Discussing His New Film, The Normal Heart, Which Captures the Onset of the AIDS Crisis, Mark Ruffalo Reflects Back on the Shock of Those Days & How Apathy Left a Shameful Dent in American History
by Dann Dulin
The Normal Heart, the compelling hard-hitting play by the fiery activist Larry Kramer, will finally be released on celluloid after thirty years of setbacks and delays. First produced at New York’s Public Theater in 1985, it has re-emerged as an HBO film helmed by the Glee and Nip/Tuck creator, Ryan Murphy.
“I feel very proud of The Normal Heart. It’s a beautiful movie,” says Mark Ruffalo in his trademark raspy voice from his home in New York’s West Village. On leave for the weekend from the London set of Avengers: Age of Ultron to attend his daughter’s ninth birthday, Mark heads a stellar cast in the demanding role of Ned Weeks, Larry Kramer’s alter ego. (Mark also served as co-executive producer.) Two of his co-stars, Joe Mantello and Jim Parsons, were in the 2011 Broadway production, which garnered several Tonys, including Best Revival of a Play and Ellen Barkin’s win as Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play. “I did not see the Broadway production as I was shooting [another film] at that time, but The Normal Heart is a departure from the play in many ways,” he explains. “It’s not as agitated. It’s more of a reflection on the people and the time. The play was meant to be confrontational. The film is really more about the love for those men who were fighting on the frontlines at that time.”
Before the cameras rolled on The Normal Heart, Mark was fortunate enough to meet with Larry Kramer. “Spending time with Larry probably was the most important part of it for me. One of the first things he said to me was that I had to read his book, Faggots, ‘so you really understand how we came into the AIDS era.’” (Published in 1978, the novel’s gay protagonist longs for a meaningful relationship against a backdrop of anonymous sex, plentiful drugs, and all-night discos. The novel foreshadowed the horrors to come in the next decade.) “Those times with him were treasured moments for me,” confides Ruffalo. “I really love that guy, really respect him, and I’m in awe of him. I’m grateful that I got to spend so much time with him.”
Last June, a pivotal scene, “April Showers,” was shot on The Normal Heart set: the first AIDS fundraiser held by Kramer and his friends, which raised $50,000 and broke all records. The cast consisted of the New York Gay Men’s Choir plus 200 extras, half of whom were in sickly makeup to portray those struggling with AIDS. Larry Kramer happened to be visiting that day when outside news halted production: DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. More importantly, the right of same-sex couples to marry was upheld. Glee and exhilaration filled the set and everyone began to applaud.
“It was a remarkable day!” says Mark, in his easy swaying-in-a-hammock tone. “Everyone in the cast [which included Matt Bomer and Taylor Kitsch], and everyone who was working on the movie, grips and electricians, they were all really moved. And though Larry was very ill, in true Larry fashion, he said, ‘This is good but we still have a lot of work to do.’”
During the height of the AIDS crisis in the mid-eighties, Mark was in his late teens and had just moved to Los Angeles from San Diego. “I knew people were sick and dying. AZT was starting to hit the streets, so there was hope, but there was [still] a lot of hysteria and misinformation. At that time I was reading the LA Weekly, an alternative, fringe periodical that was reporting honestly on what was happening on the AIDS frontlines. I was very aware, probably more than a lot of people,” he recounts. “Even then I was just baffled by the enormous amount of ignorance and cruelty that people displayed in the face of this disease. It was strange to see this as a young person, because I was so idealistic, thinking America’s this amazing place and then I see the raw underbelly of it, all the hypocrisy. It was eye-opening to say the least.”
Although Mark did not lose anyone close to him, he felt the atrociousness of the crisis through his friends, many of whom were grieving over the loss of loved ones. A lot of those people were friends and clients of his younger brother, “Scotty,” who was a highly successful hairstylist at a Beverly Hills salon. (Scott eventually became the mayor of Beverly Hills, and for years, pre-stardom, Mark was known as, “Scotty’s brother.” Tragically, in 2008, Scott was murdered at his home in Beverly Hills and the case is still unsolved.)
The two brothers had a deep bond, and soon after Mark moved to L.A., Scott shortly followed. In order to make ends meet they shared a bed together in their apartment near MacArthur Park, a somewhat edgier section of the city. In the eighties when crack was endemic in the neighborhood, Mark would daily see doped-out druggies lying in the park and one day his neighbor was murdered on his front porch.
During those early years Mark was studying at the Stella Adler Conservatory (Salma Hayek and Benicio Del Toro were classmates), performing plays in small theaters, and bartending at various venues including the renowned Château Marmont hotel, where he was frustratingly serving drinks to industry folk such as Nicholas Cage and Johnny Depp and trying to get his foot in the acting door. (Additional stints included “landscape helper, house painter, handyman, light construction, busboy, computer ribbon salesman, and telemarketer.”) After nearly 1,000 auditions over a dozen years, Ruffalo came close to giving up his dream. Then he met a playwright who cast him in an off-Broadway production and, in turn, that landed him the role of Laura Linney’s drifter brother in the film, You Can Count On Me.
A dynamic character actor, Mark has a face that is unforgettable. The handsome looks, scruffy-sexy appearance, tousled, ruffled chestnut
hair, distinctive plump lips, and those awesome penetrating browns all add to his gifted performances in Shutter Island, We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Now You See Me, and, of course, The Kids Are All Right, for which he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Role. He made his directorial debut in 2011 with Sympathy for Delicious, which garnered him the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
His searing, heart-wrenching performance in The Normal Heart will undoubtedly be remembered at awards season. In one scene, Ned, as played by Mark, pleads uproariously, “Nobody gives a shit that we’re dying…!” This gripping and disturbing film, highlighted by this aching call-for-help moment, will likely bring AIDS back to public awareness.
“This film will bring up conversation…,” Mark offers spiritedly, halting abruptly. “I was interviewed by a young gay man a couple of weeks ago who really didn’t even know that it [AIDS] happened.” Mark gasps, and, after we exchange a few “Oh-my-god’s” and some “I can’t believe it’s,” he continues. “I asked him, ‘Is that what it’s like? I mean, do people not know this? Really?!’ The guy replied, ‘Yeah, most of my friends [have no idea].’ I’m like, ‘That just blows my mind.’” Mark pauses. “And you know what? That [lack of awareness is] as much on our culture as it is on those young men. They don’t know because we haven’t done a good enough job telling the story.”
For those who do not know the details of the early crisis, The Normal Heart is a a good introduction: the chilling effects of government negligence and Reagan’s silence, a lack of basic knowledge about AIDS, even that it was caused by a transmissible virus, zero treatment, threat of quarantine, shame and blame heaped on gay men, doors closed—by nurses, doctors, loved ones—on those suffering the effects of opportunistic infections.
“It’s amazing because my kids know about AIDS and knew the kind of film I was making,” Ruffalo notes, who’s been married for fourteen years. Besides his daughter whose ninth birthday he flew home for, Mark has two other kids, one son, who will be thirteen this summer, and another daughter, who is six.
“It was surprising for me to hear about this young reporter saying he doesn’t know about AIDS, but it’s also a natural progression of normalization, a normalization of homosexuality. This is a really good thing. There still is a portion of the culture that is stigmatized by AIDS but there’s a much bigger, I think, and growing section that isn’t really like that,” he says. “There are young people that do not get it [the bigotry and prejudice]. They don’t see it. It’s foreign to them to be a homophobe, as it is for people to be racist against black people or to think that Jews had horns. My kids have grown up with friends who have two men for parents and have two women for parents. My kids don’t bat an eye [at that]. I think the younger generation is like that. They’re not embattled and persecuted, and traumatized the same way my generation was. They don’t identify with the struggle.”
He clears his throat. “It’s amazing what the gay culture has done. It’s probably the fastest move to equality of any oppressed people in the history of mankind. Wow!” Mark cheers. “What ACT UP [AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, a take-it-to-the-streets protest advocacy group founded by Larry Kramer] was doing, no one had done before. There’d been certain little permutations of it, but as a whole and the way they did it was profound. And their format, I see it being used in every organization today.”
Mark is involved with causes, as well, including human rights, the environment (he co-founded Water Defense, an anti-fracking advocacy group), and health issues such as acoustic neuroma (brain tumor). In 2002 he was diagnosed with the condition and, after surgery, his face was left partially paralyzed. It healed, though, after many months of rehabilitation. Ruffalo also supports Oxfam and the Elton John AIDS Foundation. “I have a feeling that I will be doing more in the HIV/AIDS community,” he mentions, “and it will be an honor….”
The Tony-nominated actor (for 2006’s Awake & Sing!) gets his drive from his upbringing. “Oddly enough, though I don’t identify as a Christian, I was raised with the teachings of Christ. Take away all of the dogma and all of the noise that we hear surrounding religion, and those teachings, by themselves—being loving, kind, tolerant, and considerate—every prophet lectured about,” he rhapsodizes. “I was an outsider, an introvert, and could relate to people who were struggling and I just had a sensitivity to people who were not being treated well.”
During the shooting of a crucial scene in The Normal Heart at a low-income New York hospital, one of the crewmembers came up to Mark and some of the cast and said, “My cousin died in this hospital from AIDS.” Mark takes a beat. “All of a sudden I had a lot of outrage. I understood the politics. I understood the struggle. I understood the alienation. And I….I…just started, started doing that scene and am struck with this deeeeep grief. I start to sob, you know, and I can’t stop. I’m trying to pull myself together to do the scene again as they’re changing lights and all that,” expounds Mark. “Then I look over at Matt [Bomer] and he’s sobbing too. I look at Julia [Roberts] and she’s trying to hold it together. What really hit me was just this long….,” Mark hiccups a modest laugh, “…long line of dead. Just…just…just this massive group of people who lost their lives and probably a great number of them didn’t have to. Being there, being in that hospital, it just dawned on me—the enormity of it all.
Ruffalo sputters in wobbly diction, “I’ll never forget that day and it shook me to such a deep level.” He takes a moment to recompose. “It’s a shame. It’s a shame the way it was handled. You just think…if somebody just had had the courage or the humanity to stand up in some leadership position and say, ‘No, we can’t turn our backs on this. We have to face it because for every one person who gets infected today, there could be a hundred people tomorrow, and a thousand new people in a week, and a million people in a….We just can’t do that!’”
Mark takes a weighty inhale then adds, “The way it was handled is…disgusting.” He erupts with venom. “It was just so saaaad. It’s such a stain on America.”
He goes on. “It’s like, Who Are We? Who were we? How could we?!” Ruffalo scolds with urgency.
“Larry was right. God bless Larry. He stands alone as a prophet. Even in Faggots he was writing about it. He was one of the truly prescient people and really present—and he got his ass kicked for it!
“To have it now on HBO, to have Larry’s words, his experience and his legacy upheld, and honored in this way is significant. I even admire the people who didn’t agree with Larry. Their hearts were all in the right place. That’s the gift of this horrible tragedy. Many gifts came out of the AIDS crisis and yeah….I’d love to see it cease to exist in my time.
“Enough time has passed though since the crisis began that we as a culture can now pull it out and look at it. Yes, we can have our shame and outrage over it, but we can also start to integrate the experience into us in a more wholesome way,” he points out. “It would not have been effective before this. A lot will spring out of this film; it will not pop in and pop out.” With a brief sigh, Mark concludes, “The Normal Heart is going to stir a lot of muck at the bottom that needs to be aired out.”
The Heart of Mark
When you look back at your early days before making enough money to support yourself from acting, what pops into your head?
That it was really tough, but really magical. During that time I was cursing it and then later I realized that it was a great time in my life. I miss some of it.
Where do you go to recharge your batteries?
Upstate New York [Mark has a home in the tiny town of Callicoon, New York] or near the ocean.
Are you still a vegetarian?
No, I’m not actually. I try to eat as much vegetarian as I can though. I do juice and I’m drinking green juice right now.
You were so slender in The Normal Heart; how do you stay in shape?
Playing with my kids. I like to skateboard, I like to surf, and I like to swim. I just stay active by doing physical things that I like to do. If I have to go to the gym, then I’ll do that. But that’s the last place I want to be.
What is your technique of memorization? Do you have a set routine for learning a script?
Repetition is the best way to learn it. I run the lines over and over again. That works the best for me. I know some people who like to write them [out]. Some people only need to look at it [the script] once and they never forget it. I, unfortunately, am not one of those people.
What do you believe happens after we die?
I don’t know. I really have no idea.
What do you do when you get depressed?
I make breakfast for the kids.
When was the last time you cried?
Ah…I don’t know. I cry a lot.
Out of the many people you’ve met, is there one in particular who stands out the most?
My acting teacher Joanne Linzille, one of the founders of the Stella Adler Conservatory in Los Angeles. She had a profound impact on my life.
Who would you like to meet that you haven’t met yet?
I would love to have met Nelson Mandela. He’s a hero of mine. I would like to meet the Dalai Lama. I think that would be quite an auspicious thing to do.
What is the hardest lesson you’ve ever had to learn?
To be gentle on myself.
Ruffalo reacts with one word to these people who have made a mark on his life.
Annette Bening: Supreme.
Julia Roberts: Outlandish.
Tom Cruise: Nice.
Sean Penn: Inspirational.
Heath Ledger: Lost.
Matt Damon: Clever.
Laura Linney: Divine.
Julianne Moore: Exceptional.
Martin Scorsese: Historical.
Leonardo DiCaprio: Fantastic.
Anjelica Huston: Regal.
Josh Hutcherson: Serious.
Larry Kramer: Lion.
Morgan Freeman: Great.
Ang Lee: Insightful.
Gwyneth Paltrow: Gifted.
Keir Dullea: Extraordinary.
Kate Winslet: Fierce.
Anthony Hopkins: Majestic.
When asked to name one word for himself, Mark enthusiastically laughs and asserts, “OH NO!” After a pause of a second or two, he answers, “Eclectic.”
Mark chooses his favorite…
Film: On The Waterfront.
Sitcom: Three’s Company.
City: New York.
Historical Figure: Walt Whitman.
Physical asset above the waist: Lips.
Physical asset below the waist: [He chuckles] Feet.
Actor: Marcello Mastroianni.
Actress: Meryl Streep.
Moment: My kids being born.
The Normal Heart premieres on HBO on May 25 at 9 p.m.
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U. He interviewed actor and chef David Burtka for the April issue.