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The Kid Stays In The Pictures

And we have no idea where we’re going. Neither of us has ever been on a W train before—it’s one of those newish lines that runs along the N/R route. Having our first conversation underground, with no particular destination in mind, was Ruffalo’s idea.

“You want to know why I wanted to talk on the subway?” Ruffalo says at one point.

“I figured it was because of how XX/XY opens,” I say, referring to a scene shot in a Brooklyn subway station, wherein Ruffalo’s character, Coles, meets a Sarah Lawrence undergrad named Sam (Maya Stange).

“Well, that, but also because the subway is one of my favorite places in New York.” Suddenly he’s grinning like a kid at FAO Schwarz. It’s the one place in the city, he says, where every walk of life converges—and it’s an urban laboratory of human behavior where an actor can unobtrusively engage in character study. “I’ll ride the subway for hours,” he adds, “and I’ll run lines down here, too.”

“You mean you read scripts on the subway?” I ask.

“Yeah, but also I’ll run lines. I’ll just get on a train in the middle of the night, and just go back and forth, uptown and downtown. I’ll just sit here with my hood up, and run lines. No one bothers me.”

Although Ruffalo’s about to break big again—his other upcoming starring role is opposite Meg Ryan in this summer’s In the Cut, a big-budget erotic thriller based on the novel by Susanna Moore and directed by Jane Campion—it’s easy to imagine him disappearing into himself and going unrecognized on the subway.

Another thing Lonergan observes about Ruffalo is that “he has this slightly arrhythmic quality about him. He’s slightly out of sync with other people.”

When I ask Ruffalo, who’s 35, about his childhood, it’s clear that he’s always been a bit out of sync. The oldest son of a painting-contractor dad and a hairdresser mom, he grew up in Wisconsin and Virginia.

“I was probably 8 years old, my mom let me stay up one night, she’s like, ‘You have to see this movie.’ It was A Streetcar Named Desire, and it was on TV, and it was a big deal. And I saw Marlon Brando and I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ That’s where it started.”

And that’s where it ended for a long while. Though he and his two sisters and brother “were always dressing up, doing shows, doing character bits,” Ruffalo didn’t formally act until his senior year of high school, in Virginia Beach. The problem was that he was a wrestling star.

“I was the freestyle state champion. I’d just do championship matches all year long. I could have had a full scholarship to almost any college I wanted to go to on wrestling, but I was tired of it. And I was harboring this secret desire . . . ”

The reaction of his coach and his teammates when he broke the news that he was quitting to try his hand at acting was roughly “Are you out of your fucking mind?”

His parents, thankfully, “were totally 100 percent cool about it. They were like, ‘Whatever you wanna do.’ ”

And his siblings? Did any of them end up in the arts, too?

“They’re all hairstylists!” Ruffalo exclaims, clearly delighted by the weirdness of it.

After high school, Ruffalo moved with his family to San Diego. “I didn’t apply to any colleges—I lied to all my friends and told them I was going to UCSD, because all their parents would be like, ‘Mark, where’re you going to college?’ and I’d just lie ’cause I felt it was unrealistic to be an actor.” After six months of “surfing, smoking, just wandering aimlessly”—and working as a busboy—Ruffalo says, he was “just about ready to jump off a bridge.”

Then he went to L.A., found out about the Stella Adler Academy, “walked into a class, and immediately felt, This is right. This is where I’m gonna be until I learn how to act. I was there for seven years.”

During that time, Ruffalo and a group of actor friends started a theater group: “It was great. We could do a $5,000 production of The Seagull, we did A Midsummer Night’s Dream—all these amazing parts that I don’t think we would have gotten to do in New York.”

Of course, none of those gigs paid shit. So in addition to bartending, Ruffalo also got tortured and killed for money.

“I did a series of these soft-core horror movies called Mirror Mirror. I got killed in ’em all—and each time, I came back as a different character. They were all straight-to-video. Kind of a low point for me, where I was like, ‘I’m gonna blow my brains out,’ was when I was shooting The Voyeur, which was Mirror Mirror III.” (The movie’s tag line: “Forbidden desires are unleashed . . . and unspeakable evil is watching.”)

Another low point: 1996’s The Dentist (“Rated R for graphic violence including scenes of dental torture”), starring Corbin Bernsen as a Beverly Hills dentist who goes psycho. Ruffalo played one of his victims.

Around that time, Ruffalo says, “I realized nothing was happening for me—I thought, I gotta make something happen.” And so he co-wrote and appeared in The Destiny of Marty Fine, a low-budget thriller about an ex-boxer who witnesses a mob hit and then has to kill to save his own life (Ruffalo had a supporting role).

Marty Fine led to other indie-movie roles and some random TV work, but his breakthrough role came on the stage—in Lonergan’s 1996 L.A. production of This Is Our Youth, a story about privileged twentysomethings resisting adulthood.

Before moving to New York to reprise his role as Warren in the play’s 1998 Off Broadway run, which was a critical and audience hit, Ruffalo actually quit acting. (His performance in L.A.’s Youth had been well received, but no one makes a living doing serious theater in Hollywood.)

Quit again, that is. He had quit, briefly, several times over the past decade, but in 1997, he went so far as to go back home to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where his father had returned to start another paint-contracting business. Ruffalo was considering going back to work for his dad (he’d done sandblasting for his company in the past) when his mother—who had separated from his father and remained in San Diego—got wind of what he was doing.

“She called me and said, ‘You know, I have never told you to do anything in your life. But if you don’t get back to California, I’ll never forgive you. Are you crazy? You can’t quit now!’ To her it was an affront. And it was strange because it gave me an excuse to go back to acting.

“I mean, you know, Stella Adler said that if you can live without acting, then don’t act! It’s brutal, man. It’s so brutal. Because it’s too fucking heartbreaking.”

XX/XY was in preproduction just as word was starting to spread that Ruffalo had given a phenomenal performance—as Laura Linney’s hapless, well-meaning brother—in Lonergan’s touching family drama, You Can Count On Me.

“Mark committed to do XX/XY, but we had no money,” says screenwriter-director Austin Chick, “so we were going to shoot on digital video.” But then one of the film’s investors kept on hearing the words “Mark Ruffalo” and “Oscar-caliber performance” after You Can Count On Me’s Sundance 2000 debut, and suddenly the micro-budget XX/XY was bumped up to a mini-budget.

Though Chick—a Brooklyn-based painter who didn’t take up screenplay writing until the late nineties—had never directed a feature film before, Ruffalo committed to his movie, he says, “because I just trust my gut about people, and because Austin had written really great, really honest, really unflinching characters. He’d written this movie about how manipulation can become like a drug to people in a relationship. They get hooked on deceit.”

Ruffalo’s brilliantly nuanced portrayal of Coles Burroughs, an alternately winning and shifty commitment-phobic animation artist, seems to resonate equally with men who see themselves in Coles and with women who have endured such men. “I’ve had guys come up to me after screenings of XX/XY, and they’ll say, ‘Bro, that was me!’ And Austin has a friend who got divorced after seeing it—the movie was a catalyst for that couple to get divorced.”

The movie’s monthlong shoot had precisely the opposite effect on Ruffalo. “I got engaged”—to the actress Sunrise Coigney—“the day before we had the first script reading, and I was married a week after we wrapped the movie. And I’ll tell you, I ran to my marriage after doing that movie.”

XX/XY—a dark-horse hit at Sundance last year that got picked up by IFC Films for its theatrical run—was the last time Ruffalo had to work for crap money.

“I didn’t start supporting myself as an actor until I was 28,” says Ruffalo, “and then suddenly after You Can Count On Me, I’m getting all these multi-million-dollar offers.” He signed on to a string of A-list projects, including Redford’s The Last Castle—and then, just as suddenly, the career that had finally started ended again.

The nightmare began with a matter-of-fact dream. “I woke up one morning with the knowledge that I had a brain tumor. It wasn’t so much that I dreamt I had a brain tumor; it was like someone just poured the knowledge into my head. It wasn’t like an image; it was just like knowing. It was so weird, which is why I paid attention.”

Ruffalo, who hadn’t had any symptoms, was freaked out enough that he made a doctor’s appointment for the next day: “I had ct scans, MRIs, the whole thing. And afterward, my doctor walks in and she says, ‘You have a mass behind your ear the size of a walnut.’ ”

I ask Ruffalo what his first reaction was.

“I thought, What’s going to happen to my son? Because this was two weeks after the birth of our son, Keen.”