Mark Ruffalo, Navigating Dramas Onscreen And Off
Callicoon, N.Y., is a village tucked in a forested corner of the Catskills, population about 216. That includes actor Mark Ruffalo, who co-stars in the buzzy new indie drama The Kids Are All Right. Ruffalo seems well acquainted with the other 215 Callicoonians, from the waitress at the diner to the guy who owns the wine store.
"Hey Robin!" he shouts, ducking inside -- then explains, "Our kids go to school together."
Ruffalo has owned a home in Sullivan County since the early 1990s, which is when people in the theater world started comparing him to Marlon Brando. Because Callicoon is barely bigger than a pine cone, the tour Ruffalo gives me lasts about 15 seconds and includes a stop at the local coffee shop, where the chatter is about companies leasing nearby farmland to drill for natural gas. Ruffalo is organizing a protest.
"It'll be a party!" Ruffalo promises.
The actor, his three kids and Sunrise Coigney, his wife of 10 years, live on an old dairy farm. With chickens -- though he tells me as we hike outside the town he wants to add a family cow.
He loves living in a place where people get distracted by rare-bird sightings, not celebrities, where life is free from the glitzy distractions of New York and Los Angeles.
"You always get to look your kid in the eye," he explains. "My wife, in the eye. And as a family, it's been the healthiest thing I think we've ever done. We're always together. It's not like that in the city. Here, it's basically us and our friends, and there's nowhere to run."
Families, Going Irresistibly Nuclear
The decision to surrender to the drama of a long-term relationship and a family is central to Ruffalo's life. His latest film, The Kids Are All Right, explores those exact themes: Ruffalo plays an easygoing restaurant owner shocked to discover the sperm he donated long ago actually produced two kids. The two teenagers track him down, against the wishes of their lesbian moms (played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore). When Ruffalo's character shows up, it makes everyone grapple with old problems ... and new realizations.
"I just keep seeing my kids' expressions in your face," marvels one of the mothers -- who soon sees substantially more than that in him.
It's not the first time Ruffalo has played a charming, family-disrupting screw-up. In the 2000 film You Can Count On Me, he made his name playing a drifter damaged by family tragedy. That's the role that made a fan of Lisa Cholodenko, who directed The Kids Are All Right; she notes that although the character was in many ways unlikable, he was on the other hand always redeemable.
"And lovable at the same time," she adds, "without being pathetic. And I feel that's a hard thing to pull off."
Ruffalo has a knack for filling out the skins of men heartbroken by the realization that they've underestimated their capacity for love. In You Can Count on Me and The Kids Are All Right, his characters are broken by the stories' conclusions.
But Ruffalo says they're not destroyed.
"People gotta be torn apart to be put back together in the right way sometimes," he observes.
Life And Art, Painfully Intertwined
On that subject, Ruffalo speaks from personal experience. Just at the moment when You Can Count On Me made him a white-hot Hollywood commodity, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. A 10-hour operation left his face partially paralyzed.
"It was really, really hard to concentrate, to form ideas, to talk at times." Ruffalo's voice trails off as he remembers. "Oh, it was such a bad time. So scary, man."
He embarked on exercises and alternative treatments for the next nine months. Eventually, there was progress.
"I was in the car, and my wife was driving," Ruffalo says. "I was looking at my face. I tried to move it, you know, and I saw the slightest, tiniest little twitch by my eye. We were both, like, screaming, 'Oh my god, it's moving.' And crying."
Ruffalo recovered fully. He's been in movies like Zodiac, Where the Wild Things Are and Shutter Island. But he was desperate to direct one movie in particular -- a movie that took 10 years to get made. It won a special jury prize at Sundance and is supposed to open this year. In December 2008, right as Ruffalo began shooting, his brother was shot and killed.
"There were mornings I would be in my trailer literally, like, curled up in a ball," Ruffalo says. "And they'd be banging on the door, like, 'We're ready for you, boss! Come on out the set.' And I don't know how I'll face this day."
But Ruffalo finished his film -- Sympathy For Delicious, about a paraplegic homeless man who discovers he has faith-healing powers. Ultimately, Ruffalo says, making the movie helped save him.
"It gave me a place," he says. "The whole movie is about healing -- and you get the healing you need, not the healing you want."
As soon as he could, Ruffalo retreated to his farm and his family, and he didn't work for a year.
"You can't escape grieving. Last winter I was up here; it was a perfect place -- silence, death everywhere, snow and the quiet."
But Ruffalo says he's ready now to go back to acting -- and he hopes to more directing. As a young man, he never thought he would love anything as much as theater. What gives him equal pleasure now, he says, is raising his family here in the Catskills forest.
"Look at those bluebirds!" he exclaims. "Those bluebirds are pissed at that squirrel because he's probably trying to raid their nest!"
That's exactly the kind of family drama Mark Ruffalo would buy tickets for right now.
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