He’s signed to play the Incredible Hulk in Joss Whedon’s film version of “The Avengers,” but at the moment Mark Ruffalo is enjoying a rather incredible moment of a different sort. Appearing alongside Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, he’s the sperm donor who shakes up the lives of a lesbian couple in Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right,” a family drama from Focus Features that has become the summer’s top-grossing independent film. It's is on course to contend for awards and rival the box-office take of last year’s surprise hit, “(500) Days of Summer.”
I understand you approached Lisa after seeing her last film.
I’d seen “High Art,” and I thought, that’s an auteur. That’s a filmmaker with a voice, and a style. And I could see she loved actors. Then I met her by chance at Victor’s Deli in the Hollywood hills, and I said, “I’d really love to work with you, I think you’re a great filmmaker.” And she said, “Yeah, I love your work, too.”
Which is probably the kind of conversation that happens a thousand times a day in Hollywood.
Yeah, and nothing ever comes of those things. Except this one time. Because lo and behold, a few years later I get a call saying, “Lisa’s doing a movie, and she’d like to talk to you.” And here we are.
When you got the script to “The Kids Are All Right,” did you respond right away?
I really did. I loved the point of view, and it didn’t feel like we’d ever seen anything like this. Although that character is kind of iconic in American cinema, that kind of fun-loving bachelor, I didn’t think we’d ever seen him fall apart the way he does in this movie. I thought it was really well written, and I was interested in seeing how she was going to handle it.
But I was in the middle of editing my movie [“Sympathy for Delicious,” which Ruffalo directed], and I’d planned a trip with my family, and they couldn’t move their dates. So it really didn’t look like it was going to work out. Basically, we sort of moved on from each other. But then their schedule opened up, they lost the actor who replaced me, and my wife was talking to Julianne, who’s a friend of hers, and all of a sudden the thing came back around.
Your co-stars have said the set was dominated by women, and then you showed up and brought a male energy they hadn’t had before. Did you feel like you were walking into a den of women?
I did like the fact that there were a lot of women around. [laughs] As far as the crew and all, it seemed pretty well balanced, but certainly there were more women than men as far as actors went. But it was perfect for the story. These movies are so short that you really have to hit the ground running. And that was a good way to easily step into the world. It wasn’t unlike what was happening in the story.
Did your experience with Lisa confirm your impression that she’d be good with actors?
Definitely. I think she’s a really gutsy and disciplined director to allow actors to sort of live inside their skin and be messy and conflicted and complex. And it was just a joy to work with her like that.
She was very open to ideas and interpretations, and she handled it all with a great sense of humor, which I think is what really makes this thing sing, and work.
The playwright Kenneth Lonergan once told me that when he first met you, your talent was enormous but your work method was kind of haphazard, and you’d get really frustrated if things weren’t going right.
Thanks, Kenny. [laughs]
Has that changed?
I’ve certainly become more comfortable with things not going right. Things never go right. I learned that quickly. And my work habits might appear haphazard on the outside, but I work really hard, and I take it really seriously. I sort of go where the magic’s happening, I go where my heart’s taking me a little bit. So from the outside it might appear haphazard, but to me it seems perfectly logical and commonplace.
Is it true that you wanted to walk away from acting after making this film?
Yeah, I did. I was pretty burnt out as an actor when I came into this. This was a total joy to me, a relief and a joy, but I’d gotten bit with the directing bug at that point. I felt really comfortable doing that, and it felt really satisfying. So honestly, I thought, if you’re gonna start something and be serious about it, you’ve got to leave something behind. And I was pretty much ready to leave. I felt that I’d had my fill of acting for the time being.
That was a year ago. I haven’t worked for a year, and I won’t be working until sometime in the winter now. But during that time, I thought, you know, I love acting. I’ll never really be able to leave it behind, as bittersweet as it can be sometimes. And I think I can do it all.
You’ve always liked the idea of being anonymous, not being a big movie star. Isn’t playing the Hulk going to change all that?
Yeah. But it started changing already. “The Kids Are All Right,” I don’t know what kind of phenomenon it is, but I’ve never been as recognized as I am now.
Also, it’s a different world as far as trying to get movies made. There’s a lot of movies I want to make that are smaller, that are closer to my heart, that are passion projects, that are tough to get made. And this is certainly going to help me do a lot of the other things that I want to do, by having the visibility.
It’ll be three movies with the Hulk in less than 10 years, and three different actors.
I’m starting to look at him as my generation’s Hamlet. It looks like we’re all gonna get a crack at it. But the Hulk is something that I grew up with, and I thought, this isn’t a bad way to do this.
You know, I live in upstate New York, and no one watches movies there. They’re just as mean to me at the local hardware store as they always were, and they always will be. So I’m not so worried. I’m ready to embrace it. This is what I am, you know? This is what I do. And I live in a place where I can still be in touch with humanity in a way that allows me to be able to watch and listen and see real people. And so I feel safe about maintaining that sort of observational quality that I loved about being somewhat unknown.
What was your Comic-Con experience like?
Crazy. That’s as close to being a rock star as I will ever be. I think I had a slight out of body experience when I walked out on that stage.