tomei recalls as she looks at the image. “I’m rocking the bangs and the hoop earrings and wearing a T-shirt with the jacket — I had been living in [New York’s] East Village and was very much at the crossroads of punk and hip-hop. It was a very exuberant time; the world was an open question, and I was having a lot of fun.”

It’s notable that Lee is choosing to celebrate its 130th anniversary by putting the spotlight on the women’s side of its business. Women who worked in munitions and aircraft factories during World War II — an idea that was collectively symbolized in popular culture as Rosie the Riveter — typically wore men’s denim jeans or coveralls for protection. In 1947, Lee was the first to introduce jeans for women, adding small darts in the yoke of a men’s style to better fit a woman’s figure. A four-piece Reissue Collection that Lee just released highlights that history with three pairs of jeans, including those 1947 originals (in a nice coincidence, their high-waisted detail feels at home among current fashion trends) and an updated take on the Lee Rider jacket worn by Monroe.

“I’m happy to be in the company of Rosie the Riveter and Marilyn Monroe — what an amazing combination of tough and vulnerable,” says Tomei, who participated in a photo shoot featuring the Reissue pieces in her dressing room at the American Airlines Theatre, where The Rose Tattoo is playing through Dec. 8. “When Betty called me and asked me to be part of the 130th celebration, she explained how Lee had broken that barrier in creating jeans for women, and that really appealed to me, especially while we’re in this time period in which we’re opening up so many important areas of discussion about women and pushing boundaries again.”

With only a couple of weeks remaining in The Rose Tattoo’s limited run, what would Tomei like audiences to know about the woman she’s been playing eight times a week since previews kicked off Sept. 19? “She’s just been a joy,” she says. “What drew me to the play is that it’s a woman’s experience in its fullest — she’s unapologetic about her sexuality, but at the same time there’s also been so much repression on her body, a cultural idea of what she is and isn’t allowed to do. And consider that the play was written in the 1950s, and we’re still having these conversations. I’ve really loved taking all of this on and living it every night.”