Forty-three-year-old Mark Ruffalo – or “Ruffie,” as his friend and frequent co-star Laura Linney lets slip in the basement of the Crosby Street Hotel – has a simple, albeit not easy, secret to success: He just works three times as hard as everyone else.
“You make the movie three times,” Ruffalo explains. “You make it in the script. You make it when you shoot it. You make it when you edit it. And you’re remaking it each time, but at some point the story takes a life of its own and demands its own things.”
And if that sounds like a lot of work, consider that Ruffalo exhibits not just the patience, but also the pH balance, of Job. He attributes “internet telephone” to the 800 auditions he completed before landing his first paid acting gig cited in his current Details cover story. “Every year that number goes up by a hundred,” he laughs. “I think we should just round it up to a grand.”
The rest of his cast – the aforementioned BFF Linney, screenwriter and star Christopher Thornton and Orlando Bloom – also assembled to discuss Ruffalo’s directorial debut “Sympathy for Delicious,” immediately begins to take the piss, referring to his Details cover by a whole different magazine’s franchise entirely: “the sexiest man alive issue.”
Ruffalo initially rolls with the jibing, and one cannot deny that his recent Academy Award nomination for last year’s baby daddy extraordinaire in “The Kids Are All Right” has translated into a certain amount of inner bling. But when he’s clearly had enough, he lowers the boom, revealing that first gig. “It was a Clearasil commercial,” Ruffalo deadpans.
“Well, you had great skin, at least,” Bloom says, still laughing.
“I had terrible skin,” Ruffalo interjects. “I had cystic acne!”
When his friend and former roommate Thornton is able to collect himself, he details giving his first pass at “Sympathy” to Ruffalo more than ten years ago. “He handed me a nineteen-page draft with cheated margins,” Ruffalo recalls, “so it was really like 250 pages.”
Together, through the backing and forthing of subsequent drafts and “tons of notes,” the two were able to whittle the script – which tells the tale of a musician who is, like Thornton, wheelchair dependent – down to a lean 100 pages.
Ruffalo waited until 2000 to pop the question. “I saw something wildly original and inventive,” Ruffalo says of the script, which chronicles a disabled DJ’s journey across Los Angeles’ skid row from street person to faith healer to rock star.
“I’d been directing a lot of theater up to that point,” the then Los Angeles-based Ruffalo remembers. “I lived downtown on the edge of a big homeless population. I fed the homeless and worked in a guitar store and a rock-and-roll bar. I understood the world he was trying to create.”
But it was perhaps the way Ruffalo asked that belied his fear. “He asked if he could direct,” Thornton explains, “and I said sure.” It may have been a more overarching question, not can I direct this particular project, but am I suited to the occupation in general? And, of course, Ruffalo waited until his bachelor party to ask so he knew Thornton couldn’t say no.
Starring in the film, as Father Joe, the skid row priest who feeds Thornton’s character and eventually discovers his faith-healing powers before he loses the scruffy missionary to a rock-and-roll band, was a whole different proposition.
“There was a foreign sales company when we were raising the money,” Ruffalo recalls, “and they sat me down and said, ‘Okay, you’re a first-time director, which is a negative, but you also have a name as an actor, which is a positive. So if you act in and direct the movie, then you’ll be at zero. You’ll cancel yourself out.’”
“It was a veiled blackmail,” he says, laughing now. “They were saying we don’t have a movie unless you say you’ll be in it. My idea was to just trick everybody. I’d get everyone in the movie and then I’d step out. And the day I went in to do that, we had a schedule change that pushed us a bit and we lost two of our other lead actors. So before it even came out of my mouth, the producer was like, ‘Just stop right there. If you’re not in this movie at this moment, then we don’t even have a movie.’”
And that’s how Mark Ruffalo’s directorial debut came to be, but now that he’s got it under his belt, will it be difficult to go back to merely being an actor? With the big-screen adaptation of “The Avengers,” his first summer blockbuster where he plays The Hulk, and “The Normal Heart,” where he’ll plays Larry Kramer’s AIDS crusader Ned Weeks, on their way, only time will tell.
“I haven’t really started working with Larry yet,” Ruffalo admits, “I just know him.” And from what he knows of the famously hot-headed playwright, who once famously called “Normal Heart’s” original big-screen director Barbra Streisand “a big hypocrite,” he wouldn’t relish the same kind of back and forth he enjoyed with Thornton. “From what I know of Larry,” Ruffalo understates, “it would be very, very hard to ask him to lose twelve pages.”
“As a director,” he continues, “you attune your ear to the story in such a way that it begins to guide you. When you’re making a film, you keep reducing it down to its essentials, which is the story. So if I know I have twelve pages that don’t need to be in there, then I have a responsibility because I made a commitment to telling the story. My job is to go to the writer and say, ‘I need twelve pages out of here and these are the reasons why.’ Even if it’s Thomas Jefferson, you know, that’s the commitment that you make to the process.”