After spending nearly a decade battling bad guys and buddying up with superheroes as Bruce Banner/the Incredible Hulk in the Avengers franchise, Mark Ruffalo turns to more serious fare in the upcoming HBO saga, I Know This Much Is True.
This three-time Oscar nominee serves double-duty, starring as identical twin brothers – Dominick, a divorced construction worker, and Thomas Birdsey, who’s institutionalised for his affliction with paranoid schizophrenia.
The harrowing drama about a dysfunctional Italian-American blue-collar family, based on the best-selling novel by Wally Lamb, is centred on Dominick’s struggle to care for his brother, whose mental illness inexorably worsens.
Ruffalo collaborated with writer-director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines), in what was a labour of love for them both.
“Ultimately, it’s a journey of self-acceptance, of self-forgiveness, and of forgiveness of the past,” says Ruffalo.
“I really felt it had everything I wanted to say at this point in my life and at this time.
“It’s a homage to my family and it’s a homage to Derek’s family. Like me, he’s Italian-American and he’s had very similar experiences to those I’ve had in the world. We poured everything into this. All of our love, all our everything.”
Ruffalo, 52, grew up in Wisconsin with a brother and two sisters, though, tragically, in 2008, his younger brother died of a gunshot wound (the case remains unsolved). His father worked as a construction painter, and his mother is a hair stylist.
I Know This Much is True resonated with Ruffalo for myriad reasons.
“I come from a working-class family and I think there’s a real nobility in that. And as a second-generation Italian [he’s traced his lineage to Calabria at the turn of the century], I wanted to see a movie about the real Italian-American experience outside of gangsters and thugs, the only story we ever hear about. So, this was a chance to get into that history,” he explains. “It was personal to me.”
Ruffalo has enjoyed a diverse career and has switched effortlessly from comedy to drama – from 13 Going On 30 (2004), to Zodiac (2007) and Shutter Island (2010).
Other notable roles include The Kids Are All Right (2010), Foxcatcher (2014), Spotlight (2015), The Normal Heart (2015), and last year’s environmental thriller, Dark Waters.
I Know This Much Is True took a gruelling six months to shoot (at various locales up and down the East Coast of America) with a cast rounded out by Melissa Leo, Rosie O’Donnell, Imogen Poots, Juliette Lewis, and Kathryn Hahn.
Ruffalo serves as executive producer, as does original author Lamb.
Playing Thomas Birdsey, the heavier-set twin, required Ruffalo to pack on more than 13kg. “Derek was very reticent about taking on this project because he didn’t want it to look like any other twin movie or TV show where it appears as though the actor ran off, put on a wig, and ran back to do the scene,” Ruffalo says.
“So, we shut down production for three months (following the precedent HBO had set when they allowed Matt Bomer time to lose 40 pounds for A Normal Heart), and I could gain weight or grow a beard or cut my hair. I saw the twins as totally different people, and with Thomas being on medication, he’d be bloated. So, it took me six weeks to put on the weight. I ate loads of pasta, mashed potatoes, and oatmeal with lots of butter, maple syrup, and whipped cream. And so, we shot Thomas after we were done shooting Dominick.”
As for the moments when both brothers share the screen, Ruffalo was able to draw from his experience with green-screen as the Hulk and Bruce Banner.
“I knew how to do that technology in a way where it didn’t feel too artificial or too technologically heavy. And to be totally honest with you, this was a much easier thing to do than it was to do the Hulk, just equipment-wise, time-wise, and technology-wise.”
Speaking from his home in rural Sullivan County, Upstate New York, he says of the world’s current state in lockdown: “My daughter told me that she thought that this was Mother Nature’s way of giving a stern but gentle warning of what’s to come, and to show us how ill-prepared we are with the systems that we have in place to deal with it. This is a version of climate change in a very concentrated way, and I do see it as a moment for us to really test how we’re able to deal with a massive, catastrophic shift in our weather systems in [terms of] droughts and fires.”
A committed political progressive (who endorsed Bernie Sanders twice), and an ardent environmental activist, he says, “every day is Earth Day for me”.
“I’m fighting every day for our beautiful blue orb in the universe, as a lot of people are doing,” he says passionately.
“It’s a tragic opportunity for us to really have discussions about environmental racism.
“I’m in the middle of helping the Navajo Nation with Covid, getting them the same kind of relief that the rest of the United States is getting. I heard one of the elders say something really profound, that this illness is the way that Mother Earth is feeling. Her lungs are burning and ailing. Her body is on fire with fever and heat.”
But Ruffalo remains an optimist, despite his grave warnings.
“I believe that in every difficult thing there’s a silver lining, there’s a gift that cannot be received in any other way but through some difficult experiences. I’ve had a brain tumour (he was diagnosed in 2002 with a benign acoustic neuroma, and underwent surgery to remove it), I’ve lost people even to murder, and as hard as those things have been, I’ve always received a very special gift out of them and I see that same situation with Covid.”
Ruffalo will soon be celebrating 20 years of marriage to actress Sunrise Coigney.
They are raising three children: a son, Keen, 18, and daughters, Bella, 15, and Odette, 12; who have all inherited their father’s passion for environmental issues.
“I feel that their generation is much more aware,” he says. “They grew up in Upstate New York where there were trees and ponds and streams, but there was also hydrofracking. So, they are aware that it can all be hurt or ruined. And my daughter [Bella] is very outspoken about things that she cares about. She identifies as gay, so she thinks about those rights and is outspoken about them.”
Does he ever consider that perhaps they might have taken too much from their dad?
He laughs. “Yes, maybe too much.”
He attributes the success of his family to his wife.
“She’s my rock,” he says.
“I owe her so much. I couldn’t do any of this without her. She’s so beautiful with the kids, so strong, and she really has to carry it all on her own when I’m away. And it’s hard on my family when I’m away – they miss me. There have been moments where the kids have questioned, ‘Are you going away to work or are you going away to fight fracking?’ And if I say, ‘I’m going to fight fracking,’ they’ll say, ‘That’s OK then’.”
Considering the serious subject matter of his recent work, is Ruffalo looking to do something lighter in the future?
“Yeah,” he nods. “I’ve definitely done my drama for a while. I’ve felt very heavy in the past couple of years, but now I’d like to do more comedic things again. Actually, my wife is begging me to.” He chuckles. “And my wife is always right.”
* I Know This Much Is True, 8.30pm, Monday, Fox Showcase and streaming, Foxtel Now.