Mark Ruffalo can be forgiven for trying to help out an old acting school friend by directing him in his script, the morality tale Sympathy for Delicious. But this is one of those cases where what’s fun and challenging and feels good to the folks making the movie doesn’t necessarily work for the audience.
Ruffalo, who recovered from a brain tumor in 2002, is fine as a conflicted Catholic priest who is trying to help the homeless by exploiting a wheelchair-bound DJ who discovers healing powers (actor-writer-producer Chris Thornton). Orlando Bloom and Juliette Lewis play skanky rock musicians, and Ruffalo’s You Can Count On Me co-star Laura Linney is a smarmy manager. Everyone is exploiting everyone, in other words. But it takes the entire movie for Thornton’s prickly lost soul to come into his own, to find himself. That’s a long, long slog.
It took Ruffalo over ten years to fund his directorial debut: “Everyone kept telling me: ‘Who wants to see a story about an unknown actor in a wheelchair?'” he recalls. Private equity and strong actors willing to work for scale on a 23-day schedule did the trick. The film garnered a surprise special dramatic jury prize at Sundance after getting initial mixed reviews; one supporter was the NYT.
Born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Ruffalo, 43, lives and tries to follow a sustainable lifestyle with his wife and three kids in Callicoon, upstate New York, where he enthusiastically supports the only arthouse theatre in Sullivan County. His career is thriving, with a strong performance in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, an Oscar nomination for The Kids Are All Right, a Details cover story, and his upcoming role as the Hulk in The Avengers. He looked entirely out of place onstage at last July’s Comic-Con, where he joined the long line of cast members onstage. Some of the audience was expecting Edward Norton, and voiced their disappointment when Ruffalo turned up, looking like a deer in headlights.
He didn’t know that he had landed the part until a car pulled up in front of his door at 4 AM to drive him to the airport to fly to San Diego. If no car came, he would have woken up knowing he didn’t get the role. “I was there for two hours and flew to LA back to NY. Talk about a carbon footprint,” he admitted in a phone interview. “I’m not used to that sort of thing. I run a small operation. I’m not used to getting a part and having it subjected to that scrutiny and debate. I like to come in the back door and surprise people. There’s so much onus on it. I trust Joss [Whedon]. We talked a lot and to Robert [Downey. Jr.] I trust that we are going to make it good. Robert sets the tone.”
Ruffalo has been trying to get several projects off the ground, including Larry Kramer’s adaptation of his 1985 AIDS play The Normal Heart, which has been mired in development. “I’m looking out for good material,” Ruffalo says. “Top shelf, not middle shelf. To take someone else and correct it is too much work.”