The green Avenger
LOS ANGELES – Easygoing Mark Ruffalo says he has “no visible actor pretensions” for two reasons:
First, when he initially made the rounds of Hollywood in the 1990s, he booked more gigs as a bartender than an actor.
Second, he considers himself fortunate, and humbled, by the fact that he survived surgery in 2001 to remove a benign brain tumour, and suffered no major after-effects.
Now, the 44-year-old is grateful to be a father (to Keen, 10, and daughters Bella, 6, and Odette, 4) and a husband to Sunrise.
He’s also yet another performer willing to take on the difficult task of playing Dr. Bruce Banner, a.k.a., The Hulk, replacing the previously engaged Edward Norton in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, and Eric Bana in 2003’s Hulk.
As Banner/The Hulk this time around, Ruffalo is part of The Avengers, which opens May 4.
Written and directed by Joss Whedon, the 3-D blockbuster features a team of superheroes called on to defend the world when it’s threatened by an extraterrestrial invasion.
S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) enlists The Hulk (Ruffalo), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to unite against Thor’s adopted brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who is leading the assault against Earthlings.
Also on hand are S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), plus Stark Industries’ CEO, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).
Certainly, Ruffalo is one of the new kids on the superhero block, and, by some estimations, an unlikely candidate for the Hulk role.
“I had never done anything remotely like this before,” said the actor, relaxing in a Beverly Hills hotel suite.
A theatre actor first, Ruffalo got his film debut as Laura Linney’s troubled brother in the 2000 drama, You Can Count On Me. He struggled to find his niche after that, but received good reviews for his roles in the 2004 movies, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and 13 Going on 30.
Three years later, he played the harried cop in David Fincher’s 2007 melodrama, Zodiac, (co-starring with Avengers’ Downey Jr.) and was Leonardo DiCaprio’s partner in the Martin Scorsese thriller, Shutter Island. His role as the philandering home wrecker in 2010’s The Kids Are All Right won him his first Oscar nomination, and confirmed his talent as a character actor.
Maybe that’s why aficionados of the Marvel comic-book world were skeptical that Ruffalo could pull off the Hulk role. But Whedon told the actor he wanted Banner to have a wry world-weariness about him. “So, I guess I thought I could do it by tapping into my bartender days,” Ruffalo quipped.
More seriously, Ruffalo recalls being a little intimidated by the prospect of taking on such a famous part when he first accepted. “It was daunting,” he confesses. “There were lots of expectations.”
He discovered that reality quickly enough after his casting was announced. “The fanboys were kicking my (butt),” he says, referring to the online chatter deriding his selection.
Brooding was not an option, however. He had the arduous task of playing Banner at sound stages opposite the other cast members, and then transforming into The Hulk with the help of performance-capture GGI technology all by himself at a separate special-effects stage.
To get into the Banner backstory, Ruffalo watched the previous Hulk films for reference, but mainly focused on the Bill Bixby TV series, The Incredible Hulk (1978-1982), to get the emotions right. He also watched the shows with his son, Keen. It turned out to be a wise decision.
“At one point, Keen turned to me, and said, ‘Papa, he’s so misunderstood,'” says Ruffalo of Bixby’s dual role. “I thought, ‘He gets it.’ It was a great way into Banner for me.”
The physical challenge involved capturing the green monster’s movements by doing exaggerated wrestling poses. Ruffalo also had to get over the giggles, as he was decked out in a skin-tight suit covered in motion-capture markers.
“I am standing there, a trained actor, and I look like a Chinese checkerboard, with little balls all over me,” he says. “Once I made I peace with the idea I was going to be the butt of many jokes from the crew, I was fine.”
It was worth it. Especially effective, says Ruffalo, “were the digital facial recreations” of the actor’s expressions as The Hulk.
“Joss and I were fighting to persuade the studio to let us do the performance-capture, so The Hulk would look more like Banner, and it worked,” he says.
Finding his inner Hulk anger was a little easier for the father of three.
“I have a hair-trigger temper,” Ruffalo says, smiling. “And I have lots of practice: A parent who doesn’t yell at (his) kids isn’t spending enough time with them.”