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From indie darling to Hulk Smash! A profile of ‘The Avengers’ Mark Ruffalo

After years of being known mainly to patrons of art house cinema (You Can Count on Me, Ride with the Devil), mid-aughties rom-coms (13 Going on 30, Just Like Heaven), and a couple of decent thrillers (Zodiac, Shutter Island), Mark Ruffalo is finally getting the worldwide recognition he has so long deserved. How? By pulling off the stunt of his career: not only playing Dr. Bruce Banner (aka The Hulk) in Marvel’s The Avengers, but making the good doctor just as compelling as his green-skinned counterpart, and damn near stealing the behemoth of a movie from his talented costars.

Mark Ruffalo in 'You Can Count on Me'
Mark Ruffalo in 'You Can Count on Me'
Paramount Classics
Mark Ruffalo
Marvel Pictures

Mark Alan Ruffalo was born on November 22, 1967 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, to Frank Ruffalo Jr., a construction painter, and Marie [Hebert] Ruffalo, a beautician. Mark grew up alongside three siblings – his sisters Nicole and Tania, and his younger brother Scott. Though Mark describes his childhood as “happy,” with “lots of love,” he did miss his father a lot, as the man was frequently out of town on business. “I was very lonely for him,” says Mark.

While living in this small industrial town, Mark’s parents enrolled him in what he calls a “hippie Montessori preschool” – where he was taught such progressive skills as “throwing [clay] on a pottery wheel” and making “God’s eyes” out of popsicle sticks and yarn. Even at such a wee age, Mark loved being in an atmosphere where the arts were so strongly encouraged, and would later refer to this experience as “one of my greatest memories.”

During Mark’s teenage years, the Ruffalo’s moved to Virginia Beach, Virginia, where his father had started another career. After Mark graduated from First Colonial High School, the family up and moved two more times: first to San Diego, California, and then to Los Angeles. Mark’s parents divorced not long after. Needing some direction in the wake of this, Mark enrolled at LA’s Stella Adler Acting Studio. Here he would stay for seven years, honing his craft under the tutelage of Stella herself, and renowned television actress Joanne Linville (who infamously played the Romulan commander in the Star Trek TOS episode The Enterprise Incident). Mark would also, during this time, co-found The Orpheus Theatre Company, where he not only wrote, produced, directed, and starred in numerous plays, he also did most of the yeoman work like building sets and running lights (… now THAT's paying your dues!).

While he got excellent reviews for his stage work, Mark had less success breaking into movies and television. He did find a few such roles – like a guest shot on TV’s Due South (1994), a bit role in 54 (1998), and in Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil (1999). After struggling for nine years, all the while working as a bartender to make ends meet, a chance meeting changed everything. Screenwriter and playwright Kenneth Lonergan was impressed with Mark’s work, and cast him in his New York play This Is Our Youth. Not long after, Lonergan cast Mark in his feature film directorial debut You Can Count on Me (2000), opposite actress Laura Linney, as her character’s ne’er-do-well brother. Critics, audiences, and casting agents all took notice, as Mark’s performance garnered him numerous comparisons to a “young Brando.”

During this period (June 2000), Mark married French/American actress Sunrise Coigney. The couple would go on to have have three children: a son, Keen, who arrived in 2001, and daughters Bella Noche, born in 2005, and Odette, 2007. Though success was finally starting to find him, Mark did feel somewhat beat up by the relentless rejection of show business. His wife made all the difference. Mark says about his relationship with Sunrise: “I ran to my marriage. I was happily ready to take on marriage.”

Then, in 2002, tragedy struck. In the form of a brain tumor. Or did it? The tumor (acoustic neuroma) turned out to be benign. After surgery, and a brief facial paralysis, Mark rededicated himself to his craft. He stated later of this time: “The whole experience of getting close to mortality changed my perspective on work. I wasn't enjoying acting before. I felt like I wasn't in charge of my career. I wasn't doing things that made me feel good. I was really bitter, I thought I deserved more, and I wasn't grateful for all the great shit that had happened to me. If you're not grateful, then it's very easy to be an asshole. After the brain tumor happened, I realized I love acting, I've always loved it, I may never get a chance to do it again.”

Much more film work followed in such films as XX/XY (2002), In the Cut (2003), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004), 13 Going on 30 (2004), Collateral (2004), Just Like Heaven (2005), Rumor Has It (2005), All the King’s Men (2006), Zodiac (2007), Shutter Island (2010), and The Kids are All Right (2010), for which Mark would receive his first Academy Award nomination.

Tragedy struck again (for real this time) on December 1st, 2008. On that day, Mark’s brother, Scott, a renowned Beverly Hills hair stylist, was shot execution style in the head at his home in Beverly Hills. He would die one week later. The only suspect in the case, a woman named Shaha Mishaal Adham, who was never charged with the crime, died in January 2012. The case remains unsolved.

In 2011, Mark made his directorial debut with a film entitled Sympathy for Delicious, about a paralyzed DJ who gets involved with the world of faith healing. Though the film won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010, it received mixed reviews from critics and audiences. It is now available on DVD.

Mark briefly considered giving up acting for directing, when he was cast by writer/director Joss Whedon to play Dr. Bruce Banner in 2012’s ginormous tentpole movie Marvel’s The Avengers. Mark, who had been a big fan of The Incredible Hulk while growing up (both in its comic and TV incarnations), quickly agreed. Though two previous attempts at bringing the big green lug to the big screen had had only average results (2003’s Hulk starring Eric Bana, and 2008’s The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton), 2012’s The Avengers finally got the character right. Mark played Dr. Banner with humility, humor, and soft-spoken genius – in a manner actually reminiscent of what made Bill Bixby so indelible in the role in the 1970s and 80s. He also had chemistry to spare with his costars Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, and Chris Evans as Captain America.

While The Avengers (which shattered box office records in its opening weekend) was truly spectacular entertainment, most agreed that if anyone onscreen stole the show amidst all the bombast (while adding some serious bombast of his own), it was Mark’s characterization of Banner and the Hulk. Amazingly, thanks to brilliant CGI, the Hulk actually looks like Ruffalo. Within seemingly hours of The Avengers release, Mark was offered, and signed, a six-picture deal with Marvel Pictures, wherein he would continue to Hulk out in Avengers sequels and (presumably) his own individual series.

Whatever Mark does next – whether quietly emoting in a small indie film, or turning into a big green monster – he is proof positive that when chasing your dreams, one should never lose hope. He has proved all of these axioms true: Don’t Give Up, Keep On Keeping On, Perseverance Furthers … oh yeah, and Hulk Smash!

Yes, he does, Mark. Can’t wait to see you do it again.

Mark Ruffalo Quotes:

“The true value of somebody in this town [Hollywood] is very hard to determine. It's all smoke and mirrors.”

On acting in romantic comedies: “It's not my favorite genre, generally. But I want to do it. I wanted to try my hand at it, because I was hearing around town, people saying that I couldn't do it. 'Mark Ruffalo can't do comedy. Mark Ruffalo can't be a romantic lead.' And so I was like, 'Those are fighting words, my friend.’”

“I started out in Los Angeles doing plays and bartending. I did at least 30 plays that nobody saw before I got Ride With the Devil.”

"I don't like this idea of Method. I come from that school, but what I was taught was that it's your imagination. You do your homework, and you use your imagination. People use the Method as a shield; it shields them from being vulnerable.”

Regarding moving out of Los Angeles: “I'd had it with L.A., and I'd really had it with the business side of acting, the machinery of it all. You're an artist, but then all of a sudden you're a product at the same time, and there's this company that's sprung up around you. I got depressed. I was losing my love for it. So I said, 'I'm done.' I fired everybody and moved my family out here (Callicoon, New York). I had to make a radical move.”

“Who I am is a conglomeration of probably all the things that have happened to me, so somewhere along the way that works its way into the work.”

Regarding his (benign) brain tumor: “You get sick and shit goes wrong and you're bonked. You don't know where you're going to end up [or] how it's gonna turn out. That sort of thing changes you, the way you live your life. It teaches you to take less and less for granted.”

“I became an actor so I didn't have to be myself.”

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