The pair would see each other through many hard times, from financial struggles to career frustrations. But perhaps nothing was more devastating than a 1992 fall while rock climbing that left Thornton paralyzed from the waist down. Ruffalo and two friends—Tim McNeil and Milton Justice—helped convince Thornton that this didn't mean the end of his acting career. Six months after the accident, the trio informed him that they were going to mount a production of "Waiting for Godot" in which Thornton would play Estragon.
"I told them they were out of their minds, but they wouldn't take no for an answer," Thornton says. "It turned out to be the best therapy I could have ever done. Suddenly, I'm not focused on my injury for the first time in six months. And the play opens and it's a big hit, and we won awards and sold out and extended the show."
Another pivotal artistic moment was born five years later. While having their annual lunch on the anniversary of Thornton's fall, Ruffalo attempted to offer encouraging words to his friend. "I told him that I knew him before and after his accident, and the man he was now was so much more than the man he was before," Ruffalo recalls. "And I said, 'Maybe there is a gift in this. Maybe this has made you a stronger, better person in some ways.' " Thornton's response? "You be the saint in the wheelchair; I'll be the shallow asshole walking around."
Ruffalo laughs when he recounts this story—which Thornton verifies—and adds that from this starting point, the seeds were planted for what would become Thornton's script for "Sympathy for Delicious." The film tells the story of Dean O'Dwyer, aka "Delicious D," a paralyzed and homeless DJ who discovers he has the ability to heal others—but not himself. Ruffalo stars as a dedicated priest who tries to help O'Dwyer, but the actor also makes his film directing debut, while Thornton portrays O'Dwyer in a magnetic, unsentimental performance. After a 10-year development period, a dramatic premiere at the Sundance Film Festival that saw the movie go from reviled to revered, and a lengthy battle to find distribution, "Sympathy for Delicious" finally makes its way into theaters this week. It is, in Ruffalo's words, "the greatest roller-coaster ride I've ever been on in my life."
A Winning Season
It's two weeks before "Sympathy for Delicious" opens and Ruffalo is trying to relax. He has been doing publicity nonstop for his passion project and, despite the exhaustion, claims to be enjoying himself. Being a recognizable actor with a recent Oscar nomination—for playing the sperm-donor dad in "The Kids Are All Right"—has its perks. He breaks into a wide smile when he reveals that earlier that morning, he got to work with a very special co-star: Elmo, from "Sesame Street."
Ruffalo has been a journeyman actor for most of his life. He quit the business three or four times before his friend Kenneth Lonergan cast him in his 2000 indie film "You Can Count On Me" as the goodhearted but unreliable brother of Laura Linney's character. Hollywood quickly caught on to Ruffalo's raw talent and leading-man looks, and for the next 10 years the actor constantly seemed on the verge of major stardom. He was cast in several projects that looked prestigious on the page ("In the Cut," "All the King's Men," "Reservation Road"), yet none connected with critics or audiences. Then there were the big-budget rom-coms opposite major female stars ("Rumor Has It," "Just Like Heaven," "View From the Top"), in which he was underutilized. Instead, he tended to shine more in small indies or ensemble pieces, like "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "The Brothers Bloom."
While he was doing stellar work in little-seen films like "XX/XY" and "The Last Castle," it's the 2004 comedy "13 Going on 30," he says, that he is most often recognized for in public—all of which is fine by Ruffalo, who has always preferred to disappear into his characters. "I still have people say to me, 'Who are you? I'm sorry, am I supposed to know who you are?' " he says with a laugh. "So they'll ask my name and what I've been in, then go, 'Oh, yeah, yeah, you're that guy.' And I like that."
Even after he landed his Academy Award nomination for "Kids," a small film he worked on for only six days, his career didn't change much. He admits he's glad the days and nights spent campaigning during Oscar season are over and he can get back to work. "Honestly, the whole awards thing was so abstract to me," he says. "It's so different from what we actually do. And aside from a few people, I don't think anyone places too much importance on it. I think your work speaks for itself more than titles or awards."
One advantage of his raised profile, however, is Ruffalo's ability to get certain projects off the ground. More than 10 years ago, Thornton brought him a 198-page script for "Sympathy for Delicious," and Ruffalo says he "instantly knew" he had to direct it. Though he had helmed his share of stage productions, he was unproven as a film director and knew it would be an uphill battle. Then there was the added difficultly of casting an unknown actor in the lead role. Thornton reveals, "There were several times over the last 10 years where people said to Mark, 'Stick Colin Farrell in a wheelchair and we'll give you $7 million right now, because we really like the script.' One time, late in the process, I said, 'The hell with it; just do it. I'll take the writing credit; I just want to go home.' But Mark was insistent. He wouldn't make the film without me in the role." As Ruffalo puts it, "It didn't interest me without Chris in the part."
Thornton and Ruffalo worked on approximately 40 versions of the script, and over the years the project changed for them in personal and professional terms. Ruffalo admits that the story took on an even deeper meaning for him when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2002. Though he's resistant to talk about that experience, he says it informed the story in a new way: "When I had my brain tumor, I tried everything. Because who doesn't want a fix? And my face was partially paralyzed. I was still working on this script and thinking about the questions the film raises. After that, I looked at this from a whole new angle."
The pair's salvation eventually arrived in the form of Joanne Jacobson, a friend from their theater days, who signed on in 2008 to executive-produce the movie. It was shot on a micro-budget in 23 days in Los Angeles, with Ruffalo working behind and in front of the camera. "For me, acting is a very secret and insular process," he says. "Directing is very different—it's far more inclusive. I had to be in touch with everyone from production heads to extras. It was a challenge, to say the least. But I'd waited 10 years for this and wasn't going to let anything stop me."
To round out his cast, Ruffalo called upon various actors he'd met over the years, such as Linney, his "Windtalkers" co-star Noah Emmerich, and fellow "Zodiac" player John Carroll Lynch. "I've sort of been collecting people as I go along," he admits. "It might come from my theater background, where I'm building a repertory company. I would work with these people and start looking for places where I could use them." Though he had never worked with either of them, Orlando Bloom and Juliette Lewis signed on to play members of the rock band O'Dwyer performs with. Ruffalo's wife had suggested Lewis, who initially hesitated at taking on the role. "She told us, 'I've sort of played this; I'm in a rock band in real life. I just don't know,' " Ruffalo recalls. "But after coming in and talking to me and Chris and hearing the story, she said, 'Well, you guys, I have to do it now. I'm being guided to do this movie.' "
By contrast, Bloom wasn't someone Ruffalo thought of as the arrogant lead singer of the band. "I had another actor in mind, but he had some schedule changes and I lost him," the director says. "Orlando expressed a real passion for it, and anyone who puts themselves out there like that, I have to meet. And the first thing he said to me was, 'You know, Mark, I really need an experience like this. This part scares me, but I'd like to try. I'll do anything you want me to do, but I need a healing myself.' " Bloom so transformed his appearance for the role, many viewers don't recognize him at all in the film. "He was a revelation," Ruffalo says. "He was there, totally egoless, no attitude, and he worked his ass off. And I love when people come up to me and say, 'I thought Orlando Bloom was in this movie. Where is he?' "
"Sympathy for Delicious" made its debut at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and the immediate critical response was not kind. "Some of those first reviews were harsh and mean, and particularly mean to some of my cast members," Ruffalo says. "And I really took umbrage with it." IFC.com called it "a gangly mess of a movie." "It looked like it was going to be a disaster," he says. But then things began to change. "A rebuttal review came out in USA Today that essentially said, 'I don't understand these mean reviews; they totally seemed to miss the movie.' And then Manohla Dargis of The New York Times came out with a rave review." By the close of the festival, the film had walked away with the Special Jury Prize. "It was harrowing, it was heartbreaking, it was exhilarating, and in the end, totally exalting."
As for the harsher critics, Ruffalo says the ones that really got to him were those that criticized Thornton's performance. "Let me put it this way: I'm in the movie, working opposite Chris. And Chris steals every scene I'm in," Ruffalo says with a laugh. "Damn him!"
Still, the film didn't instantly land a distributor out of Sundance. Though they had a few offers, Ruffalo and Thornton wanted to hold out for a theatrical release. "Thank God the producers said, 'This movie is too special, and we believe in it, and something good is going to come,' " Ruffalo says, adding that he then wasted months on "a real crackpot" trying to solidify a deal. Eventually, Maya Entertainment came along with plans to distribute the film in theaters. "I've been collaborating with them every step of the way, on marketing, cutting a trailer, designing the poster, everything," he says. "It's been a great experience working with them, but it's been a long haul."
As for how audiences will embrace a film about a disillusioned faith healer that dares to ask questions about people's belief systems, Ruffalo believes there's something in the movie for everyone. After screenings, he would find himself approached by Christians who thanked him for not mocking their beliefs, and by atheists who congratulated him for exposing faith healing as a sham. "But ultimately it's not a religious movie; it's a movie that has religious people in it," Ruffalo says. "What it's really about is how you sometimes don't get what you want in life, but you get what you need. And sometimes you're handed a bag of shit in life, but out of that, something can grow. Something good and beautiful.