Mark Ruffalo is a consummate actor whose career shifts effortlessly between big budget and independent films, which have included Shutter Island, You Can Count on Me, Zodiac and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
In Lisa Cholodenko’s new dramedy, The Kids Are All Right, he portrays Paul, the ‘bio-dad’ to two teenagers, Laser and Joni (Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska), he has never met. They’ve been brought up by their lesbian moms, Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore). Paul’s an easygoing restaurateur, who is a confirmed bachelor, but when his children bring him into their family, it will change everyone’s life forever, particularly his.
What was your first reaction when you read the script?
I loved it, I loved the character, I thought I had a pretty clear sense of how to play him. I loved that he starts one way and ends up somewhere else. But what I really loved about it was how quickly the novelty of the lesbian couple with teenage kids and a sperm donor dad just dissolves into the universality of family.
I’ve seen it with a couple of audiences now and the one thing that’s very clear is five minutes into the movie people are laughing, and they are not laughing because of its jokes, they’re laughing because they see themselves in that movie.
What did you love about Paul?
What I love about him is he’s living his life very unapologetically, and I think he’s really open to people and I think he has a (way) that’s very winning. I think these people genuinely have something that feels slightly tragic about them, and on top of that is this lust for life, and those two things together I think are a good way into liking this guy.
There’s something very charming about people like this, and that’s why they have so many girlfriends. There’s a reason why life works out well for them and that was my way into the guy.
He’s so comfortable with himself, his life and his decisions, and then he just comes apart at the seams. It’s the transformative power of love that in some way opens his heart. He’s a very open guy, but in some ways he’s totally closed off at the same time. I love that he’s just a mush-ball at the end of the movie.
What kind of research did you do for this role?
If you’re lucky, you get a script that’s so good, that tells you so much who that character is, that’s so spot on, that you take it on very easily and you end up knowing the character so well that you can throw out little lines here and there that are still true to the character and true to the script.
It takes a very disciplined and self-assured director to let an actor know more about a character than they do. And Lisa created this space where it felt comfortable to (adlib).
I’d go back and talk to Stuart (Blumberg, the screenwriter) and he and I would work out something and try it. Some movies are very plot- driven, so as an actor your biggest job is pushing the plot along and there’s not a lot of room for character stuff.
This movie is completely character-driven, so I feel like it’s asking you to live in a much deeper, sub-textual, nuanced way.
Finding humor in sex is something we don’t often see, when you add that layer of humor what does that do to you?
I just think it makes it more real, I think it makes it less taboo and less precious and my basic philosophy about good acting in good movies is (to put) one foot on a banana peel and the other in the grave, and to have those things constantly playing against each other and balancing out each other. (Julianne) and I were laughing during those sex scenes.
Do you consider this a political film?
It’s not a political movie. The 500 pound gorilla in the room is it’s a gay-lesbian movie in the middle of this huge debate about gay marriage, and what it really does beautifully is it gets at the essence of family, and it deepens human hearts.
Family happens in people because it is essentially part of who we are. The human heart is always going to move towards that whether it’s a family you’re born with or a family that you make, and I think that Lisa really captures that beautifully and it has a real important message because of that without it being overtly political.
Do you think meeting the kids changes his life?
I definitely think when he takes the call it’s a vague curiosity, but still very much like, ‘Yeah, I made two kids.’ I think it’s still in service of him. I think the guy lives his life totally for his own pleasure, and then he meets these kids and I think he can’t help but care about them.
I think over the course of the film and this love affair that he has, he says, ‘ I don’t want to be that 50 year old guy who doesn’t have anything,’ it has opened up something in him that’s very surprising to him and eventually moves him to somewhere else. He’s no longer comfortable with himself.
He no longer thinks that just living your life for your own pleasure is really enough for him.