Mark Ruffalo chats with CS about his turn as a bipolar father in Maya Forbes’ Infinitely Polar Bear
Based on writer and director Maya Forbes’ experiences growing up with a father suffering from bipolar disorder, the touching drama Infinitely Polar Bear comes to DVD and Blu-ray this week. Set in Boston during the late 1970s, the film stars Mark Ruffalo as the father of two young girls who, after suffering a massive breakdown, tries to pull together his life, simultaneously dealing with the pressures of fatherhood while his wife (Zoe Saldana) pursues her MBA.
CS had the opportunity to chat with Mark Ruffalo about his performance as the charming but nonetheless troubled Cameron Stuart and what it meant to work alongside Forbes on a project so particularly personal. The two-time Academy Award nominee also explains his process for building characters and why his Infinitely Polar Bear lead is not necessarily all that far removed from the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Bruce Banner.
CS: You’re working very closely with the two younger actors playing your daughters. What goes into building that family connection before the camera starts rolling?
Mark Ruffalo: Believe it or not, it was actually a lot of fun. Kids tend to enjoy the experience and can kind of go with the flow. They were a lot of fun to work with. They were really present and the best way to work with them was just to play. We just goofed off a lot. They were doing kid stuff all the time. Sometimes I’d have to be a dad and redirect their attention. But it all sort of plays into that relationship with those girls. It’s not really a regular father/child relationship as you might think of it in the more traditional sense.
CS: It feels like Cam’s personality sort of bleeds out into the personalities of his kids.
Mark Ruffalo: Yeah, definitely. That relationship hits a lot of boxes as it becomes more defined. They become friends. They become the parents at some points. They become the brats. They become the rebels. The become the reasonable voice. The relationship is more complex. It’s more dynamic. It doesn’t fall within the bounds that a normal relationship between a father and his kids might fall into. That is, I think, what makes it surprising and shocking. It’s just so delicious to watch them together.
CS: The period setting of the story is interesting, too, in that Cam is sort of being judged for what, in the time period, is considered the work of a mother.
Mark Ruffalo: Yeah, at that period of time. We can even forget that as an audience. In the 1970s, gender equality was just a burgeoning thing and a marginal thing. Most of the family dynamics were pretty traditional and there were views on what a man did in a family and what a woman did in a family. It was much more delineated than it is today. To have the dad being a single, at-home parent was eyebrow raising. It was way outside the norm at that time.
CS: Can you tell me a little about meeting Maya Forbes the first time and what the early conversations about this film were like?
Mark Ruffalo: It was great working with her. It could have been tough. It’s her dad. It could have been hard. But it wasn’t. It was fun. She always had some anecdote that helped me. She let me have the part when I needed it and gave me strong guidance when I was floundering. She approached it with so much love that what was typical on set and what I hope shows through in the movie is a lot of love. It’s hard-earned love. She has a warmth, humor and an appreciation for all aspects of a human, even their foibles. That was all translated into the relationship that we had together. I felt very free. I felt loved. I felt like I could really do no wrong. For a performer, that’s an incredible thing. She’s a great writer and she’s got a great eye. I can’t wait to work with her again.
CS: You say that she gave you the role when you needed it. Was this a role that you really felt like you had to play?
Mark Ruffalo: She gave me the room to sort of explore when I needed it. She came in and she gave me guidance when I needed it. But yeah, it was a role that I did need to play. It came to me and I said, “That sounds like an amazing story. I really need to read it.” When I read it, the studio was thinking a much bigger name than I was at that time. You have to remember that this was like four years ago. I sort of had to push for it. I said, “I have to play this part. I know exactly how to play it. I just have to play this part. I know you’re going down the road with some other people, but I’d really like to meet with you and have my name considered for it.” We met and, as soon as we met, she said, “You’re the guy. I want you to do this.”
CS: On a very broad level, there are similarities between Cam and a character like Bruce Banner. In both cases, there’s another personality or shade of a personality that is trying to be held back. Do you approach those roles in different ways?
Mark Ruffalo: No, I don’t. I really approach them in the same way. I mean, each movie sort of has its own style. If it’s a genre film, you’re sort of playing it within a style. You kind of have to be aware of that. For the most part, the character work is pretty much all the same. It’s, “Who is this person? What is their inner life like? What are their concerns? How do they interact with the world? What has brought them to this place?” That all feeds into who they are. “How do they walk? How do they talk? How do they look. How do you they interact with the physical world?” All those questions send you a path and they tell you an awful lot. Then the rest of it is pretty much it’s own journey. Each character takes you on its own journey. For one character, you might study physics. For another character, you might study someone’s father. For another, you might study the psychology of “Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde.” For another, you might have to learn how to wrestle. There’s those perimeters that make each character a little different. Eventually, though, I approach them all the same way.
CS: Do you ever play a part that takes you on a journey that, after the role is complete, you feel you want to continue that same journey, be it in a sequel or through another character with a similar path?
Mark Ruffalo: I find that, thematically, I’m sometimes playing off a theme that keeps popping up. Fatherhood. With Banner and with this, there’s this duality of a person and the dialogue that goes on between these two insistent realities that have to come into accord with each other to have any sense of peace. That’s interesting that that keeps coming up. You’re right that Banner and Cam have some interesting parallels. They have something that’s out of their control and they have to work to find peace. I think that, culturally, we’re having that dialogue as well, which is why it resonants as well. That’s a theme for me. Parenthood is a theme for me. Family. It’s all really about family anyway, but that has always been a really rich place for me, thematically. Love. There’s something that I think has been developing in me over time as I take my journey through this life and world. My work is taking its own journey in parallel to it in a weird way sometimes.
CS: That’s sort of the beauty of movies. The stories really transcend an individual. You hand them over to the world and everybody takes what they can from it.
Mark Ruffalo: Yeah, that’s the beauty of art. I find that I don’t even want to talk about what I’m intending because people will come up to me all the time and tell me about their own experiences. They’re running what they’re seeing through their own problems and what they’re experiencing in the world. It’s fascinating the way that any particular piece of work lands on any particular person. I’m always surprised by it and I really don’t give two tears about myself or where I’m coming from with it. When someone is telling me about their own particular point of view, I’m always thinking, “That’s awesome!” no matter how far away it is from what I was thinking or what I intended. Like you said, that’s what transcends the work and allows us to share these things. People are able to work things out in their own way using these cultural references.
CS: There’s definitely a part to Cam, too, where you’re thinking that anyone in this situation would have trouble dealing with it and you’re wondering how much his mental state is actually a handicap compared to what anyone else would experience.
Mark Ruffalo: Definitely. I mean, I’ve been a single parent for small periods of time with three kids. I can see how you could get to a point where you blow your top or you’re just so damned frustrated. The only difference between a bipolar person and any of us is that they just take it a little bit further. The ceiling is much higher than for the rest of us. Their trigger is more sensitive. That’s what works about that character.
CS: As a nerdy fan myself, I was excited to see you and Zoe Saldana play a couple, being the two green Marvel heroes.
Mark Ruffalo: Isn’t that awesome! How weird is it that we did the movie and the movie parallels that. It’s really cool and interesting. We were bound to hit each other somewhere.
CS: Are you now getting ready to head into “Thor: Ragnarok”?
Mark Ruffalo: Yeah! That’s in June. They’re in the process of writing the script. I’m getting ready, but in a very passive way. I’m resting.