Immediately after wrapping The Last Castle, Ruffalo had his surgery, then went into hiding. “I didn’t want any visitors—I was so unbelievably miserable, and what was worse was people’s reactions to seeing me,” he says. “It was shattering to them.”
Ruffalo was so desperate to hang on to his career that he actually tried to persuade M. Night Shyamalan to keep him in Signs: “I was scheming things for my character, like, ‘Okay, he had a motorcycle accident and he’s paralyzed on the left side of his face.’ Shyamalan was like, ‘You’re crazy.’ I was like, ‘Come on, man, I’m fighting here—you will have such a beautiful performance I can’t even tell you. And he was like, ‘Okay, let me think about it.’ The only reason that that didn’t end up happening is because my doctors were like, ‘You’re nuts! You cannot work now. You’ve only been out of the hospital a week, you have no immune system, you would collapse.’ ”
Besides causing bloating and some 40 pounds of weight gain, Ruffalo’s months-long postoperative regimen of drugs also caused cognitive dysfunction.
“There we were, barely a year married, with a newborn—a colicky newborn—and I was basically useless. My equilibrium was off, so I was falling down all the time. I would walk and just lose my balance. It was a joke, it was hilarious, there are some things that are really slapstick about it, but I also dropped my son once. I was carrying him and I dropped him! I just fell down with him one night! It was horrible.
“And concepts. I couldn’t understand the concept of tying a knot. I’d get lost, I couldn’t understand the grid of a map. I was just confused all the time.”
Once, after the Ruffalos had returned from upstate to their West Village home, he got lost just a few blocks from their apartment. “I was on one side of Washington Square, and our apartment’s a block away from Washington Square on the other side. I was lost for two hours. I had to get a cab to take me home.
“You know what the biggest thing was? I lost all my confidence. Just across the board. I completely lost my gut.”
By this point in our conversation, Ruffalo and I have emerged from the subway, and we’re sitting in a nondescript deli on Broadway near the theater district. I look down and I realize that I’ve been unconsciously mangling the lid of my coffee cup as Ruffalo’s been talking, I guess because there’s something like grief in his voice, and Ruffalo has this ability—onstage, onscreen, and in person—to make you feel what he’s feeling.
Being with him brings to mind something Jane Campion told me when I talked to her about Ruffalo recently. “It was difficult for us to begin with, because we were kind of scared of each other, I think. I felt like he could see right through me. I felt vulnerable. And I think he felt the same way, you know? It took us a while to feel comfortable, and then when we did, it sort of went really deep and now, you know, it’s like—well, I love him. I just love Mark so much.”
It’s been clear from the start, of course, that this story has a happy ending. Besides XX/XY and Campion’s In the Cut, Ruffalo’s also got My Life Without Me, starring Sarah Polley, and a Charlie Kaufman movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, due later this year. With the exception of XX/XY, they were all filmed after his brain surgery.
Here’s how all that came to be: “One day, six months after my surgery, I had the visor mirror down in our car—I was in the passenger seat, Sunrise was driving, Keen was in the backseat—and I was looking at my face, and I went, ‘Oh, my God.’ Then I showed Sunrise. And then we were both crying, and I’m screaming, ‘It moved! It moved! It’s coming back!’ ”
Ruffalo says it took about a year for full recovery and to start feeling normal again: “By August this past year, I finally felt like, I’m okay, I’m back. And it was acting that brought me back. Working on In the Cut.”
His career’s back, too. “Just now, just in the past couple months, in terms of the opportunities I’m getting,” says Ruffalo, “I’m picking up where I left off two years ago.” In fact, he just signed on to play Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (opposite Ashley Judd) on Broadway this fall. Ruffalo doesn’t write off the time lost, though. “I got to spend a year with my son, the first year of his life, every day. I never would’ve done that if I hadn’t gotten sick--I would’ve kept on working. And he was totally patient with me!”
Ruffalo starts laughing.
“I mean, Keen didn’t know there was anything wrong with me! He started smiling on only half of his face and I realized he was imitating me and it just cracked me up, you know? If I was living in an actor’s house, living with six other actors like I had been doing before I met Sunrise, man, I would’ve— ”
He trails off. I look down at my empty coffee cup, which by now is entirely destroyed.
“No way,” Ruffalo continues, after a long pause. "I would’ve never made it. I would have laid down and died. They saved my life, my wife and my son. They saved my life."