Mark Ruffalo is one of our most sincere and likeable actors. Others may strictly know him as The Hulk. But he should also be considered one of Hollywood’s most underrated survivors. Over a nearly 30-year career, Ruffalo has been the rare actor to move, chameleon-like, into whatever the industry wants him to be.
He was there when independent cinema was at its most lucrative. He was there when romantic comedies were the keys to stardom. And for the past decade he has embodied one of the superhero genre’s most complex characters, before using his Avengers cachet to get adult, character-driven work off the ground when it’s become harder than ever to do so.
Through it all has been his trademark empathy, directors often casting him for the vulnerability he projects, his earnestness or everyman quality.
Off-camera, Ruffalo is largely singular, sticking out as one of the rare Hollywood activists who doesn’t just pay lip service to vaguely centrist politics. On-camera, it is a different story – he can disappear into his work in such a way that it’s easy to forget how quietly brilliant he is. Particularly when much of his prolific pre-Avengers work occurred in ensemble roles, among them Spotlight, Shutter Island, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Collateral.
To celebrate the release of Todd Haynes’s fiercely topical drama Dark Waters, in which Ruffalo takes a rare starring role, we’ve ranked his 10 greatest performances so far.
10. Infinitely Polar Bear (2014)
In the wake of The Avengers, Infinitely Polar Bear marked a further attempt to launch Ruffalo as a studio-movie leading man, following the 2013 musical drama Begin Again. He rises to the challenge – even if the rest of the film is very indie-by-numbers. Playing a bipolar father to two young girls, Ruffalo sources a compelling unpredictability, flipping between deadpan eccentricity, casual cruelty and unbridled joy. His lovely, textured humanity remains his greatest on-screen weapon.
9. XX/XY (2002)
Potentially the greatest test of Ruffalo’s likeability occurred in this 2002 indie, which cast him as a lusty narcissist incapable of recognising his own failings. Playing one third of a spectacularly wrong-headed trio of lovers which slowly implodes over the course of a few weeks, Ruffalo refuses to embody total villainy but instead a very naturalistic kind of ignorance. He plays his character as every well-read asshole you’ve ever met at a university party, and it’s a performance that proved early on the depths of his range.
8. Foxcatcher (2014)
Ruffalo has arguably the least interesting role of the trio at the centre of Foxcatcher. That he somehow delivers the film’s most fascinating performance then qualifies as a major victory. As the murdered Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz, Ruffalo radiates goodness – a man raised to be respectful and kind and work hard for great rewards. He is therefore someone incredibly uneasy about ever stepping out of line. Alongside Steve Carell’s inexplicably Oscar-nominated scenery-chewing performance as the convicted killer John du Pont, Ruffalo’s natural subtleties were even more powerful than usual.
7. My Life Without Me (2003)
It feels notable that the filmmakers who have most often cast Ruffalo as scruffy, troubled and sexually attractive characters are women. Isabel Coixet’s tender weepie My Life Without Me is no exception. Playing an open-hearted loner who falls in love with a woman he doesn’t know is dying (played by the wonderful Sarah Polley), Ruffalo is the film’s secret star. There’s a weighty surliness to his performance here that is also oddly exciting, Ruffalo perfectly in tune with the complexities of Coixet’s movie.
6. Zodiac (2007)
The real-life detective portrayed by Ruffalo in this David Fincher classic served as the inspiration for Dirty Harry. He plays him with a similarly brusque masculinity – all snark, cigarettes and fatigue. It’s one of Ruffalo’s most charged performances, with much of its power stemming from how the character gradually spirals outward. He transforms from somebody doggedly by-the-book into someone tortured by a mystery he can’t solve, and it’s thrilling to behold.
5. 13 Going on 30 (2004)
Considering his innate agreeability and non-threatening masculinity, it’s no surprise that Ruffalo had a romcom phase. It is surprising, though, when glancing at his career in totality. Ruffalo’s romcoms were by and large of the C-list variety – cast alongside genre queens at their least interesting (the Reese Witherspoon vehicle Just Like Heaven, or the Jennifer Aniston bomb Rumour Has It...), or romancing not-very-funny actors struggling to diversify their filmography (as in the infamous Gwyneth Paltrow aeroplane comedy View from the Top). But then there’s 13 Going on 30 – a candy-coloured femme spin on Big, with Ruffalo at his most endearing. He plays spectacularly well off Jennifer Garner’s dizzying, all-limbs portrayal of a 13-year-old stuck in the body of a grown woman, and has never been more warm and natural.
4. Dark Waters (2019)
Dark Waters finds Ruffalo at his Ruffalo-iest, playing a righteous, determined attorney standing on the right side of history and determined to make a difference. It would be a mistake to also suggest it’s not therefore a brilliant bit of acting. Ruffalo feels smaller than usual here, playing a man doggedly fighting a corrupt system that dwarfs him in scale, yet he is also angrier and more empowered at the same time. In a flashier movie, he would have earnt awards attention. But a flashier movie would also take away from the earthy beauty of his work.
3. You Can Count on Me (2000)
Ruffalo’s star-making role, at least in critical circles, was this beautifully small-scale drama of siblings and tiny disappointments. He plays a character that should be insufferable – a damaged, irresponsible man-child endlessly looking to his older sister (Laura Linney) for advice, money and safety. But Ruffalo plays him with such self-loathing and timid naivety that it’s impossible not to want to take care of him, too.
2. In the Cut (2003)
Jane Campion’s masterful erotic thriller grants Ruffalo the kind of role typically given to femme fatales in these sorts of movies. He is an irresistible enigma here – a cop with a thuggish, seductive presence, whose sexual allure and suave aggression could mask either a troubled soul or a sadistic killer. A notorious flop upon release, In the Cut has only grown in admiration since, partly assisted by Ruffalo’s performance. He is graceful and effortlessly sexy, while simultaneously volatile and threatening. He and co-star Meg Ryan, herself disgracefully maligned back then for having the temerity to be in such a dark and sexual film, create an explosive spark like few others before them.
1. The Kids Are All Right (2010)
Ruffalo’s character in The Kids Are All Right feels like what would happen if his You Can Count on Me character grew up, grew a beard and went vegan. He plays the anonymous sperm donor to a lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore), who is surprised by the arrival of two children he didn’t know existed. There’s a lovely sleepy energy to his performance here, but also significant trauma. Here’s a character magnetised to screw-ups, someone charming and sweet but perpetually sabotaging his life and relationships. In a film filled with incredibly difficult characters that often stretch the limits of your empathy, Ruffalo is its most haunting and loveable protagonist. It’s no wonder it earned him an Oscar nomination, the Academy finally waking up to Ruffalo’s brilliance, nearly two decades after he started acting. Better late than never.