After years of struggling on stage and screen, Mark Ruffalo is now one of the most sought-out actors working today-the credit for which he won't be giving to the acting class he took at a San Diego's Mesa College.
"It was really over the top. I didn't like the teacher very much," Ruffalo says in a humble voice. "And I thought, My God, what am I going to do now?"
What he did was drop out and leave San Diego for Los Angeles, and 2003 finds him cast in the lead role of no less than four films.
The latest and most demanding role is as James Malloy, a tough, compassionate and self-assured detective in Jane Campion's In the Cut. For most of the film, it's unclear whether Malloy is hunting down a psychotic murderer in Manhattan's East Village or if he's the killer himself.
It was a role that required considerable work by Ruffalo, including hanging out with the NYPD.
"A big part of it was spending time with the homicide detectives, just to get their rhythm, their attitude," he explains. "They have a certain kind of protection system, like armor they kind of wear, even their charm."
He was inspired by the similarities he found between these death cops and his fellow actors in Hollywood.
"They really have [an] interesting sense of humor," he says. "There's something performance-orientated about them that kind of reminds me of what my acting buddies are like."
The cops were nothing like the people he hung out with on the set of In the Cut, with Campion directing, Susanna Moore writing, Laurie Parker producing and Meg Ryan co-starring alongside Nicole Kidman.
"I was one of the only guys in a group of sexy, smart women," he says. "There was a lot more communication. There's not so much competition having to prove yourself with a group of guys."
A lot of that communication took place during rehearsals preparing for the film.
"Campion understands a proper theatrical rehearsal process," Ruffalo says. "She has her own style. She's very inclusive. I would go out with the detectives and she would call and say, "What have you learned?' She was really open to suggestions. Across the board she's the best director I've worked with."
In the film, Malloy's job becomes slightly compromised when he starts to fall for Frannie (Meg Ryan), an English teacher who is also a possible witness. Though much smarter than Malloy and distrustful, she can't resist him. One of the more challenging aspects for Ruffalo was the intimate scenes he had to do with Ryan.
"I think we were both in over our heads," Ruffalo explains. "Neither of us has ever played anything like that and we were really aware of the fact. I think we were too nervous about ourselves to give each other any kind of advice."
Definitely not your macho cop or lover-saves-the-day flick, the densely metaphorical In the Cut attempts to portray the essence of Moore's novel-a smart woman trying to survive on her own without getting hurt. The way that Ryan played the role, however, Ruffalo sees the film less about women in general and more about the intricacies of Frannie's character.
"I don't know so much if we're talking about a group," he says. "Meg's character, you know, she's frightened. She's kind of set up her life in a way where she's not participating."
Frannie has become accustomed to not having men in her life, engaged by eavesdropping on strangers rather than direct contact. Yet with Malloy she bows to a physical need that couldn't be satiated by, say, her entomology collection. Developing intimacy-honesty, tenderness, physical contact-becomes directly conflicted with Ruffalo's professional inquiry into life and death. It's through this tension that Campion expresses what romance means for women these days.
"There's two kinds of stories going: [there's] a love story and there's the killings that are going on where women are being mutilated in terms of romance," Ruffalo says. "And these two stories are running perpendicular to each other and we get to the end of the movie and she's between these two worlds of romance: an honest relationship and a romance without it.
"And without honesty, without real connection, romance is a killer. There are women who give up their lives for it. I think that's one of the kinds of themes that are sort of playing underneath the thriller. Metaphorically she is somewhat killed."
As for Malloy, the former San Diegan found a bit of himself in his character.
"I think he's seen a lot of stuff. There's a certain sadness and I think I kind of relate to that."