Profile & Interview: Mark Ruffalo
by Carlo Cavagna
LEFT: Mark Ruffalo stars in We Don't Live Here Anymore
ou're a struggling actor/bartender. You appear in a smattering of dreadful straight-to-video movies. You work in the theater, and you try writing for the screen and the stage. You earn some higher profile opportunities, but the films tank. Finally, after a decade, you get your big break. A critical smash. Awards and nominations. You score a part opposite Robert Redford and a major role in a John Woo picture. You're all set to star for M. Night Shymalan. Then, just as you're poised to become a major star, you're diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Man, that has got to suck.
For Mark Ruffalo's career, however, it was just a speed bump.
Ruffalo was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 1967 and spent his childhood there before his Italian-American family relocated to Virginia Beach for Ruffalo's teenage years. He found his way to Los Angeles at eighteen, enrolling in the Stella Adler Conservatory, where he trained with Joanne Linville. After a few years, Ruffalo began venturing into L.A. theater and independent film, making his stage debut in Avenue A at The Cast Theater in Hollywood, where he went on to perform in several Justin Tanner plays, including Tent Show and Still Life with Vacuum Salesman (gotta love that title!). In film, his career began with bit parts in cult horror like Mirror, Mirror 2: Raven Dance (1994), The Dentist (1996), and who can forget the classic Mirror, Mirror 3: The Voyeur (1995)?
Ruffalo then tried his hand at screenwriting, co-authoring The Destiny of Marty Fine, which despite success at Slamdance in 1995 (first runner-up) never saw a theatrical release. At least by this time he began landing lead roles in these movies no one saw, like the Hollywood satire The Last Big Thing (1998), A Fish in a Bathtub (1999), a feature-film vehicle for real-life couple Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara (Jason Alexander's cantankerous parents on Seinfeld), and the romantic comedy Life/Drawing (1999), also never released.
Undettered, Ruffalo continued auditioning tirelessly, and was rewarded with small roles in real movies, like 54 (1998) with Mike Myers, the Steve Zahn/Sam Rockwell comedy Safe Men (1998), Ang Lee's civil war epic Ride With the Devil (1999), and the Heather Graham comic vehicle Committed (2000). All of these films were box office failures, however, and failed to provide Ruffalo with his big break.
That break came with an off-Broadway role that took Ruffalo to New York City. The play was This Is Our Youth (for which Ruffalo won a Lucille Lortel Award for Best Actor), and the playwright was Kenneth Lonergan. Ruffalo persuaded Lonergan to audition him for Lonergan's directorial feature-film debut, and he got the part.
That small independent film was You Can Count on Me. It had a pretty big year, kicking off 2000 with the Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance, and closing it with two Oscar nominations (for Laura Linney as Best Actress and for Best Original Screenplay). With his sensitive portrayal of Linney's irresponsible, rootless younger brother who comes between Linney and her sheltered son (Rory Culkin), Ruffalo turned heads. For himself, Ruffalo won the Best Actor prize at the Montreal Film Festival, the New Generation Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and nods from assorted other groups.
Also in 2000, Ruffalo met his wife, actor Sunrise Coigney, and became a father the following year. Offers rolled in from Rod Lurie (to star with Robert Redford and James Gandolfini in the prison action/drama The Last Castle), John Woo (for a supporting role alongside Nicolas Cage in the World War II epic Windtalkers), and M. Night Shyamalan (to star with Mel Gibson and Rory Culkin again in Signs).
That's when Ruffalo got the horrifying news about a brain tumor, forcing him to drop out of Signs. The tumor proved to be benign, but the removal operation resulted in partial paralysis. Ruffalo worked hard to get back. The paralysis was temporary, and after many months of rehabbing, Ruffalo was ready to return to work.
Though it was probably the least of Ruffalo's concerns at the moment, the brain tumor seemingly could not have come at a worse time for his career. The Signs role, which went to Joaquin Phoenix, might have propelled him onto the A-list. Stardom does not interest Ruffalo, though. Sure, he acknowledges that a certain degree of success is necessary to shape your career the way you want. “The way this business works is that—and these are the cold, hard facts—you have to have commercial success in order to have choices,” he told the Toronto Sun prior to the release of 13 Going on 30 (2004), in which he played Jennifer Gardner's love interest. Another commercial attempt came a year earlier opposite Gwyneth Paltrow (just after Ruffalo resumed working), in the comedy flop A View from the Top (2003).
Despite the occasional foray into commercialism, Ruffalo is making the films he wants to make. His other post-recovery choices were stoutly independent. He was the center of a complex love triangle in Austin Chick's critically acclaimed XX/XY (2003), and a homicide detective romantically entangled with Meg Ryan in Jane Campion's less acclaimed In the Cut (2003). Also in 2003, he played terminally ill Sarah Polley's lover in My Life Without Me.
2004 kicked off with 13 Going on 30 and a notable turn as a computer nerd with a pompadour in the Charlie Kaufman-scripted, Michel Gondry-directed brain-twister Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Now he has two additional films in theaters—the sleek Michael Mann thriller Collateral with Tom Cruise, and John Curran's We Don't Live Here Anymore, an indie in which he stars with Naomi Watts, Laura Dern, and Peter Krause. Financing We Don't Live Here Anymore was difficult, and to protect Curran's creative freedom, Watts and Ruffalo took on producer and executive producer duties, respectively.
Based on two stories by Andre Dubus (who also wrote “Killings,” the basis of In the Bedroom), We Don't Live Here Anymore concerns two couples in crisis who initiate extramarital affairs with one another. Ruffalo is Jack Linden, whose general disaffection and marathon battles with wife Terry (Laura Dern) lead him into the bed of his best friend's wife, Edith (Naomi Watts). The cast is excellent, and with a troubled, tender, angry, compulsive, and passionate performance, Ruffalo is the anchor. This talented actor has definitely shed the shiftless stoner typecast that some associate with him from You Can Count on Me. With the brain tumor behind him, Ruffalo's career is looking very bright indeed.
The following is drawn from two roundtable interviews given by Ruffalo in Los Angeles in 2004. In them, Ruffalo talks about bringing We Don't Live Here Anymore to the screen, his roles in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Collateral, and the shiftless stoner typecast, though he concedes that You Can Count on Me may be the best thing he's ever done.
Question: What keeps drawing you to the quirky relationship drama?
Ruffalo: [laughs] The quirkiness, pretty much. I like a light pitter patter, you know. Something that's light and bouncy and frothy.
Question: Do you consider We Don't Live Here Anymore light? You're dealing with some serious themes.
Ruffalo: Aw, this is like a— Are you kidding? You didn't get the humor of it?
Question: I get that it's adultery.
Ruffalo: Yeah, it is adultery. I was aware that this was a darker subject matter. And, you know, it's better than blowing people up.
Question: Which you've done.
Ruffalo: Yes, which I've done, and didn't love that. And so, I don't know, I read this, and I thought it was a real honest look at a marriage in crisis. I hadn't really seen a film that plumbed these depths, the depths of this movie, since Ted and Alice— What is it? Bob and Mary and Ted and Alice?
Ruffalo: Yes. Bob and Mary and Ted and Carol. I just thought it was a real honest rendering of that, and it was great character work, and it was really great writing. I knew John [Curran]'s work, and I thought he could handle it really beautifully, and here we are.
AboutFilm: What specifically did you find to be honest about it?
Ruffalo: I thought that— You know, fifty percent of the marriages in America end in divorce, and eighty percent of married couples, one or the other has had adultery. But that wasn't so much it. It was the distance and the ugliness that they portrayed to each other from being so out of communication and having such resentment built up between them, over so many years. You know, it's the mid-life crisis that he's going through. I've had three friends' relationships break up in the last two years, with kids, you know. I saw them in similar sorts of situations. It just struck me [when] I read it, this is really honest, and it's unflinching, and everyone's human. I can't really say anyone is particularly the bad guy in it. They're all struggling with their own humanity.
Question: What was it about your character that jumped out at you, that you really liked?
Ruffalo: Maybe not so much the guy, but the acting difficulties in it, and challenges. At his core he's a man who believes deeply in love and in marriage, and loves his children. So, when he does these amoral things like cheating on his wife, it means a hell of a lot to him. It isn't some flip thing. I think as a guy, he's coming to the end of his youth, in a strange way. His dreams haven't been realized, and he doesn't have money, and him and his wife have gone completely out of communication. I think he feels himself getting soft, and he's trying to fix himself in some way, so he ends up going into this affair.
Question: Have you met anyone like him?
Ruffalo: Yeah, yeah, I have. I mean, some of my friends that are a little bit older than me, are treading in this same area. You see it all over. You know, the older guy with the twenty-year-old stripper girlfriend in his convertible, right? Especially here [in Los Angeles]. But I think it's happening all over the U.S. I think it's an honest look at a marriage that's in deep crisis.
Question: Do you think you could have played Hank instead of Jack?
Ruffalo: I at first asked to play Hank. I thought, “God, Jack's so sticky, and it's so sloppy, and he's so quagmired in it.” Hank has this real who-gives-a-shit outlook. Hank is like Teflon. I've had people come up to me and say, “Your guy is such a jerk.” And I'm like, “Well what about Hank?” “Well, he's not as bad.” And I said, “Well, why not?” “Well, because he doesn't know that he's doing something wrong.” That was kind of my reaction when I read it. [Hank] doesn't come off so badly. But then the director said, “Get off your ass. You have to be Jack.” And I was like, “Well, I really don't want to do that much work.” [laughs] I was terrified to play that part. And as an actor, you play a part like that, people expect that that's who you are. So, I'm aware of that. Now I look at a part and I think, “What's the press junket going to be like for this?” [laughs]
Question: That only means that you're good—that you did it right.
Ruffalo: Yeah, that you did it right. But you know, I did the Hollywood Foreign Press today, and it was all about, “So you and your wife, do you have problems like these? Is that why you did this movie?” It's always my dread. So yes—to get back to the question—I wanted to play Hank but I ended up playing Jack.
Question: Do you see Jack as kind of an extension of your character from XX/XY?
Ruffalo: It's a more mature sort of— It's treading in the same material. Yeah, I suppose it is an extension of it, although I think the character in XX/XY never gave over to being in a relationship. I think when [Jack] started, he really did love [his wife], and really wanted to marry her, and really wanted to have kids, and really bought into the whole idea of marriage, where in XX/XY he never really commits to anything. He's very selfish. But I think Jack went that route, and lived that life for twelve, fourteen years. But at the end of it, he's— There's that great passage from Tolstoy [in the film]. He begins to question the life that he's living, the job, the family—maybe it all has been a lie. I think that's where it's different. And so at this moment, when he's veering off, it's profound. He's in a huge midlife crisis.
Question: What's it like working with the director John Curran?
Ruffalo: I love him. We're actually looking to do something together again. He's very steady-handed. I was worried about doing this material, and I saw his film Praise, and I thought this guy can handle it. I just think he's a really steady-handed director, and to be able to pull this off— We only had three weeks of prep for this movie. This was impossible, this movie. There was no rehearsal. This kind of movie is begging for rehearsal. So we were doing it all on the fly, and that it came out as well as it did is a complete hats-off to him.
Question: How awkward were the film's sex scenes?
Ruffalo: [laughs] As awkward as any other film's sex scenes.
Question: Well, you're actually standing up.
Ruffalo: Yes, they do a lot of standing. [laughter] I think it's a metaphor for them being on the run. [laughter]
Question: But logistically?
Ruffalo: Logistically, yes. You know, that was a terrible day. The tree day was really bad, because we were like, “You know, John, we're not taking our clothes off for this movie.” Both Naomi and I, we're like, “We're not doing it.” Then somehow, like a drunk schoolgirl, we were talked into being naked, and [told] that you wouldn't see any of us—any part of us. So we're trying to do a sex scene making sure that everything's covered from the camera. And so you're running around naked in front of everybody. You can't—you have to work it out naked, because they gotta see where your stuff is. It was just a nightmare. [laughs] It was worse than just being naked. We should have just shot it naked. And then Naomi, to ease the tension, had a fart machine during those scenes.
Question: She had a what?
Ruffalo: A fart machine. You're about to do a scene, and all of a sudden, “Prrpt, prrt-prrrpt, prrt-prrrpt.” You know, there was a playfulness that kept it from getting too maudlin.
Question: How'd you get that tension with Laura Dern during those scenes? Because like you said, it was on the fly.
Ruffalo: We had those long scenes, and we were kind of working them out on film. We would show up, and John would give us a rough sketch of the blocking, and then we'd just start shooting. We didn't even really rehearse. He'd just shoot the rehearsal. So if we did get a master in a rehearsal, we would just keep it and move on, and start cutting in, because we were so short on time. A lot of those scenes ended up just playing in a master. I have to give most of the credit to the writing. [They're] so well-written, those fights. They build really beautifully. They give you an understanding of the characters and their relationships. We pick them up in a fight. Basically we're three minutes into the movie, five minutes into the movie, and we're in a blowout, which is obviously a great way to start anything. [chuckles] Two people can't fight like that unless they have deep connection to each other, and a lot of history, right? So that immediately kicked us into those characters and their relationship.
Question: Do you think the kids are the ultimate reason he goes back to his wife?
Ruffalo: No, I think when he— I think he's unconscious during the whole movie. He's doing things; he's not thinking consciously. He's just completely unconscious, like he's walking in a fog. Then when the truth is all out, he can—
Question: He can think again.
Ruffalo: Yeah. And he thinks, “What am I doing?” And it kills him, because there is something very lively about the affair to him. It gives him energy, and a life that he feels like he lost. But he also understands the transitory nature of that, and that his life is with that family. His wife standing up and being strong like that startles him into what he fell in love with her in the first place.
Question: At the risk of sounding like the Hollywood Foreign Press, how do you make sure this doesn't happen in your marriage?
Ruffalo: Talk. I think communication. I think that's the key. I don't know much; I haven't been married long. But, the relationships that I see work— As long as they're telling the truth, and saying the things that you don't ever want to have to say to another human being. You have to say [those things] to your spouse. That is the only way that I think it's going to work.
AboutFilm: How long have you been married?
Ruffalo: I've only been married for four years, so I'm not—
Question: That's not that short.
Ruffalo: Yeah, in Hollywood, I'm like a record.
Question: Why are there so many producers on We Don't Live Here Anymore?
Ruffalo: Because it just took a lot of people to get it going. Everyone was like, “Yeah, I'll put a thousand dollars in, if I can have a producing credit.” Anyone who put a dime in the movie got a producing credit.
Question: How did you develop Stan, your character in Eternal Sunshine?
Ruffalo: I don't know. I was reading it and daydreaming about him, and I just had an image of this faux-hawk pompadour. That was the beginning of it, and then combat boots. He's a throwback to the eighties music scene, although he's a technogeek. He listens to The Clash, he sits at home and plays his electric bass and plays the “Rock the Casbah” bass line by himself, and he's just a geek. I told Michel [Gondry] that, and he was like, [exaggerated French accent] “Pompadour??” I was like, “Yeah, I mean, we don't have to go with the pompadour,” and he was like, [French accent] “Pompadour! Is cool!” And he was like, [French accent:] “Euh, what else?” And I said, “I think he's into the Clash, you know, Joe Strummer. He's a big Joe Strummer fan,” and he was like, [French accent:] “Ah, cool, eh.” And a couple days later he was like, [French accent:] “Eh, I talk to Charlie [Kaufman], tell him.” A couple of days later he called and he said, “Hey, we want you to be in the movie.” Charlie took some of that stuff and wrote dialogue around it. He's a funny character.
Question: What was it like working with director Michel Gondry?
Ruffalo: Fun. Seriously fun. There was a lot of improvisation that we were allowed to do. It was just really fun and free. Michel just kind of says yes to everything.
Question: Eternal Sunshine is about tapping into painful memories. It seems that's what actors have to do. Jim Carrey said that he had to go to places that he's not going to talk about. Do you find that to be true?
Ruffalo: I don't know. I try to tend not to use those things. That doesn't work for me, but I know the nature of those things. I use that. Who I am is a conglomeration probably of all the things that have happened to me, so somewhere along the way that works its way into the work. Everyone's been hurt, everyone's felt loss, everyone has exultation, everyone has a need to be loved, or [has] lost love, most of us. So when you play a character, you're pulling out those little threads and turning them up a bit, but I try not to delve too much. It's already miserable the first time, you know, but to go through it again— I think it's [about] remembering the nature of something, and applying it to where you're at in a particular script at the time.
AboutFilm: In Eternal Sunshine Gondry was determined to avoid using CGIs and do things the old-fashioned way. What was that like?
Ruffalo: Yeah, it's really his forte. I don't know if you know the extent. The really fun one that we got to do was the long take where he brings Kate [Winslet] into [Dr.] Mierzwiak's office in [Joel's] memory, and he's running around and the camera is circling the room. He had three quick changes, doing quick changes behind the camera and then sitting down and doing the scene, and it was all one take. The whole sequence is one take, and we rehearsed it like a play. Basically it was just a one-act play. It was like live television. It was really exciting and fun. I don't know how audiences react—I don't know if they think, “Oh, they must have cut away here.” But it was so much fun to do and so exciting, because we got to watch it [immediately] afterwards. We rehearsed like, half the day, and then shot it six times, and that was the end of our day.
Question: Are there any romantic movies that have inspired you?
Ruffalo: I like some of the older— Splendor In The Grass is one of my favorites. It's just such a beautiful, bittersweet love story, and then A Place In the Sun. I like these lovers who can't, just can't really get together, you know? I think there's something beautiful about that theme.
Question: The characters listen to music together in We Don't Live Here Anymore. Music was a big part of Eternal Sunshine. What music are you listening to right now?
Ruffalo: I'm still in mourning for Elliott Smith.
Question: A favorite CD of his?
Ruffalo: Roman Candle is really nice and deep.
Question: What's your role in Collateral?
Ruffalo: I'm an undercover narcotics detective, an L.A. narcotics detective. I'm on a case. My CI—criminal informant—is murdered, and I'm pissed. I lost my key guy to this big case. So I start investigating this murder, and I realize that there's another murder attached to it, and I undercover this federal indictment, and all the witnesses are being killed. I stumble onto Tom Cruise, and I start chasing him. My character's kind of a blue-collar street cop, and no one else seems to believe that Tom's doing the killings. So I'm the good guy, and Tom's the bad guy.
Question: What's it like working with Tom Cruise as a bad guy?
Ruffalo: It was great. He's still a nice guy. [laughter] I only have one scene with him, really. Part of the construct is that we really don't come into contact until the very end.
Question: Is it a big role?
Ruffalo: I worked for about a month. It's a nice sizeable part. It's bit bigger than [my part in Eternal Sunshine]. The entire hope of the audience is pinned on my character, and I'm in there until the very last part of the movie, figuring it out.
Question: Big action?
Ruffalo: Oh yeah. There's crazy car chases, and car wrecks, and guns. It's just Michael Mann in that genre just doing what he does really well.
Question: What was it like for you, compared to Windtalkers or The Last Castle?
Ruffalo: I don't get to do as much as I did in The Last Castle. I never get to shoot my gun—which is kind of cool, to be in a Michael Mann movie and never shoot! My action stuff wasn't that much in there.
AboutFilm: You mentioned earlier that people have a tendency to see you as your character?
AboutFilm: Did you get a lot of that after You Can Count on Me ? Did people see you and want to cast you as a shiftless, aimless stoner—
Ruffalo: Yes, yes, for like ten movies— I'd meet young directors, and they'd be like, [stoned voice:] “Umm, I want to give you a script. I wrote it just for you. And it's about a guy who's like, a fuck-up, and then there's a kid who's like, his best friend.” [laughter] And I'm like, “Does he smoke pot?” “Yeah! Yeah!” That had me for a long time. Only in the past couple of years have I been able to shake that a little bit.
AboutFilm: Have you been consciously trying to shake it?
Ruffalo: Yeah, there's a tendency to get pigeonholed in Hollywood. A lot of what I do is just trying to keep that off of me. I don't want to feel like I'm stuck doing one-stock performances. It would bore the hell out of me, if all I could do was that part, you know. [whiny voice:] I have so much more to offer. Although that [movie] may be the best thing I've ever done.
[Read the AboutFilm review of We Don't Live Here Anymore]
[Read the AboutFilm review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind]
[Read the AboutFilm review of You Can Count on Me]
Feature and Interview © August 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
We Don't Live Here Anymore images © 2004 Warner Bros. You Can Count on Me image © 2000 by The Shooting Gallery and Paramount Pictures. The Last Castle and Collateral images © 2001 and © 2004 Dreamworks LLC. XX/XY image © 2003 IFC Films. A View from the Top image © 2003 Miramax. In the Cut image © 2003 by Screen Gems. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind image © 2004 Focus Features. 13 Going on 30 image © 2004 Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
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