You’re not supposed to disappear. When you’re an actor who’s suddenly become a critic’s darling both onstage (in Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth) and onscreen (in Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me), and people are calling you an Oscar contender, and A-list directors are clamoring to work with you, and big studios are sending multi-million-dollar movie offers your way—this after spending the better part of a decade supporting yourself by bartending and working odd jobs—well, you’re not supposed to just vanish. But that’s exactly what Mark Ruffalo did in mid-2001.
“It kind of was the height of my career,” Ruffalo tells me with typical understatement as we ride an uptown W train that we’ve just boarded at Union Square in Manhattan. During the summer of 2001, Ruffalo explains, only a few close friends knew that he and his wife and their infant son had cleared out of their West Village apartment and moved to upstate New York. “We retired to our country house and were just like—just alone.”
Still, some VIP types were able to track him down. “I had just wrapped this Robert Redford movie, The Last Castle, so I had Jeffrey Katzenberg calling me, saying, you know, ‘You’re amazing in this movie, we see big things for you.’ ” The DreamWorks co-founder suggested a meeting, but Ruffalo put him off.
“There I was on the phone with him and I can’t move the left side of my face because it’s paralyzed. And no one knows.”
Ruffalo had secretly had brain surgery a few weeks before. The operation, at the NYU Medical Center, involved drilling a hole in his skull to remove a benign tumor, something called an acoustic neuroma, that was the size of a walnut. His facial and auditory nerves were particularly at risk during the ten-hour operation—removing the tumor without destroying them was a process Ruffalo’s surgeon told him was “like operating on wet tissue paper.”
When I arranged to meet him to talk about his work in a string of new movies—including his starring role in XX/XY, a smart, unsettling drama (opening April 11) about romantic entanglements among a group of men and women—I wasn’t even sure if he’d be willing to talk about his brain surgery, since to date he’s said almost nothing to the media about his ordeal. It was only after his withdrawal from M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, in which he was to star opposite Mel Gibson, that he was forced to put out a press release to quell rumors in Hollywood. Ruffalo says of that time, “It was like, ‘Did you hear about Mark Ruffalo? Mark Ruffalo has leukemia. Mark Ruffalo has AIDS.’ ”
As it happens, though, when I meet up with Ruffalo, my arm is in a cast (from a snowboarding accident), which he asks me about, and pretty soon we’re comparing hardware: I’ve got screws and rods holding my bones together, Ruffalo’s got screws and a plate patching the hole in his head. He’s able to talk rather casually, even dispassionately, about the mechanics of what he went through. But the emotional repercussions are what trip him up.
Before his operation, Ruffalo says, his voice wavering a bit, “I was told I had a 30 percent chance of losing the left side of my face in the surgery.” And when he woke up, that’s exactly what happened. Maybe it would be like that for a matter of days, or a few weeks, or a few months—or the rest of his life. His doctor couldn’t say.
“There’s a point when you’re listening to your doctor, and as smart as he is, you realize, He just doesn’t fucking know. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen to me.”
Ruffalo pauses and stares off into the distance. “It was scary, man,” he says.
Then he turns back to face me, laughs nervously, and adds, “It was terrifying.”
‘Mark has this emotional transparency, this great warmth, and his instinct is to bond with people,” the playwright and screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan tells me. “He’s very loving, and he’s very willing and eager to make friends.”
In fact, everyone I speak to who knows Ruffalo talks about how sweet he is, and sitting here with him on the subway, I find him both instantly lovable and endearingly odd. Because we’re in a packed car, we’re thrust into immediate intimacy: shoulder to shoulder, talking over the din of the subway, our faces just inches apart.