Before 2012, Mark Ruffalo was best known as a dependable screen presence thanks to strong performances in a slew of indies including “You Can Count On Me,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “The Kids Are All Right,” which landed him his first Oscar nomination. Cut to two years later and the 46 year old actor is a bonafide star thanks to “The Avengers,” the 2012 superhero movie that changed his life forever.
Since wowing as Bruce Banner (and the character’s alter ego, the Hulk), Ruffalo has been busier than ever, appearing in the recent HBO movie “The Normal Heart” and “Begin Again,” John Carney’s heart-warming follow-up to “Once,” which recently opened in select theaters to solid numbers. He also co-starred alongside Jesse Eisenberg in last year’s surprise summer smash “Now You See Me” (there’s a sequel in the works) and impressed as a single dad in the 2014 Sundance drama “Infinitely Polar Bear.” This fall sees the release of Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher,” a psychological thriller that earned Ruffalo and his co-stars Channing Tatum and Steve Carell Oscar buzz when it screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
The actor sat down with Indiewire in New York on a break from filming Joss Whedon’s sequel to “The Avengers,” which opens next summer.
I feel like I’m seeing you more than ever this year. First at Sundance with “Infinitely Polar Bear,” then at Cannes with “Foxcatcher,” and this summer with “Normal Heart” and “Begin Again.” You’re having quite the run.
I did some really interesting work last year. “The Avengers” opened up the doorway to a lot of things that had remained sort of out of reach, or un-financeable. That all of a sudden sort of all came to fruition, things that I had been trying to hold onto or get made over two or three years that just finally came into being. And so a lot of those movies were that. “Foxcatcher,” “Infinitely Polar Bear,” “The Normal Heart.” They all just sort of happened back-to-back.
“The Avengers” really changed my ability to get these little movies done. Before it was a little harder to sell with me leading them.
Was this all part of a master plan? Did you sign onto the franchise to get more indies starring you off the ground?
You sort of hope it’s gonna be, but I don’t think it’s a really sound way to make a choice. It’s like the added benefit. I went back and forth quite a bit about doing “The Avengers.” One, because there wasn’t a script really available and I promised I would never sign onto something without a script. The other was, do I belong in that world? And can I deliver on what’s expected of me? And it’s somebody else’s part. What’s gonna be different about it that I can bring that’s worthy?
Those were all the things that I was up against. So the idea that I was going to do a movie to get other movies made is a nice thought, but it was way down the list. A lot of other things had to be addressed before I was even ready to get into that conversation. So no, it wasn’t. So much of this stuff you just get lucky and happen into things that turn out to be good that in retrospect look like it was a great idea.
As you were saying, you now have the star power to get films greenlit. What’s it like to have that power, to be able to make a filmmaker’s dream a reality?
It’s kind of strange. It’s kind of scary. You don’t want unfettered… I feel like the negative push against something, or people’s considerations against making something actually have a healthy impact on the project itself. And so I’m a little nervous about a cart blanche sort of just based on the success of one movie. It’s a little scary. I think you could set yourself up for some mistakes or do things that aren’t quite ready because they haven’t incubated in this real life sort of vetting. But it’s also really good. It’s exciting because I’ve also been doing it a long time and I do feel like I do have a sensibility about story. I do have the sensibility about the quality of something. And so I do feel like that’s something that’s worthy or has some worth in the marketplace that I choose to work in.
You were talking earlier about being unsure of whether you could deliver as the Hulk before signing onto “The Avengers.” Critics and fans were over the moon with your interpretation of the character. How gratifying did that feel?
It’s very gratifying because it’s a hard nut to crack. And some really great people have done it and done really well, but there was a lot of… I was on Letterman last night and he said, “Why YOU for the Hulk? And please don’t take offense to this, but you’re not really the first person that comes to mind for that part.” I think a lot of people felt that way. And I felt that way to some extent. Although I loved Bill Bixby in that part and I related to it, and I did feel like I can do something with this. I know I can. But I never had that much scrutiny on a choice that I made ever at that point. It was a little daunting. It’s huge. But what are you going to do? You gotta put your ass on the line or otherwise you don’t do anything. I don’t have very much control at the end of the day of how people are going to perceive what I do. All I can do is do the best I can do with the things I have control of, which is my performance, how much work I put into it, how filled out I think it could be, what I could do that’s my own with it. And then I just got to give it up to the Gods.
You also only really have control over half of your performance. The other half is left to the CGI wizards.
But more so than anybody else has with the motion capture technology. The latest version of the technology is even more exciting! Because of the technological advances they’ve made even since the first Hulk and the motion capture, now it’s become completely actor-driven when in the past it was more animation-driven and the actor was kind of a placeholder. Now we are really talking about performance and now what I can do as the Hulk is new territory. That’s been so exciting. What we are doing with this one is head and shoulders above the great stuff we did with the first one. So, we’ll see. My whole thing now is how — it literally is playing two characters in the same movie that are so completely different to each other. It’s really exciting.
Do you feel like a kid watching yourself up on screen as Bruce Banner’s green alter ego?
Yeah. It’s such an imprecise thing now and it’s incredibly unruly and it’s very sort of rough. So I put on my motion capture suit and they put a screen in front of me, they have screens all over the place, and I’m seeing the Hulk moving in front of me. But it’s unruly and imprecise and so you’re sort of projecting your imagination into the final project but you have no idea what it’s gonna be like. So you’re building this physical character. It’s like a puppet. But like a puppet it can’t quite capture every nuance of your face. It can’t quite capture nuances in the way you move. So you’re really projecting your imagination onto something that you won’t know what the final outcome is until much later. Plus, I’m working with a great incredible team of animators as well. And we’re doing a collaboration together and so their input is also unknowable. And so when you see the final product, the realization of it is, it must be like a photographer or something, when you take a photo and it’s in a film canister and you have an idea of what you wanted to convey with that photo and you kind of remember what you were shooting, but it’s a blink of a second and it’s gone. That vérité sort of thing. And you’re sitting there and you are developing it and as it’s developing you are seeing what you have captured in a way that is real, that is a different reflection of that creative moment you had so long ago. That’s how I would liken seeing the Hulk finally done. I’m just like ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing!’ It gives me chills because I know underneath that is me and it’s them and we’ve worked on this thing together.
But where we can go? We’re just scratching the surface of this thing. This is the most exciting frontier as an actor, what’s happening in motion capture. And I want to be on the leading edge of it. I want to be there with Andy Serkis who is leading it in his own way. This is all about performance, an actor’s performance using this new kind of makeup really. It’s not different than that.
You must be dying to make a stand-alone Hulk movie.
If we could find a story that’s compelling enough to hold people’s interest for the two hours — that is essential. It’s a tough nut to crack and I see it as a tough nut to crack. I think it’s tougher than the other superheroes because you have a guy who essentially doesn’t want to be there doing the thing that you want him to do more than anything. So it can be frustrating as an audience member. It could become a little mirthless. I think that Joss [Whedon] is trying to set it up enough so that we can strike out new ground on that relationship. With the new technology there’s a lot to do in Hulk-land that we haven’t done yet that is really exciting. So you could have a balance of the two. And I’ve been finding this relationship between Banner and the Hulk and Hulk and Banner is equally compelling — it’s been explored in the comics, but never in the movies. It’s always been Banner’s relationship to this sort of lump, this unknowable very two-dimensional thing. But there’s also something really interesting about Hulk’s relationship with Banner. The only thing that scares Hulk is Banner. It’s not some bigger, scarier, huger thing — it’s this frail man. And it terrifies him and it angers him. It’s such an interesting relationship that no one has cracked. I feel like that would be an interesting place for us to go. That might hold people’s attention.