Mark Ruffalo has got to be one of the most agreeable male actors working in film today. The 47-year-old actor and father to three showed up an hour late to his interview with Indiewire, which was pegged to his latest release “Infinitely Polar Bear,” but immediately won us over with an apology and hilarious explanation for his tardiness that involved a broken food truck and terrible traffic. When he said “sorry,” you could tell that he meant it.
A huge part of Ruffalo’s appeal has to do with that sincerity. It’s apparent in all of his onscreen work and in his day-to-day life. He doesn’t use his Twitter and Tumblr page to solely tout his upcoming releases, but rather to discuss topics that are close to his heart — feminism, environmental activism and LGBT issues.
“Infinitely Polar Bear,” from writer-director Maya Forbes (“Monsters vs. Aliens”), sees Ruffalo playing Cameron, a father to two young girls who suffers from manic-depression. When his wife, Maggie (Zoe Saldana), is forced to get a higher level education in another city in order to properly provide for their family, Cameron is tasked with raising his children while she’s away. “With his crooked smile, squinting eyes, and jerking movements, Ruffalo, as always, delivers a strong performance,” wrote Emma Myers in her Indiewire review of the drama.
Below, Ruffalo discusses Forbes’ autobiographical film, what appealed to him about the project and how his life has changed since he became an Avenger.
Is the making of “Polar Bear” still fresh in your memory? You made it back in 2013.
Yeah, it is. I had been talking about it over the past few years. It’s pretty fresh. It was a great experience.
Do you feel like you were making a leap by signing on to a feature directorial debut, or do you not even think in those terms when a script comes your way?
If she hadn’t written the script, I would feel like it was more of a leap. But I read the script and I could see much of the sensibility there, the willingness to portray her father and herself in the most [balanced] of terms — the dark and the light. The script is everything. If you start there and rely on that and the director honors that, since she wrote it I felt pretty strong that she would honor it, you’re already well on your way. I really pursued this. They were looking for a much bigger named actor.
For this film?
Yeah. This was in the beginning.
So before “Avengers”?
Oh yeah. This was the kind of thing where, I know you’re down the road with some other people, but I can do this. I really ran after it. I rarely do that. I normally don’t have that much confidence. I usually am trying to talk to directors out of giving me a job. But this one I really felt like I knew. And then I met Maya and immediately liked her and felt very comfortable with the way she was talking about it. She was talking about it in a way that I knew I could bring to life. And then it was five years of working on it, passing information, and she’d send me pictures of her dad, videos, all that kind of stuff.
So why did you feel so strongly about it? Is it because you’re a father of three?
Yeah! I understood that relationship. I’m a very hands-on father. I like being a hands-on father. I am probably more like one of my kids in my family, but the dominating kid. I just really understood it. I have mental illness in my family. I have a lot of compassion for those people. I see them struggling, and I thought it was the perfect combination of humor and pathos. I’m interested in having one foot on a banana peel and the other in a grave. That’s like my ethos. I really felt like, as a performance and as a story, there’s so much kindness in it and love in it. Not in a schticky, generic way, which isn’t really kind or loving. It’s in this way that’s truly reflective of the people that we know. But my personal feeling about family is that all families are screwed. It’s where the worst comes out in everybody. What makes them work and why they’re a place for us to grow is because, one, we get to let it all hang out, but two, when there’s love there’s room for healing and there’s room for people to grow. And that’s what I felt like this script reflected.
When you read this script did you see more of yourself in the wife character, just given how busy you are you career-wise?
With how busy I am, I know exactly how bad she feels and I know how guilty she must feel. I know that the sacrifice on her side — yes, she is following her career, and I’m sure that was something that was liberating for her to do that, but at the same time what you sacrifice is the closeness of your family and the time that you miss with your kids. So I really identify with her. But my job was to identify with him. Having an understanding of both as well as I feel I do helps, I think. He makes that kind of crack at her with, “What about your family?” And he immediately starts to backpedal because he knows how shitty of a thing that was to say to her. He’s frustrated and sad and angry and feels hurt at that moment. It’s like we’re all sort of stuck in this imperfect world and we’re just trying to make the best of it. That’s what he’s doing, that’s what she’s doing, that’s what the kids are doing it. That’s one thing that I’m acutely aware of.
How do you make the best of it in your personal life?
I think the way to make the best of it is to try to bring some balance to it all. You can show your kids that you can have a career that’s fulfilling and you can support your family, you can love it, while at the same time they also understand that there’s a sacrifice with giving something up for that. It’s all this kind of negotiation between extremes. Even they’re doing it.
I was laying in my bed with my daughter the other night and we were talking and she said, “You’re the best daddy!” She was being really sweet and I said, “I’m doing okay. I’m trying my best.” And she said, “I know. When you have to go away for a long time we get mad at you, but it’s okay, papa.” She’s negotiating it too. What is happiness other than a negotiation between reality and your dreams? It’s understanding that you give up something for something else. I feel like that’s been how I’ve been trying to be happy, although in my DNA there’s more of a depressed person. That’s when I feel like I’ve been the happiest, when I can make that negotiation happen and keep things balanced. Whether it’s between work and family, between activism and family, between activism and work, and whatever little time as an introvert I can carve out for myself to recharge my batteries.
About your activism, I read your recent Tumblr post.
The feminist one? That wasn’t mine! It was a reblog!
It’s great! Who posted that? It’s been making the rounds.
Some incredible feminist. But it’s been attributed to me. It’s not really my style, I don’t tell people to kiss my ass. I picked that up. I thought it was really well written. And now I’m being credited for it!
What do you make of the lack of strong female roles for actresses your age? You got your big start working with Laura Linney on “You Can Count On Me,” but even she’s visibly struggling to find juicy parts. She recently signed on for a supporting role in the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” sequel…
We’re in a work of progress here. The fact there’s a handful of female writers and directors is probably where it starts. Who’s gonna write a great female role, other than Joss Whedon, than another female?
And then he gets attacked for doing it.
Yeah, he does. It’s because we’re so sensitive about it because there are so few great roles for women. I do think that’s changing. I see people like Jennifer Lawrence. There’s a lot of female stars that are driving material. They’re getting to be the star and lead in a movie. We’ve come a long way with that. All the comediennes are driving that space now. There’s a whole new chick flick, but not a romantic comedy, where comediennes are driving that space. There are people like Kristen Wiig who are starting to go into the dramatic part of that.
The fact that Laura Linney is in any way having a hard time getting a great part is a travesty. I think it needs to start with more women writers and directors. That’s where the material is generated. There are plenty of stories out there to be told about women doing really great, remarkable things. Whether it’s the head of a company, or a woman breaking open the “Zero Dark Thirty” story, or a great mom. There are just as many stories to be told about women as there are men, if not more. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what’s more troubling for me — the pay or the fact that there’s any backlash at all for me reblogging something about feminist rights. I thought we were further along than that, but clearly equality across the board hasn’t taken hold as much as we thought.
A lot of great roles for women are in independent film. Your “Avengers” co-star Robert Downey Jr. courted some negative press for what he said about not wanting to make indies anymore.
[laughs] Oh really? Where did he say that?
He said it on some radio station. He might just have been saying it in jest, but when you put those things in print people are going to give them value.
He should be doing indies! He’s sort of the icon of indie film. I think essentially what he’s saying is he doesn’t want to do a
movie where he doesn’t feel supported at the end of the day. I think
that’s probably what he’s saying, but I do feel like his whole ethos is
independent. And he’s made this great, wonderful leap into this whole
other world. READ MORE: What Robert Downey Jr. Got Wrong In His 172 Words About Independent Film
Much like you.
Yeah! On his coattails essentially, really led by him. Scarlett [Johansson] and I were sitting in the press junket and we look at each other like, “What the fuck are we doing here? How did we end up here? We’re two indie kids! No studio would ever hire us.” They’re still thinking, “Maybe we shouldn’t hire Ruffalo.” If it weren’t for the directors, I probably wouldn’t be working in the studio system. But we were laughing, “What the fuck did we do to get here? How did we end up here?” And I feel that way, but I also have been noticing all these boundaries are being broken down all over the place with things like what we consider normal. Which is like this movie asking, “What is a family? What is a normal family?” A normal family is a family that has all different characters, some mental illness, some drug addiction, trying to get by as best as they can, with learning differences and ADHD and moody people. It’s this mix of dysfunction and it’s everywhere! Every human being has some form of it. I feel like we’re in a time where labels, like sexuality or race, are starting not to mean anything anymore. Indie actor, indie movie, studio movie, the barriers are all becoming more porous now. So you have people moving in all different directions doing all different stuff.
So you don’t see projects in those terms anymore? In terms of independent versus studio.
I don’t. There was a time when you read a studio movie and it was its own picture. From when I started acting to today, I have seen that studio movies are looking more like independent movies and independent movies are looking more like studio movies. They’ve completely melded because, ultimately, there is something to be gained from the two of them becoming a hybrid. That’s been driven by the market, that’s been driven by the people. People want to see more interesting, in-depth characters in their studio movies. People want to see indie movies that have a little more polish, that are a little more professionally made. You have this kind of crossing going on. That’s been my experience of it. To say you’re an indie actor or you won’t do indie movies seems archaic to me in a way. [RDJ] is doing indie movies! He is actually acting like he’s in an indie movie with every movie he does.
That’s a good point.
He hasn’t left his style behind or what he believes in or what turns him on as an actor.
He’s just making a lot more money.
[laughs] Yeah, he’s just making a lot more money. Which is what our culture tells us is the most important thing to do. That’s the world we’re living in. That’s the be all end all. That’s even starting to crumble, those ideas I think. They’re not holding happiness, they’re not holding fulfillment. They give you some sort of freedom, yes. Are people who have that much money that much happier? If you look at the statistics, the people who are happy in the world are the people who have almost the least. People who put a healthy premium and importance on things like family or community, those are the things that make us happy. Money can allow you the freedom and time to engage in those things that make you happy, but it in itself isn’t the answer.
How have you dealt with that transition? No doubt you’re making more money than you ever have before.
It’s hard! I have guilt about it, for one thing. I have some amount of shame about it. I’m giving more and more of it away, which makes me feel good. It’s been nice to be able to help my mom and my sister and my dad, and to help my nieces. It’s been nice to be able to help people. And it’s been nice to be able to take some more time off. And it’s been nice to be able to think about buying a place instead of renting a place in New York City. What people have to understand is that I have to make a lot of money, an enormous amount of money, to have a lot of money. At the end of the day I probably walk home with around 20 percent of my paycheck. Each actor has a whole sort of business around them.
I was out at the park with my daughter the other day and this kid came up to me and said, “What are you doing here man? Why aren’t you hanging out with the rich people?” And I was like, “Actors are not the rich people. Actors aren’t as rich as you think they are.” That being said, I never thought in a million years that I’d be where I was supporting a family of three, living in New York City, and being able to put my kids in a good school, those kind of things. Or even that I’d be leading a movie, or sitting here talking to you, or I’d be staying at the hotels I stay in from time to time. None of that I thought was possible 20 years ago, to be honest with you. So I’m really grateful for it.
That’s how I deal with it. To remember where I came from, the fact that it took so long, and to remember that I’ve been happy through all parts of my life and not just because of money. My happiness has been taken from being out on a beautiful walk sometimes, or seeing my kid smile or come hug me, or making love with my wife, or riding my bike, or making stuff. Doing really simple things is where I get that. Even activism has brought me an enormous amount of happiness. Activists are full of love because there’s not any money in it. They care about the things they’re fighting for, so they have a lot of love in them. That’s where happiness comes from.