Always at the top of his game in every movie he does, Mark Ruffalo might be one of America’s most underrated actors, which may be why he’s unlikely to get nearly the attention he deserves for his performance in Reservation Road, an adaptation of John Burnham Schwartz’s stirring novel about the grief and guilt surrounding a hit ‘n’ run accident.
In this dramatic film adaptation by Terry George (Hotel Rwanda), Ruffalo plays Dwight Arno, a Connecticut lawyer who’s been separated from his wife (Mira Sorvino) but who still wants to spend time with his young son, something that might be taken away from him after a tragic accident in which he hits and kills a young boy with his SUV and then decides to drive off. Racked by guilt, Dwight suddenly finds himself in constant contact with the boy’s grieving parents, played by Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly, without them realizing he’s to blame.
Most people seeing this movie will probably put their main focus on the grief suffered by the boy’s parents, but in actuality, Ruffalo has the more interesting part, as we watch him dealing with the repercussions of his action while struggling with the decision on whether to confess and face possible jail time.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk with Ruffalo during a quiet press day towards the end of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
ComingSoon.net: Were you always up for the Dwight character and was Joaquin already attached as Ethan when you signed on?
Mark Ruffalo: Yeah, that was set, and I came on later.
CS: Some might say that Dwight is the more interesting character in terms of the journey he takes.
Ruffalo:Yeah, it’s a pretty juicy role, kind of a dangerous role too. I wanted to do Ethan when I read it, but it worked out okay, I think.
CS: What was your hesitation to play Dwight? Was it just where it was going to take you emotionally?
Ruffalo: Yeah, I mean as a father and as a human being, you just know you’re going to go down this hole, and it was surprising how much it sort of affected me. He’s really a living dead man; he’s a haunted and hunted individual. I found it very difficult to be in large groups of people at that time and I didn’t want to leave the house. I didn’t understand why I was feeling this way and then one day it dawned to me like, “Oh yeah, duh.” I knew it was not going to be easy, I also knew that it’s a tough gig. There’s no high concept ideas to pull you through. It’s going to be completely just on the acting and on the merit of that working actually. We’re working very freeform. There’s a lot of improvisation and collaboration, so everyday was its own challenge. We didn’t know what the end of the movie was going to be until we shot it and then it became something that we had no idea. That last scene we had to completely improvise. Just before we shot it, Terry threw out that scene and we were all like, “This isn’t working, what are we going to do? What are we going to do?” Okay! He picked up a pen and wrote some lines on a napkin and handed them (to me) after lunch he’s like, “I think you say something like we’ll see what happens.” And we scheduled like an 8-hour shoot over the course of the night. Terry came in, kicked me, shoved Joaquin, yelled at us and said, “Action!” We did one take of that scene with two cameras, and that was it. 20 minutes later we went home. And I was happy, because shooting that scene all night long was not anything that I wanted to do.
CS: What was the most emotionally draining scene as far as the one that took the longest to recover from after doing?
Ruffalo: That one. It was the last scene of the movie and the last night of shooting. We were all really emotionally wrung out. We were in nights at that point. We hated each other. (laughter) We were frustrated, we had so mythologized that last scene that everyone was very tense about what it was going to end up being, so after it, it was just like a flood. I was moved in such a way like I have never been as an actor, outside of my control really. That scared me. I’d never experienced anything like that, I wanted to quit acting after that frankly, and it took me a couple months to pop out of it.
CS: I don’t know if you have kids, but were you able to relate to the father-son bonding of your character or could you relate more with Joaquin’s side of things?
Ruffalo: Yeah, I have two and one on the way. I can relate to both of them, I may not have done this movie if I didn’t have a six-year-old boy myself and the power of that relationship is pretty profound. Anyone who has kids knows that. I can relate to the whole notion of what is your character in the eyes of your child? Who are you? What are you made of? What’s your morality? What do you stand for? Those are things that become very immediate when you have a little boy, I found. I think a big part of the emotional tension and what carries that performance through is that struggle and what are the ramifications on this kid? What happens when he turns himself in? What happens if the kid never knows and he goes on with his life and has this burden to carry. Is it better for the boy to not destroy his or do you make an example? That’s the vacillation that carries the second act of the film into the third act. So he’s racing against the clock, he’s sort of made this decision, but at the same time the noose is getting closer and closer. It culminates in that scene when they’re out at Reservation Road, which is just like and he knows he knows, and he’s basically like, “Give me the time.”
CS: Can you talk about working with the young actor playing your son and establishing the father-son bond with him?
Ruffalo: A lot of fart jokes, those go over really well with kids I find, hook right into them. Hanging out with them, talking to him, he’s a very I wouldn’t say ambitious, but serious young actor, so we talked a lot about acting, oddly enough. I usually don’t like to talk about that, and we talked a lot about what it’s like being a kid his age, and his life. Just hanging out with him. Face time with him.
CS: When were you shooting in Connecticut, did you stay in New York a lot?
Ruffalo: We stayed in Connecticut. Joaquin and I rented a house together.
CS: That’s kind of interesting, considering that you’re conflicting characters in the movie.
Ruffalo: Yeah, yeah, which is good. I think it helped us immensely and when we got into the more difficult scenes, we worked a lot. I mean, that kid he comes off like he doesn’t do any work, but I’ve never seen an actor really work harder. That guy’s working all the time. He works his ass off and he’s very laissez-faire about it. He’s you know, a deeply committed artist at his craft.
CS: How is he as a roommate?
Ruffalo: He’s a great roommate. He’s a great cook, I became a vegetarian living with him. He’s always cooking, there’s always great food on the stove and it always tastes good.
CS: So what was your role in the house if he did the cooking? What did you do?
Ruffalo: I cleaned up after him.. He’s also a very responsible roommate, too. He doesn’t leave a mess, everything’s always tidy. We didn’t really know each other and I went over to hang out with him one night and I was, “I don’t know if I’m going to stay at the hotel, it’s so depressing to stay a month at the hotel.” He was like, “Move in here. Take the upstairs.” And I’m like, “Really?”
CS: John Schwartz has mentioned that he was thinking about doing a second book about the characters, that he saw it as a trilogy and he’s working on another screenplay
Ruffalo: A sequel? He’s insane. Really, did he? And what happens to everybody?
CS: He said it would be set 15 years into the future, and he thinks maybe a third book told from the son’s point of view.
Ruffalo: You’re kidding me. Well, at least maybe I’ll have a job, if all this other stuff doesn’t work out. Whoever knew this would be a franchise?
CS: That’s scary to think you’d have to go back inside Dwight?
Ruffalo: Yeah, I don’t know about that one.
CS: It’s exciting that you work with Fernando Meirelles on “Blindness.” Is that the movie he’s shooting in all different places?
Ruffalo: Yeah, we shot here, we’re shooting in Uruguay and Montevideo and then in Sao Paulo. It’s “Blindness.” It’s Jose Saramago’s film, the great Don McKellar’s script and Don’s in the movie too and it’s great. I think it’s going to–knock on wood, whoever knows?–but I’m having a really wonderful time.
CS: It must have been a very different experience than working on the emotional journey of this movie.
Ruffalo: Yeah, it always is, we’re still shooting it. We wrapped almost 10 days early, which is unheard of. He works very fast, he doesn’t like to do he’s like (putting on a half-hearted Brazilian accent): “I get bored watching we don’t need to do this scene twenty times, it’s boring to me. Please don’t, it’ll bore me.” It’s very loose. He doesn’t use a lot of dolly stuff, although he uses it in this movie, very collaborative, a lot of improvisation in the realm of the script and the book.
CS: Which character are you?
Ruffalo: The doctor. The doctor, which I tried to talk him out of casting me in, but he insisted.
CS: Is there another character that you wanted to play?
Ruffalo: No, they’d had already pretty much cast it when it came to me. They lost one of the elements of casting and then I guess I was the next one down on the list and fortunately it went my way because I think it’s been a really great experience and I think it will be a beautiful, beautiful film, and I love him, he’s one of the great I’ve been very lucky. I’ve worked with the best of the best.
CS: Do you think “Zodiac” got a fair shake? It didn’t do great in theatres but I think people are finding it on DVD.
Ruffalo: It did really well in Europe, but I was really disappointed by it. It couldn’t have been better received by those who saw it, the critics and the people, the people, but it didn’t perform at the box office and that was very depressing to me. Then we went to Europe and we went to Cannes and it was huge there and we were sold out through all the territories it opened. I was like maybe I should move to Europe. It was probably not quite marketed the way that is should have been. It should have been marketed for what it was instead of just like “a David Fincher serial killer movie” because that’s what people came to expect. I also think the time it was released didn’t help it. There’s a reason that these types of films are released later in the year and that felt like a slip up on their part. They had all these other things, that it was supposed be an “Oscar contender” and here we are, it’s still on like forty of the top 10 lists, so we’re talking about doing an Oscar campaign for it. I’m proud of a lot of my movies that noone has ever seen. (laughter) The fact that they keep giving me jobs only comes from the strength of the directors’ will.
CS: What’s going on with Rian Johnson’s movie?
Ruffalo: Yeah, “Brothers Bloom.” I don’t know. They’re probably going to try and make it for maybe Toronto next year or Sundance. We shot it in Serbia and all over Eastern Europe, which was wild. From what I’ve seen, it’s pretty exciting, and I’m really excited about it. He’s a hell of a filmmaker, and he’s the sweetest guy in the world. We had a really good time.
CS: Are you doing any writing?
Ruffalo: No, but there is a couple things that I want to direct, so I’ve been developing something since 2000, but money’s trickling in for that. I’ve got about $3 million to do that and it looks like I’m going to shoot come hell or high-water in June, just before the strike. Then, there’s another thing called “Mother Come Home,” which is a graphic novel, a drama that I want to direct. I want to get out and I want to diversify before my stock drops. (laughter)
CS: You’ve done a lot of acting roles in a row where you’re kind of in demand right now, so does it feel you can take a break from acting for a while now that you’ve built up this momentum?
Ruffalo: You sort of feel like the gig is going to be up and then they are going to find you out and then they’re going to stop and send you to exile for a while. I mean, I love acting. This is my joy, this and my family is it. I love working, I don’t like being away from my family, but I love acting so I’ve also been enjoying having a round of work with this really great material, and great directors and actors. It’s like a dream come true.
Reservation Road opens in select cities on Friday, October 19.