Real Talk with Mark Ruffalo: On Manic Depression, Bernie Sanders, and Sexism

The star of Infinitely Polar Bear, in theaters June 19, opens up about his fine turn as a bipolar manic-depressive, Avengers sexism claims, and the 2016 presidential election.

Mark Ruffalo is one of the good guys. He’s the type of fella who asks you how your day’s going, or makes small talk to pass the time. Unlike most actors of his renown, he isn’t the least bit guarded or affected. Perhaps it’s his Kenosha, Wisconsin, roots, or the nine years he spent behind a bar spinning yarns with strangers before breaking into acting, but the 47-year-old is, in the words of the late Stuart Scott, as cool as the other side of the pillow.

You’d never think such an easygoing guy had suffered so much adversity. Ruffalo struggled with ADD and dyslexia as a child, and in 2002, suffered a brain tumor whose surgery resulted in a prolonged period of facial paralysis. He thought he’d never act again, yet slowly but surely, the sensation returned to the left side of his face. And then, in 2008, he lost his brother Scott, who died under mysterious circumstances. He almost quit acting—that is, until The Kids Are All Right came along. Ruffalo’s performance as Paul Hatfield, the hippie sperm donor to a pair of children with lesbian parents, earned him his first of two Oscar nominations, and restored his faith in acting.

These days, he’s become one of the most malleable actors in Hollywood, able to jump from big-budget blockbusters (The Avengers) to dark, awards-bait dramas (Foxcatcher) to cheery musicals (Begin Again).

Ruffalo’s latest is Infinitely Polar Bear. Written and directed by Maya Forbes, who based the film on her own life story, it centers on Cam Stuart (Ruffalo), a blue-blooded Bostonian who also happens to be bipolar, manic-depressive, and dirt poor. When his ex-wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) is accepted to Columbia Business School in New York, Cam is forced to care for their two young, idiosyncratic daughters. But the impressionable young girls have a hard time coming to grips with Cam’s hoarding and violent mood swings. Ruffalo breathes life into a deeply layered character brimming with contradictions.

In a wide-ranging conversation, we spoke with Ruffalo about Infinitely Polar Bear, sexism in Hollywood, his gripes with the mainstream media, and much, much more.

What attracted you to the complicated character of Cam Stuart? The character reminded me a bit of You Can Count on Me. He’s got some Terry Prescott in him.

I never really thought of it! I guess so, that type of man-child living outside the system. Maya [Forbes] just told me that’s why she cast me. What Terry didn’t have is that sense of class, and speech, and worldview, and sense of historical positioning he has.

Cam’s this very strange mix of white-collar and blue-collar.

Totally. I watch it and I think, “Am I getting it over on anybody? Is anyone possibly buying it?” I’m always a little surprised that it goes, because I see myself as so blue-collar. K-Town!

This is a tough character to play. There plenty of moments where you could lose the audience and people are thinking, “Dude! You’re so close. Just do the right thing.”

He’s like Terry in that way, too. I find that so fun to play. I call that the “one foot on a banana peel and the other in the grave,” where it’s a tightrope act and you can fall off at any minute, but it’s just riveting to see someone stay on the tightrope. It’s a question of, “How far can you take it?” And you can take it pretty far when you’re manic-depressive. I guess what holds it all together is his likability, and the distillation of his curiosity, his love for his daughters, and the fallibility of his nature.

Have you ever dealt with manic depression or bipolar disorder personally, with yourself or a loved one?

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I have it in my family, yeah. And manic depression. I have friends who are manic—some of them without ever being diagnosed, or diagnosed very late. It was weird. I knew what it was and had a good bead on that. I have close family members who are manic, and weren’t diagnosed until much later in life. You would never know. Yes, their behavior at times will get a extreme, but no one was ever looking at it like that. It’s on a scale—it slides around—and you never really know if they’re in mania, or they’re just happy, or they’re sad, or they’re deeply depressed. The idea that they were manic-depressive never even crossed my mind. I just thought, “Wow, they’re intense.” It wasn’t until much later that I realized—and they realized—that they were manic, and because of that, they could manage it.The film also reverses traditional gender roles, since Cam is the stay-at-home father taking care of the kids, while his ex-wife is off attending business school. These gender roles have become so codified, yet when they’re disrupted like this it makes you think of how these roles came to be.

Totally! Without even being conscious of it.

And your co-star, Zoe Saldana, her husband took her last name. That’s another area where traditional gender roles were disrupted, and it makes you go back and think about why names have been passed down a certain way.

Yeah. Where do they come from? It’s a patriarchal system across the board. Literally. Women have long said, “We’ve got to get this under control,” and they’ve been fighting that ever since. We’re having these conversations now in a real way and becoming aware of sexism; it’s so embedded in us. I grew up in an Italian family where the woman stayed home and the father went to work, and that stuff is still inside me. I have to make a conscious evaluation of my own. I have two girls. Even the way I talk to them, and what I expect of them, still has a sexism inside it that I have to be vigilant against. You become aware of it in bits and pieces. It’s so firmly ingrained because we’ve been doing it for so long.

The issue of sexism bubbled to the surface with Avengers: Age of Ultron and Black Widow. You even tweeted your dismay at Marvel for cutting Black Widow out of the merchandise.

Completely! I was trying to make a greater point than that. My wife turned me on to that, and I was like, “Yeah, right!” and then that turned into a much larger conversation—the whole thing with Joss Whedon, and the Bruce and Natasha relationship that pissed off so many people. I was like, “Come on, guys! You’re talking about a guy in Joss who does write some pretty strong women. I mean, Buffy. Come on, dude! Come on!” So let’s reflect on that. Maybe it’s because we don’t have enough women playing these kinds of roles that you’re taking Joss to task for this.

I think you’re on to something. I think that, because there aren’t enough of these roles for women due to larger systemic problems, each one is under heightened scrutiny.

That’s exactly what it is. So a man can be weak and no one says anything, but if a woman’s weak everyone’s like, “What the fuck is this?! You misogynist asshole!” And you’re like, “What are you talking about? Go watch Buffy!” And I see Bruce Banner as the one who’s constantly being saved! He’s the one who’s emasculated. You don’t say anything about the fact that Scarlett is the one protecting him all the time, and the one time he goes around and does something for her, all of a sudden people are like, “What the FUCK!” There’s just nowhere to hide with this shit anymore.

We just need more female directors for parity. You’ve worked with plenty of female directors.

Some of my best performances were with female directors: Kids Are All Right, In the Cut, My Life Without Me, this. These are fantastic roles. I love working with female directors. In the anti-fracking movement, most of the leaders are really strategic, brilliant women. And they take principle above personality so much more than men, and they can manage their ego. I’m constantly impressed with women. Behind any guy that’s out there doing things, there’s a woman driving it and pulling the strings.

We may have a female president in 2016.

There could be. Unless Bernie Sanders comes in. I don’t know!

I… don’t think so. As someone who went to college up in Maine with a lot of trustafarians who would probably identify as Sanders supporters, when push comes to shove, those people don’t vote. They talk a big game and then on Election Day they stay away from the polls. My generation is just a little bit full of shit. Everyone says they watch Mad Men or see X indie movie, and then you think, “Wait, if everyone is saying they watch this, why is it only getting a million viewers a week, or making a million dollars at the box office?” My generation trades in counterfeit cultural currency.

I don’t know, man! I remember the same thing was being said about Barack Obama. I think Sanders has a message. Hillary’s going to have to adopt Bernie’s message, and I think we’re going to be hearing a lot more from Bernie.

Well, he is one of the only candidates that’s dedicated to cracking down on Wall Street.

Totally. He’s the one. And he’s been there, man. It’s going to be an interesting primary.

Especially on the Republican side. I didn’t think it could get more insane than 2012, but here we are.

It’s already a clown show. It’s incredible, the shit that comes out of their mouths. They’re going to drive off the cliff! They are, man. It’s out of control. There’s no even censoring it anymore. Americans don’t want billionaires running our government. They just don’t. And they’re sick of it. And they’re aware of it.

'Infinitely Polar Bear.'

Citizens United is the most un-American shit ever.

Dude, it’s so un-American! I don’t care what your politics are.

You’re in this other movie coming out later this year, Spotlight, where you play a journalist at The Boston Globe.

Yeah. Mike Rezendes, a guy on the investigative journalism team at The Boston Globe that broke the Catholic Church molestation scandal. It’s amazing. We wrapped that in November.

Now, if you were the head of a newspaper, what are some of the stories you’d want covered that you feel aren’t being covered enough?

I would say climate change—the science of it, and where we’re headed in relation to civil unrest, water wars, resources, and to some degree, refugees. Where it’s headed is significantly ponderous. I don’t really see the mainstream media stepping up on that in a way that feels adequate given the threat. Even what the Pentagon’s saying about [climate change], if you compare that to something like ISIS and the amount of screen and page time that we’re dedicating to ISIS, you would think climate change would at least effect the same amount of interest.

It’s a sexier story, ISIS. It’s a bunch of guys who dress like The Foot from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles wreaking havoc.

Totally. It is, man. It’s a much easier story. I would also deal with environmental contamination, which I think is a big story that’s being left out of the discussion.

Well, no politicians ever want to focus on the environment because you can’t run on something that long term. And maybe, and this is just me spitballing, it reminds people of their own mortality and place in the world.

We don’t live that way. We want what’s immediate. I guess it’s hard. How do you tell that story? It’s a hard sell. And maybe the corrosive nature of capitalism—really look into what that does when it’s unregulated, undeterred, and actually gamed in a lot of ways. This isn’t really a free market that we live in—and the relationship between that and our democracy. They’re not exclusive of each other. China is as capitalist as anywhere else in the world, and the idea that democracy and capitalism are inextricably linked is up for debate as well. There are a lot of pressing issues that aren’t being covered enough in media today.

It’s pretty depressing. You’ll turn on CNN and the lead story will be the Kardashians.

It’s like sugar. It’s junk food—all taste, no calories. And it’s in a moment where we shouldn’t be escaping. But at the same time, the news media is losing credibility. People are going to traditional news media less and less for their news. The Internet is the great equalizer. We live in the era of decentralization. It started with music and publishing, television now, and then there will be the decentralization of energy, so we’ll distribute forms of renewable energy, and then political decentralization, which is already essentially happening. Political systems are losing their credibility, so people are finding ways around them to create community. The only real changes these days are being made on the state level—look at gay marriage, that’s a perfect example. All state.

I would be culturally remiss if I didn’t ask you about Hulk. I hear you’re popping up in Captain America: Civil War.

Of course you would be! I don’t know. I heard a rumor about that the other day! I haven’t seen a script, no one’s told me, I don’t have dates. I have no idea. I can only hope so. I actually don’t know. I was talking to Robert Downey the other day, and he said, “Ruffalo! I hear you’re coming out here,” and I said, “OK! I’ll be there!”

How have you managed the maelstrom? You seem like a pretty normal dude, and your onscreen persona has reflected that. And despite the Hulk stuff, people don’t think of you as mainly your superhero the way they do, say, Chris Hemsworth, or Chris Evans, or Robert Downey Jr.

Yeah. I wasn’t the Hulk until recently. And Robert rebooted the whole genre. And he really embraced it. He takes a star persona into the public, so when he shows up somewhere publicly, he’s actually playing Stark—he’s not Robert Downey. He’s fortifying that image both onscreen and offscreen, and he loves doing those kinds of movies. But I want to be an indie actor, and want to keep doing these types of movies—Infinitely Polar Bear and Spotlight. They feed me. And Marvel feeds me and my kids, you know?