Mark Ruffalo, Stephan James and More Drama Actors on "Falling Through the Unknown" With Their Dark Characters

9:30 AM 6/21/2020

by Carita Rizzo

Embodying a tormented person can be an exciting challenge, but for these 10 actors, their characters were not easy to shake off once the cameras stopped rolling: "I’m changed forever."

Courtesy Photos

  • Mark Ruffalo

    'I Know This Much is True' (HBO)

    Courtesy of HBO

    Grueling. Draining. Traumatic. These are just a few terms used to describe the deep dives into dark places actors take for the sake of, well, what exactly? Whether experiencing incomprehensible rage or bottomless despair, the type of material that these 10 men have been able to challenge themselves with professionally often is referred to, by themselves, as an actor's dream. But it's a gift that comes at a price. "It's hard because you're living in another person's shoes, literally, more than you are in your own for the course of a shoot," says Ruffalo, who embodied the troubled Birdsey twins in the six-hour adaptation of Wally Lamb's novel I Know This Much Is True. "Even though it's play, you are still coming into contact with that person and their emotional life. That's a lot of feeling to carry around." The HBO limited series directed by Derek Cianfrance not only took Ruffalo up an emotional Mount Everest as walking pressure cooker Dominic but also through a months-long wringer physically, with a 30-pound weight gain to portray paranoid schizophrenic Thomas. "Derek kept saying, 'Let your stomach go. Let your stomach go,' and I was like, 'I'm not holding it in,' " recalls Ruffalo. "I realized that I've been holding my stomach in my whole life because as a man, you can't have a stomach that sticks out. It has to be hard and strong. It was an interesting other dimension of the human experience." Though a challenging transformation, in his case for two characters, the connotation of "grueling" is for Ruffalo a positive one. "There's no skating, no resting place when you're going to be rigorously honest, authentic and present," says Ruffalo. "You're always falling through the unknown, and that's an intense way to spend six months. But when you give in to it, it's very freeing." In fact, in the unbelievable tragedy unfolding onscreen, a journey that eventually leads to the emotional healing of a fractured man, Ruffalo was forced to process the kind of trauma most spend years trying to unpack — even if it wasn't his own. "The act of creating isn't always easy, and you have to put yourself out there and be vulnerable in ways that most people try to avoid their entire lives. That could be exposing," says Ruffalo. "But you understand the world in a deeper, different way because you're walking in someone else's shoes. In that way, I'm changed forever."

  • Matt Bomer

    'The Sinner' (USA)

    Courtesy of USA Network

    To play a man whose detachment from society turns homicidal, Bomer needed to, at all times, act as his character's defense attorney. "You can't ever get to a place where you're judging the character," he says. "The process, for me, was to ground the performance in humanity and understand that it was about this guy who was spiritually lost and feeling at odds with the people in his life." Even as that humanity got harder to grasp — with Jamie Burns' will to live derived solely from the pain of others — Bomer found a straw to grab on to. "In his last moments, you see that he is just a kid [inside] who's just as scared of death, if not more, than anyone else," he says. But trying to justify evil can have mysterious consequences. "I thought that I had really processed the character, but within an hour or two hours of us wrapping, I completely lost my voice. I don't know why. I didn't feel sick," says Bomer. "I found myself looking at the world in ways that are atypical to me. I thought, 'This is something to really be conscious of.' " While the stress of a pandemic has made the show impossible for Bomer to watch, the purpose of this experience is as clear as day. "It's made me really conscious that if you're having doubts about the world around you, it's more important than ever to connect with others."

  • Jacob Elordi

    'Euphoria' (HBO)

    Courtesy of HBO

    As high school god Nate Jacobs, whose malicious side would make serial killers wave a white flag, Elordi gets to flex his creative muscles. But for the Australian actor, it's not the psychotic episodes that pose the biggest hurdle. "I struggle a lot with the bravado of being a football player," Elordi says. "I always felt really stupid when I was skipping around the school beating my chest." The reason the violent scenes don't faze Elordi as much as Nate's more quotidian interactions is because of how extreme the behavior is. "The things I had to do were so crazy that you almost go outside of yourself," he says. "If you have a more natural, normal scene, for me it can be a lot harder to play because there's all these nuances that you have to hit." While the eight-month shoot left Elordi feeling heavy, the experience of playing someone as complex as Nate makes it worth it. "I'm an actor ­— I go to meetings and I make movies. Here I get to take on a whole separate life," he says. "I get to think about how somebody like that, who has such huge mental issues, operates. What does a Saturday night dinner look like? How does he text his friends?"

  • Joseph Fiennes

    'The Handmaid's Tale' (Hulu)

    Courtesy of Hulu

    Although every actor says they have to find something they love about their character in order to defend them, Fiennes has been left with very little after three seasons of murder, rape and abuse. "Morally, he feels part of a totalitarian regime that is put in place to redress the moral balance. Until Gilead was up and running, the world was full of toxicity, disease, its low birth rate in an apocalyptic stage," says Fiennes. "I guess that's the basis of where I begin in excusing his actions." But even then, Fiennes finds it difficult to embody Fred Waterford's misogynistic side. "Playing the scenes, it's ugly stuff. There's nothing joyous in that at all," he says. "We've got brilliant actresses, and it feels all too real, and I'm easily disgusted by what plays out. I honestly can't wait to depart from Fred and have every residue of him depart my own world." Fiennes says it takes him about six months to shake off the character, but there is a purpose to putting up with the dregs: "I think of certain states in America, certain groups of men who want to keep women's bodies controlled. I'm bringing up two daughters, and The Handmaid's Tale has brought an awareness and increased focus on a subject that ordinarily I probably wouldn't have looked at in such depth and scrutiny. Once we throw up the mirror to our current times, there's a responsibility. And in that responsibility, there's a reality that is hard to shake."

  • André Holland

    'The Eddy' (Netflix)

    Courtesy of Netflix

    Playing a man coping (poorly) with the death of his son, Holland spent his time in Paris carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. "He’s a man who is dealing with an enormous amount of grief, and he’s not able to forgive himself for what happened in his life," says Holland. "He’s constantly punishing himself subconsciously and taking these complicated feelings out on those around him, especially those who really make an effort to be close to him. That’s quite a dark space to live in." Once embedded in the project, Holland realized he was using Elliot’s journey to make sense of his own. "With a lot of the characters that I’ve taken on, there is an alignment between those characters and things that I’m trying to wrestle with on my own," he says. "Playing Elliot really helped me process some things that I was going through. Hopefully, that lent some humanity and empathy to this complicated character.” But to pump the breaks on really going down the rabbit hole of another person’s pain, Holland says he falls back on his training. "I know there are actors for whom that line is really blurry, and sometimes they go too far and can hurt themselves or other people in a variety of different ways," he says. "For me, I don’t want to go that far, ever. I think that I have enough experience to see that coming and put a stop to it."

  • Stephan James

    'Homecoming' (Amazon Prime)

    Courtesy of Netflix

    After portraying the quiet anguish of a returning veteran whose memories — and consequently his identity and humanity — are being eradicated for the sake of redeployment, James knew that revisiting Walter Cruz would take a lot out of him. Yet there was no question he would return. "It's about being on a journey," says James. "I wasn't scared to take this dark turn in season two because I knew that Walter was owed this season to be able to take his power back." Instead of a character who is being taken advantage of, Cruz takes a more active role this season in the hunt for the truth — which finds him in some murky emotional places. "All the pain and the trauma that the situation has caused him finds him wanting to be a part of the solution," he says. "He thinks that by doing what he's about to do, he may save a whole world of young veterans." With a performance where many things are understood and unsaid, James carried much of his character's weight internally. But the actor says that is just the price you have to pay. "It's a birth, and then it's a death, every single project," says James. "You're losing a piece of yourself, a piece of yourself you've given to the screens. You give it to millions of people, and you live with that as an artist."

  • Holt McCallany

    'Mindhunter' (Netflix)

    Courtesy of Netflix

    When Bill Tench realizes that his child may be like the serial killers he researches, McCallany could not have been happier to dig into the plight of the stoic FBI agent he portrays. "There's an old adage that it's impossible to be better than your opportunity," he says. "If you're in a mediocre story with a mediocre script and mediocre director, you're not going to give a great performance. But sometimes the possibility to make something special exists." When Tench's young son starts to exhibit signs that murderers show at an early age, he decides, true to form, that the best way to handle it is with reserve. "This kid's problems are deeper than Bill wants to admit, but he can't really express that to anybody," says McCallany. "[He] certainly can't share those fears with [his] wife. He doesn't even come clean with the guys in his unit. It's a solitary experience." While McCallany and Tench share an emotional distance to their work, the constant state of dread crept up in a scene in which Charles Manson pushes Tench's buttons. "The longer the scene went on, the angrier I became," he says. "Not in an actor way, but a deep-seated, visceral anger started welling up in me that I was having difficulty controlling. There were involuntary muscle spasms in my face, my neck and my arms. You go to places that you hadn't expected, and you surprise yourself. There's an aspect of it that can be very unsettling, but there's another aspect of it that's very gratifying."

  • Nick Offerman

    'Devs' (FX on Hulu)

    Courtesy of Hulu

    As the mysterious founder of quantum computing company Amaya, Nick Offerman delved into the kind of human intelligence and grief most people will never comprehend. "I've had the good fortune to not have any life experiences that remotely approach what Forest went through," Offerman says. "For me, the biggest challenge is opening my own humble toolbox and looking at the old pair of pliers and the hammer with a splintering handle and saying, 'Can I use these tools to construct the work of art that this writer is asking of me?' " In the case of Forest, his coldhearted pragmatism is revealed in scenes where he defends the means — in this case, murder — to an inevitable end. "His justification for those acts is that if we're right, and determinism is real, then this is what was going to happen anyway," says Offerman. "I think deep down, there's a tiny percentage of humanity left in his core that knows this is not altogether a wholesome way to behave." Rather than the opportunity to bathe in incomprehensible tragedy, the joy for Offerman was being a successful cog in the wheel of the unique ensemble headed up by Alex Garland. "Whether the shot is 'Nick walks across the street' or 'Nick watches this screen while the most painful image you've ever seen flashes across it' — if I can do that and they say, 'You did your job successfully,' then I feel like my mom and dad have put their arms around me and said, 'You did good, son.' "

  • Jeremy Strong

    'Succession' (HBO)

    Courtesy of HBO

    Even talking about the scene in which Kendall Roy is forced to face the parents of a man he accidentally killed makes Strong feel uneasy. "It's an intangible, awful feeling," he says. The accident, and consequently surrendering his own life to his father, leads to his character's complete inward collapse, which Strong prepped for by reading Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. "Raskolnikov gets away with something, but of course, the point of that novel is that the mental suffering and anguish annihilates you," he says. "I thought the summons here, for me, is to embody that, which was something that I wasn't looking forward to, but it felt necessary." While the audience needed to see a human experiencing monstrous pain for the better part of 10 hours, Strong stayed in that mind-set for months. "Some of the greatest actors can just enter into it," he says. "I wish I were that way. I need to create a total sense of belief in the circumstances, and that requires me to stay in it." The show's second season admittedly left the actor completely spent, but if Strong is honest, that's why he got into the profession. "As an actor, I have a great desire to give of myself and give everything to it. It's not often a piece of work asks that of you," he says. "Here I felt two things: 'Fuck me, I don't know how I'm going to do this,' and, 'I feel like I've just opened the greatest Christmas present of my life.' "

  • Dominic West

    'The Affair' (Showtime)

    Courtesy of SHOWTIME

    Oh God, it was such a traumatic five years," West chuckles when asked about his journey as author Noah Solloway. "In a lot of scenes, there were at least five appalling things going on in Noah's head, and I was trying to act all five. He was worrying about his fidelity, fancying his children, the death of his mother — whom he murdered. I found it almost unplayable toward the end, there was so much darkness." While West tries to stay detached, to save himself from being swallowed up by his character, it's inevitable that the onscreen action bleeds over into real life. "Your relations with other actors on the set are often very much dictated by what your fictional relations are," he says. "If you're doing a very heavy emotional or angry scene, it's hard not to let that carry on, off set. When the cameras stop rolling, you're dredging up exactly the same emotions as if it were happening for real." To discard those feelings, West relies on the people around him. "Usually I go home and play with my kids. They've always been a very quick and easy way to shake off anything I've been doing at work," he says. "On The Affair, [the cast and crew would] go out and get drunk. We had a great time off set, and I suppose that was essential. It was such an emotionally evolving show, and so draining, that very often we needed to go out on the town afterward. That's probably how we still get on."

    This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.