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Mark Ruffalo Is a Little Bored of Mark Ruffalo

  • WordsJake Indiana
  • PhotographyLea Winkler
  • StylingJermaine Daley

In this FRONTPAGE interview, Hollywood’s reliable everyman Mark Ruffalo tells us about smashing his image to smithereens with his role in the upcoming 'Poor Things.' He’s never been happier.

(This interview was conducted before the onset of the SAG-AFTRA strike and is published here in full accordance with union by-laws.)

Like many others of a certain age, I fell head over heels in love when I first saw Mark Ruffalo. As the hunky boy next door in 13 Going on 30 (2004), he exemplified a rare kind of actor in the cinema landscape; a gruff man’s man who constantly displayed his vulnerability – an emotionally earnest sweetheart with a beefy exterior. In a world of toxic masculinity, Ruffalo brought a presence that was heartwarming and safe, a quality that netted him a string of similar roles in still-beloved rom-coms like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Just Like Heaven (2005).

Though he has now earned three Oscar nominations and played just about every kind of role – from the dogged detective of Zodiac (2007) to the tragic athlete of Foxcatcher (2014) to his humanist take on the Incredible Hulk, a part which catapulted him to the Hollywood stratosphere after over a decade of Marvel Studio films – Ruffalo is entirely unsurprised that we begin by discussing his era as the reliably comforting love interest. Well, mostly. The revelation that my husband screened his favorite Ruffalo performance for me in preparation for this interview (as the object of Gwyneth Paltrow’s affection in the outré flight attendant dramedy View From the Top [2003]) elicits a wide-eyed guffaw from Ruffalo. “Wow!” he cackles, his eyes alight with mirth behind a pair of chunky, square-framed glasses, incredulous that this is a performance he's being remembered by.

Speaking to me from a wood-paneled office in his home, he recognizes that for a legion of cinemagoers, he will always be seen as a dream man.

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Highsnobiety / Lea Winkler, Highsnobiety / Lea Winkler

In some ways, it is this indelible impression that drew him to his role in surrealist director Yorgos Lanthimos’ upcoming Poor Things, a film and a character that has no comparison in Ruffalo’s filmography. In his first period piece (and his first time using a British accent on screen), he becomes the slimy lothario Duncan Wedderburn, a malicious attorney attempting to ensnare the naïve heroine played by Emma Stone. It is a role that obliterates the entire concept of Mark Ruffalo thus far. “I'm not playing the benevolent dad or the depressed dad or the fucked up dad,” he says. “I'm playing a bon vivant, a total egoist and megalomaniac. I feel like it opened up the brackets on how people see me as a performer. And how I see myself.”

Over a wide-ranging conversation, we spoke to Ruffalo about his career as one of Hollywood’s most recognizable everymen, and his joy in annihilating that image forever.

INDIANA: To put it mildly, Poor Things is not your average cinema-going experience, even if you compare it with the rest of Lanthimos’ films. I’m dying to know… what was your reaction when you first read the script?

RUFFALO: I was like, “Holy shit, this is really difficult material!” And it’s a kind of style that is difficult to pull off. I thought it was amazing, but I was like, “I don't know if I'm the right guy for this.” I'd never done anything like this! 

I thought it was so smart. It cleverly hides this message about equality of women and freedom and conditioning, all of these really important issues that are hard to talk about straight on. But in this kind of film you could transcend polemics and tell a really funny, cool, interesting story and still get across those same ideas.

I'm playing a bon vivant, a total egoist and megalomaniac.

Mark Ruffalo

I watched a previous interview where you talked about how you like to pick roles based on how they challenge or scare you. What was it about Duncan that gave you that feeling?

I guess his confidence, and doing an English accent. I've never really done a period piece. I thought this might be outside my scope, but once I started to work on it, I saw how this could be fun and really push my boundaries and open up a whole new territory for me as an actor, which at that point I was really lusting for.

Was it fun?

Oh my God, I think that was the best time I've ever had on a movie. To play that character, to do all the physical comedy, the language, and to make the arc that he made, it was so crazy and so exciting. It's one foot on a banana peel and the other in a grave. We had this long rehearsal process where we just played games, and that really created this fearlessness within our little group. It was a blast.

I’m glad you mention you haven’t done a role like this, as that was all I could think about when watching you in the film, how I’ve never seen this kind of Mark Ruffalo before. What were some of your reference points when building the character?

There are English films that I remember seeing as a kid. The actor Terry-Thomas, his slyness, his way of talking. I was just daydreaming a lot about who [Duncan] was. The language informs a lot of who he is – the pomposity, the self-aggrandizing, his larger-than-life love of himself, his narcissism, his childishness. I was seeing how far I could push all that and his vocal quality in rehearsal.

I'm 55 now, and you start to think, “Okay, I'm on the downside of this hill in a way, and there's a limitation to how long it's going to last and how long my body's going to hold up.” And honestly? I’m getting a little bored of myself as Mark Ruffalo. [With this role,] I was trying to take the ship as close to the reef as I could possibly get without actually running aground. There's a daringness in this that I normally wouldn't have. I was just like, “Fuck it, If I go down in a flaming disastrous performance, I don't really give a shit.”

You started acting in high school. Was there a specific moment you remember getting hit by the bug?

I was a jock. I was a surfer, I was a skater. I was a little wannabe punk rocker. I was a serious wrestler. I used to always walk by the drama room. I secretly wanted to do it, but I came from a blue collar family, we were one generation removed from being immigrants. Education was not a big thing. People weren't reading books.

In my senior year, [scouts] are looking at me for colleges to wrestle. But I didn't want to do it anymore. I told everyone I was going to do drama as one of my electives. I used this excuse that it was going to be an easy A, but I was really dying to do it. And I just loved every single bit of it. Then there was a play and one of the kids broke his arm, and my teacher says “Hey, do you want to step in?” I got my first laugh in the first scene; that communication with the audience… It was the feeling of being in this purely creative act that was not only for myself, but also in dialogue with this whole group of people. And I was like, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

I'm 55 now… And honestly? I’m getting a little bored of myself as Mark Ruffalo.

Mark Ruffalo

You have a remarkable run of roles in 2000s rom coms which are still widely remembered. Why do you think those roles kept coming your way? Are you surprised we’re still talking about them?

Yes! Because first of all, I never saw myself in a rom com. It was really [my wife], Sunrise. She was like “You need to do a rom com. You're actually funny and I think you're hot, and they're asking you to do one.” This director Gary Winnick, who I knew from the scene in New York, came to me with the script [for 13 Going on 30] and said “It's a rom com, but let's approach it like we're making an important indie movie with a message.” We really talked about what that script was about, and the message that we wanted to give – an important message about innocence, about how you treat people. It was just very elevated. 


That led to View From the Top, then there was Just Like Heaven. A lot of it was a rebellion [of everything I did before]. What I felt immediately in the film world is, once you did one thing well, that's what they think you are. They will just come to you with that part over and over again. And I was like, “No.” My career is not going to be that. I'm going to do as much as I can to try and make people see me in different ways so that I can do more over the years.

Not long after this period you got the call from Marvel… What was that like?

I was like… I had never done that. Studios, they weren't coming to me in that way.  I'll never forget when they were negotiating my deal [for Zodiac], the studio negotiator literally said to my manager, “Look, we don't give a shit about Mark Ruffalo, we don't even want Mark Ruffalo in this movie, so you're going to take what we're offering you or forget it.”

So the fact that Joss Whedon came to me for the Hulk was so out of the blue. It's a tough part – how do you get away with playing a character that doesn't want to do what everybody wants him to do and sustain that? It's like a trap. I read it and I was like, “I can do something with this.”

It's been a great ride. It's like shooting a television series. You do one episode every three years. I've really gotten to explore that part in every single way that I wanted to. I'm really grateful, because it's given me a chance to do other things that I probably wouldn't have a chance to do without that behind me.

You’ve also been working as a producer, notably on 2019’s Dark Waters (which you also starred in) and the upcoming documentary Lakota v. United States. What in you gravitates toward working behind the scenes on projects like these?

After The Kids Are All Right (2010), seeing what that movie did to the gay marriage issue – taking all of the politics out of it and telling a story about a couple that was no different than any other couple – I was like, “Fuck, this is powerful.” I'm doing all this activism and I want to bridge the gap between storytelling and that, because [activism] gets contentious and it gets political really quickly. But stories… stories are human, and we see ourselves in them. They open our hearts and they change our minds. 

Dark Waters was a story about a blue collar community that was totally screwed by this corporate monster. I read that article [it was based on] and I was like, “This is everything I've been working on.” A real life story about people who are affected the most. These are the frontline communities I’ve come to know.

Working against fracking, I was fighting shoulder to shoulder with the tribes in New York. I started to be shaped by their world philosophy, their life, their traditions, the relationship to the earth, the relationship to other human beings. They have a lot of answers to our problems in their world thinking. And that eventually led me to Standing Rock, to be standing across from a militarized security force, a police force you could feel was working for this corporation. And there's blood lust in them. There is hatred in them. There is a feeling that I've never felt anything like. And this is what these people have been living with for almost two centuries now.

What this nation did to the Native Americans is the darkest, most violent secret of America. It's also an important part of who we are. And understanding that is an important part of their healing and our healing. After Standing Rock, that event opened up internationally for indigenous people, they were finally seen. And [Lakota v. United States] is made by native people who are telling their own story in their own way, the way they tell stories. And I can be a stepping stone for that. As a Hollywood person who's been privileged by Hollywood, it's important for me to try to do right, in a way.

I’m an actor. I want to observe the world. I don't want the world to observe me.

Mark Ruffalo

You had some devastating setbacks at formative stages of your career, surviving a brain tumor shortly after your first major film role and dealing with the tragic loss of your brother’s life, who you honored in your Oscar-nominated role in The Kids Are All Right. Looking back on those moments where your health and relationships were in jeopardy, at this point in your life, how do you think you got through it?

You don't really get over it. You get on with it. I learned a lot during that time; with the brain tumor, about the fallibility and the fragility of your life. And [with my brother about] how you don't have any control over the people you love. You don't have control over what happens to them.

I developed a kind of compassion during that time that, as an artist, has been really important to me. Really understanding what suffering was, what trauma was, what loss was. I came to understand that when people leave your life in that way, they actually are imparting a gift on you that you couldn't really receive any other way.

It gave me a new understanding about what I cherished, and about time – how little time we have. A new understanding about daring, about courage. A new understanding of my own strength and how to take all these catastrophic events and put them into something positive, into something beautiful, into something creative and meaningful.

Switching gears a bit, how do you describe your personal style?

Well my daughter was like, “Dad, why do you dress so fucking proletariat? You don't have to dress that way.” I've been pushing myself more. I like to think of myself as laid back, intentionally threadbare chic. It's like bedhead, the person whose bedhead is well-designed. I love the brand ARTS&SCIENCE. I just found this new guy who makes great handmade clothes, Never Cursed. I'm wearing his pants now. Beautiful, handmade, one-off stuff that isn't trying to draw attention to itself is what I’m into.

What would you say is the most challenging part of your job, and what is the most rewarding part of your job?

The acting is probably the most rewarding. The acting I do for free and everything else is what I get paid for. The public appearances, the selfies.

The most challenging thing has been losing your anonymity. Listen, I'd just about do a selfie for anyone who asks me, unless I'm on a date with my wife or I'm in a mood. I might just not feel like it. I'm an actor. I want to observe the world. I don't want the world to observe me.

'Poor Things' is out on December 8.

  • WordsJake Indiana
  • PhotographyLea Winkler
  • StylingJermaine Daley
  • Executive Producer Tristan Rodriguez
  • Production t • creative
  • Groomer Kumi Craig
  • Production CoordinatorsMehow Podstawski and Zane Holley
  • Special Thanks ToPier59 Studios
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