Today, Mark Ruffalo says hello to a monster and goodbye to some demons. “It’ll be a very auspicious day for me,” says the new star of The Avengers. “It’ll be the first day as The Hulk and the last day of, uh, sort of birthing my baby.”
That baby: a passion project he has lived with for over a decade, Sympathy For Delicious, an indie drama about a paraplegic faith-healer whose mystical powers work on everyone but him, sending him from the path of a prophet to a pariah. It opens today in New York and Los Angeles.
After the jump, Ruffalo talks to EW about the dark times that fueled the making of Sympathy For Delicious, along with exclusive video clips from the movie. Afterward, like a dessert with a massive, green cherry on top, he provides an exclusive first glimpse into The Avengers with details on his new Hulk.
Ruffalo has been working on Sympathy For Delicious for over a decade with his friend and collaborator, Christopher Thornton, who wrote the script and stars as the title character: a wheelchair-bound wannabe deejay, who lives out of his car and decides to use his new healing powers to become a literal rock-god. Ruffalo directed the movie and co-stars as a priest who wants to use Delicious to help the sick, and also, selfishly, boost the profile of his own shelter.
The movie’s title, a play on the Rolling Stones’ song Sympathy for the Devil, hints at the path both men take in a story that switches between comically surreal and darkly tragic — an unusual mix that underwhelmed some critics when it debuted last year at the Sundance Film Festival.
Ruffalo and Thornton, pals since acting school, have helped each other through a number of personal crises: Thornton’s hiking accident, which left him paralyzed from the waist down, and Ruffalo’s 2002 brain tumor, which sidelined him just as his career was exploding. Just before production began on Sympathy for Delicious in 2008, Ruffalo’s brother was shot to death. (The case remains unsolved.)
Ruffalo forged ahead, and now the movie is ready to face the world, while the actor simultaneously starts down the path of the massively hyped Avengers movie, playing both sides of Marvel’s most smashing hero, The Hulk.
MARK RUFFALO: It’s a been a pretty wild journey. In a lot of ways, a lot of fun and pretty exciting roller coaster ride, but it’s encompassed everything from rejection to exaltation.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start with the exalted parts.
Making it, filming it, working with the actors [including Laura Linney, Orlando Bloom, Juliette Lewis]. That whole process of doing it was about as good as it gets. Cutting it, and all the screenings. Every time I show it, I felt a lot of love coming from the audience.
Winning [Special Jury Prize for Best Drama] at Sundance was exalting. Sort of having it finally come out into the world. It’s a relief and a celebration. It has been a great journey, and through a lot of tough things. But also a lot of really good things too.
I hate to open old wounds, but I assume by tough things, you mean the lost of your brother.
Everyone goes through difficult things. The movie had some bad things happen along the way, and that was part of it. Sadly, I lost my brother just before I shot it. That was really a hard thing to deal with. Making the movie, deciding to go forward with it at that point, I knew it couldn’t defer grief, but I thought I could shove it into the work and have something that was so tragic and meaningless come out as something meaningful and purposeful and beautiful.
Do you think the movie would have turned out differently if you weren’t going through that?
I was pretty raw. And being raw as an artist is not a bad thing. I have no idea what it would have been before, without that happening, to be honest.
In real life, Christopher explored faith healing in desperation after he lost the ability to walk. You had a brain tumor, but came out of it okay. Was putting all that into this movie resolve any leftover issues from all that?
When you’re writing and developing it, those things are very hot to you. But so much time had passed since his injury to shooting it, or from my brain tumor to shooting it. They were laid into the script, but we had already integrated that stuff into our lives to completion. But just completing something that has so much in it, through allegory, just completion is a good thing. And a positive thing. I do ultimately think it’s a cathartic thing.
There’s magic in this movie, but a lot of it is about being angry over the things we can’t change. We’ve all lost people, all had pain and regrets. It resonated in that way for me. Do you think that’s why you’ve gotten such an emotional response from moviegoers who’ve seen it?
Yeah, we’re all handed a bag of s–t at one point or another, you know? [Laughs] You can’t change it. It is what it is. You live with it. And you either live with it with some grace, or you live with it with some sh–tiness. Something breaks and something new happens. But thematically, yeah, that’s what the movie is all about.
Instead of this healing ability making Delicious a better person, he actually gets worse. What made you decide to go the more cynical route with the story?
I think it’s the more realistic route. If you live in a culture where success, fame, and money is above everything else, where those are the goals we’re supposed to attain, then why can’t a dude who gets to heal use that for those things? That’s what our culture tells us: ‘Use your gifts for monetary gain. That’s the best you can do.’ But I still like the human pangs of guilt that we have that say, ‘Wait, you know it’s not all about us.’ Those are religious themes, but they’re also deeply ingrained in the human heart.
And I guess, even with the title, you’re asking for some mercy for this character, even though he makes some bad decisions.
I like the drama and conflict between those two ideas. Why not get what you deserve in life? I work hard, I should get to keep what I have. F–k everybody else if they can’t get the same. That’s a pretty valid argument, and a lot of people make that argument. But it’s also a valid argument to say, ‘Hey, we have a responsibility to the least of us.’ That’s part of the social contract. And that’s what makes us human beings, makes us decent. And what makes us a civilization.
Are you a religious person? There’s a lot of wrestling with faith in this movie.
I’m not religious. But I was raised in a very religious home, an actively religious home. It was Catholic, my father was also a Baha’i. He converted, and my mother and grandmother were evangelicals. I went to Catholic schools, I went to Sunday revivals and all that crazy stuff was with Jimmy Swaggart, where people are laying hands, and then I went with my father to Thursday night firesides with the Baha’is. So the vernacular of religion, I was pretty deeply steeped in as a young person. I don’t believe in faith healings — certainly not the type that [Delicious] is going after. I’m not a religious man, but I do believe each person has his own relationship with God, whatever that is. It should be respected and embraced. But I also see a lot of people hurt by religions. If you look at the teachings of these guys, these religious icons and prophets, they’re all pretty much close to the same: teaching tolerance, love, charity, brotherhood. I’m more interested in that aspect of it, teachings about being decent human beings.
The surrealism reminded me of something from a Kurt Vonnegut novel: you’ve got mystical healing, a crazy rock ‘n’ roll band, horrible, shallow Hollywood agents swooping in to capitalize, a do-gooder priest who maybe isn’t such a do-gooder … What were your influences in creating this story with Christopher?
Network. I saw that as a really good template for the tone. That movie goes from some really big, over the top performances to beautiful, human, simple scenes. You’re not enslaved. You can move beautifully between humor and tragedy. So I was thinking about that, and Sidney Lumet, as a template for how I want this movie to come off. If you’re going to do film, the medium itself is wide open. You can do anything, explore anything. I was trying to do that — and it pissed some people off.
Some critics were very hard on the movie when it first showed at Sundance. Did you find anything useful in that criticism, though?
No, the things I didn’t like were the mean-spirited attacks on the actors. I love them in the movie, and I liked how broad some of the performances are. I live in Hollywood, and the people in my movie are very mellow compared to some of the personalities I’ve come into contact with over the years. [Laughs.] I liked the tonal shifts. That was the other thing [critics said]: ‘There are too many tonal shifts, we don’t know what it’s supposed to be.’ Well, that’s what I was after.
Speaking of tonal shifts, let’s change gears.
The Avengers started this week. When do you show up for filming?
I actually start the day [Sympathy For Delicious] opens.
What preparations have you been doing up until now?
I’ve been working with [director/co-writer] Joss Whedon quite a bit on developing it, my portion of it. I’ll be working with Robert Downey, and I’m already doing the motion capture stuff. I’m excited.
So you are performing both parts of the Hulk, the human and the digital monster?
Yeah, I’m the first actor to do both. It’s really cool. I was surprised by how well my theater training played into the motion capture thing, because it’s all your imagination. When he moves across the ground, I want him using all fours, using his arms as much as his legs to move from here to there. I’d like to capture some of the primitive aspect of him.
Do you see him as a kind of hunched, gorilla-type?
Not so much hunched, but the low center of gravity, and the flailing of the arms sometimes.
I assume you’ve seen concept art of how he’ll turn out. What does he look like?
He looks just like me, but bloated and green. And big! He looks like me 40 pounds ago. [Laughs]
You are luckiest of The Avengers. You could hang out and eat ice cream all day, while they all have to pump iron to stay muscular.
It’s not a bad deal! The more of a difference there is between Mark and the Hulk, the happier everyone seems to be. I was like, ‘So do you want me to get ripped up?’ And they went, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no! Nice and trim. We want you nice and trim.’ They said, ‘We want you to look good with your shirt off, but we don’t want you strapped.’ I can live with that. And so can my wife!
The Avengers is due May 4, 2012. Sympathy For Delicious opens in New York and Los Angeles today, and is available through video-on-demand next week.
For more film news, follow Anthony Breznican on Twitter @breznican.