Few actors bring as much heart to the screen as Mark Ruffalo, and few manage as diverse a career. This summer, he's in London making "The Avengers" sequel, suiting up again as oversized green superhero the Hulk; meanwhile, the critically praised indie film "Begin Again," in which he plays a down-on-his-luck music producer, is now in theaters, and he's just landed his first Emmy nomination for his electrifying and heartbreaking lead performance in the HBO film "The Normal Heart."
In the HBO movie, adapted from Larry Kramer's autobiographical 1985 play, Ruffalo plays Ned Weeks, a gay writer and activist determined to raise the alarm about HIV and AIDS in New York City in the early 1980s. Director Ryan Murphy ("American Horror Story") has cited Ruffalo's environmental activism (he has been an early leader in the anti-fracking movement) as one of the things that made him perfect for the role. The film, which premiered on HBO in May, landed 16 nominations, including recognition for cast mates Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, Joe Mantello, Alfred Molina and Julia Roberts. Ruffalo spoke to The Envelope by phone from London.
The Ned Weeks role is incredibly rich — he's a brother, a lover, a leader, a fighter, a friend. He has so much passion and anger. Too much for his own good, sometimes. Was there a hurdle you had to overcome before you could play all that?
Modulating the anger and bouncing it against the vulnerability — that was the tightrope walk. Making sure you push in a way that's appropriate for the scene and what's on the line with those ideas, and taking that as far as you can. He was an agitator by design; he understood that he had to be confrontational. The tendency would be to play that character all one note. I know Ryan was afraid of that. I was less afraid because I'd come from the theater, where it's a lot easier to make those radical shifts of tone or feeling. What I'm realizing is, as long as you have the same face in the movie [he laughs], you can get away with almost anything. You can go to such extremes, and that's become more and more interesting to me. This thing takes Ned from goofy to just bitter and angry to vulnerable, from a know-it-all to a know-nothing. To me, that more closely reflects what it is to be human.
You play a key scene with Alfred Molina (as Ben, Ned's successful older brother) in which you are just begging him to accept you as his equal, regardless of your sexual orientation, and he can't do it. He will not give in, and he is formidable. What was it like to have to go up against him like that?
It was tough. He's amazing. It's like throwing yourself against a 4-foot-thick concrete wall. You can't get more solid than Alfred Molina. But the language carries you. It's a beautifully constructed scene. And the subtext is carrying you as well. At one point, I couldn't get there, and I was experiencing a lot of anger toward myself. And then it just popped. It just kind of broke out of there.
Can you explain what happened for you in that moment?
Sometimes as an actor you're so deeply immersed in a part that you lose control of it. If you're really lucky, a few times in your life, it'll take you somewhere you never expected to go. It really blows the top off your understanding of your craft. Something emotional happens that just takes you, and it's usually a big idea. And the big idea of that scene is: I am a human being, and I deserve to be looked at in the same way as any human being. I have a normal heart. It's the whole meaning of the piece. And Ryan said that to me, 'This is it, Mark. This is the entire meaning,' and that was what kind of popped the top off it.
In contrast, there's a very romantic scene shot on the waterfront in New York City, where you drop to your knees and ask Felix (Matt Bomer) if he'd like to move in with you, and when he says yes, you run around in circles with your hands in the air. What was it like to film that?
It was a very special day. Larry showed up to watch, and it was also the day that [the Defense of Marriage Act] fell in the Supreme Court.
Really? The day you shot the scene that most approximates a marriage proposal was also the day that the law against recognizing gay marriage was struck down?
It was. It was a magical, magical day. And we were racing, because a storm was moving in. It was actually raining when we shot the scene, so we only did one take. But it was such a beautiful moment. It was amazing how much grace there was around this movie.
Completely different in tone was the scene where you come in with the groceries, and Felix has become so sick that he won't get up from the floor, and you're so frustrated that you pelt him with produce.
That's a famous scene. All the actors do it in acting school. I must have seen it 10 times at the Stella Adler Academy, which I was in for seven years.
Did that affect the way you approached it?
It did. My teacher said, "When you're an actor, you're always working — don't ever sit in the audience and just watch." So I'm always working on a scene while I'm watching it, saying, "What would I do? What's working and what isn't?" If you start working on a part in your heart and imagination, it stays with you and grows with you. All those young actors who played this part in front of me gave me a gift of understanding it in a way that I would not have otherwise.
Playing a gay role is probably not the career risk it used to be, but other things you do are still risky — like your outspoken activism against fracking, the natural gas drilling process, especially in New York state, where you live.
Yes, to [tick] people off by being confrontational to their belief in the status quo is risky. I probably walk as close to that line as anybody, and I feel myself getting more fearless. But I try to do it in a way that's respectful and in the spirit of free speech, which is what our democracy's really about. People say really hateful things, but I always try to bring the human element back into it because I know those people aren't that much different than me. We all want our kids to have the best world they can come up in. We all care. There's more that we share in common than not. Our real enemy is fear, or misinterpretation, or misunderstanding. We need a dialogue, but we can't have that if we dehumanize each other.
It sounds as if you could have written some of the speeches in "The Normal Heart."
That's what I learned! I learned from it. Look at what those people did: They stood there while the world cared so little for them that it couldn't even help them when they were dying. They stood there completely open and vulnerable and said, "This is who we are." There's so much grace in that. And underneath it is an enormous amount of love for your opponent. That's what I took away from working on that movie. As angry as Larry Kramer is, the converse aspect is that he is such a lover. He has such a big heart, and he believes in humanity in such a grand way that he puts his entire life down in front of it. That's the way I want to be remembered. As one of the ones who helped win the war.Sign up for the Envelope Newsletter