EXCLUSIVE, UPDATED AT 6:06 p.m. with comments about Spotlight at end: You might call August, 2014 a full-circle month for Mark Ruffalo. His performance as Ned Weeks in Ryan Murphy‘s HBO version of The Normal Heart earned one of that film’s astonishing 16 Emmy nominations, with the winners to be announced on Aug. 25. He’s eager to catch the Broadway revival of the 1996 stage play that launched his career, Kenneth Lonergan‘s This Is Our Youth, which begins on the 18th with Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin.
Writing about his work in Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me, the New York Times’ Stephen Holden said, “Mr. Ruffalo’s star-making performance deserves to be added to the list of charismatic, grownup lost boys that includes the Marlon Brando of A Streetcar Named Desire and the Jack Nicholson of Easy Rider.”
Yet this is the same guy who plays the Hulk in the Avengers franchise. And the same guy whose social activism includes deeply personal work on behalf of gun-control laws, and who just signed on to star with Rachel McAdams in Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s film about two Boston Globe reporters whose investigation of pedophile priests led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law. And of course he’s currently onscreen with Keira Knightley in the exquisite indie feature Begin Again. A few days ago I spoke via FaceTime with the actor during some time cadged from a family vacation on the French island of Corsica.
DEADLINE: Mark, beginning in 1986, when I became the theater reporter at the New York Times, through the 1990s as Variety’s chief critic, the story that more or less defined my career was AIDS. So many of those stories were obituaries of brilliant men including Michael Bennett, the genius behind A Chorus Line, and Charles Ludlam, who had just come to filmdom attention in The Big Easy. At that time, you were a teenager growing up in Virginia Beach, Va. How aware were you of AIDS?
MARK RUFFALO: My friends and I were aware that this disease was affecting gay men, but it all seemed very far away from us — at least until a man I was very close to came out to me. This was complicated by the fact that he was also professing his love for me. At the time, he was the only gay person I knew — or thought I knew. And oddly enough, it was him who really pulled away from our friendship more than me. And so that was my first experience of somebody who was gay and who was willing and courageous enough to come out to me at that age. Then I moved to San Diego and eventually, soon after that, ended up in Los Angeles going to the Stella Adler Academy, where there were a lot more people who were openly gay.
I lived about a block off of Santa Monica Boulevard. I had many friends who were part of the gay culture and I started working at restaurants and meeting a whole other group of people who were in the gay culture openly. That was a time when AIDS really started to become more and more apparent. I worked with people who had AIDS. My brother worked in a salon and had people who had AIDS and were fighting it. It was also around the advent of AZT. But before that, I also was seeing these Act Up people, and I was always impressed by the solidarity of them. I just started to learn about AIDS in a way that most Americans hadn’t through the mainstream media. I started to really sympathize with what was happening in that culture.
I knew a waiter that, (though) he was so sick, he had to work, he didn’t have health insurance. So he would come to work, and the bottom of his feet would just be literally gone, just an open wound from fungal infections that his body couldn’t fight any more. And he had to work those nights just to make ends meet, and it was a tough, rough existence. I was seeing it firsthand. I was reading about the lack of any kind of governmental supervision or response…
DEADLINE: Did you feel that you were a political person, or do you think this radicalized you?
RUFFALO: Well, I was studying with Stella at that time, who came from the Yiddish theater and from the Jewish-American immigrant culture, which was the intellectual culture, and they were very socially active. Stella was a social-justice radical and I was turned on by that aspect of the work that I was learning about. My friends, the people I was working and studying with, started a sort of citizens’ response to the AIDS crisis that was head-and-shoulders above what the government was willing to do. Coupled with that was a hysteria that was being sort of engendered by the mainstream media about AIDS for a long time. And so I saw a great injustice happening right in front of my eyes, and that turned me on politically.
I wasn’t gay, and in the beginning, the backlash to the way that the gay culture was being treated over AIDS wasn’t fully inclusive. It was very gay. And so I didn’t really feel that I was totally part of that, but I got a lot from it, and I sympathized with it. I just didn’t know where I fit in, into that movement at that time, other than it was a social-justice movement that I completely believed in.
DEADLINE: Were you seeing any art, any theater at this point, that was dealing with AIDS?
RUFFALO: Yes, there was Beirut, which was an allegory for AIDS.
DEADLINE: Alan Bowne’s play. Where did you see that?
RUFFALO: I saw it in a little theater on Santa Monica Boulevard. I’d worked on it in class — everyone worked on it in class. And The Normal Heart came, and that became the other play that everyone worked on. And we really broke that thing down. That was one of the plays where you could just dig in. It was everything that Stella believed was great about the theater. She used to quote George Bernard Shaw all the time, she’d say, “You should have to pay to go to church, and theater should be free.” She believed that yes, theater could be a place of entertainment, but it was also the place where mankind learned about himself. And she came from (a place where) Clifford Odets’ Awake And Sing! Waiting for Lefty basically started the labor movement in the United States. This was a tradition that I was deeply steeped in.
DEADLINE: Did you get to see Brad Davis’ brilliant performance as Ned Weeks in the original production of The Normal Heart at the Public Theater?
RUFFALO: No, I didn’t, because I couldn’t afford a ticket! I was very poor. But the fringe theater scene in LA at that time was incredibly provocative, incredibly political and vibrant. That’s where I cut my teeth, because that’s what I could afford, those 30-seat theaters (along) Santa Monica Boulevard where a lot of them were doing experimental theater at that time. Now, I’ve been in theater in both of those worlds and I can honestly say that, that theater that we were doing in the ‘80s in Los Angeles was just as powerful as anything that was happening in New York, if not more, because it had a much more independent streak to it. You could do a $5,000 play. You didn’t have to raise $100,0000 to do a play there, and so you could do much more experimental things, and people were much more independent and had a much easier chance of getting new works done there than they ever did in New York at that time, right up until today.
DEADLINE: I detect a kind of wistfulness in your recollection of that. Do you think that scene is gone?
RUFFALO: I don’t think it’s gone, I think it’s just changed because it’s become more expensive now to do. At that point you could live in Los Angeles really cheaply. It was where all the artists were going because it was the cheapest place to live. And so you had a scene that was very vibrant in the arts — art, music, theater. It has changed, yes, because it’s become more expensive to live there.
DEADLINE: Let’s come forward to your involvement in finally getting this film done, of The Normal Heart. It’s clear that the play had an impact on you from its very beginning. How did you get involved in the film?
RUFFALO: Well, Ryan Murphy reached out to me and he basically said, “Hey, I want to do this with you, and I want you to partner with me on it, and let’s make it into a movie.”
DEADLINE: He wanted you for Ned Weeks from the very beginning.
RUFFALO: Yes. And I had some reservations about that. My response was, “I’m terrified. It’s such a important role. It has so much responsibility with it, and getting this right is such a great responsibility, and that’s terrifying. But also I kind of feel like maybe it’s time that a gay actor play a gay man.” He had a much more sort of elevated version. He was much more evolved than I was. He said that, “You’re missing the point altogether. It has nothing to do with your sexuality. The reason that I want you to do this part is because of who you are, the work you’ve been doing, and I think you’re the right actor for it..”
DEADLINE: Did Larry Kramer take any convincing on that?
RUFFALO: So my next question was, “What does Larry Kramer think?” Because he’s very outspoken, and I want to serve that man’s legacy. I just want to be of service to him, because I have an enormous amount of respect for him, and actually a love for him. I didn’t want to do anything that rubbed him the wrong way or that he didn’t give a blessing to. And Ryan said, “He loves you for this. He thinks you’re perfect for it.” That was about as much as I needed.
DEADLINE: How did it change from the play you remembered reading?
RUFFALO: The play’s in an agitprop style, and it’s made for a particular experience. It comes in a long tradition of this style of play with a specific purpose: to agitate and to confront. But the culture I felt had moved on and needed to sort of be led into a more humanizing experience. Ryan felt that too, I mean, Ryan really got it. And as we were working and talking to Larry, we’d hear Larry’s stories. And I have to say, Ryan had the wisdom to pull it out of the polemic and into the story about love. He talked about love a lot, and the love between two lovers, the love between comrades, the love between brothers, the love for democratic beliefs, it was a love that he felt was embodied in every aspect, in every relationship in the movie he wanted the movie to be about.
They took the play and they completely opened it up and made it more suitable to a modern audience in the medium of film by making all of those struggles deeply relatable. I think that’s really what made it so moving and made it so accessible to so many people. And the culture was ripe for it. I don’t think these things happen in a bubble really. I think they actually come out of the culture and where the culture is at a particular moment.
DEADLINE: Did anybody say to you — this is going to seem like a Neanderthal question — but did anybody say to you, even in this era, “Mark, you are so hot right now — don’t do a gay role”?
RUFFALO: Another director did say to me, “Are you sure you want to portray yourself this way?” which struck me as, honestly, a little odd and a little dated. But I also probably live in a little bit of an optimistic bubble about what I think, where we are culturally, and where we’re headed, and who we are as people generally. So that just struck me as completely odd, especially the fact that this person, I believe, was gay. And so it was interesting, and it was shocking a little bit.
And I have to be honest with you, a little bit of fear rose up in me for a second. I mean, I hadn’t even thought of it that way. So then I turned my direction to that and thought, Is that true? Is there anything real about that?’And then at the end of the day I was, Well, who are you? Are you somebody who has ever really looked at your career that way? What are your priorities? What are your values as an actor? And that point of view did not suit the values that I’ve sort of established myself on, and so I quickly put that out of my head.
DEADLINE: And the response to the movie?
RUFFALO: I’ve never had so sincere and vulnerable a response from people for anything that I’ve ever done. Maybe You Can Count On Me, where there also was kind of an opening for people to be vulnerable, I think in that story as well. They could relate to it.
DEADLINE: Well I would also think, just to do a quick segue to right now, I would also think you’re getting that kind of response to Begin Again.
RUFFALO: Not the same. With social media you have this new kind of way to communicate with people that’s very immediate, sometimes alarmingly so, sometimes painfully so. If you could just hold some objectivity, a very direct, unfiltered, raw reflection of the way something is landing in the culture without any spin, or filtration, or anything, it’s very raw. And of everything that I’ve done since I’ve been on social media, which hasn’t been that long, by the way, I haven’t had such an overwhelmingly positive response as I have from The Normal Heart directly to me. And it’s a blessing, man. If this is it, if I have a piano dropped on me tomorrow, then I would go down thinking, ‘You know what, I did okay as far as my career goes, because that’s a gift. That’s rare.’
DEADLINE: We’re looking at a couple of weeks away now from the opening of This Is Our Youth, the play that put you on the map. What are your feelings…
RUFFALO: So awesome.
DEADLINE: Are you going to be able to see it? Will you be there on opening night?
RUFFALO: I won’t be able to see it opening night, but I will see it straightaway, and I’m excited about it. It’s still really powerful — my feeling is, it’ll resonate even deeper now than it did when it came out. I’m thrilled by the cast, I’m thrilled to see Kenny coming back into vogue — I think it’s time to do a retrospective of all of his work.
DEADLINE: And now you’ve signed on to co-star with Rachel McAdams in Spotlight, playing a muckraking journalist onvolved in another hot-button issue, priest pedophelia.
RUFFALO: It’s a classic journalistic enterprise, not unlike All The Presidents Men but on a more local and immediate level for the reporters, sifting through the heaps of abuse and obfuscation.
DEADLINE: Of course my last question is, when are you coming back to the theater?
RUFFALO: Funny you should ask that. I’m dying to come back. And I was sort of hoping that next year, after all this, I just went with my film career this last year or so, all these things…
DEADLINE: You’re an action hero…
RUFFALO: I would love to come back, and I actually read a beautiful new play by Timothy McNeil that I am going to start just seeing if there’s some interest in it. It’s a really mature, very literary piece that is very powerful and I think very timely. It’s a hell of a piece of theater. And you know, in the great tradition of the theater, I refuse to be any one thing. Or any one person.