Mark Ruffalo says “acting is like loving a beautiful woman who can’t love you back.” No wonder the rising star of independent film decided to ditch the pain and heartbreak for a stint behind the camera.
At the Sundance Film Festival with his directorial debut, Sympathy for Delicious, Ruffalo says he’s discovered a whole new love, with more tangible – not to mention more spiritual, and far more intellectual – rewards.
“As an actor, you’re not focused on the whole. But as a director, you have to see how every little piece works. It’s a much greater scope,” he says. “I don’t know how directing changed me as an actor, but I do know I (would like to) put acting aside for a while and focus on directing. It was something I immediately felt comfortable doing.”
Though Ruffalo appeared in Ang Lee’s Civil War drama Ride with the Devil alongside Tobey Maguire, it was his part opposite Laura Linney in Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me in 2000 that established him as a visible talent. Bigger parts and bigger movies followed, including Zodiac and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, as well as the forthcoming Martin Scorsese thriller Shutter Island, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Ruffalo says he had no long-standing desire to direct a film before he turned his energies toward Sympathy for Delicious. The whole project actually came about as a result of his early days studying the thespian craft, and a friendship he developed with fellow talent, Christopher Thornton.
“Chris and I were in the same class with Benicio Del Toro and Salma Hayek .. . and he was considered one of the most promising talents of our class. He had it in him to be a great actor,” says Ruffalo. When Thornton’s dream of acting fame was cut down as a result of an accident that left him in a wheelchair, he and Ruffalo realized there was a shortage of good parts for people in chairs, and if there was a good role, it generally went to an able-bodied actor.
Sympathy for Delicious was their way of changing that. Penned by Thornton, the movie tells the story of a hot young DJ named Delicious who is paralyzed and unable to come to terms with the reality of his new life. In the hopes of finding the miracle cure, he enters the twilight world of faith healers and starts up a creative partnership with a band of suspect rockers – played masterfully in the movie by real-life rocker Juliette Lewis, first-time frontman Orlando Bloom, and oddball Canuck Dov Tiefenbach.
“We were fortunate to land (the cast) we did,” says Ruffalo, as he acknowledges the people sitting next to him on the leather couch, including Bloom, Tiefenbach, Lewis and, in a wheeled chair all his own, Thornton.
“It’s amazing to be directed by an actor,” says Bloom, who earned rave reviews from fellow cast members for his rocker chops.
Bloom says he relied on English rockers from the North, such as Ian Brown of the Stone Roses, for performance inspiration, but Ruffalo says the unique sounds in the film were inspired by Canada’s own instrumental oddballs, Do Make Say Think and Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
“We wanted to keep it rough,” he says.
Lewis, who’s now established herself as a bona fide musical act nearly a decade after being the object of ridicule by the so-called serious music press, says she was impressed by everyone’s ability to switch gears and immerse themselves in new personae and new responsibilities.
“I’ve worked with actors-turned-director before,” she says. “(What made Ruffalo different was) he was so visual. You don’t often find a new director (who comes out of acting) with such a strong visual style. He was breaking all the rules, and I love that in cinema.”
The film is earning pretty good reviews on the Sundance theatre shuttle – easily the buzz hive for word-of-mouth here in Park City, but Ruffalo says the real reward of making the film was working with his friend Chris, and exploring a central idea.
“You get the healing you need, not the healing you want,” says Ruffalo. “That’s what really started this whole thing.”
Sympathy for Delicious is currently seeking distribution, but, given the buzz, chances are, it could sign a deal before the fest wraps Jan. 31.