Even before he earned an Oscar nomination as a lesbian couple’s resurfaced sperm donor in The Kids Are All Right, Mark Ruffalo donated his voice to the fight for marriage equality. But as he makes his directorial debut with Sympathy for Delicious, a Sundance Special Jury Prize-winning drama about a paraplegic faith healer in theaters April 29, the 43-year-old future Hulk argues why he still may not be right for a gay role in The Normal Heart.
The Advocate: Congrats on your directorial debut, Sympathy for Delicious. Are you officially hooked on directing?
Mark Ruffalo: Yeah, I loved it. After doing it, it felt like that was all I wanted to be doing for the next 20 years. Acting’s my day job now, and I never thought I’d come to the moment in my life where I could say that. No one’s getting rich doing indie movies, so acting keeps my family fed enough so that I can sneak off and get these little movies made that I want to direct. When you’re an actor, you eat one slice of the pie. When you’re a director, you get to eat the whole pie.
You sound like a glutton for power.
Some directors do direct with an iron fist, and they’re very controlling, but I’m more into the collaboration, watching people from different disciplines bring their own greatness and find their own voices in the project. That’s what works for me.
Feel free to direct a gay-themed project in the near future.
OK, that won’t be a problem. I actually tried to put some transsexuals in Sympathy for Delicious. Like the woman who has emphysema? That’s a transgender actor.
You and your wife Sunrise recently appeared in a video testimonial for the New Yorkers for Marriage Equality series from the Human Rights Campaign. How did you get involved with HRC?
Julianne Moore has been working with HRC, and I had first become friends with her during Blindness. I had told her that I’d like to be involved in any way I could, so HRC invited us to shoot the PSA.
Why have you taken such a personal interest in gay rights?
We have a lot of friends who are gay couples with kids. When my son would go to his friend’s house down the street, where his friend’s parents are a married gay couple, not once did he come home and say, “Why does he have two papas?” That didn’t occur to him, because their house is no different from ours. I’ve seen the human face of the issue, I’ve seen the pain gay couples are going through, so it was important for me to add my voice to the fight. Fortunately, my voice reaches much further than a lot of people’s. I was trained as an actor that we have a responsibility in our community to stand up for what we believe in and to use our voice and our art to teach people and push those beliefs.
Throughout history, it’s always been the artists who express progressive views, and there has always been an attack on artists who speak out against culture wars and military actions. I’ve seen the right-wing media campaign to discredit people who speak out against their agendas, and it’s been chillingly effective. I’ve seen it happen with the war in Iraq and I’m seeing it happen with marriage equality.
Were you raised with these views on gay issues?
My family was Catholic, my grandmother who lived with us was a born-again evangelical Christian, and my father was a Bahá'í. I saw these three belief systems at work, but the inclusiveness of the Bahá'í faith resonated with me as a young person. They were very kind and loving. Although they too have a problem with homosexuality, they saw it as an issue between that person and God. More than anything, I was taught from them that everyone is equal, and that’s what I saw in action with those people. That was the truth that I experienced and that lived in my heart past that point.
What was your earliest exposure to gay people?
During my senior year of high school, a really close friend of mine came out to me. He was so depressed, he was suicidal for weeks. I kept asking, “What’s wrong with you?” He’d cry, but he wouldn’t tell me. I didn’t know what a problem so big could be, so I thought he killed somebody. Finally, I got him to tell me, and that was the first time I knew a gay person. I’d heard about gay people, but I had no idea what that was. At the time I was in Virginia Beach, where homosexuals were like an urban myth. All of a sudden, there it was in front of me, and it was a person that I really admired. He asked, “Are you not going to be my friend anymore?” I said, “Of course not.” You come to a moral question at that moment: Is this person I’ve known all this time now a dreaded, horrible human being that’s to be shunned, or is this person just like everybody else, except for a different sexual orientation? Luckily, I’d had whatever it takes to make someone see a person for who they really are — and to stand up and accept that even when other people around you don’t.
You’ll play gay activist Ned Weeks in Ryan Murphy’s film version of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s seminal 1985 play about the dawn of the AIDS crisis. Frankly, you can’t screw it up.
No, I can’t. It’s huge. It’s the same scrutiny with me as the Hulk in The Avengers but from a whole different group of people. It’s a great honor, but I was hesitant about doing Normal Heart because it probably should be a gay actor. I brought that up to Ryan, but he said that I was the actor he wanted.
Why should it be a gay actor?
It just should be. It’s time. At what point did they finally let an African American play an African American? There comes a time in our culture when Marlon Brando shouldn’t be playing a Japanese guy. But the other way of thinking is that we should all be able to play whatever, and that’s sort of how Ryan approached me. More than anything, I wanted to know what Larry thought. Larry speaks his mind and doesn’t suffer fools kindly, God bless him, so I made it a point to make sure I was OKed by him. I’ve gotten to meet and talk to him, and he’s totally given me his blessing, which makes me feel better about moving forward.
Well, when I did Windtalkers, a John Woo World War II movie, my character was gay. It wasn’t explicit; it was just something I was working with personally.
Whom would you like to play Ned’s boyfriend, Felix?
We’ve been bouncing around some names, and I have a feeling it’ll be someone you’ll be happy with. Ryan’s got pretty good taste.
Then maybe he’ll write a part for you on Glee.
I’d love to be on that show, but I can’t sing. I’ve done a little dancing on film, but I’m not a singer.
Will you see The Normal Heart on Broadway, or would you rather not be influenced by Joe Mantello’s performance as Ned?
I am planning to see it. I’ve actually been asked to do something with it, whether it’s coming to introduce it, a fundraiser, or whatever — some sort of tie-in. I can’t wait to see it. You know what they say: Steal from the best.
Up through 2005, you’d periodically appear in light rom-coms like Just Like Heaven, Rumor Has It…, and 13 Going on 30. Now that you’ve gotten an Oscar nomination, are those days officially over?
I don’t know. I’ve found that rom-coms are rarely romantic, rarely comedic, and rarely a combination of both in a satisfying way. But I liked those movies I did because they were funny, but they had nice messages and real heart at the same time. Lately, I just haven’t had many rom-com scripts come across my desk that I thought were really good.
As you prepare to play the Hulk in The Avengers, some fans have expressed concern that you may have to shave your hairy chest like Chris Evans did for Captain America.
No one’s asked me to shave my chest yet, thank God. They want this Hulk to be as close to me as possible. I’ll be playing him in motion-capture, so this Hulk will just be a bigger avatar version of me. As they’re modeling him, they’re using many of my own features, down to my scars and wrinkles. He will have body hair, but I don’t know to what extent.
In a very manscaped Hollywood, your chest is famous in certain gay circles.
I was not aware. But that’s good, because young girls are probably like, “Ew, chest hair! I didn’t even know guys grew hair there.”