You'll Like Him When He's Angry: Mark Ruffalo on Playing Mentally Ill and the Hulk's Difficult Future

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Mark Ruffalo at an event hosted by SAG-AFTRA (Getty Images)

It should have come as no surprise that Mark Ruffalo’s name was called during the Golden Globes nominations earlier this month. But awards prognosticators and Hollywood observers were indeed shocked when the 47-year-old actor was given his third career Globes nomination, because it came not in recognition of his work in Oscar-favorite Spotlight, but for his leading role in the indie dramedy Infinitely Polar Bear.

“I was not expecting that at all,” Ruffalo told Yahoo Movies, confessing that he was still surprised, even weeks later, with his nod for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy. “I was expecting maybe for Spotlight, but definitely not for this. So that was nice.”

Perhaps he shouldn’t have been so shocked: Ruffalo has been an annual presence on the awards secret these last few years, having picked up Oscar nominations for The Kids Are All Right (2011) and last year’s wrestling drama Foxcatcher (for which he also earned a Globe nomination). And while Spotlight is considered a major contender for Best Picture, he’s also received critical acclaim for his work in Polar Bear, in which he plays a manic-depressive man forced two raise his two young daughters when their mother moves to New York to pursue a masters.

The film is an autobiographical tale from writer-director Maya Forbes, a long-time TV writer who grew up in a strange mix of poverty and privilege in 1970s Boston. Her father, Donald Forbes, was born into extreme wealth; the Forbes family traces its roots to colonial Massachusetts, and count Secretary of State John Kerry among its distinguished descendants. But he had bipolar disorder, and the lack of understanding or viable treatment for the now-manageable psychiatric disorder caused him to suffer manic episodes, breakdowns, and the many downsides of being medicated with lithium. Ruffalo’s character is based on Donald; Zoe Saldana plays the character based on Forbes’s mother.

Ruffalo spoke with Yahoo about the role, his future with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and more.

Was there any awards campaign for Infinitely Polar Bear? The nomination did seem like a surprise. Did they just send in the movie and hoped that the HFPA pick it?
I guess, sometimes they don’t think the movie will get nominated. I don’t think anyone was expecting this to do this. There wasn’t an active campaign for it. They just remembered it. It’s kind of the perfect way to go, because sometimes you have a movie that they campaign really, really hard for, put a lot of money and time into, you’re going here and there, schmoozing — you’re really campaigning. I would like to see the day when actors in movies win just because they were really good, and we can say, “Man, this is what could possibly be, maybe you can get nominated without having to do all of this stuff!”

You’re playing a guy who is manic-depressive, bipolar. How do you show the inner workings of mental illness, so it doesn’t seem random or crazy?
For Cam, [bipolar people] live in extremes. It was finding that and playing it honestly. I had Maya’s help too, to make sure we didn’t overshoot it. With Cam, it was just the extremes of either being really, really pissed off or really, really depressed or overly exuberant. It’s always a little bit of inappropriate. They don’t get social cues, everything is a little inappropriate. For me the challenge was, how far can you push that inappropriateness?

Was there a way to show the thought process, or indicate to the audience that you were on the verge of anger or a breakdown?
It wasn’t so designed as a, “I’m going to show people that I’m about to do this at this moment because I’m going to get wide-eyed or something.” It was more the things that trigger somebody like that. The things about his family, his history. He gets very uptight about his history in Boston, because everywhere he looks, his family is sort of there. So that’s a constant trigger for him. It was finding those places that triggered him. His family, his kids, his inability to hold on to a job. All the rules of being a Brahmin, all the rules to being a blue blood, all the quirky idiosyncratic rules of that.

Cam was based on a real person, and you played a real person in Spotlight. But in both cases, nobody really knows who they were; neither had a public persona. So was it still important to nail their accents and mannerisms?
I find it really important, and not only that, I find it challenging. It makes the characters I play in more diverse and greater in their range between each other. For me it’s been really fun to get as close to these people as you can without doing an imitation of them, which would be pretty boring. Plus, with Mike Rezendes, he’s alive, that’s his life. And with Cam Stewart, he was the director’s father. So you have a little bit of a responsibility in those kinds of those movies, I feel, to get it right. It’s somebody’s life, so I have a lot of respect for that, and I want to at least get as close as being honest as I possibly can.

Do you have to feel manic at all, when you have the most dramatic breakdowns?
No — as an actor it’s one of those really fun kind of roles where you get to chew the scenery a little bit, and nobody goes, “It’s just an actor chewing the scenery.” It’s chewing scenery, but it also fits the character. The days that I had to scream at the kids, that was a little intense. I was definitely a little more edgy on those days. That was a little tough, but those days, I’d do a take, and would end up laughing in the middle of a take because [the dialogue] it was so over the top and out there. I didn’t have to get in that manic place. I’m an actor, so I’m probably already a little more manic than most people. I understand it, but I didn’t have to live in it.

So you don’t have to get super angry to play the Hulk.
No, I don’t — unless my kids make me really angry.

Marvel hasn’t been able to make a Hulk standalone movie because Universal has the rights to the character’s solo films. But Disney just made a deal with Sony to bring Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so do you think that’s a possibility with the Hulk now?
I think they’ve been working on it. Marvel and Universal famously don’t get along very well, and so that’s working against us, definitely. But I know for a fact that everyone is holding out hope that one day we can do it. But the nature of the relationship right now, it’s a little prohibitive. And I hope that that changes, that changes with regimes, it changes over the course of time. But right now it doesn’t look particularly promising.

Sony had a big regime change, and so they needed to change things, and it seems like it’s going to work out from both sides.
Yeah, I think ultimately that’s what they’re after, it working out for both sides. But like I said, Marvel and Universal are just not having a good time together right now.

We’re worried about what happens to a comic book character, but the reality is that it really hinges on Disney fighting Comcast, and there’s no bigger corporate media conglomerate battle.

I know. It’s like the Marvel Universe and DC going after each other.

So have you started doing any work the new Thor movie yet?
No, they’re still writing the script. That’ll start shooting this summer. In June. There’s still a lot of work to do on that.

You’ll be missed in the Captain America: Civil War movie.
I know, it’s sucky. They’re saving me, so I’m told.

How secretive is the Marvel Studios world when it comes to film details? Is it as secretive as Star Wars?
I don’t know if it’s as secretive as that, but it’s pretty secret. They definitely don’t want people to know what was going on for a while. I’ve been sworn to secrecy, to the point where they don’t even tell me. And they keep an eye on you. You might get a call. I tend to walk dangerously close to the line, as I generally have since I was a young boy, and so you do get the calls, like, “OK, let’s be a little careful here.”

It’s got to be hard to keep it all in.
It is. Now they make sure to tell you what you’re allowed to say and what you’re not.

Watch the trailer for ‘Infinitely Polar Bear’ below: