One of the rare films to play at both Sundance and the Toronto International Film Festival was writer-director Maya Forbes’ Infinitely Polar Bear. Based on her own childhood experiences, the film takes place in 1978 Boston and stars Mark Ruffalo as a manic-depressive father struggling to raise his young daughters while also trying to win back his wife (Zoe Saldana). Loaded with fantastic performances and a great script that’s able to keep Ruffalo sympathetic even when he’s causing serious problems, Forbes’ debut feature really impressed me and you should look forward to seeing it for yourself next year in theaters.
Shortly after the TIFF premiere I landed an exclusive interview with Mark Ruffalo. During our wide-ranging conversation, he talked about how he still gets nervous taking on roles, how he’s started pulling from dreams when putting together his characters, his preparation process for each part, how the project changed along the way, what the last few years have been like, his desire to be in Star Wars, the status of Now You See Me 2, Thomas McCarthy‘s Catholic church sex scandal drama Spotlight, and a lot more. Hit the jump to read or listen to what he had to say.
Click here for the audio of this interview.
MARK RUFFALO: Got some of them. It’s an embarrassment of riches. It’s been amazing. This sort of, when I was going from one to the other going, “Oh man, I hope this works because I’m wiped out.” They’re all so different and so little time between each one of them. To have them all coming out one right after the other and two of them here has been amazing.
I saw this film at Sundance and thought it was fantastic.
RUFFALO: Great. Thank you.
It deals with some serious issues. Taking on this role, were you nervous about it more than others?
RUFFALO: Yeah. My ass is on the line a little bit. It’s definitely not a safe role and then it’s Maya’s father, which has its own responsibility. But I felt like I loved the character even in spite of his bipolar, I loved that character. I saw a place I could really do a lot of different things in a course of one film. There’s humor, there’s pathos, there’s scary stuff, there’s light beautiful stuff. And underneath it all is really just a sense of love for this family and the way they dealt with him and the way he dealt with them. It’s a movie that I’ve been trying to get made with Maya for three years. And it just so happened to finally get financing right at this particular moment. It’s something that in a lot of ways, I’ve already been working on in my mind, and very excited to see finally come together. When we got into it, yeah, it’s scary. It’s not easy material.
Do you still get nervous when you’re on set throughout a production or are they most strong the first day and then you feel like you got it?
RUFFALO: I’m very nervous in the beginning and then I get in there and start doing my work and I feel more comfortable. But then I start to get into to care about the work somewhere along the way. It’s not nerves as much as it is, I’m trying to know what I’m doing, “Is this right, Maya?” I was constantly sort of checking in, “Is this working? Are we in the right zone?” It’s an interesting tight rope walk because in some regards, I’ve been doing this a long time and I have a lot experience and I should know what I’m doing. But also at the same time, as an actor, you want to remain vulnerable. You don’t want to always have all the answers and you want to be fine doing things in the moment with your fellow actors. That leaves you a little bit out there.
You’re sort of getting rid of your protections or your schtick, “This is what I normally do and everyone looks to me for this. And I know how to do this and I know people love this.” But when you’re trying to do character work that’s different from what people expect from you, you’re sort of in territory that is uncharted, and you don’t know how it’s playing all the time. Then the little bit of insecurity starts to come up, and for me it’s a lot. That’s interesting right?
How has your preparation as an actor changed since when you first started to what you’re doing now? Do you maintain a similar routine or has it been streamlined through all the roles you’ve had?
RUFFALO: Each role, I feel like takes you on a different journey based on who that character is. Like in Eternal Sunshine, you know like, “Oh, I wanna learn how to play the bass a little bit.” I’ll daydream. The one thing I do is, I daydream a lot about the character. Then something will say, “Head this way with this or head this way with that.” So, it takes you on a different path. For this one, it was a lot like digging into Cam’s videos. He made a lot of super 8 movies, like 50 hours of super 8 movies. So, watching those are really informative to me about who he was and his point of view. A lot of them are him in a full on manic phase shooting himself, which was immensely helpful. I guess over the years it’s become more refined. I know where to go quickly to get what I need.
I think as an actor, I started using dreams more in the past few years, which is not mystical or anything like that. I just found that I’ve been using that as a tool to give me another point of view towards the work. It’s often surprising but really helpful. That’s been something new that I’ve been doing over the past few years that is still an expression of yourself. It’s so funny, we have this strange disconnection from our dreams but it’s another tool. You’re still working, oddly enough, on the same project. Your dreams can kinda give you another vantage point about a project that your conscious mind doesn’t necessarily see.
It’s your subconscious coming through.
RUFFALO: Yeah, and it’s very helpful. That’s been interesting because a few years ago, I started to feel like I was butting up against a limitation of just the experience that I’ve had in life. Which is not small in any regard but I was looking for something that wasn’t in my direct line of vision, you know? That led me to some of this dream work and that’s been really helpful and refreshing.
You’ve been involved in the project for many years. From when you first got involved to what people are going to finally see on screen, did the story and direction of the film change? Or has it always been what we’re seeing?
RUFFALO: It was a bigger budget in the beginning so it was all stationed in Boston. It was all Boston. There was more wealthy parts of Boston so, the only changes that have happened on the script really has been to make it cheaper to make. Other than that, it’s pretty much stayed almost completely intact. There was some going back and forth about what the end of the movie was going to be and were there going to be two sets of sisters—was there going to be a younger version of sisters and then pop into an older version of sisters towards the end of the movie. That was the only major change that’s happened in the three or four years that we took to get here today to TIFF.
You’re in a lot of stuff and very busy but how much do you personally want to be in a Star Wars movie?
RUFFALO: Desperately (laughs). My email to Rian after all these years was, “Ryan, congratulations on everything you’ve been doing. And by the way, if there’s a part in Star Wars, please, anything, please consider considering me to join you.”
Say there’s not a big role, are you a huge enough fan that you’d be willing to wear the mask for one day and just be in the background and be on set?
RUFFALO: Possibly, depending on timing. I love hanging out with Rian so that’s interesting to me, but I would like a role (laughs).
I think you might have built it up enough with the street cred.
RUFFALO: I hope so! It’d be nice to have something. And honestly, even a CGI role.
There’s a lot of motion capture now being done.
RUFFALO: I was thrilled about motion capture. It’s been a journey for me to get there. After this last Avengers and the work we’re doing with that, and the advancement of the technology even since the first Avengers, I’m so excited about where we can go with motion capture. I hope that I’m on the front line of this kind of new frontier of creativity and performance that is completely boundless. Definitely be interested in doing something like that for Star Wars.
RUFFALO: Yes. Unbelievable. I worked with Andy [Serkis] at the Imaginarium, I know where he’s headed, I’m thrilled about it, and I feel like we did some of that work for the new Avengers.
Are you a little bit surprised at the worldwide success of Now You See Me? Did you think it was going to do what it did?
RUFFALO: I had no idea. Not to the level that it did. I just didn’t have any idea. When I was making it, I was like, “This is fun, I love Louis.” He knows how to shoot this stuff in a way that is appealing to people. But I had no idea it was going to be what it’s turned out to be.
Yesterday, they dated the sequel. I’m assuming you’re part of it, are you not?
RUFFALO: As of this moment, I am part of the sequel and we are starting to shoot in November. Unless something goes terribly off kilter between now and the next couple weeks when the script comes out, I’m in. Everyone’s in but we’re still in a kind of wobbly space.
Do you know who’s directing the picture?
RUFFALO: I don’t know for sure. That’s one of the things that—
There’s a lot of fans that like the magician world and like the movie.
RUFFALO: Yes, and they’re gonna have something to say about it when it’s finally decided upon.
What has it been like for you losing anonymity, especially after being in something like Avengers? I would imagine that wherever you go, it’s completely changed.
RUFFALO: It’s definitely different and I appreciate the love and people expressing that. I do still like to disappear in the crowd and I relish that. I relish being able to watch the world in a way that the world’s not watching me. I’m still believe it or not, a pretty shy person. Just the past six months have been more apparent that something’s different than it used to be.
Something that excites me is Thomas McCathy’s Spotlight. I’ve seen what looks to be an incredible cast, dealing with incredible subject matter in Boston. Is this definitely a project you’re a part of? What can you tell people about that?
RUFFALO: Yes. We’re in rehearsal, I was in rehearsal right before I came here. I’m going out to meet with Mike Rezendes, who’s the character I’m playing, from the Spotlight team. I’m meeting him day after tomorrow, going to Boston to do some research with him, and then we start shooting on the 25th. It’s locked and loaded and ready to roll. We’re deep in it.
I’m talking to Thomas tomorrow and believe me sir, I’m bringing it up.
RUFFALO: Oh, please do.
A lot of people don’t know about the project. Can you talk about it and why you wanted to be a part of it?
RUFFALO: It’s Thomas McCarthy, so you’re immediately, “What’s he doing?” And it’s about, The Boston Globe had an investigative journalist wing that would do long range investigative journalism for The Boston Globe. Things that would go six, seven, many, many months sometimes, but six, seven, eight weeks at a bite. There’s very few newspapers that are actually able to do this anymore.
Because of that, they were able to break the priest molestation scandals that happened in the 90’s that appeared to be just single events of priests molesting kids, that after some investigative reporting, revealed to be in systemic, denial, and protectionism by the Catholic church over these priests who were molesting kids. Not only were they defending them or covering for them, they were moving them out of one parish with a bunch of kids into another parish with a bunch of kids where they did the same thing.
These guys were serial sex offenders, they were raping kids and it was being covered up by that time Cardinal law, which led to a whole international investigation and then all the way up to the Vatican. It’s an important story. What Tom’s interesting take on it is why did it take so long for someone like The Boston Globe or any other news agency to break it?
And he’s also dealing with this kind of insider/outsider—there’s a great line in the movie that says, “It takes a village to raise a kid, it also take a village to let child molestation continue.” It’s very self-reflective about the media, about the culture of the political scene in Boston at the time, also the culture of The Globe. Everyone has a little piece in it.
He put together a hell of a cast.
RUFFALO: An amazing cast! It’s pretty beautiful.
How early on did you sign on? Were you at the beginning of it?
RUFFALO: Yeah, yeah. We’ve been talking about it for months and I was very honored that he came to me. And to play this just amazing investigative journalist who came up as a blue collar, social justice, investigative reporter on the street all the way up to the height of The Boston Globe and a Pulitzer Prize. Mike Rezendes is like, fantastic role.