Mark Ruffalo is having a hard time connecting.
Not professionally, nor on a personal level. Instead, he’s struggling with perhaps the most urgent aspect of the way we live now — his Wi-Fi service.
It’s the afternoon of March 16, and the actor known for his work in everything from “The Avengers” to indie hits like “The Kids Are All Right” is roughly two-thirds of the way through a lengthy Variety interview conducted via Zoom video conference. At his home in rural Sullivan County, a patch of upstate New York that lies halfway between Poughkeepsie and Scranton, Pa., the spotty connection keeps cutting him off mid-sentence.
After the fourth dropout, no one would have begrudged Ruffalo, 52, if he asked to finish the conversation on a less-chaotic day. On this momentous Monday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is taking a historic 2,997-point dive. In Albany, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has just ordered the closure of bars and restaurants and banned gatherings of more than 50 people. In Washington, President Donald Trump has been forced to grimly tell Americans that coronavirus disruptions may last until July or August.
But Ruffalo won’t quit. He’s on a mission. His job at this frenetic moment in the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown is to talk up his work as producer and star of “I Know This Much Is True,” the HBO limited series that premieres May 10. Wearing a black T-shirt offset by a salt-and-pepper beard, Ruffalo betrays a restless energy as he gesticulates all over the Zoom frame.
“He really understands working-class America and the namelessness that is part of that,” Ruffalo says of director-producer Derek Cianfrance, his key collaborator on the series. Ruffalo can’t say enough about how much the two were in sync on the grueling six-month shoot as they adapted the acclaimed 901-page novel by Wally Lamb. Ruffalo stars as two very different twin brothers in the story of a blue-collar Connecticut family’s agonizing struggle with schizophrenia and loss.
“I knew it would be a s—load of work,” says Ruffalo, referring to lensing the six-part limited series. “Derek works harder than anybody I’ve ever seen.”
The same is often said of Ruffalo, who has emerged as a kind of Gary Cooper for modern times. The three-time Oscar nominee brings an Everyman quality to his roles, many of which emerge from the earthy storytelling tradition of such hardscrabble poets as Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller and Kenneth Lonergan.
Unlike leading men of Cooper’s era, Ruffalo is also a committed political leftist and environmental activist who has twice endorsed Bernie Sanders for president. He has helped lead the successful fight against natural gas fracking in his adopted home state of New York. In October 2016 he took a stand at Standing Rock, bringing a delivery of solar energy panels to protesters battling the construction of an oil pipeline through Native American lands in North Dakota. He’s a co-founder of The Solutions Project, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that advocates for clean energy policies across the United States.
“Mark is really the king of putting his money where his mouth is,” says Don Cheadle, a close friend, and “Avengers” cast mate. “He uses his platform to the best of his ability to bring attention to and shine a light on issues that really need to be in the forefront of people’s attention. He’s been an exemplar in that regard.”
In his professional life, Ruffalo took on the job of bringing the dense saga of “I Know This Much Is True” to the screen. It’s his first major project as a producer after wrapping a decade of work as Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk in Disney’s blockbuster “Avengers” series and related Marvel movies. Ruffalo wanted to send a strong signal about the kind of material he wants to tackle as he becomes the engine of his own creative endeavors as a producer and director.
But “I Know This Much Is True” also hits as the coronavirus pandemic is upending cultural life and the entertainment industry. That’s created production challenges for the series. Cianfrance has been tweaking the episodes from his Brooklyn house while the rest of his post-production team works remotely.
“It’s a completely pioneering way to finish something,” says Cianfrance. “I have my sound guy in upstate New York; we’re doing ADR and color correcting remotely, and everything is piped through the internet. I’m just thankful to have something to work on at this terrible time.”
It’s also an inescapable fact that the economic impact of this plague will fall hardest on the kind of blue-collar folks whose lives “I Know This Much Is True” dramatizes.
“I shudder to think the depth of suffering that’s going to come with this, economically speaking,” says Ruffalo. “Even in New York City so many people are living hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck.”
It’s a reality that Ruffalo, the child of a stylist and hairdresser and a construction painter, knows well from his time growing up in a blue-collar family in Kenosha, Wis., and later in Virginia Beach, Va. In his career, Ruffalo, like Cianfrance, has shown a kinship for the downtrodden and dispossessed. From “Foxcatcher” to his Broadway turn in a revival of “Awake and Sing!,” Ruffalo’s work often dramatizes the cavernous yawn between the haves and the have-nots.
“It’s the rich soil from which our art comes,” says Ruffalo. “Whether in rebellion or response or fighting against it, it’s just a rich part of America.”
“I Know This Much Is True” was filmed largely in Kingston and Poughkeepsie, N.Y., near Ruffalo’s upstate home. The Hollywood star, who helped his neighbors battle the environmental danger of fracking, is proud that the production generated hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in economic activity in the region that Ruffalo, his wife and three children have called home since the mid-’90s.
Ruffalo’s political activism was sparked as a young man by the 1990 Gulf War. It was an awakening for him about the geopolitical reality of being an American. “It was just the injustice of it and the enormous lie that was foisted on us,” he says of that period.
Environmental activism comes naturally to Ruffalo because he has loved spending time in nature since childhood. “Growing up, it was such an important part of finding myself. It was the place I felt I belonged. It was the place I was moved by. Those things have pushed me to activism,” he says.
He is well aware that agitating for politically divisive causes could negatively impact his career in front of the camera. But Ruffalo is a graduate of the famed Stella Adler school, which has trained everyone from Elaine Stritch to Marlon Brando in stagecraft, and he often references his legendary late acting teacher.
“Stella taught us that in order to be a great artist you had to understand the political culture, the aspect of the part you’re playing, and to be politically inclined and to be active,” he says.
Ruffalo previously worked with HBO on the 2014 movie adaptation of “The Normal Heart,” which he helped assemble with director Ryan Murphy. But in Ruffalo’s view, “I Know This Much Is True” was the first project he shepherded as a producer from stem to stern.
He was working on “Now You See Me 2” in London in 2015 when he got word that screen rights to Lamb’s novel were coming up for option again. Since its publication in 1998, “I Know This Much Is True” had been through several rounds of development as a feature film — after all, the novel got a big boost in its public profile by becoming an Oprah’s Book Club title.
Ruffalo reread the novel in a weekend, then got a meeting with Lamb as soon as possible. At that sit-down, he made a bold statement to the best-selling author.
“I told him, ‘I don’t think it’s a movie, and that’s why you’ve had such a hard time getting it made,’” Ruffalo recalls. “The way to serve your material is to not smash a 1,000-page book into two hours. It needs to be a limited series, and if you’re down with this, I would love to get it put together.”
Lamb was indeed down with Ruffalo’s vision. The author was also game to go along with another bold ask — to give Ruffalo an option on the rights for three months for very little money. If the project wasn’t set up by then, the rights would revert to Lamb.
“We shook hands and made the deal right there,” recalls Ruffalo. “There were no agents.”
From there, Ruffalo set out to recruit Cianfrance to serve as writer and director of all six installments. Ruffalo had long been a fan of “The Place Beyond the Pines” director, who had tried and failed to cast him in “Blue Valentine” in a role eventually played by Ryan Gosling. He thought that Cianfrance’s “rough and holy” style would be an ideal fit with Lamb’s blue-collar story.
Ruffalo persuaded Cianfrance by promising that he would push to do the project at a place like HBO, where they would have the time and budget to get the tricky business of his playing twins right. He reminded Cianfrance that HBO gave actor Matt Bomer three months to lose weight during the filming of “The Normal Heart” to be convincing in his role as a man dying of AIDS. Ruffalo and Cianfrance then teamed with FilmNation on the production side.
It took a little bit longer than three months, but Ruffalo finally got his yea out of HBO after getting a lot of nays around town at places like Hulu. Even in the Peak TV era, the story of a down-on-his-luck guy grappling with the unpredictable behavior of his schizophrenic twin brother wasn’t an easy sell.
“People kept asking us, ‘Is it funny?’ and Derek and I were like, ‘Yes, it’s hilarious,’” Ruffalo jokes. “Mostly people said, ‘This just doesn’t fit what we’re doing right now.’”
But HBO was high on the property from the beginning. Ruffalo called it a “perfect experience.” It was a challenging production because the six episodes were shot in blocks to allow Ruffalo to play the central characters of Dominick and Thomas Birdsey. Ruffalo’s experience as a member of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes helped him with the technical rigors of the process. As the Hulk, Ruffalo had spent plenty of time in front of a green screen.
“It definitely made me more comfortable,” he says. “With Hulk we are replacing the entire body. I never have a character’s shoes or clothing on. It’s all projected from the imagination. You don’t have anything to lean on. With ‘Avengers’ it was much more difficult than what we were doing here.”
Production started on “I Know This Much is True” in April 2019, with Ruffalo playing Dominick, a divorced construction worker who looks after his institutionalized brother. He then got six weeks off to put on 30 pounds before shooting the scenes of Thomas, whose mental illness spirals out of control after the death of their mother, played by Melissa Leo.
“Mark and Derek set the tone for the entire process,” says Casey Bloys, HBO’s president of programming. “Mark is one of the greatest actors that we have living today. Everybody understood that it was very special material. We knew going in that if anybody could pull off playing these two characters, it was Mark. And if anybody could pull off the physical production and make it look realistic, it would be Derek.”
Perhaps most important, Bloys observes, is that Ruffalo and Cianfrance clearly had command of the production. All of the key players involved “were genuinely talented and smart and good human beings,” he says. “There was no bad behavior, no tantrums, just everybody working together toward a common goal.”
Cianfrance says that Ruffalo’s whole attitude changed when he was playing the twins. As Dominick, he was wiry, muscular and temperamental. As Thomas, he was doughy, gentle and damaged.
“It was Method acting to the extreme,” says Cianfrance. “He just became both guys. When he was Dominick, he was an alpha male and a little more angsty. He was a bear to wrestle with. When he was Thomas, he was so fragile that I had to approach him with kid gloves. It was like working with two different people.”
Kathryn Hahn, who co-stars in the drama as Dominick’s ex-wife, Dessa Constantine, hadn’t worked with Ruffalo before she was cast. They didn’t have much time to develop their own rhythms and chemistry before filming began. Cianfrance gave the two the space to discover the specifics of their characters in a manner that felt spontaneous.
“We got to work in a way that is the biggest creative turn-on for me,” Hahn says. “There weren’t a lot of precious discussions about words like ‘process.’ We just got down to business. That is my favorite way to work.”
Ruffalo, not surprisingly, knew how to set the right tone on set for the actors and the crew. “He has such a crazy, amazing sense of humor,” Hahn says. “For something as heavy as [‘I Know This Much Is True’] is, it didn’t feel as heavy while we were making it.” She adds that friends in the industry had assured her that Ruffalo was one of the kindest and most generous co-stars she could have — “and he didn’t disappoint at all in those departments.”
Just as Ruffalo slipped seamlessly into the roles of Dominick and Thomas, so too has he navigated a career that’s predicated on a kind of duality. He’s at once the indie star of “Foxcatcher” and “The Kids Are All Right” and an A-lister who pops up on toys and T-shirts as a key player in the “Avengers” franchise. That in turn has enabled him to be both a celebrity, able to attract large crowds to his latest big-screen outing, and an activist with a talent for putting the klieg lights on issues such as climate change and social justice. But it was a double act that Ruffalo struggled for years to pull off. After exploding on the scene as the drifter brother in “You Can Count on Me,” casting agents came calling, impressed by his Brando-like volatility and good looks.
“To the industry, it was ‘What a revelation,’” Ruffalo remembers. “I’d been here for 13 years. I’d been in your office 20 times. But it was this explosive moment. What you dream about as an actor — all of sudden you’re hot.”
He may have landed on Hollywood’s radar, but the industry didn’t know what to do with him. He found himself cast as the affable lead in a series of rom-coms, such as “13 Going on 30,” “Just Like Heaven” and “Rumor Has It …,” that asked little of him and failed to provide much of a showcase for his talent. In 2010, Ruffalo seriously considered hanging it up. He’d endured a series of personal tragedies — his younger brother, Scott, was murdered in 2008, and Ruffalo had a health crisis when surgery to remove a benign brain tumor left his face partially paralyzed for a year. Moreover, he wasn’t feeling fulfilled by his work. That changed with 2010’s “The Kids Are All Right.”
“I sensed he was at a crossroads,” says Lisa Cholodenko, the film’s co-writer and director. “He has this kind of masculinity that’s very particular and really special, and I just got the feeling that people weren’t writing scripts that were an obvious fit for that — for that kind of sexy, flawed, vulnerable and funny thing that he does and Hollywood doesn’t do too much of.”
For Ruffalo, the film and the character of Paul, a sperm donor who enters the life of a lesbian couple raising his biological children in unexpected ways, allowed him to tap back into what he loved about the profession. He fashioned Paul after his late brother, deploying a new kind of bravado and energy. Critics and audiences took note. The film was an art-house breakout, earning an Oscar nomination for best picture as well as a nod for Ruffalo’s supporting turn.
“It had this great impact,” he says. “It came up right as the debate about gay marriage [was growing]. It had a profound impact on that dialogue. It’s exactly what I want to do — tell the truth about human beings in a way that brings us together and doesn’t tear us apart.”
Ruffalo’s profile climbed even higher when he took over as Bruce Banner and his mean, green alter ego the Hulk in 2012’s smash hit “The Avengers.” Despite being part of a popcorn franchise, he approached the role with the kind of intensity he brought to his indie projects.
“He puts a lot of prep into everything he does,” says Taika Waititi, the director of “Thor: Ragnarok.” “I was surprised. I thought, ‘Oh well, he’s playing Banner and the Hulk — how much work goes into being a screaming monster?’ But he took it seriously and wanted to explore the duality of the character.”
He’s gone on to play the role in four other sequels and spinoffs, but is unsure if he will return for future installments. There have been talks with Marvel about having Hulk appear in Disney Plus’ “She-Hulk,” but aside from that, Ruffalo says nothing is in the works. He’s open to appearing in a Hulk stand-alone movie, something that hasn’t been attempted since 2008’s “The Incredible Hulk,” back when Edward Norton was playing the role.
“There’s an idea that I think could be really interesting,” says Ruffalo. “We’ve never really followed him into his life. He’s always kind of off on the side. He’s like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the Avengers. It’d be interesting to fill in all the blanks about what happened to him in between all these movies.”
Beyond more adventures in Marvel-dom, Ruffalo says he hopes to keep producing passion projects like “I Know This Much Is True,” and has ambitions to direct again, having previously helmed 2010’s “Sympathy for Delicious.” But he recognizes that Hollywood is an industry that demands commercial as well as critical success. For instance, “Dark Waters,” an environmental drama that he spearheaded, got strong reviews but faded at the box office when it came out in 2019. Ruffalo says he’s painfully aware that tastes change and studios might stop returning his calls.
“I have a poor-actor’s mentality where it’s all going to stop one day,” says Ruffalo. “They’re going to stop calling one day, and no one is going to want me anymore.”