Friday 6 December 2019

Ruffalo All Right after years of graft

Long a hit with the critics, Mark Ruffalo is only now gaining the fame he deserves -- but maybe not desires, writes Evan Fanning

Evan Fanning

MARK Ruffalo leans across the table in his hotel room and pours himself another cup of tea. They make great tea here," he says in his gravelly laid-back drawl. "And their pastries? Jesus. But if I paid my own bill here, it would cost more than I got paid for this movie."

That the cost of a Mayfair hotel room is of concern to Ruffalo offers a small glint of light into his character. The 42-year-old, from Wisconsin, is a sort of antithesis to the Hollywood big players.

Take the normal trappings, airs and graces that you might expect from a star, and strip them away and you're left with Ruffalo. He's the actor who has spent years doing the kind of movies he enjoys only to now achieve the sort of fame and mainstream recognition he has never seemed all that interested in pursuing.

Despite this, he still has star quality. Girls swoon at the very mention of his name, while critics have raved about his performances ever since he first caused a ripple with You Can Count on Me.

His new film, The Kids Are All Right, is the indie comedy that has fallen into the somewhat dubious category of "this year's Little Miss Sunshine". It's a film made on a relative shoestring and shot in 23 days, and is creating a lot of Oscar buzz for Ruffalo, his co-stars and the film's director/writer Lisa Cholodenko. "You're lucky if you get a few of these in a career," is his ever-modest evaluation of the situation.

The Kids Are All Right is the story of two teens being raised by a lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) who decide to track down their biological father -- each of their "moms" was inseminated with the same sperm.

Enter Ruffalo as Paul, a free-living restaurateur who rides a motorbike and gets his hands dirty in his organic garden. The relationship he forms with his children threatens their fragile and dysfunctional domesticity.

The key to Ruffalo's likeability on screen, in this and other films, is that his appeal works across the board. Girls want to be with him and guys wouldn't mind being him. Funny, then, that he feels much the same way about his latest character.

"I wish I was more like Paul," he says. "He's very confident and very forward sexually about who he is and his desires. He lives his life by his own rules with this incredible joie de vivre. He's a bachelor. He's independently doing well financially. He has a different kind of freedom to most of us. It was fun to play that part. I don't have that kind of cock-sure certainty."

I put it to him that Paul is like an advertisement for staying single. "He was like who we all wish we were in some sense," he agrees.

Ruffalo also performs some intense and comical love scenes with Moore. It's fortunate, then, that he knows her well, having worked with her in Blindness in 2008. "Sex scenes are pretty awkward anyway," he says. "They're always awkward. But because we worked together, it wasn't so bad. You need to be relaxed to do humour, because humour catches you off guard. To do sex scenes that are humorous and keep it real is tough.

"We talked about how to do that. We were just playing. I don't know if I could have done that with somebody if I had been asking them, 'Is it OK if I do this?' It would have been stilted and forced. You had to be really loose to do that."

There's something quite heartening about Ruffalo coming into the most prominent period of his career in his early 40s. It seems a reward for substance in an age of instant celebrity. He's done his fair share of romantic comedies and supporting roles; he has been the guy whose name you might struggle to recall that film you saw him in before.

In person, he's every bit as pleasant as you would almost expect him to be from seeing him on screen. His tussled hair is tucked away underneath a baseball cap, with flecks of grey poking out over his ears. He's wearing a pin-striped suit jacket over a T-shirt. He has no problem talking openly about any aspect of his life, a relaxed approach no doubt helped by the fact that he has such a good movie to promote.

"I had to push some clunkers up there," he says. "There's nothing worse than sitting in a room with people trying to convince them to like something that they didn't like."

As much as The Kids Are All Right is "a quirky comedy", it's also a tale of marriage, relationships and how all of us struggle to deal with what Arthur Miller described as "the problem of living". It's a theme that Ruffalo is engaged with. "Sometimes, I'm like, 'How do I have three kids -- I can't even take care of myself?'" he says.

He lives far away from the incestuous world of Hollywood in an upstate New York farmhouse with his wife (actress Sunrise Coigney) and children. They've been married for 11 years, an eternity in the film business. Once again, he's the outsider, doing things his own way. His children range from three to nine, with the film's theme of parenthood again striking a chord.

"It's pretty mind-boggling that there really is no training for parents," he says. "All you really have to reference is your own dysfunctional family. But the one good thing is that I don't know any family that gets through it with a total amount of grace. I guess the one thing is, and it sounds so cliche, but it's the power of love and what that really is.

"That's kind of what gets us through the worst of it. A lot of people think one notch above lust is love. After 11 years, you're like, 'Oh. OK. Wow. Love.' That's really accepting someone for who they are and just letting them be, and that's tough. But I adore her. We've been through a lot together and I really feel lucky to have her."

That he and his wife "have been through a lot together" isn't open to debate. In 2002, he was discovered to have a brain tumour. It was benign and the surgeons removed it successfully, but it meant nearly a year of recovery for Ruffalo while his wife took care of him. He recovered and returned to acting, making movies such as 13 Going on 30 alongside Jennifer Garner and Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Then, just two years ago, his brother Scott was murdered in his LA home. He questioned everything, taking time off from his career without being sure he would return. Unsurprisingly, he feels these two events have been formative in shaping his outlook on life and work.

"Things become really clear," he says. "What isn't so important to you and what is superfluous and unnecessary becomes clear in those moments. It's crystallising. You take it in and you go on and things change, and it becomes part of you.

"You learn that it's a temporary existence and it happens quickly and then you're gone. You think, 'Shit, I'm not this young guy who's going to go on forever. I have a limited amount of time here and I want to make it count.'

"Certainly, when I'm laying on my death bed, I don't want to be thinking that I lived my parents' life or I lived my agent's life or I lived my wife's life. I want to think that was my life and I lived it to my satisfaction in a lot of regards."

The success that is now coming his way provides a different type of satisfaction to his achievements earlier in his career. Already this year he starred in Martin Scorsese's thriller Shutter Island and he will shortly begin work on The Avengers, where he plays The Hulk.

"The business side of my world looks at these as a big success," he says. "And they are. Shutter Island is Martin Scorsese and it did really well, and next it's The Avengers and I'm already signing Hulk posters.

"It's as if I didn't have a career before, but I've been doing it a long time and I was like, 'I might be on the downside of my career' by the end of last year, so it's quite surprising to me. You never know what's going to happen. I welcome it. I like acting and I feel like something new is going on and it's exciting."

As exciting as it may be, he will duck out of it at the first chance and return to the country with his family. There, he says, "people don't really watch movies and they don't really give a shit about me". That may be one thing that is about to change.

The Kids Are All Right is now in cinemas

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