In the late 1960s through the ’70s a serial killer, who called himself Zodiac went on a killing spree around the San Francisco area causing great paranoia and mayhem. He claimed he killed 13 people and publicly bragged about it by sending letters to different newspapers in the vicinity. While the true body count may never be known, one thing is for certain. Some people involved in the case became so fixated with finding the killer that their obsession ultimately led to their destruction.Paramount Pictures and David Fincher are now telling the story of the events that happened decades ago in the appropriately titled drama Zodiac.
Mark Ruffalo stars in the film, opposite Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr., as Dave Toschi, a San Francisco Homicide Inspector who was actually on the case. ComingSoon.net met up with Ruffalo in Los Angeles to talk about working with Fincher, how he prepared for the character and how he chooses roles.
ComingSoon.net: How much research did you do for this role?
Mark Ruffalo: I actually ended up doing quite a bit of research. The one thing I wanted to do was get together with Dave Toschi. And so I went to San Francisco for a few days and spent some time with him at his work and hanging out with him. And that was a big part of the whole performance, was that time I spent with him.
CS: Now you’ve played a cop a number of times, a few times. What is about that profession that’s intriguing and what do you do to try and make
Ruffalo: Those different?
CS: Yeah, to try and give it as much interest as possible.
Ruffalo: They’re as close to being bad guys as you can get without being a bad guy so they’re walking a very fine line, you know. And I mean they’re certainly in the realm of good and bad and black and white and all that. So it usually has some dramatic stuff around it. And it isn’t like I choose it those are the only jobs they’re giving me too you know, that they offer me. There’s this projection that we like go around like, “Oh yeah I’ll take that.” No. They’re the only jobs they give you.
Ruffalo: Yes. You’d be surprised how little there is of choosing. And it’s ended up that I’ve been a cop a few times now. And how that’s happened, I don’t know. I’ve been running from cops most of my life. But how that’s happened ..
CS: Can you give more information about that?
Ruffalo: If we’re going to do a special I might. But how you change those up is actually just going and spending time with these guys. And they’re all different from each other. They all have different styles of policing each city. New York style is different from L.A. which is different from San Francisco. The ’70s is different and the people are different. So although I’ve been playing a lot of cops I hope that they haven’t been all the same performances.
CS: This is really a cop where you’re involved in the nuts and bolts of police procedures. But then they add in the red herrings, the frustrations, particularly over the market closure and all this this was different in that respect.
Ruffalo: Completely, yes. This is the most kind of procedural police work I’ve done. And it is all about procedure in the movie. I mean the other things that I’ve done was more, like “Collateral which is a much bigger cop conceptual thing or “In the Cut which is really about the love story. But this is the most procedural thing and that has its own amount of work and research that has to go much deeper.
CS: Is that how you normally interpret them?
Ruffalo: Sometimes yeah.
CS: But it’s a real life character who is still around?
Ruffalo: Yeah. He’s a real guy and I feel like I owe it to him to be as honest about who he was and what it cost him and what he went through as I can for the movie. And that’s basically what I said to him when I went to meet him. He’s like: “I just don’t know why you’re here to talk to me”. And I said “I’m here because I want to honor you, man. I want try and be as honest about your life as I possibly can in the context of this film.”
CS: Did he respect that?
Ruffalo: Yeah, I mean I had to say to him four or five times but after a couple of hours he was very open and you spend a couple of days with somebody and they start to trust you and then they reveal themselves to you more and more.
CS: Well he had also been played in various forms. Steve McQueen in “Bullitt” was based on him. Did he talk to you about that?
Ruffalo: He had a pop culture sort of iconoclastic career too. He’s been in front of the cameras. He told me the story about that. He’s like, “Oh by the way, he didn’t base his character on me. He saw me getting coffee one day and I had my holster on and he just walked over and said “Where did you get that holster?” and that’s really as far as it goes. But then he brings in his pictures of him and Steve McQueen and Michael Douglas.
CS: What about the obsessive nature of his character. Could you relate to that?
Ruffalo: To Dave? Dave Toschi? Well I mean s**t, I’ve been doing this for twenty something years and you have to be a little obsessed I think to keep going. I don’t relate to it I don’t have that kind of obsession. I guess I do in my acting and what I want and what I’d like my career to look like and all that and I keep hammering at it and this was like a career defining moment for him. And actually when it all blew up in his face it destroyed him and his family.
CS: Do you think Arthur Leigh Allen was the Zodiac killer?
Ruffalo: I’m like 98% there. But it’s that other 2% that haunts me really. There isn’t the solid piece of handwriting evidence against him. There’s a mountain of circumstantial evidence. I’m like Dave Toschi. The minute he saw Allen walk into the room he believed that he was the guy. But that’s what he believed. But he was a cop and the law didn’t provide the evidence that needed to put him away. Who knows? There’s still some evidence there’s a letter from Riverside from one of the first killings that San Francisco has been sitting on that they’ve never given back to Riverside. That is the first letter out and presumably would have the DNA on it. It’s never been tested and Nightline was doing a special on this. That could be the piece of evidence that says nay or yay. Whether it was Allen or not, you know. But I’m reticent to finger anybody without really knowing. There is that real shadow of doubt that it might not be Allen too.
CS: I would imagine you’re at the point in your career where you would have said no to another cop movie at this point. What made you say yes to this one?
Ruffalo: The first thing is the calling part of it, is that David Fincher rang and I’d like to work with him. And then I pretty much go by the material. I mean that’s pretty much first and foremost. There’s a whole metaphorical side to this movie about where we are in the world today and about the way we treat evidence and law and presumptions and so that also struck me as well. Sociologically where we are today in the world because of a lot of presumptions, because we didn’t follow the letter of the law in evidence, because we weren’t as thorough maybe as some of these cops were back then. And so there was that aspect of it too. There was the metaphorical aspect as an artist. And then there’s me just playing this guy, this real guy that really took this journey. And I saw a picture of him and I was like “I have never played that. I have never played that guy”. And so that was another thing. Have I done it? Is it something that will break me up?
CS: Do you see this movie getting under the skin; I mean this case has a way of getting people wrapped up in it. Did you see it happening with the filmmakers? Did it happen to you?
Ruffalo: It’s like the perfect snake eating its own tail. Fincher, who became obsessed with this case makes a movie about obsession – about people’s obsession about the case. It just keeps going around and around and around.
CS: So Fincher is obsessive is he?
Ruffalo: Fincher is, when he’s working on something, becomes obsessed with it. He wants to know every little detail about it. He is so detailed oriented. Only because he doesn’t want to be the guy who shows up and knows less than anybody else there. He is an incredibly conscientious filmmaker. As far as his work ethic, and I mean I have never worked with him before. But he steeped himself in this material. He steeped himself. I mean we probably came closer to solving this case than anybody has. We had the resources, we had the people, we had the technology. He’ll talk to these cops and they’ll say “I never knew that”. He’ll spit out pieces and they’re like “I never knew that” – guys that worked on this case, whose whole life was this case.
CS: Talk about working with Robert Downey Jr.
Ruffalo: He’s amazing. I’ve always been a huge fan of his. We all know where his life has taken him. And here he is, kind of the best Robert Downey Jr. there is. You know, it’s like all of whatever he got from everything he’s done to totally professional with that wit and his sazzle fazzle imagination and style and with all that sober as well. It’s like the best of Robert Downey Jr. And he is so exciting to work with because the guy’s so sensitive. I mean, nothing is the same. Every take is different. I mean the words are the same but the intent, what he does physically, his playfulness. He’s about as good as a dance partner as you can get.
CS: Some of your strongest scenes in the film are working with Jake Gyllenhaal. Can you talk about working with him?
Ruffalo: He was good. I’ve known Jake for a long time and I was really excited to work with him. It was fun to see him sort of really stretch his wings with somebody like Dave Fincher. They were tough scenes and they took a lot of building, but I’m really happy with the way they ended up. I think it’s a really wonderful performance by him, one of his best. As much as he talks about Dave putting him through the ringer, I think it really paid off for him. It was a big plus for him.
CS: Was that your experience with Fincher as well?
Ruffalo: I can only respect an artist like Fincher. I can only respect somebody who puts those kind of demands on himself and the other people around him. I can respect a man who dedicates himself to his work and cares enough that good enough isn’t good enough. I didn’t see it the way some people saw it. But to me it’s that wah, wah, wah kind of thing. I mean we get paid a lot of money and there’s people who work way freaking harder than most everyone on the set and to hear that just makes me cringe. It’s like, “Oh God please don’t think that we’re all like this.”
CS: Can you talk about the choices you make as an actor when deciding on a role? We’ve seen you in very serious roles, but also in romantic comedies like “13 going on 30.”
Ruffalo: I come from the theatre where you can do whatever the hell you want. They expect it from you. You’re not stuck as a romantic comedic. You can do whatever you want and I always thought that the best way to acting is one foot on the grave and the other in a banana peel. I think that the best drama has some humor in it and the best humor has some drama in it. I did a bunch of dark movies and none of my nieces could ever see anything I’ve done. I was like that would be fun to do a romantic comedy. I really admire Marcello Mastroianni because he had such a great career. He did everything. He was funny and dramatic. So I was like you know what I’m just going to do what I feel like doing. I’m not going to follow any mold and I’m not going to do what anybody tells me. I’m going to do a movie my nieces can watch and also a movie I think has a really positive message for young girls. That movie says something, and I’m into that game. I like movies that say something. Even “Just Like Heaven” is saying something about life, about the way you live your life and love the power of love. Some of the stuff might seem flip, but to me it has an important meaning. It’s another way to reach people and give part of the human experience to them.
CS: You’re next film is going to be “The Brothers Bloom.” Can you talk about who you play?
Ruffalo: Stephen Bloom. I play the older brother of the Brothers Bloom con man couple. They’ve been confidence men since they were young boys. The younger brother, who’s been the sort of the flawed romantic hero of all these elaborate cons is sick of it. He wants to live an unwritten life, so we set up this huge con where, in the end, he’ll be able to walk away from being a con man and find true love. It’s out there, man. It’s very literary. It starts with magical realism and gets heavy at the end. There’s a lot of embedded symbolism, but it’s a great con man movie, too. A lot of it’s based on “The Sting.” It’s a cross between “The Sting and “The Last Waltz.” [laughs]
CS: Was it the script that drew you in or had you seen “Brick”?
Ruffalo: I got the script and he starts it in rhyming quartets. I was like, what am I reading? It’s out there. I have to say it’s out there, but this kid has raised 30 million dollars to make a con man movie with real panache and style, and I have to say I think that guy has enormous panache and style and is one of our really interesting filmmakers, so I’m up for that game. Plus it’s a part I’ve never done it’s a lot of language, the character is very flamboyant. It’s going to be shot in Eastern Europe and have a lot of anachronistic qualities. It’s going to be fun, and I’m excited.
Zodiac opens on March 2.