The Kid Stays In The Pictures

Screen Gems: Ruffalo with Kathleen Robertson, center, and Maya Strange in XX/XY, a romantic drama opening in April.Photo: Courtesy of IFC Films

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.

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.”

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.”

The Kid Stays In The Pictures