Just as he’s sitting down to our interview, Mark Ruffalo reaches into his coat pocket to check his phone. He exhales sharply, looks at me with a tight smile, and says regretfully, “Something’s come up. I’ve got to go.” He puts his hand on my shoulder and hurries off. Although I no doubt look like a toddler who’s just dropped his chocolate double-scoop, I manage to blurt out something chipper, like, “Don’t worry, Mark! We’ll reschedule!” (Such is the power of the 43-year-old actor’s charm.) Spinning around on his heels, he points both hands at me tauntingly, and, cackling, yells, “Gotcha!” Today is the first day of April, and I have been made Ruffalo’s fool.
He’ll later send me a message via Twitter to apologize. Although he’s still learning the “Twittiquette,” Ruffalo is an avid user of the social networking site, and unlike most celebrities whose publicists create profiles to promote their clients, he actually engages his followers in conversations about the things that “enrage” him. This afternoon, those things include: the $87,000 that billionaire financier David Koch gave to New York governor Andrew Cuomo; the labor disputes and soaring unemployment rates in Wisconsin; and, most of all, hydraulic fracturing (drilling, essentially, for oil and natural gas), which is poisoning bodies of water across the country, and threatening to do the same to the Delaware River, 45 minutes from where Ruffalo lives with his wife and three kids in upstate New York.
“As people, we’re so polarized, but what we want out of life isn’t all that different: a little sun on our face and, you know… love,” says Ruffalo, a vegetarian, between healthy bites of a roasted artichoke salad from at65, the cafe inside Manhattan’s Alice Tully Hall. “I started using Twitter because of the Green Revolution in Iran. I saw their leaderless rebellion spring up because of social networking sites, which, to me, at that time, were the most shallow, narcissistic reflections of our culture. What I saw it being used for—giving voice to people you would normally never hear from—was really exciting.”
This isn’t to say that Ruffalo, who has appeared in such films as Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, and Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (for which he received an Oscar nomination last year), won’t, from time to time, tweet about his films. Most recently, he’s done so in support of his directorial debut, Sympathy for Delicious, in which he also appears as a priest. The film tells the story of DJ “Delicious” Dean, a homeless paraplegic who seeks wealth and fame as a faith healer. Dean bands together with rockers played by Juliette Lewis and Orlando Bloom (whose turn as the act’s lead singer owes as much to Johnny Depp’s Captain Sparrow as Depp’s Captain Sparrow does to Keith Richards), but his healing powers are flipped for a profit, and he soon becomes the group’s sideshow attraction. Winner of the Special Jury Prize at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Sympathy stars Christopher Thornton as the film’s morally ambivalent title character. Thornton, Ruffalo’s childhood friend, wrote the screenplay for the film after a climbing accident in 1992 left him paralyzed from the waist down. It’s a story about faith and redemption, to be sure, but Sympathy spares audiences the easy denouements characteristic of most Hollywood narratives.
If the story is sometimes unsettling, so too was its creation. “We had three weeks to pull this off, I didn’t know a thing about directing a movie, our camera was always breaking, we had no money, instead of 20 extras we’d get 5, and we never had enough sunlight in the day,” Ruffalo says, running a hand through his corkscrew hair. “I was constantly looking in the mirror, asking myself, Are you out of your fucking mind, Mark Ruffalo?” When he agreed to the project, he was mourning the loss of his younger brother, Scott, who was fatally shot in 2008. “It would have been so easy for the whole thing to have devolved into one big pity party,” says Ruffalo, who next stars as Bruce Banner, a.k.a. the Hulk, in The Avengers. “Somehow it turned out to be such a special moment for everyone who made the film. We were raw, vulnerable, scared, and totally alive. It was rough and holy—spiritual punk rock.”
Tell me about the genesis of Sympathy for Delicious. Sympathy was born out of my relationship with Christopher Thornton who, more than 15 years ago, had a climbing accident and broke his back. He was my best friend and I watched him struggle with life in a wheelchair. A universal truth came out of that experience, which is this: Sometimes life hands you a bag of shit and it really looks like a bag of shit—something truly horrible—but in time it can also provide a fertile place from which to grow.
How much of his own experience do you think Christopher wrote into the screenplay? He wanted to write a great part for a character actor in an “anti-wheelchair movie” that didn’t wear its heart on its sleeve—his character is a son of a bitch. The film came out of some of his experiences, but he wasn’t playing himself.
Still, watching a film about a man who can heal others but can’t heal himself, you get the sense that there’s something almost masochistic going on. He set out to make a movie devoid of pathos and pity, and he ended up, of course, dealing with the very thing he didn’t want to deal with, which was coming to peace with being in the chair. Sometimes you get the healing you need, not the healing you want.
That’s the tagline for the movie. Yes, which is a rip-off of the Stones. It was an incredibly cathartic journey.
What was purged? For the first time, I think Chris dropped the idea of ever really being able to walk again. There was a bit of despair at the end of the shoot, I have to say.
That despair also comes across in the film. Every single conceit of Sympathy is totally fantastical, but there’s a deep amount of sincerity, naturalism, and realism grounding the fantasy. It’s a journey that Chris has made over the years, and one I also made with my brain tumor [the removal of an acoustic neuroma resulted in a period of partial facial paralysis] and the loss of my brother.
Did you experience a similar catharsis? All I know is that when I started making the film I was in the deepest pit of grief and pain. I was really mourning, and I said to myself, How can I possibly turn a total fucking shit situation into something else? The only thing I knew to do with all my unresolved anger and sadness was to shove it into the work, and to try to make something meaningful. I would go into my trailer every day, wanting to crawl into a little ball, and then someone would be like, “Boss, they’re ready for you on set.” I’d be lying there, like, Fuck, how am I going to face this day? Acting—whether it’s theater or filmmaking—has always been a really healthy way for me to work out my dark, dark shit.
Is it about escapism? It’s about survival. My only other option was to slip into deep despair and depression, which I was headed for. If you’ll notice, I dedicated the movie to my brother. I did have to pay the piper in the end. You can’t hide, and you can’t run from grief. I so desperately wanted to feel like something sweet and human could come out of something so senseless.
Given what you were going through, why did you direct the film when you could have just acted in it? Following Chris’ accident, he was planning to pack it all in and move back to New Orleans, and I said to him, You’re an actor. You can’t go home now. Mine wasn’t a dissimilar moment. After my brother died, Chris said to me, “I understand what you want to do, but what you need to do is get up. You have to get up and you have to make this movie.”
But the fact that you hadn’t directed a movie before seems— Insane?
Fucking crazy. It was perfect, because you can’t think too much when you have to shoot a movie like that in 23 days. It was an awesome set even if it was a heavy movie.
Juliette Lewis told me how frightening it was for her, a recovering addict, to play someone who overdoses on heroin. She really didn’t want to do that scene. It was written into the character, but she was resistant to playing it. I told her, after we’d gotten into a fight one day, to take a break because it wasn’t working. I’ve learned that the best way to deal with some of this stuff is to not deal with it, to turn your back on it. About two or three hours later she called me and was like, “I’m really sorry. I’m throwing up a lot of resistance because this brings up a lot of heavy stuff.” I was like, Join the rest of us, babe—we’re all going through some really tough shit together. Bring it to set tomorrow, and we’ll film it.
Confronting your own demons can be terrifying. There was a lot of that, even with Orlando. He came to me and was like, “Listen, man. I’m feeling so empty as an actor. I don’t know why, but this part scares the shit out of me, and I need to play it.” I was like, Good! Bring that to set—that’ll be interesting. There was a lot of trust among us because we were all feeling really vulnerable, and what we were trying to accomplish is pretty much impossible in such a short period of time. We were taking a flying fuck at a rolling donut. Every step of the way I had one foot on a banana peel and one foot in the grave.
Add to that the reality that you were also starring in the film. It was a bat-shit crazy thing for me to do. Do you know how easy it is for a movie about a rock ’n’ roll band to stink up the place? My determination to avoid doing that actually reinvigorated my passion for movies. By the time I started shooting Sympathy, I didn’t know if I was going to be an actor anymore. It had lost its joy for me. Even when I walked into The Kids Are All Right, I didn’t give a fuck—I really didn’t.
It’s ironic, then, that it earned you an Oscar nomination. That character was an homage to my brother. When I started Kids, I was like, Acting isn’t the only thing in the world to me. I was really turned on by directing and it came easier to me than acting, and so, fuck it, that was going to be my last movie. Who gives a shit? I decided to make it fun. I was sexy, and I flirted. It gave me an enormous amount of freedom, and while I was that free I remembered that acting is actually kind of great.
Are you nervous about how critics receive Sympathy? Shit, man. I’m not going to kid you. I’d love for it to be received well. I can handle criticism, but I hate when some of those motherfuckers get mean and personal. It’s like people forget that there are actual human beings involved in making these things. Sometimes it’s important to hold a mirror up to people—not in a mean way, but just like, Hey, dude. Check that out. That’s how you look right now. Do you like how you look? I want to be as honest as I can in my life and with the people around me. If I get my ass handed to me, that’s fine. When I look at that movie, knowing the limitations we had, I think, It might have its faults, but it’s sincere. In a time when we’re all so cynical—when there’s so much irony in everyone’s work, when so many people don’t put themselves on the line because they’re afraid—I’m proud to have made something that’s sincere. And that is definitely a personal thing.
Photography by David Roemer.
First photo:Suit and shirt by Ermenegildo Zegna. Sunglasses by Persol. Bracelet by Tom Ford. Pocket Square by Canali. Belt by Bottega Veneta. Second photo: T-Shirt by Salvatore Ferragamo. Bracelet by Tom Ford. Third photo: Jacket, shirt, and pants by Emporio Armani. Watch by Salvatore Ferragamo. Belt by Canali. Grooming by Gita Bass @ Exclusive Artists using Dior Homme. Photo Assistant: Clare Chong. Stylist’s assistant: Toure Gaddis. Location: Metro Daylight Studios, New York City.