SOON after Mark Ruffalo and Christopher Thornton met as acting students at the Stella Adler Conservatory in Los Angeles, they were cast in a school production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Twenty years later both men still argue about Mr. Ruffalo’s performance one night.
“Ask Mark about lighting his shoelaces on fire,” Mr. Thornton suggested recently. “Onstage, during someone else’s monologue — my monologue. He’ll deny it up and down.”
He doesn’t quite. A few days later Mr. Ruffalo is digging into seafood stew in a cafe on Main Street of this upper Delaware River hamlet, where he has long owned property and, for the past several years, lived full time with his wife, Sunrise Coigney, and their three children.
“Chris and I used to have a very strong competition with each other,” Mr. Ruffalo, now 43, recalled. “I had to find a way to upstage him during one of his monologues, so I may have lit my shoelaces on fire during the course of a scene. I just would never admit it to him.”
Pyrotechnic pranks aside, the two men became close friends, were roommates for a time, and this week will finally see the culmination of a decade-long struggle to make a film together when “Sympathy for Delicious” opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles. With Mr. Ruffalo making his directorial debut and Mr. Thornton taking on screenwriting duties and acting in the leading role, the small-budget feature is set at the unlikely intersection of skid row, faith healing and rock ’n’ roll. It tells the story of a D.J., Delicious Dean O’Dwyer, who is left a paraplegic after a motorcycle accident. Depressed and homeless, eating his meals at a soup kitchen run by an idealistic priest (played by Mr. Ruffalo), the character becomes possessed with the ability to cure any affliction, except his own. It is a fantastical tale, one that sprung from harsh reality.
In the early 1990s Mr. Ruffalo and Mr. Thornton were trying to break in as actors, sharing a struggling actors’ flophouse in the Hollywood Hills, running a small theater company, taking auditions and working restaurant jobs. One day Mr. Thornton fell while rock climbing and fractured two vertebrae, leaving him a paraplegic. “Mark played a big part in my recovery,” Mr. Thornton, now 44, said. “About six months after the injury he came to me and said, ‘We’re going to do another play.’
“I told him, ‘I can’t do a play. I can’t even walk.’ But he wouldn’t take no for an answer. We ended up doing ‘Waiting for Godot.’ And it was a big hit and won awards. It kept me going.”
After years of theater work and small movie roles, Mr. Ruffalo appeared in the 2000 Kenneth Lonergan film “You Can Count on Me” opposite Laura Linney; Mr. Ruffalo’s film career blossomed. He quickly became known for inhabiting a range of roles, from a dark and sexually menacing detective in Jane Campion’s “In the Cut,” to a goofy pothead in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Meanwhile, Mr. Thornton was getting some work acting in a wheelchair, but he soon realized that if he wanted a substantial film role he’d have to write it for himself. When Mr. Thornton came up with the film idea, Mr. Ruffalo promised that he would direct. That began the 10-year process.
Finally, in 2009, after dozens of rewrites and Mr. Ruffalo’s surgery for a benign brain tumor that left him with temporary facial paralysis, a start-up independent studio named Corner Store added the final piece of financing. “Sympathy for Delicious” was scheduled to begin production with a budget of just over $3 million and a 23-day shooting schedule.
But there was another delay, prompting two stars to abandon the project. One was James Franco, who was to play an egomaniacal lead singer who enlists Delicious to join his band and exploits his faith-healing gift on a concert tour. The other was the actress who was to play the band’s amoral manager, a cynical promoter who christens the tour Healapalooza.
Mr. Ruffalo enlisted Ms. Linney for the band manager role. For the over-the-top singer, he found Orlando Bloom. “Orlando came to me,” Mr. Ruffalo said, “and he told me: ‘I really need to have this experience right now. I don’t feel like an actor anymore. I’m broken.’ I told him, ‘You’ll fit right in. Get to the back of the line. There’s a whole line of broken people here.’ ”
In late 2008 Mr. Ruffalo’s younger brother, Scott, a hairstylist, was found shot in the head in his Beverly Hills apartment. He later died. The coroner ruled the case a homicide, but there have been no arrests.
“I was grieving about my brother,” Mr. Ruffalo said. “I didn’t think I wanted to act anymore, honestly. After ‘Sympathy’ I realized I really loved directing. I thought, I’m going to scale my life way back, I’m sick of being on the road all the time, living in L.A., just trying to make ends meet there. I was ready to get the hell out. So we sold everything. I parted ways with my representation. Came here. I was going to start a new career.”
During his break from acting, Mr. Ruffalo didn’t exactly fall out of sight. He found a new role as an environmental advocate and lobbyist, lending his celebrity to groups trying to stop natural gas drilling from moving into upstate New York.
“This is not some pet project for me,” he said. “I don’t plan on going anywhere. This is my home.”
But while the movie star tried to settle into small-town life, gardening and driving in his children’s school car pool, he was pulled back into the media glare after being nominated for an Academy Award for his role in “The Kids Are All Right,” his last part before a two-year hiatus. Recently he decided he was ready to act again, and accepted Joss Whedon’s offer to play David Banner, the Hulk, in “The Avengers.” Mark Ruffalo the director will have little time to celebrate the opening of his first film because Mark Ruffalo the actor is committed to rehearsals as the Hulk.
Still, the tug toward directing is strong. David Fincher, who directed the actor in “Zodiac,” loaned Mr. Ruffalo his editing facilities to cut “Sympathy for Delicious,” and the two men went through the film in a five-hour session that Mr. Ruffalo called a “master class.”
“Mark was up against it,” Mr. Fincher said. “He was trying to do something with an unbelievably small amount of money while acting and directing, having never been in that chair before. So he didn’t have practiced technique to fall back on. I was shocked at how generous he was able to be with his actors. He’s just innately good.”
Whatever his natural talents, his directing career is off to a somewhat bumpy start. He was surprised and stung by negative reviews of “Delicious” after screenings at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, where it was awarded a special jury prize.
“Is it the perfect movie?” Mr. Ruffalo asked. “No. Does it have its shortcomings? Yes. But I’m really proud of it for what it is — sincere and not cynical. We were going for the humor. Tonally, this film is like theater, which often makes you laugh when you’re uncomfortable — purposefully.
“My whole acting and now directing style is to have one foot on a banana peel and another foot in the grave.” And these days, no flaming shoelaces.
Source: NY Times