he was introduced by no less than Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr., as the new Hulk in Marvel Studios’ movie version of The Avengers, due in 2012. Meanwhile, his acclaimed indie The Kids Are All Right, which is already garnering Oscar buzz, continued to put up great box office numbers in limited release. In the film, directed by Lisa Cholodenko (High Art), Julianne Moore and Annette Bening play lesbians in a longtime, faithful (though not perfect) relationship, each with a teenage child conceived via artificial insemination provided by the same anonymous dude. Their family unit is rocked when one of their kids seeks out the sperm donor dad (Ruffalo), a man much more successful in his professional life than personal life. We caught up with Ruffalo and spoke with him about Hulk (and the Ed Norton thing) and Kids — and being used as “a riding pummel.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You had a pretty interesting weekend.
MARK RUFFALO: Yeah, you can say that.
The comic book collective here at EW pretty much agree: this Avengers cast is pretty awesome. Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man). Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury). Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow). Chris Evans (Captain America). Chris Hemsworth (Thor). Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye). And you. What was it like appearing en masse at Comic-Con last weekend and being introduced to 6,500 screaming comic book fans?
It was very exciting — and I realized I had some pretty big shoes to fill. Those were my heroes up there! I was a comic book fan growing up. I loved The Hulk and The Avengers — it’s just strange to be entering that world as an actor. I never would have imagined that before.
You had never been to Comic-Con before?
No, I had not. I was very, very nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. That’s as close you’re going to get to being a rock star as an actor. The fans — they have very strong feelings toward their comic book heroes.
You’ll be playing Bruce Banner, The Hulk’s human alter ego. What are your thoughts on the character?
He’s a guy struggling with two sides of himself — the dark and the light — and everything he does in his life is filtered through issues of control. I grew up on the Bill Bixby TV series, which I thought was a really nuanced and real human way to look at The Hulk. I like that the part has those qualities.
Did you have any trepidation taking the role, given the very public way Marvel split with Edward Norton?
I’m a friend of Ed’s, and yeah, that wasn’t a great way for all that to go down. But the way I see it is that Ed has bequeathed this part to me. I look at it as my generation’s Hamlet.
When do you start shooting?
Sometime in the winter. I’m not sure.
The Kids Are All Right is really finding an audience.
I’m not surprised it has found an audience — I’m surprised by how big of an audience it has found. I thought it was a great movie, but you never know how the rest of the world was going to respond to it. It’s been a real joy to see that movie do so well in what appears to be such a hard time for independent movies.
What do you think audiences are responding to in the film?
I think what they’re responding to is seeing themselves in it. It’s above all else a really, really funny, frank and honest portrait of a family that’s dealing with teens in the home. Anyone who sees it who’s been in a long relationship, as far as the adults who see it, I don’t think they can help but see themselves in it. I think it’s really honest about marriage, and how difficult it is, and how hard you have to work in it and what it costs and what, ultimately, the beauty of it is.
Was this a difficult film to get off the ground?
They did have a hard time getting it made. It took a number of years. But I read it and immediately loved the character. I loved his charm and openness. He’s a modern man to me. He can be tough if he wants, but he can be soft and gentle. He’s not afraid to be accepting and vulnerable, but he’s not a simp. I thought it was a very cool portrait of what a man could and should be today. It’s just a fun part to play. There’s a lot of love in it, a lot of humor in it, some slapstick in it. I thought the stories of those kids were really familiar to me, those teenagers. I could relate to trying to claim my independence as a kid, and how it good it was to have someone outside the family who saw you and listened to you and praised you and how important that was.
[SPOILER ALERT! SKIP AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE!] There’s a subplot in the film that has inspired water-cooler debate in some quarters: The decision by Jules (Moore) to cheat on her partner with your character, who, of course, is a dude. Some people either don’t like the choice she made or don’t believe she would have done it. Did you and your fellow actors debate that as well?
It’s funny: I’ve heard more lesbians who’ve had a problem with that than straight people. But what’s great about the movie is its treatment of sexuality, and sexuality is a very complex thing. It takes all kinds of forms in a human being, and it has all kinds of quirks and idiosyncrasies. So it doesn’t seem strange to me at all. None of it seems strange. So it’s funny, I was talking about this with some lesbian friends of mine, and they were like, “Why is she with a man?” And I said, “Baby, first of all, human sexuality is pretty complex, I’m sure you agree with me. I know you had a boyfriend for a long time.” And she was like, “Well….” But regardless, if you really watch the nature their relationship, it’s pretty much purely sexual. The way she’s using his face as a riding pummel in that one scene, she’s pretty much just using the guy sexually. Ultimately, the movie is about the sanctity of marriage. Who does she end up with in the end? She winds up with her spouse. Her longtime spouse. That’s really more what the movie is about.
You guys shot the movie in just 23 days. Was it easy or difficult to fall into these roles and play out this drama given the quick shooting schedule?
The one good thing about a schedule like that is that you have to jump and not think too much. The great obstacle to great spontaneous acting is thinking. Thinking too much. So when you’re in that situation, you’re going to go one of two ways: Shut down and have no trust, or open up and trusting in the material, actors, and director and throw yourself into it wholeheartedly.
There’s already Oscar buzz around the film and the performances, including your own. How do you feel about that?
You know, that’s a long time away. I always think it’s a great when a film like this gets that kind of attention. It helps a little film like this. But I’ve been in this business long enough to not get too attached too much to that stuff. My real reward is that I get to do what I do and I’m very lucky to get to do it. I get most of my gratification from the experience.