Making a Mark on Broadway
If variety is the spice of life, then Mark Ruffalo’s career is a true delicacy. The darkly handsome film veteran, who opened March 16 at Broadway’s American Airlines Theatre in Arthur Miller’s “The Price,” has been a constant presence on the big screen for the last 20 years, lending an earthy touch to a wide range of characters, from complex intellectuals to the Incredible Hulk in Marvel’s Avengers franchise. “The Price” is Ruffalo’s first Broadway turn since 2006’s “Awake and Sing!” and co-stars Danny DeVito, Jessica Hecht and Tony Shalhoub.
Ruffalo’s initial involvement, though, came about by chance. “The [latest] Avengers was pushed back several months,” he explains. “And a day or so after I hear the news, I was lamenting to a friend about it and said, ‘Honestly, all I want right now, if I could have the dream of dreams, would be to be on a stage in an ensemble play with great writing, no bells and whistles. Just actors and people that I really knew and loved and trusted. And where I wasn’t the star of it, and it wasn’t a big to-do.’ And the next morning I had this offer!”
Ruffalo’s entry into acting came about in much the same haphazard manner. He was born Mark Alan Ruffalo on Nov. 12, 1967, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, one of four children of Marie Rose, a stylist, and construction painter Frank Ruffalo Jr. His family moved from Wisconsin to Virginia Beach, where he caught the acting bug.
“I don’t know how I came to become an actor,” he chuckles. “I was a wrestler, a jock, a surfer, a skateboarder. In my senior year, I dropped out of wrestling and took a drama class. One of the kids who was a lead in a play broke his arm, and they asked me to step in for him. I stepped out on the stage, and I knew that that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Ruffalo later moved to Los Angeles, where he studied at what was then called the Stella Adler Conservatory and cofounded the Orpheus Theatre Company, all while auditioning and tending bar.
Around that time he also got his first bite of the Big Apple. “I was going to audition at the State University of New York at Purchase, because my cousin lived on Mulberry Street in the East Village, which was Little Italy at the time. I spent one night here and went, ‘Oh, my God, this place is amazing!’ We went to Danceteria, the Roxy and Limelight: It blew my mind.
“I didn’t get into SUNY Purchase. So I ended up in L.A. I had done 20 or 30 plays by the time I finally came [to NYC] as an actor. Kenny Lonergan brought me out here to direct a one-act play: That was the first time I had been in New York for any period of time.” In New York, Ruffalo started to make waves, which crested in 2000 when Lonergan cast him as Laura Linney’s aimless brother in “You Can Count on Me.” “I felt something shift with that movie,” he says. “For one thing, I felt like I was taken much more seriously by casting people. Maybe a year after that, I could actually support myself as an actor.”
A major role in “The Last Castle” followed. “There I was with one of my heroes, Robert Redford, doing this walk-and-talk,” Ruffalo recalls. “I’m like, ‘This is my wildest dream come true!’ And then I found out I had a brain tumor.” The tumor , discovered in 2001, turned out to be benign, but the surgery left Ruffalo temporarily paralyzed on one side of his face.
It was a blessing in disguise, he later said, because it allowed him to take other roles, that wound up being better for him. “My friends have a term, getting ‘Ruffaloed.’ It’s when you have what seems to be bad luck that actually turns into good luck later.”
Those plums of luck came quickly in succession: He earned Oscar nominations for 2010’s “The Kids Are All Right,” 2014’s “Foxcatcher” and 2015’s “Spotlight;” and an Emmy for gay activist Ned Weeks in HBO’s “The Normal Heart” in 2014.
His A-list status has also given him a chance to embark on political causes like climate change and the fight against hydrofracking. The latter came about when Ruffalo and his wife, actress Sunrise Coigney, along with their three children, moved to upstate New York in 2008. “I call myself an accidental environmentalist,” he says. “We moved to let the kids experience clean water and air but instead ended up in the middle of a hydrofracking region.” He co-founded The Solutions Project, which works to move the country toward 100 percent renewable energy.
The family’s Upper West Side apartment is home base for the duration of his Broadway run. Despite the fame, Ruffalo remains the guy who takes the subway instead of a limo. And he says his propensity for playing brainy, complex characters has its roots in childhood. “As a kid, I was dyslexic,” he says. “I had a hard time in school. I was brutalized by the nuns and made to feel like a dummy. And it’s been a lifelong ambition to prove to myself, along with the rest of the world, that I wasn’t.”
For Ruffalo, there’s no better way to prove them wrong than going onstage and feeling the rush of a performance. “It all happens in real time,” he says, “I always say that the stage is an actor’s medium—it really is acting at its purest. I think, ‘The Price’ is probably Arthur Miller’s greatest play. It pushed me outside of my comfort zone. An actor should do that once in a while—even if you are The Hulk!”