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Paper Doll

In discussing her new film, "The Paper," Oscar-winning actress Marisa Tomei reveals a vivd imagination and a fondness for the neighbors.What goes through an Oscar nominee's mind as she sits in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, before a TV...

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In discussing her new film, "The Paper," Oscar-winning actress Marisa Tomei reveals a vivd imagination and a fondness for the neighbors.

What goes through an Oscar nominee's mind as she sits in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, before a TV audience of 1 billion people?

If she's Marisa Tomei, everything.

"I'm thinking, 'OK, this is just a ceremony, it's an initiation,' " says Tomei.

On the other hand, she admits to visions of Whitney Houston in the Academy Awards scene in "The Bodyguard."

It's been a year since Tomei picked up the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the smart-talking, stiletto-wearing Mona Lisa Vito in "My Cousin Vinny" -- only her third film, if you count her one line in "The Flamingo Kid." "It seemed so unreal, it seems unreal now when I think about it," Tomei says. "It was great and there was this great party and all, but at the same time I didn't really know anyone. This year, I'll know more people."

She sure will. Last year, she even got to meet the Queen of England while she was in London to promote "Charlie," Richard Attenborough's film about Chaplin.

"It was amazing," she recalls. "You line up in the royal waiting room -- they call it the Royal Holding Area -- and she comes by and shakes everyone's hand. Actually, she extends her hand and you respond. Then she gives her little sound bite to each person. I really talked more with the king [Prince Philip]. He asked what part I had and I started going on way too much. He finally said, 'OK, that's nice,' and moved on," she says, laughing.

Today she meets an elderly, gravel-voiced man who approaches her in the diner where she's being interviewed. He tells her how much he liked her in "My Cousin Vinny."

"Didn't you think that was sweet?" she asks when he's gone. "I love when that happens in New York because everyone's such a character here. But people are normally so guarded, so when that happens I get to connect with them in a way most people don't. It's like, 'Say hello to the neighbors!,"' she says in a Mr. Rogers sort of way.
But Tomei's Oscar has brought her more than fame. It's given her "meatier" roles, like the lead in "Just in Time" (due out in June) about a woman who visits a tarot-card reader and learns the name of her soulmate. Tomei doesn't approve of the title, saying, "It kind of gives it away, don't you think?"

She's also up for a part in Mira Nair's "Viva Cuba," and, in fact, is leaving for the island later that week. And in March, in addition to working on stage in a Naked Angels production of "Fat Men in Skirts," her latest film, "The Paper," will open.

In "The Paper," Tomei is a former reporter who is married to the managing editor (Michael Keaton) of a New York daily (modeled after the New York Post). She's also eight-and-a-half-months pregnant.

"I'm a little nervous about it right now," Tomei confesses, explaining that she hasn't seen the final edit. "But I loved doing it. I even kept that thing on [a prosthesis of a pregnant belly] when I wasn't shooting. I walked around the city and went out to the Hamptons, it was great. Little grandmas would come up and talk to me -- it was that neighbor thing again!"

If an Oscar has helped Tomei get beyond such roles as a crazy woman on "As The World Turns," and Lisa Bonet's roommate on "A Different World," it hasn't made her enjoy giving interviews.

"It only seems like I'd have something profound to say," she says facetiously. "I don't."

As Tomei prepares to leave the diner and pulls her peacoat on over her basic navy suit -- not an outfit that would land her on People's worst-dressed list, as she was in October -- she grapples with the question of how an Oscar has changed things.

After searching, perhaps for something profound to say, she finally offers, "More phone calls?" But that's not good enough. Ten minutes after she's left the diner, she comes racing back in.

"I thought of it in the taxi," she says. "Deeper moments of self confidence and deeper moments of self doubt."
And, she gets to say hello to the neighbors.