Few actors bring as much heart to the screen as Mark Ruffalo, and few manage as diverse a career. This summer, he’s in London making “The Avengers” sequel, suiting up again as oversized green superhero the Hulk; meanwhile, the critically praised indie film “Begin Again,” in which he plays a down-on-his-luck music producer, is now in theaters, and he’s just landed his first Emmy nomination for his electrifying and heartbreaking lead performance in the HBO film “The Normal Heart.”
In the HBO movie, adapted from Larry Kramer’s autobiographical 1985 play, Ruffalo plays Ned Weeks, a gay writer and activist determined to raise the alarm about HIV and AIDS in New York City in the early 1980s. Director Ryan Murphy (“American Horror Story”) has cited Ruffalo’s environmental activism (he has been an early leader in the anti-fracking movement) as one of the things that made him perfect for the role. The film, which premiered on HBO in May, landed 16 nominations, including recognition for cast mates Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, Joe Mantello, Alfred Molina and Julia Roberts. Ruffalo spoke to The Envelope by phone from London.
The Ned Weeks role is incredibly rich — he’s a brother, a lover, a leader, a fighter, a friend. He has so much passion and anger. Too much for his own good, sometimes. Was there a hurdle you had to overcome before you could play all that?
Modulating the anger and bouncing it against the vulnerability — that was the tightrope walk. Making sure you push in a way that’s appropriate for the scene and what’s on the line with those ideas, and taking that as far as you can. He was an agitator by design; he understood that he had to be confrontational. The tendency would be to play that character all one note. I know Ryan was afraid of that. I was less afraid because I’d come from the theater, where it’s a lot easier to make those radical shifts of tone or feeling. What I’m realizing is, as long as you have the same face in the movie [he laughs], you can get away with almost anything. You can go to such extremes, and that’s become more and more interesting to me. This thing takes Ned from goofy to just bitter and angry to vulnerable, from a know-it-all to a know-nothing. To me, that more closely reflects what it is to be human.
You play a key scene with Alfred Molina (as Ben, Ned’s successful older brother) in which you are just begging him to accept you as his equal, regardless of your sexual orientation, and he can’t do it. He will not give in, and he is formidable. What was it like to have to go up against him like that?
It was tough. He’s amazing. It’s like throwing yourself against a 4-foot-thick concrete wall. You can’t get more solid than Alfred Molina. But the language carries you. It’s a beautifully constructed scene. And the subtext is carrying you as well. At one point, I couldn’t get there, and I was experiencing a lot of anger toward myself. And then it just popped. It just kind of broke out of there.