Ruffalo’s latest role informed by personal tragedy

Mark Ruffalo on stage at the Oscars in February
AWARD-WORTHY PERFORMANCE: Mark Ruffalo on stage at the Oscars in February
Image: GETTY IMAGES/CRAIG SJODIN

Mark Ruffalo readily admits his reluctance to do what was required for his latest role, playing a pair of twin brothers in HBO’s new drama, I Know This Much Is True.

It was not, as one might perhaps expect, the considerable technical challenges of playing twins, one of whom suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, that concerned him; he just wasn’t keen on gaining almost 13kg in five weeks.

“I kept trying to get Derek [Cianfrance, the writer and director of the six-part miniseries] to change the plan,” he chuckles. “I told him, ‘You can get really good fat suits now’.”

But, on his director’s orders, the 52-year-old actor committed to his art.

“The strategy was just to eat a bunch of carbs — lots of pasta, bread, doughnuts, ice cream — all the stuff that makes me really puffy.”

Getting paid to be a glutton sounds fun, you say. But apparently not.

“I got heartburn from almost everything. I had to sleep sitting up because I had such bad indigestion.

“In the end, all I could really eat was oatmeal — with butter, maple syrup and heavy cream.”

Today, speaking on Zoom from his home in the Catskills in northern New York State, where he’s quarantining with his wife, fellow actor Sunrise Coigney  and their three teenage children, Ruffalo appears to be back to his fighting weight.

“But I felt like a foie gras goose,” he laughs.

Fortunately, all the fattening up was worth it; Ruffalo’s performance in I Know This Much Is True is award-worthy.

Adapted from the 1998 novel by Wally Lamb, the family saga follows the fortunes of the Birdsey brothers, born in New England on either side of the 20th century, one twin in the last minutes of 1949, the other in the first moments of 1950.

From the outset, Dominick and Thomas endure trauma and volatility, their unnamed and absent father replaced by a cruel, cold stepfather (played by John Procaccino) who dominates their timid mother (Melissa Leo).

By the time the brothers reach college, the always-sensitive Thomas displays signs of instability; at 40, he chops off his own hand in a public library, in a bloody and delusional protest against the first Gulf War.

Dominick, a divorced teacher-turned-housepainter, who has spent his adult life protecting and supporting his brother, has suffered his own considerable traumas, including the death of his infant daughter.

Though the series is set in Nineties Connecticut, flashbacks to the twins’ boyhood, college years and earlier adult lives chart Thomas’s descent into mental illness, and Dominick’s valiant, but increasingly futile, attempts to protect him, his sacrifices often shot through with pent-up (and not so pent-up) rage.

The biggest challenge, not surprisingly, was shooting the parts where both Dominick and Thomas were in the same scene at the same time. This could not have been done without the help of fellow actor Gabe Fazio.

For the first 13 weeks, Ruffalo played Dominick and Fazio stood in as Thomas. Then Ruffalo went off for his five-week oatmeal splurge, while also, as he puts it, “going down into the heart of this mental illness, studying it, and imagining that life — hearing voices, being heavily medicated for years”.

Then Cianfrance resumed shooting, with a slimmed-down Fazio — who had lost 12.7kg — now playing Dominick and Ruffalo playing Thomas.

The Birdsey brothers’ heritage was not something Ruffalo struggled to connect with.

“This blue-collar world is a world that I understand, that I grew up in,” he says.

“I’m second-generation Italian; my family started out as house painters. There’s a family dynamic that’s very intense, there’s a masculinity that we learnt as Italian-American males.”

One of four siblings growing up first in Wisconsin, then Virginia, where Ruffalo’s mother, Marie, was a hairdresser and his father, Frank, a construction painter, Ruffalo moved to Los Angeles in his early 20s, founded a theatre group and spent several years putting on plays in small auditoriums.

He was part of the original off-Broadway cast of Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth in 1998, which led to the writer and director casting him two years later as Laura Linney’s brother in the hugely successful You Can Count on Me, launching his Hollywood film career.

Family trauma is also something Ruffalo has experienced first-hand. On December 1 2008, his younger brother, Scott, a successful hairdresser in Beverly Hills, was shot at his home, dying in hospital a week later.

Ruffalo has said before that he does not expect to ever get over the killing, which has never been solved.

I Know This Much Is True is dedicated to his brother.

“Scott’s in all this and in all of my work in some way or another.”

Of course, Ruffalo is well aware that the series, which is harrowing and heartbreaking, is airing at a time when most of us need our spirits lifting, not dampening.

But he believes that the Birdsey brothers’ story is pertinent.

“A pandemic like this strips away all of the trappings and busyness of our lives and leaves us with what really is of value, and that’s family,” he says.

“But family is also difficult and brings challenges, and exposes all our vulnerabilities and our weaknesses.

“For me nothing’s more meaningful, more painful, more conflicted, more challenging, and more rewarding than the relationships that I’ve had with my own family members. And that’s particularly apropos for the moment we find ourselves in.” —  The Telegraph

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