Mark Ruffalo on ‘The Kids Are All Right,’ Awkward Sex Scenes, and Dreams of Directing

There are very few people who dislike Mark Ruffalo. If you’re one of them, please leave the building. He’s one of those actors who’s the best thing about a bad movie. (See Just Like Heaven, 13 Going on 30). And when he’s in good movies, which is often, look out. Since he burst onto the scene in the searing indie drama You Can Count on Me, Ruffalo has cemented his reputation as one of our finest, most underrated actors in movies like Zodiac, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Shutter Island. Lucky for him (and us), his latest is one of the good ones. In Lisa Cholondenko’s The Kids Are All Right, Ruffalo stars opposite a longtime lesbian couple (Julianne Moore and Annette Bening) as an easygoing restaurateur/sperm donor getting to know the children he fathered, but never met. It’s his funniest role in a while. We sat down with the actor to talk about acting between the lines, the comedy of awkward sex scenes, and the personal projects he’s developing on the side.

This movie could have been political, but avoided that. Yeah. I’m so glad it’s not political, because politics can be so divisive. The movie is more inclusive. It’s not some strident, gay married couple fighting. It is so sincere and so personal.

You had just finished directing your own picture and acting in Shutter Island when you started filming this. Shutter Island was before my movie, and then my movie was in the summer. I was actually cutting my movie when this came in. It didn’t look like it was going to work out, date-wise. I wanted to spend time with my family. I was moaning that I wasn’t going to be able to do this, and Julianne and my wife were texting each other, like “What’s going on at that movie? I love that movie.” [My wife] was like “He can’t shut up about it! Are you still doing it?” And Julianne’s like, “Oh my God! The part is available! Will he do it?” She was like, “I think he will!” It was crazy. I was that close to not doing this movie.

So, when you received the script did you know right away that you wanted to do it? Yeah! I read it quickly when I was cutting because it was Lisa, and I had been a big fan of hers. I had met her earlier in a restaurant and had introduced myself and I told her that I would really like to work with her. She was like, “Great, I’d like to work with you, too.” But that’s like the conversation you have with someone at a bar. Then, it shows up and she said she really thought about me when she was writing this. So, it was a really sad day when my time to do it expired, but then it worked out!

How did you approach the role of Paul? This guy is kind of an amalgamation of a few people I’ve known, loved and admired in my life, even though I couldn’t live the way they did. My wife and I knew a really famous Hollywood bachelor in his seventies. He had the house in the Hills, all the modern art, the 20-year-old models running around. The last thing he said on his deathbed was, “I really wish I had a family to share this with.” There is something inherently tragic in guys like this guy. So, that tragedy mixed with their charm and their bravado and the unapologetic way they live their life: that’s an interesting character.

And your character is just thrown into family life after years of doing the bachelor thing. It’s like instant family, just add Paul. To see him go from the beginning of the movie as a man who never has to ask anything from a woman, to at the end where he is begging [Julianne Moore’s character] to be with him, that is an interesting journey to take. And it’s funny. What makes the movie work is how funny it is.

Was it a lot of fun on set? It was a fast process, right? Yeah. It was 23 days so it moved quickly. Lisa loves her actors, so it is very relaxed and there was a lot of room to play. She loves what an actor brings to something. She lets an actor live in-between the lines. After the scenes, she keeps the camera rolling

Were there any specific challenges to this role? The fact that it was so fast was a challenge and that I was in the middle of post production. The sex scenes are always awkward. As fun as they look, you walk into a room full of people and you have to take your clothes off. If you are lucky, you know the actress you’re working with. A lot of the time, they walk in with their robe and it’s like, “Nice to meet you.” Then, you have the director telling you how to do it. A guy never wants to hear that.

The sex scenes in the film were so awkward. [Laughing] When she’s holding my face like it’s a riding pommel on a saddle!

That one’s a little too real. There is nothing sexy about it. We knew that we wanted to make it funny. We read it and it wasn’t placed that way. There was something where [Julianne] slaps me and Paul’s like, Ow! Ow. I thought that was hilarious: We should find as much humor in this as we possibly can. After a while, it was kind of like we were on a nude beach: Here we are. We’re naked. I have a sock on. You have a little piece of tape. Eventually, you’re like, This is our fate. You are never totally comfortable, but as much as you can be.

Do you feel good now that the movie’s out and getting such a great reception? In a career, you only have a few that are like this one, that are appealing to a lot of people and strike a nerve. I’ve found that if family stuff is sincere and handled with humor, it just strikes with people in a really deep way. Even though it’s a lesbian couple, it’s like they’re my mom and dad.

You also just finished directing your first feature, Sympathy for Delicious. What was it like being on the other side of the camera? It was a long process, 10 years. We worked a lot on the script, so by the time we shot it we really knew it inside and out. Same 23-day shoot. Everyone is rushing around. We had a great time. I loved directing it. It was a progression from what I was doing. There was a time that I was thinking I’d never go back to acting. Just recently, I feel like that is something I love to do and I’ll always do it, but I really love directing and it came naturally to me. I felt confident doing it. The days I had to act were hell. The days I got to walk past the make-up trailer at five in the morning gave me so much joy. Those suckers are in there and I’m walking by! It’s not natural for a man to sit in front of a mirror for two hours.

Well, I hope it’s not natural for anyone. Exactly.

Do you have plans for the future? If it takes another ten years, I’ll probably make three movies in my lifetime. I hope it doesn’t take that long for the next one. I learned a lot making that movie. I made every mistake you can possibly make making that movie. I’m working on a script right now.

What’s the premise? It’s about a single dad raising a kid in Hollywood on his own. He’s an ex-porn star, ex-street poet, ex-actor, ex-junkie.

That’s funny. He’s lived every Hollywood cliché. Yeah, and it is really funny and really poignant, and they have a beautiful relationship between the two of them. It’s good, I think. The big part right now is bringing in the humor of it. Mining for the gold nuggets is the real work.

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