With 32 films under his belt, Mark Ruffalo is still waiting for his big break.
Ruffalo has reached a comfortable place in his career, working with everyone from Ang Lee to Martin Scorsese. But the 42-year-old workman-like actor has scraped and clawed to get to where he is today. It began on the stage, with Ruffalo co-founding the Orpheus Theatre Company where he wrote, directed and starred in a number of plays. He earned his living as a bartender those nine years, patiently waiting for a call from Hollywood.
After landing bit parts in films like the off-beat indie comedy “Safe Men” (1998) and Ang Lee’s Civil War Western “Ride with the Devil” (1999), Ruffalo met Kenneth Lonergan. The two began collaborating on plays, and this union eventually led to Ruffalo’s role as the sympathetic, aimless younger brother to Laura Linney in Lonergan’s Academy Award-nominated 2000 indie drama “You Can Count On Me.” Ruffalo received raves for his performance, with some comparing him to a young Marlon Brando. This led to other starring roles in indie films like Jane Campion’s “In the Cut” and Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Although Ruffalo lands leading man roles on the indie circuit, his Hollywood parts have been more narrowly-defined, to say the least, as the journeyman thesp has been relegated to the dopey boyfriend role in chick flicks (“13 Going on 30,” “Just Like Heaven,” “Rumor Has It”) or the archetypal, hard-boiled detective in “Collateral,” “Zodiac” and “Shutter Island.”
The past calendar year has seen Ruffalo’s popularity hit an all-time high, with appearances in the aforementioned Scorsese film “Shutter Island,” the passive boyfriend in “Where the Wild Things Are,” a supporting role in the Steve Carell/Tina Fey comedy “Date Night,” and last but certainly not least, as Paul – the freewheeling, hip vegan restaurateur (and sperm donor) who reconnects with his biological children raised by lesbian couple Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) in writer-director Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right.”
“The Kids Are Alright” has received some of the best reviews of the year to date. And the film’s also connected with audiences. Opening in limited release at seven theaters, the film grossed $491,971 in its first weekend. At $70,282 per theater, “Kids” scored the highest average gross in the year to date. What’s more, there are now rumors that Ruffalo is “in late-stage talks” to play the Incredible Hulk in the upcoming “Avengers” film, in what would be the biggest role of his career.
MMM sat down with Mark Ruffalo to chat about “The Kids Are All Right,” his steamy sex scenes with co-star Julianne Moore, being typecast in Hollywood and his directorial debut, “Sympathy for Delicious”:
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: What made you want to play Paul?
MARK RUFFALO: I thought it was a really interesting turn on kind of an American iconic life character – a kind of Peter Pan bachelor who lives his life purely for his own pleasure. A lot of us have looked up to people like that and wanted to be one. Then he has this really nice turn in it, when he meets his biological kids. They make him a pile of mush.
MMM: How do you think you’d react if you suddenly learned you had grown children you never knew about?
RUFFALO: That would blow me away. That would be a lot to handle. (laughs) I think I could get around to caring for that person. But that would be very disruptive, to say the least.
MMM: Is this role very close to home for you? I know you’re a vegetarian too but when you watch this cool, laid-back character onscreen it just makes the audience say, “I bet Mark Ruffalo is really like this guy.”
RUFFALO: I think I approach life and people with the same kind of attitude that Paul had. I think the guy has a fairly open heart. He’s not too judgmental of people. He’s interested and he’s adventuresome and he’s got a sense of humor to him that I relate to. I don’t have the confidence that he has. I never had the confidence with ladies he had. (laughs) And I wish that I’d found a sperm bank when I was in my early twenties. (laughs) Think of all the wasted talent. But as far as the rest of it, it’s people. It’s an amalgamation of people that I’ve really known and loved over the years.
MMM: At Sundance you had two films – “The Kids Are All Right,” and your directorial debut, “Sympathy for Delicious.” What was the sequence of you directing your film and doing this one?
RUFFALO: I directed my film. I was in post when I got the call for this. It didn’t look like it was going to work out with my schedule to do this. I was literally shooting basically when I had to deliver my movie and I had been away from my family. It was a tough year. So, I was thinking I needed a break. They couldn’t move their dates around, so it sort of looked like it wasn’t going to happen, which was really heartbreaking to me. I was telling my wife about it all the time. In fact, finally she was texting [Julianne Moore] – they’re friends – and she said “What’s up with that movie? I love that movie. Mark loved that movie. What’s going on with it?” They were like, “The part’s open. Would he do it?” She was like, “Yeah, he won’t talk about anything else.” So it kind of came together. I was still editing when we shot it. I had some finishing work to do on the movie, so I was between [the two films]. But I only ended up working really like seven days, I think.
MMM: Was it interesting watching them back-to-back? There was a totally different reception to the two films at Sundance, with “Kids” receiving raves and your film…
RUFFALO: Totally. It was a very wild ride at Sundance. My movie opened to some really mean-spirited reviews that eventually really turned around, but the first round was very painful. Then [“The Kids Are Alright”], which was such a huge success immediately out the gate. And then my movie [“Sympathy for Delicious”] taking a special jury prize at Sundance. It turned out to be incredibly drastic swings between elation and depression throughout the whole thing.
MMM: The outcome for your character is kind of tragic in “The Kids Are Alright.” What did you feel about that?
RUFFALO: Growth is painful. I think he gets spanked. But I like to think that he is going to have a relationship with his kids and that he’s going to buy a minivan. (laughs) You go from the beginning of the movie – that guy doesn’t have to beg a woman for anything. And would never do it, too. Like, begging Jules to stay with him and begging his father’s forgiveness. In a weird way, even that look to his son is begging for something, you know? Some connection. I think that’s a big change for him.
MMM: Do you think he’ll grow from it?
RUFFALO: People change incrementally. I think the whole idea of having a family is possibly being entertained in a more serious way.
MMM: What about being so irresistible that a lesbian can’t refuse him?
RUFFALO: I think Paul is like half a lesbian himself. (laughs) No I’m kidding. You know, he’s got one foot in the door. He had two kids with her. So it’s… I think it’s a confluence of a lot of different circumstances that they end up together. To me, the real telling nature of the relationship is when she’s riding him and using his face like a riding pummel on a horse saddle. That kind of says it all. I don’t think there was really a deep connection other than just purely physical. I don’t know how real that relationship really is.
MMM: I think it addressed some issues that are often debated and put them in an interesting context. Have you met people that you’ve talked to who were in a similar situation?
RUFFALO: I haven’t met anyone who has had this particular situation.
MMM: Well, no, of course, but a man who got involved with a woman who was out of a lesbian relationship or someone who goes back and forth?
RUFFALO: It’s interesting. Lisa is probably the one who could really talk about this. She understands it way better than I do. To make those jumps… I think statistically more people are on the fence than not. When it comes to sex, people have all kinds of kinky things that turn them on that I don’t think always reflect so much who they are. Well, they certainly don’t make it in the movies. Not these kinds of movies.
MMM: You have worked with Julianne before, and you know her outside of working. Did that make it a little easier to do such intense sex scenes with her?
RUFFALO: Yeah. I mean your dream is to work with people who you have a vernacular with, who you’ve worked with, you feel comfortable with. You can work well with people like that. We went through… “Blindness” was a tough experience. It was a hard movie to make. We had a great time, but the subject matter is intense. So you’re going through something. She’s friends with my wife [actress Sunshine Coigney], which certainly doesn’t make it… it’s helpful with doing those sex scenes. (chuckles) To go to work and not have my wife be like, “Are you doing the sex scene today? Who is this girl? You like her, don’t you?” She loves Julie. She trusts her. So, in a weird way, it was a lot easier. (laughs)
MMM: Lisa and Stuart worked on the script for a long time. How complete was Paul as written when you got involved?
RUFFALO: When I read something, a big part of it is daydreaming. I’ll start to get an image of the person. It was pretty clear to me who he was from the script. I mean it’s filtered through my interpretation.
MMM: Were there changes to the character and scenes once you came on board?
RUFFALO: No, it pretty much stayed the same. At some points I’d improvise a line here or there, if I felt like there was a chance for humor in a place. Lisa… I think what makes her such a great director is she really is interested in subtext and what’s happening between the lines, so you had a lot of behavior off the lines, people responding to little looks. Even when the camera is not on you or you’re not speaking, something happens after a scene. Those are the flourishes that you put on as an actor.
MMM: Your indie film roles really seem to display your talents; I think more so than your Hollywood roles.
RUFFALO: You get to do more. (laughs)
MMM: I was wondering if you got frustrated by playing so many cops?
RUFFALO: Well, I’ve gotten to play some great cops. (laughs) Indie films are usually more character driven just because of the nature of it. You can’t do too big of a plot for a start, because you don’t have the time or the money. I’ve worked with real formal filmmakers and very informal filmmakers. Very kind of loose camera I’d say filmmakers. Both have their own challenges. I’d like to get a nice beefy, juicy role in a feature film that was a big, big studio movie. That’s outside of my control. I hope that would happen, but I also feel lucky that I’ve gotten to work with great people and I’ve learned a lot. I wouldn’t begrudge where I’m at.
MMM: Is there more directing coming?
RUFFALO: Yeah. Honestly, by the time I finished this movie last year, I was like, that’s it. I’m done with acting. I’m going to just direct.
MMM: “You Can Count On Me” is my favorite performance of yours. I was just wondering what was happening with “Margaret” [writer/director Kenneth Lonegan’s long-awaited follow-up film, which was filmed in 2005 and starred Ruffalo, Matt Damon and Anna Paquin]?
RUFFALO: Buddy, you and me both. I don’t know what is happening with that. I keep hearing that rumblings that it is coming out any time now…. But you probably know as much about it as I do, honestly.