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Mark Ruffalo shed the Hulk suit and had 'a blast' making 'Poor Things'

Actor Mark Ruffalo poses during his Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony in Los Angeles on Feb. 8, 2024.
Michael Tran
AFP via Getty Images
Actor Mark Ruffalo poses during his Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony in Los Angeles on Feb. 8, 2024.

In Poor Things, Mark Ruffalo plays a debauched cad named Duncan Wedderburn who both seduces — and is undone by — Bella Baxter, a woman (Emma Stone) who has died by suicide and is reanimated with the brain of an infant.

A bawdy, dark comedy set in Victorian times, the film represents a departure from the actor's previous work in movies like Zodiacand Spotlight, and inthe Marvel films and TV shows where he plays the Incredible Hulk.

"You have a career going and ... mistakenly, you start to believe maybe that's who you are, that's how the world wants to see you," Ruffalo says.

Prior to Poor Things, Ruffalo had never played a character with an accent or appeared in a period piece. He wanted to work with acclaimed director Yorgos Lanthimos, but was afraid he wouldn't be good for the role. But he says, stretching himself for Poor Things turned out to be "such a blast."

Ruffalo adds that the movie's broad comedy helped ease the awkwardness of filming Duncan and Bella's multiple sex scenes.

"You [have] an intimacy coordinator who's like, literally giving you the thumbs up from behind the camera, or giving you notes on your technique," he says. "The only time you want to do that kind of scene is if it's for comedy."

Poor Things has been nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including best picture, best director, best actress and, for Ruffalo, best supporting actor.

Interview highlights

On doing comedy, especially physical comedy, in Poor Things

In comedy, I find, you have to be very open to play. ... If you're in the flow of comedy, the accidents are the goal. Those are the gifts from God. There's [a] moment in the movie where Duncan farts when [the character] Max McCandles comes in to confront him. And that was like the acting gods just filled my belly with gas. I was like, here we go! Great comedy is something that happens spontaneously and is playful. The same thing happens with drama, but people are so much more well-behaved around drama.

Mark Ruffalo has been nominated for the Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in <em>Poor Things. </em>
Atsushi Nishijima / Searchlight Pictures
Searchlight Pictures
Mark Ruffalo has been nominated for the Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in Poor Things.

On getting the part of the Incredible Hulk — despite mostly doing drama and indie films

Not in my wildest dreams did I ever see myself coming from You Can Count on Me or, even a romantic comedy, 13 Going on 30, or In the Cut, to doing a superhero movie. Robert [Downey Jr.] revolutionized the sort of tentpole studio film and really the industry by his performance in Iron Man. And they took a big swing with him, and it really paid off. But what Robert did was he created a space for really complex indie actors to come into these big spectacle films and ground them in really wonderful character work.

On the difficulty of acting in a motion capture suit for the Marvel movies

I hated it. It's the man-canceling suit. It makes you look big everywhere you want to look small and small everywhere you want to look big. It's the most humiliating thing in the world. I had a little loincloth made for it at one point as the years went on because it's just so not modest. It's the most vulnerable thing in the world. As an actor, you learn to love a costume. You learn to hide behind props, you learn to sink into a set and lose yourself in the world.

On leaning on his theater training when working in front of a green screen

But when you're in green screen – it's just you, and you're naked and it's all your imagination, you have to put things there that aren't there. You have to play off people that aren't there. You have to use props that aren't there. This is in the beginning. It's changed quite a bit now. But you know what I found? All the theater training that I had, you walk onto a stage and you're in a black box, basically. You have to really develop your imagination to make that place a forest or a castle or a desolate landscape. ... So in a lot of ways, this ancient technology that I'd been so versed in actually was the best preparation for this new modern thing that was happening.

On being diagnosed with a brain tumor right after his big break and nearly losing everything

To this day, I'm still waiting for the piano to fall. It has. Anyone who goes through life, you're going to have loss and tragedy and all those things. But that was particularly difficult, because I was just starting a family. I just bought a house based on this next big job that was coming, which was with M. Night Shyamalan in Signs, co-starring with Mel Gibson. It was just like this explosion from [You Can Count on Me], and I was the hot guy, and it was all before me, and it was everything that I'd ever dreamed of. And I'd reached it. I was 33 – and it was gone like that. And I woke up and my face was paralyzed, and they didn't know if it was ever going to come back. And I couldn't even close my eye. I looked terrible. And I had a baby at home. And my whole life was trying to get to that moment, and it seemed pretty much like it was over. ...

That was a real test of faith, that I didn't really pass. I was like, "This can't be happening." But of course it is happening. And it was happening. But I'll tell you, it's probably the best thing that ever happened to me. I learned so much from it, and I had the good version of it where my face did come back. So I lost everything. I went through that experience, which made me grateful. It made me compassionate. It made me aware of loss. It made me aware of how fragile life is. It just gave me so many lessons. And at the end of the day, it didn't really cost me much except for the hearing in my left ear, which was the deal I made. "Hey, dude, if you're really there, please don't leave my son fatherless. Just take my left ear. Cool?" You gotta be careful what deals you make. That's what I learned.

Lauren Krenzel and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Sam Briger