You might call August, 2014 a full-circle month for Mark Ruffalo. His performance as Ned Weeks in Ryan Murphy‘s HBO version of The Normal Heart earned one of that film’s astonishing 16 Emmy nominations, with the winners to be announced on Aug. 25. He’s eager to catch the Broadway revival of the 1996 stage play that launched his career, Kenneth Lonergan‘s This Is Our Youth, which begins on the 18th with Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin.
Writing about his work in Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me, the New York Times’ Stephen Holden said, “Mr. Ruffalo’s star-making performance deserves to be added to the list of charismatic, grownup lost boys that includes the Marlon Brando of A Streetcar Named Desire and the Jack Nicholson of Easy Rider.”
Yet this is the same guy who plays the Hulk in the Avengers franchise. And the same guy whose social activism includes deeply personal work on behalf of gun-control laws, and who just signed on to star with Rachel McAdams in Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s film about two Boston Globe reporters whose investigation of pedophile priests led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law. And of course he’s currently onscreen with Keira Knightley in the exquisite indie feature Begin Again. A few days ago I spoke via FaceTime with the actor during some time cadged from a family vacation on the French island of Corsica.
DEADLINE: Mark, beginning in 1986, when I became the theater reporter at the New York Times, through the 1990s as Variety’s chief critic, the story that more or less defined my career was AIDS. So many of those stories were obituaries of brilliant men including Michael Bennett, the genius behind A Chorus Line, and Charles Ludlam, who had just come to filmdom attention in The Big Easy. At that time, you were a teenager growing up in Virginia Beach, Va. How aware were you of AIDS?
MARK RUFFALO: My friends and I were aware that this disease was affecting gay men, but it all seemed very far away from us — at least until a man I was very close to came out to me. This was complicated by the fact that he was also professing his love for me. At the time, he was the only gay person I knew — or thought I knew. And oddly enough, it was him who really pulled away from our friendship more than me. And so that was my first experience of somebody who was gay and who was willing and courageous enough to come out to me at that age. Then I moved to San Diego and eventually, soon after that, ended up in Los Angeles going to the Stella Adler Academy, where there were a lot more people who were openly gay.
I lived about a block off of Santa Monica Boulevard. I had many friends who were part of the gay culture and I started working at restaurants and meeting a whole other group of people who were in the gay culture openly. That was a time when AIDS really started to become more and more apparent. I worked with people who had AIDS. My brother worked in a salon and had people who had AIDS and were fighting it. It was also around the advent of AZT. But before that, I also was seeing these Act Up people, and I was always impressed by the solidarity of them. I just started to learn about AIDS in a way that most Americans hadn’t through the mainstream media. I started to really sympathize with what was happening in that culture.
I knew a waiter that, (though) he was so sick, he had to work, he didn’t have health insurance. So he would come to work, and the bottom of his feet would just be literally gone, just an open wound from fungal infections that his body couldn’t fight any more. And he had to work those nights just to make ends meet, and it was a tough, rough existence. I was seeing it firsthand. I was reading about the lack of any kind of governmental supervision or response…
DEADLINE: Did you feel that you were a political person, or do you think this radicalized you?
RUFFALO: Well, I was studying with Stella at that time, who came from the Yiddish theater and from the Jewish-American immigrant culture, which was the intellectual culture, and they were very socially active. Stella was a social-justice radical and I was turned on by that aspect of the work that I was learning about. My friends, the people I was working and studying with, started a sort of citizens’ response to the AIDS crisis that was head-and-shoulders above what the government was willing to do. Coupled with that was a hysteria that was being sort of engendered by the mainstream media about AIDS for a long time. And so I saw a great injustice happening right in front of my eyes, and that turned me on politically.
I wasn’t gay, and in the beginning, the backlash to the way that the gay culture was being treated over AIDS wasn’t fully inclusive. It was very gay. And so I didn’t really feel that I was totally part of that, but I got a lot from it, and I sympathized with it. I just didn’t know where I fit in, into that movement at that time, other than it was a social-justice movement that I completely believed in.