The outspoken Oscar-nominated character actor plays a washed-up music manager in the lovely musical Begin Again. He discusses the film, his Homeland Security fiasco, and why seeing Iraq in the news is giving him an awful sense of déjà vu.
It doesn’t come as any surprise when you learn that, prior to his breakout role as a troubled drifter in You Can Count on Me—one that The New York Times said “deserves to be added to the list of charismatic, grownup lost boys that includes Marlon Brando of A Streetcar Named Desire and Jack Nicholson of Easy Rider”—Mark Ruffalo spent nine years serving up drinks as a bartender. With his scruffy good looks and breezy insouciance, the native of Kenosha, Wisconsin, has developed into a blue-collar character actor par excellence; one equally adept at playing a cop (Zodiac), a bohemian sperm donor (The Kids Are All Right), or that guy at the end of the bar regaling you with tall tales of his salad days.
Ruffalo plays the latter in Begin Again. In the film, directed by John Carney (Once), the 46-year-old is Dan Mulligan—a washed-up A&R executive whose “magic ear” for signing musical talent has long since passed. One day, he comes upon the heartbroken Gretta (Keira Knightley) performing at a downtown bar, and sees a singer-songwriter in the making. With a little help from Dan’s daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and the rapper Troublegum (CeeLo Green), whom he helped discover, the two set out to record an album on location in New York City.
After years of flying relatively under the radar, Ruffalo’s profile has exploded thanks to his turn as Bruce Banner/The Hulk in The Avengers and the upcoming The Avengers: Age of Ultron, but the actor hasn’t “gone Hollywood” yet, mixing in smaller parts in projects like Begin Again and The Normal Heart. He also, like his activist character Ned Weeks in the aforementioned HBO film, isn’t afraid to speak his mind.
I really enjoyed Begin Again. Were you ever in a band, or ever flirted with being a musician?
I was in a punk band in the ’80s called Voice of Reason that was a little garage band that we had, and we did some punk and mod covers and stuff like that. [Laughs] I played bass. We played keg parties, but everyone was there for the free beer, not for us.
There’s a scene early on in Begin Again where you get wasted at a bar but don’t have any cash, so you drink and dash. But the bouncer catches up with you a couple of blocks away and pops you. Did that give you any flashbacks to your bartending days?
[Laughs] I had one moment where I had to mix it up with a guy who was messing around with a friend of mine at the bar. But I disposed of him rather quickly. I grabbed him by his larynx and shoved him out of the bar. It’s amazing how quickly someone with not a lot of inner will can crumble when your fingers are dug into his throat. I didn’t know what else to do.
Pretty effective move, it seems. You know you’re someone who, after nine years as a bartender, found success later in life. Do you think it gave you a better head on your shoulders, and the ability to better handle being an actor and all that comes with it?
Yeah. It definitely gave me a better head on my shoulders. It made me very grateful for the things I had, and to not take anything for granted. It also made me see a lot of people go up and down and up and down, so I knew that it was going to be a long haul, and I had to brace myself for those moments and not get too high and not get too low.
"Barack Obama gave them a bye—he gave them a serious pass—and said, 'Let’s not look into these war crimes these people have committed, we’re going to move forward now.'"
There are a lot of young kids these days who hit it big early on and seem to get this sense of entitlement. I was just reading the news about Shia LaBeouf drunkenly heckling actors during a Broadway play.
Wow. That’s pretty low. That ain’t cool!
Definitely not. Begin Again is really a love letter to New York City. Do you have any crazy New York stories? Favorite wild nights?
I’ve had some of the best, most exciting nights of my life just randomly going from one place to the next in the city; quite a few memorable crawls, make-out sessions, and all kinds of crazy stuff. The worst thing that ever happened to me was ending up with a friend who was looking for dope on the Lower East Side at 2 or 3 in the morning back when you didn’t ever want to do that. It was really ugly, really dark… really heavy. That was about 15 years ago, and it was scary. I had no idea where I was going to end up.
Did you get mugged? Or what happened?
No. It was just sketchy and not where I wanted to be. It was just, “This is heavy.” It was ugly, scary, and sad… kind of pathetic, you know?
You spoke out against the Iraq War early on, which was pretty prescient. But it looks like we might be going in there again. Are you getting déjà vu?
Totally. What’s incredible to me is the same people who got us there in the first place are the people beating the war drums for us to go back there. At the end of the day, people around the world gotta learn to get on without America and our military involvement. An incredibly unfair portion of the people who die when our military goes places are civilians. When you look at Iraq, some people say 200,000 civilians have died there and millions have been displaced. It’s really in much worse shape than when we first got there. Al-Maliki and his government are going to have to bring these people to the table and include them in their government, otherwise they’re going to have a constant insurgency. What’s happening now is we’re seeing they’re in the process of doing that. It’s a growing pain that that country has to go through in order to grow. This stuff isn’t easy. This is a 2,000-year-old problem going on there, and somehow, it’s all come down on the shoulders of Barack Obama to fix. So, this beating of the drum by the same idiots that took us there in the first place is such a joke. It’s such a lapse of reason that anyone is allowing these people to have any say in this debate, when all they really seem to be doing is covering their own asses. They want to commit more treasure and more young people into that war so they don’t look like the failures that they are. It’s disgusting.
I was just watching Dick Cheney—of all people—on the news the other week calling out Obama for the situation in Iraq.
Leave us alone! We gave you a bye, ok? You didn’t go to prison for your war crimes, now go away. Don’t remind us. Otherwise, let’s start bringing up these people for war crimes. Barack Obama gave them a bye—he gave them a serious pass—and said, “Let’s not look into these war crimes these people have committed, we’re going to move forward now.” He gave them a bye. And what was implied is that they were going to go away. But now that they’re back, I think we should start talking about war crimes again.
So you’re saying Obama shouldn’t have let Cheney and them get off with a slap on the wrist.
No way, man! And look: They’re sticking the knife back in him for it. And they asked him for the bye. There’s no doubt in my mind.
You were also pretty ahead of the curve as far as the anti-fracking movement goes, and really became the face of it back in 2008. Is the rumor true that Homeland Security placed you on a terror advisory list?
You know, it’s funny. I’d heard that. What had happened was Pennsylvania’s Homeland Security put a bunch of people in New York and Pennsylvania who were screening the movie Gasland on their state terror watch list, and a whistleblower came out and said they were putting war protesters and anti-fracking people on this list. Then, Fox News came out and said I was on it, and then every major publication and network picked it up and ran with it. I was doing press for a movie and someone from The Washington Post asked me if it was true, and I said, “I don’t know! Maybe one of you reporters should find out if it was true or not.” And the next day, she wrote that it wasn’t true that I was on a no-fly list, but that Pennsylvania had been following people who were anti-frackers on the New York and Pennsylvania side, and at that point, Governor Ed Rendell came out and said he had fired their head of Homeland Security for these things that were going on. So to this day, I’m not sure. I wasn’t put on a no-fly list like Fox News had said, but I was on some sort of watch list for Pennsylvania.
You gotta watch out for those former bartenders from Kenosha, Wisconsin.
[Laughs] Yeah, I know. Look out!
It’s been 10 years since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out. Do you have any favorite memories from filming that? You did get to jump on a bed with Kirsten Dunst in your tighty-whiteys.
Yes. How much better does it get than that? [Laughs] What was hilarious about making that movie was just that Michel [Gondry] didn’t speak very good English, so watching him try to communicate with me and the rest of the cast was funny. At one point, he was trying to tell me how to put the helmet on and said [in high French accent], “I want you to put it on the woof of his head!” I said, “What?!” And he said, “The woof of his head! The woof of his head!” And I said, “Oh! The roof of his head.” That was so funny. I’d finished the movie and I got a call from him at 4 o’clock in the morning, and they’d gone off to shoot all the Montauk beach stuff in the freezing cold, and I’m like, “Hello?” And he says, “I wish you were here man! They hate me! Everyone hates me! I wish you were he-re!” That was awesome.
Did you think it was going to be a great movie, or were you just like, I have no fucking clue how this is going to turn out.
Well… I was hoping it was going to be a great movie, and I thought it was a great movie. I was very excited by what we were doing, but we were shooting 36,000 feet of film a day, which, even by the most excessive standards, is out of control. There were cameras rolling non-stop. He’d be standing there just talking and then you’d realize the camera was rolling on you, and it was out of control. We were improvising so much of it. I was enjoying it, but Tom Wilkinson kept being like, “I don’t know what the hell we’re doing! I don’t know what he’s doing!” I said to him at one point, “I think it’s good!” And he said, “I don’t dig any of it... and I don’t know what you’re doing!” I was like, “I don’t know what I’m doing either, man. I hope it works!”
I’m on the Twitter and you and Robert Downey Jr. have very strong selfie game on the set of The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Had you two known each other for a while, or did you meet on the first Avengers film?
No, we’ve known each other for years! My wife was good friends with Robert and Deborah, the mother of his child, and she used to babysit for them and was very close friends with them—especially Deborah. When we started seeing each other, I spent some time with them. So God… I’ve known him for 15 years now. I didn’t know him very well, but I spent enough time to go up and say hi and have a conversation with him. And then we did Zodiac together.
Ah, that’s right. I love Zodiac. That movie really didn’t get the kudos it deserved, and got buried with a March release.
Yeah… thanks. It’s a good one. Yeah…
How has The Avengers changed things for you? It really has upped your profile considerably and I’m sure given you more clout in the industry.
[Laughs] Well, it’s made things easier and more difficult at the same time. I was surprised myself that they came to me. It wasn’t by choice that you hadn’t seen me in any of these other big movies, just that nobody wanted me for them. This one came around and I was a little skeptical, but Joss reached out to me, and then Robert did. And Robert said, “Come on and do this! It’ll be fun! We got this.” I loved what he had done with Iron Man. I thought he’d really changed the genre—putting him in that world. You’re putting a really great actor—and a character actor—in there, and they did it right and made it his. I thought, “I could see myself in that world.”
I had a lot of trepidation. All the people that I really respect had done it, and I wanted to do something that was my own with it, and something that was interesting. It became a long conversation about what it was going to be, and I’ve always said I wasn’t going to do something because of the profile of it or because of the money, because I think that’s how you get into trouble, but it has to be something that speaks to me and that I can do something interesting with. I was lucky that Joss understood that and allowed me to see a lot of material and talk with him about it. He wasn’t just saying, “Listen: take it or leave it and you’ll get what you get,” which is usually how these deals go—you have to sign on before there’s even a script. But Joss let me in on the process, so I knew what I was getting into.
But you couldn’t have known just how big it would be, raking in over $1.5 billion, which was nuts.
I didn’t know it was going to be as successful as it was, or that people were going to like it and embrace it, but because of that stuff, it has made it easier to push forward little movies that I’ve been trying to make for so long. But it’s at the cost of a little of my anonymity which, believe it or not, I did enjoy a decent amount of. I like that I can disappear in a group of people, and it’s made it a little more difficult to do that. Those are the pros and the cons. But I love it. I really enjoyed it the first time, and I’m really enjoying it this time. There are a lot of unique challenges, and the motion capture stuff is really fascinating to me.
I’ve been reading the positive reviews of Foxcatcher out of Cannes and really can’t wait to see it. Does it feel like a crazy, full-circle moment for you having wrestled in junior high and high school?
It was an interesting place to go back. I left wrestling my junior year of high school to go into acting, but the discipline and perseverance I learned from wrestling have been a big part of my life, and my ability to hang in long enough to find some success for myself. It’s a world that I really understand, and I don’t know if I was talented enough to have made a mark in that world, but I got a lot of my sense of self from it for a long, long time.