Count on Him

This year has been very good to Mark Ruffalo. To Ruffalo's delight, he's receiving great feedback from audiences and critics—a number of whom have put him at the tops of their best actors lists for his performance opposite Laura Linney as an estranged loner who reconnects with his sister in You Can Count on Me, the accomplished directorial film debut of playwright/screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan. Currently he's working on two high-profile films—John Woo's World War II drama Windtalkers, with Nicolas Cage, and Miramax's romantic comedy A View From the Top, playing one of Gwyneth Paltrow's love interests. He recently wrapped production on the independent film XX/XY, as well as Rod Lurie's The Castle, a military drama starring Robert Redford. On top of his hectic filming schedule, Ruffalo and his wife, who are based in New York, are expecting their first child soon.

So why on earth is this suddenly popular actor choosing to spend his valuable spare time directing a little 99-Seat play in Hollywood?

"It is an odd choice," admitted the 33-year-old performer, who recently sat down with Back Stage West at the Hudson Backstage Theatre, where Timothy McNeil's new play Margaret, directed by Ruffalo, is currently in production through the end of February.

His desire to helm this play—about the impact a teen's suicide has upon a suburban community in late 1960s—is not as odd as it may sound, especially if you get to know Ruffalo, who, like his sensitive slacker character, Terry, in You Can Count on Me, shares strong ties to the home he grew up in.

"It's pretty heady what's going on with me. My whole life has changed in one year. I felt that I wanted to go back to my roots and feel the ground that I started on under my feet," explained the actor/director, who worked for 12 years in Los Angeles theatre before moving to New York three years ago to star in Lonergan's Off-Broadway hit This Is Our Youth, for which he won a Lucille Lortel Award for Best Actor.

Ironically, Hollywood's doors did not open to Ruffalo until he transplanted himself across the county. Since moving to the East Coast, Ruffalo has been cast in such movies as Ang Lee's Ride With the Devil, Lisa Krueger's Committed, and the indie film Safe Men, as well as UPN's The Beat, a dramatic series created by Barry Levinson and Homicide's executive producer Tom Fontana, and the TNT movie Houdini.

Looking back at his struggles in Los Angeles, Ruffalo said he probably wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

Orpheus Ascending

A native of Wisconsin, Ruffalo moved with his family to San Diego when he was 18 and soon after began riding the Amtrak back and forth to Los Angeles to attend classes at the Stella Adler Conservatory. There he met some of the same people now working on Margaret—writer/actor McNeil and actors Susan Vinciotti, Bonny McNeil, Jon Lee Cope, and Hillary Weaver, who, with Ruffalo, founded the Orpheus Theatre Company (which now goes by the name Page Ninety-Three Productions). One of Ruffalo's teachers at Stella Adler, Joanne Linville, also now serves as the artistic director of Page Ninety-Three, which is producing Margaret—Ruffalo's fourth directorial effort for his company.

During his lengthy stint in L.A., Ruffalo and this collective of actors put on about 30 stage productions, taking turns doing everything from writing, directing, and producing to running the lights and building sets. Many of those plays were, in fact, put on at the Hudson Theatre—making this production feel like a literal homecoming for Ruffalo.

In addition to working with the Orpheus Theatre on original works, as well as such classics as Long Day's Journey Into Night, The Seagull, Waiting for Godot, Three Sisters, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, Ruffalo moonlighted as a performer at the scrappy Cast Theatre in Hollywood, where he acted in Avenue A, followed by several of Justin Tanner's award-winning plays, including Still Life With Vacuum Salesman and The Tent Show.

Yet even with positive reviews and a growing name for himself in L.A. theatre, Ruffalo couldn't get casting directors in film and television to bite. To survive, Ruffalo bartended for nine years. Despite his frustrations with remaining obscure during that time, Ruffalo realizes how vital his years spent on L.A.'s small stages were.

"I'm a disciple of experience," he said. "The tools that I got in my training from my teachers were just that—tools. Then I had to go out and learn to use them. That's what those years doing Los Angeles theatre were."

The actor also believes he and his friends could not have put up the numerous theatrical shows they produced had they been based in New York.

"We could do a $2,000 production in L.A. I mean, it was bare bones, but I was onstage working out, and I wouldn't have been able to do that in New York. I got to work on the great plays—Chekhov, O'Neill, Inge, Williams. As a young actor, I don't know that I would have gotten that shot in New York, because it's so expensive and there's a lot more riding on each production."

Transparent Talent

Life in Hollywood was, indeed, a double-edged sword for Ruffalo, who was on the verge of giving up performing when he met Lonergan. At the time, the New York playwright had flown to L.A. to help cast his one-act play, Betrayed by Everyone, which was going to be featured in a one-act festival at the Met Theatre. The festival, called "Act One," was being produced by respected casting director Risa Bramon Garcia (Some-thing Wild, Flirting With Disaster, JFK).

"I was ready to quit acting," recalled Ruffalo of that period. "I was so depressed and so miserable. Then this actress Ria Pavia [who was performing and assisting Bramon Garcia in the festival] called me and said, 'I don't know you really well, but I think you'd be great for this part. They're looking for a star, but I keep telling them you're great.' And I said, 'I don't want to play that game. Let them get their star.' But she said, 'Let me just send you the play,' and she talked me into at least coming in and doing a reading. So I read it, and I came out of early retirement. I said, This is my part. No one else can do this part. I know this guy."

The part was that of a disenfranchised Upper West Side young man who, as Ruffalo described him, is also "very sweet and almost too thoughtful for his own good.

"He's a stoner and he's a smart ass, and he looks up to this other kid who's his best friend, and this other kid treats him like an asshole. So he kind of becomes a man through the play," which was a short version of what would later become the acerbic comedy This Is Our Youth.

Lonergan knew he found his leading man in Ruffalo from his first audition, and Betrayed by Everyone would mark the beginning of a fruitful friendship and working relationship between the two men. Following their Off-Broadway success with This Is Our Youth, Ruffalo remained in New York to work on a number of Lonergan's projects, both as an actor and as a director with the Naked Angels Theatre Company.

"I really relate to his characters," said Ruffalo. "I totally get them. I read his plays, and I can hear the way they talk. I can see the way they are and behave, and that's lucky."

Likewise, the playwright found Ruffalo to be a perfect fit for his work.

Said Lonergan, "Mark's a character actor in a leading man's body. He has an incredible emotional openness and accessibility. In life and as an actor, he's emotionally transparent, and that's just great. You can really see what's going on inside him. And then he has this great sweetness, but also this darker weird side, too, which just makes him endlessly fascinating to watch."

While you'd think, after seeing Ruffalo's performance in You Can Count on Me, that Lonergan wrote the part of Terry with the actor in mind, Ruffalo claimed that was not at all the case. The writer/director had actually been working on the project before they ever met, and Ruffalo had to plead with Lonergan to let him audition for the film.

"Kenny had given the script out to a bunch of New York actors, and we were all vying for it," recalled Ruffalo, who had directed one of several one-act workshop versions of You Can Count on Me for Naked Angels. "I think I was in his mind as a possibility; but certainly when we started auditioning it was a level playing field, and I had to win the part.

"At one point, Kenny told me, 'We can't use you. You and Laura [Linney, who had already been cast] don't look enough alike to be brother and sister.' But I said, 'Well, let me come in for an audition,' and he let me, but there was a certain amount of prodding on his part, too, to convince the producers. I came in, and I got it."

The Next Brando?

It's difficult to imagine anyone but Ruffalo playing Terry, an orphaned drifter who has difficulty committing himself to any person or plan. The actor imbues his wonderfully messy character with just the right combination of sensitivity and roughness, sharp intelligence and boyish innocence. Like his work in This Is Our Youth, some reviewers have compared Ruffalo to a young Marlon Brando for his "rumpled, rebellious charm," as one journalist aptly described him.

If he is the next Brando of acting, Ruffalo is too humble to admit it. Rather than concentrating on the current buzz surrounding him, he's far more concerned with simply maintaining a balance in his life. He just hopes to continue finding rewarding work, paying his bills, and remaining true to his spirit. Ruffalo pledges that theatre will always remain a part of the equation. [Prior to directing Margaret, he performed last spring in the Off-Broadway production, The Moment When, a new play by Pulitzer Prize-winner James Lapine.]

"I'll always go back to the theatre," he told his "hometown rag," as he fondly refers to Back Stage West, "and I always want to be able to look at these smaller pictures and say, this is an interesting project. Maybe no one will see it, but it's an interesting part to play. And I want to go off and do a big movie if I think it's good. I want freedom as an artist. I just want to have a life in this art form, where I'm growing as an actor my whole life."

He confided that his greatest fear is selling out—being tempted by the huge paychecks film studios are willing to pay actors to perform in mediocre big-budget schlock.

"If I felt like my soul was compromised in some way, that would be so heartbreaking to me. I always think, What if I wake up one day and go, Oh my God! I'm just a big sellout—a phony?" shared Ruffalo, who is haunted most by his late mentor Stella Adler. He can still hear her railing against the film and television industry for ruining whatever art actors bring to their work.

"She would tear them apart," he remembered. "She would say, 'It destroys your craft,' and that is kind of a fear of mine. That's why I always want to go back. That's why I'm back now. I want to exercise that muscle—keep it agile."

With that said, Ruffalo politely excused himself from the interview. He's got a play to direct and, at the moment, that's far more meaningful than any other enticement Hollywood has to offer. BSW