Mark Ruffalo: Official Busiest Actor of 2004

By Paul Zimmerman
Posted 08/13/04 15:42:48

A funny thing happened to me today. I saw a magazine cover that DIDN’T have Mark Ruffalo on the cover. Either it’s a real slow time for entertainment magazines or this guy is the next Brando. I suspect it’s something in-between.

White, 36, theatrically trained and raring to go, Ruffalo currently can be seen on the big screen Michael Mann’s crime drama Collateral and the new all talking / all adultery drama “We Don’t Live Here Anymore.” Adapted from two novellas by Andre (“In the Bedroom”) Dubus, “Don’t Live Here” concerns two Northwestern college professors who share the same school, the same philosophy and each other’s wives. Intense and wordy, it won’t tell you anything about adultery you don’t already know (that it’s really not a good thing). A small adult drama where the devil is in the details it does give Ruffalo and co-stars Naomi Watts, Laura Dern and Peter Kraus a chance to distance themselves from all the big bangs and CGS out there to do some serious ACTING.

Ruffalo all but steals the movies he’s been in lately weather that’s playing a mad scientist in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” a slick haired cop in “Collateral” or an ex-pudge photographer in “13 Going On 30.” So it’s no surprise he sinks his teeth the deepest in “Don’t Live Here.” We spoke with Ruffalo way back in January when the film premiered in Sundance.

Ah, what can one say about Sundance 2004? The snow and the stars and the hub-bub where all there in abundance but this year there was something new. At the bottom of a ski lift right in down town Park City all the corporate sponsors (Phillips, Levi, Pony etc) clustered to make their giveaways a one stop-shopping event. Atop the mall-to-the-stars someone else had the bright idea of installing a heated tent where mass interviews could be conducted. It made for one big mountain of fun.

Bitchslap sat down with Ruffalo just as he gazed out the clear plastic windows of the mega-tent, surveyed the intriguing view with wide eyes. After a moment the indie and Sundance veteran laughed, rubbed his chin and comments, “I think that Sundance is absolutely representative of what has happened to independent feature films. It’s become more corporatized. It’s become co-opted a little bit.”

After years in theater and several false starts in films Ruffalo rightly came to national attention in 2000 playing Terry the drifter brother of Laura Linney in “You Can Count On Me,” a pitch perfect comedy drama by Kenneth Lonergan. It was such a detailed and nuanced, complete performance that Ruffalo had arrived and had nowhere to go but down. Meaty supporting parts in John Woo’s corny and misguided “Windtalkers” and the ho-hum prison riot drama “The Last Castle” did little to further his new his found fame.

Then it all came to a screeching halt in 2001 when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Emerging from the near death experience Ruffalo is hell bent on being one of the best actors of his generation while maintaining a Zen like calm and sense of humor. “I don’t want to be known at the brain tumor guy,” he laughs.

Commenting further on Sundance he says, “I don’t think it’s good or bad. It’s like every other institution, it takes its knocks, it’s going to have hard times, and it’s going to be criticized. It’s gonna have times that are more liked than other times.”

While he admits some jobs are still just paychecks Ruffalo says he really loves movies based on books or plays. “You just get such a deeper cut on the character and their histories,” Ruffalo says about his cheating, somewhat self-delusional character Jack. “I always find if you’re working from a book it’s just invaluable what a writer’s imagination is which is so much better than mine for building a character’s back story.”

Much of the film concerns the pain each partner imposes on the other but in the background we also get a riveting, subtle view of what it does to the children. A husband, to boutique owner Sunrise and father to three year old Keen, Ruffalo knows what it’s like to fight in front of kids.

When things get really intense he says he and his wife switch to code (perhaps something he picked up from them “Windtalkers” Indians). “I say something like ‘Ollie ollie oxen free’ or ‘Wanna go play Monopoly?’" he says with a chuckle. “To step out of that interaction when it’s getting crazy with you and your kids. Certainly it’s intense having children. It kind of reflects your own growth. It’s like a mirror the way you react to children. It really brings into focus the places where you need to grow.”

Ruffalo pauses for a deep thought and then adds, “My kid is my teacher in a way. John Lennon once said his son was his Guru and I never knew what he was talking about until I had a kid.”

Proving he can survive a brain tumor, marital ups and downs and even Jane Campion’s goofy sexual thriller “In The Cut” he waxes wise, “I think relationships have moments of trouble. (Our characters in the film are) deeply out of communication and they’re at a time in their lives where whatever dreams they had are kind of past them now.”

He pauses in a way only the best Method actors can before adding, “A lot of disappointment. A lot of frustration. I think at the bottom of it is, well Joseph Campbell had a saying, ‘The bigger the front, the bigger the back.’” I imagine a giant cartoon question mark appearing over my head as he continues, “To me for two people to be that horrible to each other there is a part of them that is deeply rooted in something really passionate and caring for each other.”

Figuring he’s probably getting pretty tired of talking about such depressing subjects I switch into my US Magazine mode and ask him what music he’s been listening to. He seems genuinely surprised and enthusiastic says, “I just kind of busted out Elliot Smith again, I’ve been kind of listening to that. And I’ve been listening to that dead British guy, what’s his name? Oh yeah, Nick Drake. I really like the White Stripes, I’ve been listening to them a lot.”

Now that I got him on a roll I effortlessly slide into Entertainment Weekly gear and grill him about his current favorite home entertainment. “Scholastic for Kids,” he says quickly laughing adding, “Ah, I’m just kidding, we’ve been getting lots of kid’s stuff with our new child. Before all of that it was the box set of “La Strada.” I love Fellini. So I got that and I got “La Dolce Vita,” which was only available on VHS. And then I got that Indian director who did “The World of Apur” (AKA “Apur Sansar,” 1959). Do you know him? It’s part of this beautiful trilogy, the Apur trilogy. The Indian director is Satyajit Ray. The whole thing is amazing and beautiful.”

His wife approaches and he puts his arm around her waist. “Tell him about our new car,” she says giving him a friendly nudge in the ribs. “Oh yeah,” Ruffalo chuckles, “I bought a Toyota Prius. I put my money where my mouth is. We call it the Bush Buster. That was my big purchase, my big electronic toy purchase. It a hybrid, it’s half electronic. It gets 50 miles to the gallon, it’s amazing. When you get to a certain speed it switches to electric and it’s so quiet. It’s great.”

Waving his hands in the air Ruffalo makes a smooth driving motion and we say our goodbyes. And with that they’re off into the snow, the confusion and the madness they Sundance.

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