Actor Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right, Spotlight, The Avengers) hasn’t been onstage since 2006’s Awake and Sing on Broadway, but he got his start in small L.A. theatres and had his breakthrough in 1996 with Kenneth Lonergan’s Off-Broadway classic This Is Our Youth. He’ll return to Broadway in March for a revival of Arthur Miller’s The Price at Roundabout Theatre Company.
I spoke to him by phone on the morning of President Trump’s inauguration. The night before he had appeared in another of his prominent roles, as an activist, at a protest rally in front of Trump Tower.
I somehow missed Awake and Sing, which means the last time I saw you onstage was in Justin Tanner’s Still Life With Vacuum Salesman back in 1994, at the Cast Theatre in Hollywood. Did I miss any other stage work since Awake and Sing?
No, I haven’t really done any. I’ve done some readings and things like that, but not really back onstage. It’s been a long time.
And there wasn’t a lot before Awake and Sing, was there?
I sort of had the surprise of having a film career, which I wasn’t really expecting, you know? But before Awake and Sing, The Moment When was the last thing I’d done—a James Lapine play at Playwrights Horizons.
I think I once heard you tell this story, and I’ve retold it many times, so I want to reconfirm it. When you were in This Is Our Youth in New York, you had L.A. casting directors coming to see you and saying, “You’re amazing, where have you been?” And you’re like, “I’ve been acting down the street from you. I’ve been trying to get you to see my shows!”
That’s exactly what happened. They were like, “Where did you come from?” I was like, “What are you talking about? I’ve been right under your nose for the past 10 years doing exactly the same thing here in L.A.” But no one goes to the theatre in L.A. I realized that if you had a long list of L.A. theatre credits on your résumé, they immediately thought you were a loser. I started taking theatre credits off of my résumé. But I have to say, I’ve seen a lot of New York theatre and I’ve seen a lot of L.A. theatre. And L.A. theatre is just as vibrant and, in a lot of ways, more beautiful because it isn’t so corporatized. It’s more independent and there’s a lot more freedom.
I don’t know if you’ve followed the whole L.A. 99-Seat controversy that’s been going on in the past few years, about whether Equity actors should be allowed to work without a contract under a certain level. I don’t want to get too deep into that controversy with you, but I did see your early work on the old 99-seat plan.
I mean, actors should be paid, but, you know… I mean, I’m doing this play here; I’m taking a major pay cut to do this, you know. So it’s all relative. And there’s probably an argument to be made that, you know, yes, we could do better, but I also want to do this. And maybe theatre is like a civil act—a generous social act.
There was an early version of This Is Our Youth at the Met in Los Angeles, if I remember correctly. Is that how you got involved with that play?
Yeah, there was the one-act version at the Met called Betrayed by Everyone. I wasn’t even cast. I was only doing a reading for it. They were looking for a star, and I was asked to do a reading of it with a casting associate—we were just reading it for him to hear it out loud. They made it very clear that there was no way we would possibly get a part in it, that it was just a reading. But we did it so well that he cast us.
I think Oliver Platt used to be a reader in auditions, and that was how he got his break too.
Oh really? That’s cool. That’s one of the backdoor ways to get a part.
So tell me about the part you’re playing in The Price, Victor.
Victor Franz is a cop who’s turning 50, and he’s made all these decisions about his life and beyond and now, you know, he’s taking a look at whether he’s made the best decisions. And he’s having a reunion with his brother; they’re about to tear their old family home down, and they’ve got all the family furniture in there that they’ve got to get rid of. And they haven’t spoken in 16 years.
The only time I’ve seen the play was at A Noise Within in L.A., a really good production, about a dozen years ago. At the time I think I called it “Chekhovian.” It’s got some of the usual Arthur Miller themes, fathers and sons and all, but it’s a very slow burn.
Yeah. It’s very mature. It’s much more nuanced than some of his other plays. It’s really political, but the politics are buried so deeply in the people. Sometimes, you know, Arthur’s ideas are so big politically that they–you know, wow. This doesn’t do that.
Characters like this bring a lot of backstory into the room. As an actor what do you do to prepare for that?
It’s a lot of imagination work, a lot of daydreaming, really. Stella Adler had a beautiful saying. She said, “Once something passes through your imagination, it’s real.” That can be a really intense, hard thing. There’s some writing that goes on, and I do some other kinds of quirky things. But a lot of it, honestly, is daydreaming about the life of the character based on the play.
It’s not about excavating your own relationship with your father or family, or anything like that?
Well, that’s not the end-all. You know, we understand the nature of certain things because of our experience, and I think you’d be foolish to somehow divorce yourself from yourself. But then also you have to be careful not to pull the play down into your life, but lift yourself up into the greatness of the play. That was another thing Stella taught us. Yeah, you’re reflecting on your own experience; that really informs it. But at the end of the day, that’s small, and won’t sustain you throughout the run. So there’s a fine line to walk there.
I want to just ask you about politics and activism. Is that kind of like doing theatre—do you have to set aside time for that from your film career—
You mean my day job?
Or does it kind of grow out of it naturally?
That’s another thing we were taught—to be really socially active and involved, and politically astute. Stella came out of the Yiddish theatre, and that was the Jewish intellectual movement that led to the Group Theatre, and the whole workers movement was kicked off by Waiting for Lefty. That was part of my teaching, so it’s sort of seamless, even if a lot of them did it their work. The activism has been more direct for me, and the work has, sadly, taken a bit of a backseat. But this is a shift for me to get back to it—to get back to my theatre roots, and theatre that has a political aspect to it. This hits all those boxes for me. The political, the social, and the artistic working together is really powerful, but I think is hard to do these days.
So I think people would want me to ask Mark Ruffalo, celebrity protester at Trump Tower, about politics more specifically. Like: What are we going to do? My wife said I should ask you, “Where’s the bunker?”
The bunker’s in the streets. When you’re afraid, hit the streets. It’s not an accident that enshrined in our First Amendment is the right to assembly and to address grievances and freedom of speech—they’re all there. That’s the First Amendment. That might be all that’s left to us at this point, but there’s so much power there.
At the rally last night, there were 25,000 people. That’s how we know we’re not alone. I think the more cynical forces in the world want us to believe we’re alone, want us to believe somehow that our votes didn’t matter, that the progress that we made in this country in the last 50, 60 years, was all for naught—that our decency as Americans and the values that we hold dear to us from the beginning of our Constitution are somehow no longer valid. So the way we fight against that is to come together and remind each other that, yes, we do have values. America isn’t just about money, it isn’t just about businesses—it’s about people. And we’re not a fearful country, we’re actually a courageous country. We don’t give up our principles based on fear or making each other the bogeyman, and we never have. When we have in the past, we’ve always righted it.
You’ve got three kids, right? Are they into the arts or performing? Is that something you encourage or are you like, “No, stay away?”
I’m more neutral. I’m waiting for them to find their own way. They’ve been around it and they’ve been exposed to it; they dabble in it. But I’m also not pushing introducing them to it. But certainly, if they wanted to do it, they have a nice headstart for it.
I know the cliché that even actors who are successful are worried about their kids going into the business. It’s not an easy life, there are no guarantees.
No, but when I look at it, and I look at my friends, it’s been a good life. I’ve learned to really work hard. I’ve learned really beautiful lessons. I’ve been invited in places that no one would ever be invited to with so much openness and love.
I tell you, I have parents come to me, “My son or daughter wants to be an actress. What am I going to do?” You know, they can end up a lot worse. There’s a lot worse places these days they could end up that do harm in ways that you would never imagine. Ours is a much maligned industry, but when you look at it, it’s probably one of the most decent, upright industries in the world. We’re not screwing anybody, harming people, and nepotism doesn’t really play. It is really a meritocracy in the way it works. No one’s doing anyone any favors.
Wait, are you talking about film or theatre here?
I’m talking about both. I mean, even in film there’s only so long you can get away with not being good. You have to bring something to the table. And, you know, we’re not killing people. I’m always amazed by how maligned we are. But if you want to add up our scumbags against the scumbags in other industries, I have a feeling we have a much lower percentage.
Do you worry that you get typecast in angry roles? I’m not just talking about the Hulk. Anger has been a signature of some of your best roles, and Victor in The Price has a big tell-off speech. Is that a slot you fit naturally into?
It’s seasonal. You do something well, and then there’s a slew of those kinds of parts. You’re always sort of trying to stay ahead of the curve a little bit, you know, while at the same time exploring other things. Righteousness and justice—those are things that I’m interested in these days, and so I’m riding that wave a little bit. It will jump to something else when I feel like it.
But, you know, for a long time I did romantic comedy. I did the ne’er-do-well slacker. And then I’d get like 10 offers for, “He’s a brother, he’s kind of like a lumberjack, a slacker.” And now it’s like: “He’s living a double life, and part of him has all this rage and the other part is good.”
Actually, in the first thing I saw you in, Still Life With Vacuum Salesman, you were doing sort of a riff on Stanley Kowalski. I remember there being a lot of “young Brando” talk when you started. Do you still hear that?
Not really, no; somewhere I went off the tracks. The jig is up. They saw through my ruse.
So maybe the anger thing is typecasting. But what do you do to blow off steam in real life? What’s your guilty pleasure?
I started taking the kids to a ceramics class on the weekend. They eventually just stopped going and I’m the only one going now. I sort of beg them to come with me so I don’t feel like I’m in a ceramics class. I tell people, “Oh, you know, I had to take the kids to the ceramic class.” But it’s just me. So I guess I like doing ceramics.
So we’re talking a potter’s wheel and everything?
There’s a potter’s wheel, and then there’s like hand-building stuff and sculpture. It’s just a way to check out in an active way. You have to be really present, especially on the wheel. Just trying to center the goddamn thing is an act of Zen fortitude.
You like to make stuff with your hands, Mark? Is that what you like to do?
I like to make stuff with my hands, bruh. I’ve always been handy, and I have a nice little wood shop; I have a welder. I like to make furniture or fix things. We were on a farm for many years, and there’s a lot of stuff that needs to be repaired on a farm. So I like to garden, and I guess I’m into ceramics a little bit now. And, if I can, I like to surf. I’ve always been a surfer.
Can you think of what your first theatrical memory—the first time you were like, “This is it for me”?
I always wanted to act, from every early on. And it was something that me and my brother and sisters and my cousins would do, put on little shows and do these broad characters. So I secretly wanted to be this actor, but then I was like, that’s foolish, I’m a jock, I’m a surfer—they don’t do that kind of thing. I’m not a musical theatre-type person, but I remember I used to see them; I’d see the school play and I was really envious. Like, “God, I wish I could do that.” I was a wrestler. But in my junior year, I did a drama class. I was saying it was just for an easy A, but I was really just thrilled to be in there. And I loved it so much that I didn’t go out for wrestling, and all the people that I knew, all my team members and my coaches, were like, “What are you doing?”
I did one play, the school play. What happened was the kid broke his arm and they needed somebody, so they put me in the part. And I loved it so much, after the first night, I was like, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.
Do you remember the play and the part?
I think it was called The Runaways. It was this straight play of all these foster kids living in this home, and I was a cop, a detective. It was my first cop role of what would end up being many cop roles in a career.