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Larger Than Life: Mark Ruffalo’s Expansive Career

From Dark Waters to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the actor’s remarkable cinematic legacy

Focus Features 11.26.2019
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In Todd Haynes’ thriller Dark Waters, Mark Ruffalo plays Robert Bilott, the real-life corporate defense attorney who took on—and beat—the Dupont corporation in a case that laid bare a massive environmental conspiracy and cover-up. Despite this investigation turning his world upside down, from his relationship with his wife (Anne Hathaway) to his connection to his colleagues, including his firm’s supervising partner (Tim Robbins), Bilott remains determined to find answers and ultimately justice. As one of the film’s producers as well its star, Ruffalo was equally committed to bringing this story to the screen. For The Hollywood Reporter, “Ruffalo anchors the film with a performance that stresses dedication—both as the character and as an actor—as the linchpin of a man’s character.” Indeed this passion was not lost on Bilott himself who expressed that Ruffalo, in addition to being one of “nicest, most down-to-earth, genuine people I’ve ever met,” was committed to understand the full story, “not just the legal aspect, to move these issues along through the court system, but also what was going on at a personal level.”

In his nearly forty-year career, Ruffalo has shown himself to be one of our most original and expansive talents by the dedication he demonstrates to the stories he tells and the characters he brings to life. From intimate independent films to Hollywood thrillers to superhero sagas, three-time Oscar®-nominated Mark Ruffalo finds in all his roles an unknown emotional depth, a unique physical trait, or a psychological nuance that makes his characters appear both bigger than life and more human.

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The official trailer for Dark Waters

Giving his characters something extra

Born in Wisconsin and raised in Virginia Beach, Ruffalo made his way to Los Angeles at the age of 18 to pursue what he knew would be his future. For over a decade, Ruffalo learned his craft working in local theater and independent film. It would not be until he moved to New York City to appear in Kenneth Lonergan’s off-Broadway play This Is Our Youth that all his hard work would begin to pay off. Not only did he receive considerable critical acclaim but Lonegran cast him in his award-winning debut feature You Can Count On Me. Directors found in Ruffalo an actor capable of bringing startlingly original insight into his characters. To get the role of Stan, the goofball technician in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Ruffalo approached director Michel Gondry with an unusual interpretation—make him a retro hipster who idolizes The Clash’s Joe Strummer. “I thought it was such an unexpected take on the role that I immediately gave it to him,” remembers Gondry. The casting paid off. The Washington Post lauded Ruffalo's performance, noting how he “bravely abandons any pretense of vanity in a role that at one point has him dancing awkwardly, dressed only in thick black glasses and Jockey shorts.”

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Mark Ruffalo and Kirsten Dunst go crazy in a clip from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Finding the truth in a role

For Ruffalo, finding his character comes less from wanting to go to the edge and more from digging for a deeper truth within. “Who I am is a conglomeration probably of all the things that have happened to me, so somewhere along the way that works its way into the work,” Ruffalo explains about his process. A-list directors have sought Ruffalo out for the unique way he brings out universal human emotions in complicated men. David Fincher rewrote the role of the real-life obsessive detective Dave Toschi in Zodiac to be sure to get Ruffalo in his cast. For Little White Lies, Ruffalo’s “unique combination of earnestness and brusqueness brings Toschi to life” and marks “one of the finest turns of his career.” In Michael Mann’s cat-and-mouse thriller Collateral, Ruffalo, according to Variety, “provides an extra dimension of intelligence to what initially looks like a stock cop role.” Ruffalo’s unique talent of bringing an untapped human dimension to complicated, sometimes compromised characters garnered him Supporting Role Academy Award® nominations for his performances in both Foxcatcher and Spotlight. In Terry George's chilling drama Reservation Road, Ruffalo takes that quality into a starring role playing opposite Joaquin Phoenix as a father who spirals out of control after a tragic hit and run. Ruffalo, a father himself, brings a haunting complexity to the role. Entertainment Weekly notes how “perfectly does each actor’s dark, dense presence meet — and challenge — the other man’s interior restlessness” in the film.

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The official trailer for Reservation Road

Modern Men

To some degree, Ruffalo’s most well-known role as the Hulk makes the intense physicality he brings to all his characters quite literal. Whether it’s some dark, brooding obsession or goofy inner child, Ruffalo embodies figures who have more inside them than first meets the eye. In re-creating the Hulk, Ruffalo worked with own son to find the creature’s gooey center. “There’s a world-weariness to him, but also this kind of ironic sense of humor about it, and in a strange way, an acceptance of it,” explains Ruffalo. In many roles, both comic and dramatic, Ruffalo has captured a certain type of modern man. In Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, Mark Ruffalo garnered his first Academy Award® nomination for his role Paul Hatfield, the free-spirited, sperm-donor dad who stumbles accidently into a family headed up by Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening). As he fumbles with fatherhood, Paul comically illustrates the limits of masculinity that Ruffalo has been exploring his whole career. For USA Today, “Ruffalo shows his depth in a pitch-perfect performance of a freewheeling guy who seems like an older brother of the rootless fellow he played so captivatingly a decade ago in You Can Count On Me.”

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Paul (Mark Ruffalo) learns that he is a dad from Joni (Mia Wasikowska) in a clip from The Kids Are All Right

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