Q&A: Mark Ruffalo

Actor talks about his directorial debut, brother's death, more

For well over a year, actor Mark Ruffalo has been on what he calls "a rollercoaster ride." After surviving a brain tumor in 2002, Ruffalo had spent much of the decade prepping his directorial debut, “Sympathy for Delicious,” a comedic drama about a paraplegic DJ-turned-faith healer, when his brother Scott was killed during its preproduction.

Ruffalo forged ahead to honor his brother's memory and real-life paraplegic friend -- Christopher Thornton, who wrote and stars in the film -- until the production ran out of money last summer. He took a few weeks to co-star in Lisa Cholodenko's moving comedy "The Kids Are All Right," then spent the hiatus with his wife and three children, even contemplating a break from acting. Then in December, Sundance saved the day by giving "Sympathy" a prime opening weekend slot in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Audiences responded with hefty applause, and after some mixed initial response from critics left him "down in the dumps," strong support for its unconventional mix of drama and satire began pouring in from THR, the New York Times, USA Today, Filmmaker Magazine and elsewhere.

Ruffalo's peers ultimately awarded him with the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize, and distributors who have had big hits with faith-themed films, such as Samuel Goldwyn, Fox Faith and Apparition's Bob Berney, are now circling the project. Adding to his happy ending, Sundance added Cholodenko's "Kids" as a late entry, and Ruffalo's performance -- arguably the best in his 18-year film career -- has already generated year-end awards buzz, a key factor in Focus Features' nearly $5 million acquisition deal. All this good news arrives as Martin Scorsese's delayed thriller "Shutter Island," starring Ruffalo and Leonardo DiCaprio, finally hits theaters with positive buzz this month. Ruffalo talked with THR's Gregg Goldstein about what he's learned from Martin Scorsese, televangelist Jimmy Swaggart and his tumultuous journey.

The Hollywood Reporter: What prompted your desire to direct?

Ruffalo: My friend Chris Thornton and I went to (acting) school with Stella Adler together -- I've known him for 22 years. At the time he was able-bodied. Sixteen years ago, he had a climbing accident and ended up in a chair. I directed him in two plays and acted with him in many -- it was my dream to direct one day, and here was this project with a dear friend. I knew he was a great actor, and it meant a lot to me that he get a chance, you know? Someone so talented kinda cut down like that?

He was pitching me a lot of different ideas 12 years ago -- he started to write more when he couldn't act as much -- and I said, "Dude that's the one you have to write." And about a year and a half later, he handed me a 186-page draft of it. At that point, I read it and said, "Who's going to direct it? Would you mind if I did?" It's been 10 years and at least a hundred drafts of he and I hammering the revisions out, developing it, getting it down to a single story. And we were learning how to make a movie at the same time.

THR: Had you shot anything before?

Ruffalo: No, I shot a little trailer for this a few years back, but I've had the honor of getting to work with some really great directors over the years, so I got a really great film school from being on so many sets.

THR: What did you learn from particular directors and your experiences?

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Ruffalo: Well, from "Eternal Sunshine (of the Spotless Mind)," I ended up using the camera operator Chris Norr to be my director of photography. Each director has their own style and way of working, so I learned -- oh God, from ("Zodiac" director David) Fincher -- he's a technician, he was very helpful. He sat with me with one of my later cuts for five hours, and we would go over the film scene by scene. He'd say, "Stop here, what's going on here, we're losing a story here" -- that was kind of like a master class to me. Working with Marty [Scorsese], he likes to dig into the script, and we did a lot of work sitting down and going over the ("Shutter Island") script. He was showing us a lot of movies -- that was another kind of film school for me.

THR: Did he give you any advice on your movie?

Ruffalo: He did. And [it was amazing] to hear his stories about his filmmaking experiences over the years and the pitfalls he's experienced. He said "You've got to make the movie that you see. That's the movie you make. Don't let anybody tell you what kind of movie to make or how to make it." That's a good thing to hold on to when you're navigating through all these waters and all these opinions. It's hard as a first time filmmaker to hold on to that.

THR: I would imagine you've been getting a lot of opinions, especially with a film as unique as this, mixing drama and satire.

Ruffalo: That comes from some of the autobiographical material in there. When we lived together, Chris was trying to go to some healing services early on, a Korean faith healer ... there must've been five or six people he went to, some religious, some secular. He wanted to and wants to walk. At the time Chris was trying to deal with this tragedy, trying to make sense of it -- thinking "Why me? Is this fair?" -- there were these over-the-top ridiculous rock 'n' roll dudes coming through the house. They were so over the top that if I put it in the movie, you wouldn't believe it. I had an ex-girlfriend who was dating this guy who was living at the house, too (laughs) and I was working at all these rock 'n' roll bars, (like) Smalls in L.A. Seeing all these people butted up against Chris, it was crazy and interesting and compelling. Over the years, as we were developing it, we were meeting priests, band managers, trying to make this thing as real as possible, even though it's completely fantastical.

THR: Since you also play a Catholic priest in the film, did either of you have a religious background you drew upon?

Ruffalo: Chris turned back to his Catholicism in the face of that tragedy. He devoutly studied and committed himself to it, and I know that was a balm for him during that time. The movie is all about healing. Watching him go through all that, I know there's a depth in him that came from suffering. When he was really, really down, I said "Listen, man, who you are today is so much bigger than who you were before." But maybe there's a gift in this, as horrible as that may sound.

In my household, there were all Catholic Italians, and then my grandmother became a born-again Christian -- a total Evangelical -- and my father became a Baha'i. We were all living in the same house together, and it was crazy. And it was [my] Evangelical [grandmother] who was torturing everyone else [laughs]. [She said] we were all going to hell. My dad was going to hell, my mom was going to hell. For her birthday, I went and got saved by Jimmy Swaggart at the First Assembly of God church! I was 9 years old. It was intense, man. I went to a Catholic school, I went to the Thursday firesides for the Baha'i, and my grandmother was taking me to the one of those mega-churches. I was watching people getting saved and speaking in tongues and rocking in the spirit of the Lord. I just had a very eclectic experience of religion, and what I came to understand is that each man's relationship to God is their own. The idea that any of them are more right than the other ones is just a completely insane thing. Where do you draw the line?

THR: Did all the theatrical things you saw in church inspire you in any way to want to be an actor?

Ruffalo: I'll tell you, when Jimmy Swaggart touched me and all the other kids around me were falling on the ground, I had my first acting experience. When I had his hand on my head and I wasn't feeling anything, I (thought to myself) "Dude, you're going straight to hell! Jesus doesn't want you, dude! You're the Antichrist! You're that babe they keep talking about!" So I'm on my knees waiting to be struck down by the spirit of the Lord, as everyone before me has, and finally I just took a dive! That was really my first acting gig.

THR: It's not an easy film to define, and it sounds like it was kind of a hard sell to financiers.

Ruffalo: It was impossible -- literally seven years of knocking on doors, something like 40 rejections. Either someone liked the script but didn't like the idea of a paraplegic unknown -- they were saying, "How are we going to finance this movie with this guy in the lead?" Or they just didn't get the script at all. I had an actress say it was the worst thing she ever read, and then I've had people just gushing about it. The one thing I heard was people not knowing what to do with the tonal shifts. They're not that big -- I just think they're like life. The way I like acting is one foot on a banana peel and the other in a grave. And that's what life is like: It's sunny in turns, it's sad in turns.

THR: How did you end up convincing Corner Stone and Super Crispy to make it?

Ruffalo: (Corner Stone head) Matt Weaver's wife Hillary Weaver and I were in acting class together. I was directing one of the plays, she was my producer -- there's this little band that's been together for years. The woman who ended up giving us the first million, Joanne Jacobson, was a theater investor who used to give us money. She had no interest in films whatsoever. (We said) "Do you want to read (the script)?" She said, "I don't care to read it. I know who you are -- I've watched you grow up in front of me, your work, I totally believe in you." And that was it. Once we had a million, all of a sudden it gave the movie credibility. I could go anywhere -- a big chunk of the budget was already gone. At that point Matt was putting together his company and he put together what ended up being the rest of the budget.

THR: Did working as an executive producer on "We Don't Live Here Anymore" help prepare you in any way?

Ruffalo: Oh, yeah. I think it'll probably help me later. Chris and I produced this movie-- we went to meetings together, talked to the actors (Juliette Lewis, Laura Linney, Orlando Bloom, Noah Emmerich); some of them are my friends. I've worked with a lot of first-time filmmakers, guys who are like me, and there are a lot of pitfalls. There's shit with producers, with money people. You can totally lose control of your project very quickly if you don't know what you're doing, what you're looking for and don't have a strong hand or idea what you want. I've seen money people just come in and take the film over, and so I knew how to navigate our web and how the politics worked. Then when I was part of selling ("We Don't Live Here Anymore") -- that's a whole other beast. That's the snake pit. And the shenanigans that were going on. ... We were all so afraid we wouldn't get the sales, that we would be forgotten about. ... We were so desperate and afraid that I think we ended up making a really bad deal. And that movie went on to make money and had an Oscar campaign. That movie was a success.

THR: How do you feel Sundance helps as a platform?

Ruffalo: Sundance took such a radical shift this year -- in their focus, the spirit of it, the films they chose. I think it's a healthy shift. But post-crash, and with Internet distribution, I think we're entering this whole new way you can see and make films. It's all wide open. And for me it's a homecoming -- that's where my career started, basically. (Ruffalo had his breakthrough role in Kenneth Lonergan's 2000 entry "You Can Count on Me," which won the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.)

THR: I wanted to say how sorry I was to hear about your brother. I know it was a short time before production on "Sympathy" began. Was there any point at which you considered not going through with it?

Ruffalo: Yes, there was. It remains to me a devastating experience, and I ... I didn't know. And I immediately dropped out of the movie at that point. And (Super Crispy producer) Andrea Sperling said "If you want to drop out, you should probably take a couple weeks off. We'll start a break, suspend the preproduction. Why don't you take some time off, get your head together. You're in a bad place. I totally understand why and respect whatever choice you make." I took a few weeks off to spend with my family and thought about it quite a bit. I apologized to Corner Stone -- everyone told me they understood. I (wanted to) try to make meaning of this and turn it into something that was a tribute to him. To dedicate my grief to him and his memory. So I decided I'd take a couple months off and then make this movie. There were a lot of people counting on me, and so I just pushed it into the work (laughs wryly). And then I had to pay for it afterwards.

THR: Have you had a chance to take any time off?

Ruffalo: Yeah. I kind of put away my plans for a little while. I'd like to start directing more at this point. And I've spent quite a bit of time reevaluating everything. When you go through a thing like that, you try to make sense of it.

THR: Do you think you might take some time off from acting, or switch directions?

Ruffalo: Yeah, I'm definitely taking some time off. I don't have an agent right now, I don't have representation. I'm just kind of waiting to see what comes up. You know, it's a good time for me. I hope this film is well enough received that I can keep doing this. I really love directing -- it felt very natural in a lot of ways, much more natural than acting is, in a very bizarre way. Acting, for me, is a very personal sort of endeavor. So is storytelling and film, but it's not focused on you. It becomes very myopic, and directing is the complete opposite of that. There are all these other working elements that all have their own mastery, their own language, their own creative expression that are just as satisfying, and there's a lot more of it.

THR: Why did you did choose to get involved with "The Kids Are All Right"?

Ruffalo: That was in July. I read that script and I really liked it but I turned it down -- I thought, I don't know, I don't want to be acting right now -- but it never really left me. It was funny and smart and a nice little break from editing the movie -- a quick job. I'm a big fan of Lisa Cholodenko, she's amazing, and Julianne (Moore) and Annette (Bening) -- I've always wanted to work with them.

THR: So it was a good experience to take the break from directing?

Ruffalo: I had such a good time with Lisa -- she's got a great group of people she works with. It was a nice respite from the grind of going to the e