Mark Ruffalo spent his twenties drifting through what he estimates as 600 failed auditions, and later quit Hollywood twice – but these days, he seems to have it all figured out. Especially since he was belted by gamma rays. "As an actor, you can do everything," says Ruffalo, 48, who’s following Avengers: Age of Ultron with a role as a bipolar dad in the indie drama Infinitely Polar Bear, opening in theaters today. "I grew up in the theater, and you could do a musical, a comedy, a tragedy. Those kind of boundaries don't really exist – and so I put on the Hulk mask for a little while, or I put on the Begin Again mask for a little while."
Hanging out in a West Village coffee house and in Central Park in his interview for our Hulk cover story, Ruffalo had plenty to say: Here's more from the conversation.
Playing the Hulk changed everything
"I'm like a Depression-era person, as far as acting goes," he says. "It's sort of like, grab it while you can and make the most of what's in front of you. The first Avengers opened up a host of things that I've been struggling to get made for a long period of time. It created this whole, sort of, avalanche of work. And then I was kinda like, "You know what, you’re 45, this is the pocket, now. So I was also like, I want to really get a nice body of work out there to really open up the margins of how I'm perceived, you know?"
He may take up semi-permanent residence in the Marvel Universe
"I have six movies all together. And we're going to be doing the third and fourth Avengers at the same time. And so you know, conceivably, if I'm still alive, and they don't mind a grey-haired Hulk, I could be in this universe for another 10 or 15 years. It's like television show where you do one episode every two years and get paid well, and have economic reliability in what's otherwise a completely chaotic market. So, as long as they're happy, I see this being a really nice thing."
In the wake of last year's The Normal Heart, he's anxious to do more TV
"I want to get into some television. There might be a perception about me being only a movie actor, you know, and there's this whole new sort of frontier opening up in that medium."
After successfully helping lead a movement to ban fracking in New York, he's been approached to run for office — and though he doesn't want to, he's given it a lot of thought
"My heart almost immediately says no. And then, I say, well why is that? I analyze it. I don't know. Who knows what the future's going to hold. I also think that we need people who hold office as a way of being of service, not as a career. I keep telling the progressive community, who are mostly people working behind the scenes, 'You know guys, you've got to run.' But a lot of them don't want to run because they know it's kind of a stacked game. And I'm like, well then you know, nothing's really gonna change. So, who cares if you smoke pot. Who cares if you experimented with hallucinogens, who cares if you had a bad breakup. You know, these are the people that we need leading us. You know? We need real people who’ve had real lives."
He wishes Elizabeth Warren would run for president, and believes she could win
"It would be very healthy, I think, for the whole Democratic party. It would be healthy for the nation. Because she has populist ideas that are resonating with people now. When you see the focus groups on her, she is scoring deep into Republicans and Independents, you know? When working class people, and the working poor and the middle class, hear what she has to say, it's pretty non-confrontational and also well within their needs at this moment in time. Like student loans – we're, like, raping these kids. They are going out into the world with all this debt that is crippling to them. And we are using this as an income source for the state. I don't care what your political beliefs are – you don't want your kid to start in the world that way."
He doesn't try to stay in character between scenes, but sometimes he can't help it
"I don't see it, but my wife knows it, she says: 'OK, you're totally different, the way you walk, the way you talk. Sometimes the way you relate to people changes when you're in a role.' You're bringing those attributes onto yourself and then you spend the next three months more in that person's life than in your own. It's the law of interaction, where whatever you come into contact with, you take something away from that thing that changes you. I don't torture myself, but I'll steep myself in, let's say, Normal Heart. There's an outrage in there that's easily accessible to anyone who has a heart beating in their chest and a mind in their head. So I can access my own outrage, and I can put that into that. I'm not gay, so I don't understand that, per se, but I understand what discrimination is, from this moment or that moment: “You're Italian, you're an actor, you're a Democrat, you're a liberal."
He got way too excited after winning his first role, in a 1989 Clearasil commercial
I was 19, maybe 20, that was my first paying job. I went and quit my day job, stringing guitars at a guitar store on Sunset Boulevard, Freedom Guitar. I made like $30,000 – and I was like, 'I've made it, I'm rich, I'm quitting my job, I'm on my way!' Two months later, after lending money and treating friends to dinner, and buying a new car stereo system, it was all gone. And then it was back to whatever small jobs I could get. Busboy, waiting tables, gardening, house painting, moving, whatever shit – I did everything when I was in LA."
He felt out of place in Nineties Los Angeles
"I didn't really fit in. I was anachronistic within my age group. Cause I was studying with Stella Adler, and I was working on Inge and Ibsen and Chekhov, and they were doing Who's The Boss episodes. My funny joke was, I finally came to New York, to do This is Our Youth, and I walked into the city, and I went, holy shit I'm a swan! What the fuck was I doing in L.A.? Of course I didn't work [there]. 'Cause I was the ugly duckling in L.A!"
Meditation saved him from anxiety
"That's who the Hulk is afraid of – the meditation teacher! I was sort of feeling anxious all the time, and was starting to get really desperate. And so I had a friend who had been a longtime drug addict. He did the program, and we hooked up again after a couple years – this was around the time when I was thinking, I gotta find something, because this is getting unbearable, my brain won’t shut off even when I try to sleep. He had been the angriest man in the world, and [now] he had such a calm demeanor. I had never seen a human being change that much. And he's like, I’ve been meditating. Anyway, that led me to this meditation teacher and, God, it's been, like seven years. It's pretty much a daily practice that quiets your brain and oddly enough, actually slows down time, so you're not so much trapped in your immediate reactions to things. And everything changed. My work started to change, my luck started to change. The way the world looked to me changed. Like, with all the crazy shit going on in the world, I actually have an enormous amount of hope."
While he was making Foxcatcher, Ruffalo – a former high school wrestler – briefly convinced himself that he could actually return to the sport.
"I had this little fantasy that maybe I'll do the seniors grand tournament. And I'll show people that you can be a 47-year-old man doing it and that wrestling's really accessible to people. And I had one day where first I got schooled by Channing Tatum on the mat and then I got schooled by an NCAA coach. And I just literally had to leave the room: 'What did you think you were? You'll never be a wrestler!'"
He had fun at Comic-Con – where he wore a familiar disguise.
"It's mindblowing. I was walking around there with a Hulk mask on, just to see what it's like in there. It's this whole subculture that's kind of sweet actually — this outside culture that finally had its due. I mean, how cool is it? They get dressed up. They're not like, shootin' dope or smoking crack. Maybe they smoke a little pot, but that doesn't hurt anybody really, does it? They could be doing a lot worse things. And you know what, the values of the superheroes are actually pretty damn good, when you think about it. Fighting for the little guy, fighting world domination."
His son takes him to a local comic book store to catch up on the Hulk’s adventures.
"My son has become an aficionado. We are always at Forbidden Planet buying the next Avengers installment or the Hulk. A lot of people talk about Planet Hulk, so I wanted to know what that was about. And World War Hulk. A lot of the newer Hulk iterations are really interesting and complex, who the Hulk is in the whole Marvel universe over certain periods of time. Some moments he's against them, [then] he's with them — and now he's the ultimate foe in World War Hulk and Planet Hulk. I know it's funny for me to be talking about this stuff – it's funny to my own ears, too."