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

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University. The Academy Awards are Sunday. And next, we've got our interview with actor Mark Ruffalo, who's nominated for best supporting actor for his role in "Poor Things." He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger last month. Here's Sam.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SAM BRIGER: In "Poor Things," Mark Ruffalo plays a character described in the movie as a cad and a rake. His name is Duncan Wedderburn. And he seduces Emma Stone's character, Bella Baxter, to run away from her home and fiance and have an adventure with him in Lisbon. Let's hear a scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "POOR THINGS")

MARK RUFFALO: (As Duncan Wedderburn) You're a prisoner, and I aim to free you - something in you, some hungry being, hungry for experience, freedom, touch, to see the unknown and know it. So why am I here, you ask? I'm going to Lisbon on Friday. I'd like you to come.

EMMA STONE: (As Bella Baxter) Lisbon of Portugal?

RUFFALO: (As Duncan Wedderburn) That is the Lisbon I speak of.

STONE: (As Bella Baxter) God'd never allow it.

RUFFALO: (As Duncan Wedderburn) That's why I'm not asking him. I'm asking you.

STONE: (As Bella Baxter) Bella not safe with you, I think.

RUFFALO: (As Duncan Wedderburn) You are, absolutely - not.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: In that scene, Duncan Wedderburn is looking at Bella Baxter like a cartoon cat who's trapped the canary. What he doesn't realize is that Bella Baxter is no ordinary young innocent to corrupt. She is, in fact, the result of a Frankenstein-like experiment by a scientist, played by Willem Dafoe, who reanimated a dead woman's body by replacing her brain with the brain of her unborn baby. Bella goes through a rapid awakening to the world around her and to her own body and, like an infant who doesn't yet know society's norms, is uninhibited to a degree that both attracts Wedderburn and undoes him.

Mark Ruffalo's performance in "Poor Things" is hilarious and delicious. And he himself describes it as a big departure from his previous work in movies like "Zodiac," "Spotlight," "Foxcatcher," "The Kids Are All Right," "You Can Count On Me" and, of course, several Marvel movies and TV shows where he plays the Incredible Hulk.

Well, Mark Ruffalo, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

RUFFALO: Thanks, Sam. It's really nice to be here.

BRIGER: It's nice to have you. You said you had some trepidation about taking on this role. What were your concerns?

RUFFALO: Well, you know, I hadn't really played anything like this, and I hadn't done an accent. I hadn't really done any kind of a period piece. And, you know, you sort of - you have a career going, and you sort of - you get a brand. And mistakenly, you start to believe maybe that's who you are or that's how the world wants to see you. And, you know, I really wanted to be great in a Yorgos Lanthimos movie. And so I said to him - (laughter) it's ridiculous now, but I said to him a year ago, I want to work with you. I love you, but I don't want to suck in your movie. And I don't know if I can - if I'm the right guy for this, you know?

BRIGER: So did he have to convince you?

RUFFALO: It didn't take very much. He just laughed at me. He's just like, ha, ha, ha. You're him.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: You've been in, like, romantic comedies and you've been in movies that have comedic elements like, "The Brothers Bloom" and even in the "Avengers" movies. But I don't think you've ever had a role that was so broadly comic as this one. I mean, you even do a pratfall at one point. So can you just sort of compare what it's like to act in something that's comedic like this, compared to your more, like, dramatic roles?

RUFFALO: Yeah. You know, even in the dramatic roles, I feel like I've always kind of had one foot on a banana peel and the other in the grave, you know (laughter)? It's like, I just - I see that as, like, the aesthetic that I want to - you know, that is my North Star if I could find a way of doing it. But to just do all-out comedy that's so physical - and that pratfall is such an interesting thing because, you know, in comedy, I mean, I find, is that you have to be very open to play.

And it's not an inner thing. It's this open thing. And it happens in this kind of special space that's outside yourself. And so you have to be very open and aware and ready to grab whatever's being given to you and then play with it. And that pratfall, I think it's the one you're talking about - when I come up the stairs?

BRIGER: Yeah, yeah. You're almost, like, skating up the stairs. Like, your arms are going back and forth. And then at the landing, you just go flop over.

(LAUGHTER)

RUFFALO: And that was an accident.

BRIGER: Oh, it was (laughter)?

RUFFALO: Yes. And it was like - but that's the thing. Like, if you're really in, if you're in the flow of comedy, the accidents are the gold. Those are the gifts from God, you know? There's another moment in the movie where Duncan farts when Max McCandless comes in to confront him, right? And that was like the acting God just filled my belly with gas.

(LAUGHTER)

RUFFALO: And I was like, here we go, (imitating fart).

(LAUGHTER)

RUFFALO: And poor Ramy looked at me. He was so outraged and, like, humiliated. And it was just the perfect - it was like, oh, we're end of the scene. And it was literally - that one take was the take that Yorgos used. But I guess why I'm telling you that is, like, you know, great comedy is something that happens spontaneously and is playful. And that's - I mean, the same thing happens with drama. But, you know, people are so much more well-behaved around drama. So those moments - you know, I can't lift my butt up and, you know, let one rip in, you know, "Spotlight" or "Foxcatcher," you know? Maybe "Foxcatcher," but nowhere else.

BRIGER: The character in the movie is described as a cad and a rake. And he's disreputable, but he's definitely working, like, within the boundaries of society. And he's challenged and finally undone by Emma Stone's, like, complete uninhibitedness. Can you talk about that?

RUFFALO: Yeah. I mean, it's such an interesting character in that way because he wants to project himself as the freewheeling, free-loving, libertine sensualist. But really, at his core, he's incredibly conventional. He's very conventional in his idea of a man's place in the world and a woman's place in the world. And we see somebody whose whole projection of his personality comes undone when those concepts are really put to test by love. Whatever she strikes in him that he supposes is love, whatever version of love he can get closest to. And we see that he's actually incredibly fragile, and he's actually incredibly needy, and he's actually incredibly vulnerable.

BRIGER: There's a sex scene montage in "Poor Things" that I wanted to talk to - with you about. Like, you've done sex scenes before, but this is sex played for comedy. Like, it's not supposed to be sexy. I mean, it's meant to make the audience laugh. I mean, the characters are having a good time, but it's filmed to look awkward and rutting, and your character's even wearing a corset. So can you talk about, like, doing that kind of scene for comedy?

RUFFALO: The only time you want to do that kind of scene is if it's for comedy.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

RUFFALO: It's just so horrible and awkward, and it's so horrible and awkward for everybody else. And then you add in the intimacy coordinator who's, like, literally giving you the thumbs up from behind the camera, you know, or giving you notes on your technique. So we knew that was going to be a montage. At one point, we were talking about trying to do every position in the "Kama Sutra." But there's, like, 110 now. I think they, you know...

BRIGER: They've updated it?

RUFFALO: Yeah. When you see the - yeah. When you see the helicopter or the, you know, the rowboat, you know, you're like, OK, they didn't come up with that in the "Kama Sutra" time, you know?

BRIGER: Right.

RUFFALO: But it's - yeah. To do that and to have in mind the - there's a lot - you could do a lot of comedy with sex scenes, you know? I mean, they're already, like, kind of comic just by themselves.

BRIGER: Well, Let's take a short break here, Mark.

If you're just joining us, our guest is Mark Ruffalo. He's been nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his role in the movie "Poor Things." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JERSKIN FENDRIX'S "BELLA/LES YEUX BLEUS/ESTORE'S SONG")

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger. My guest is Mark Ruffalo. He's been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in "Poor Things." Some of his other movies include "Spotlight," "Foxcatcher," "The Kids Are All Right," "Zodiac" and "You Can Count On Me." He has, of course, also played the Incredible Hulk in many Marvel movies and TV shows.

Mark, to prepare for this interview, I watched a lot of your films. And I watched this trio of films that you did, which are all based on historical events. They - there's actually some sort of similarity between them. This is "Zodiac," "Foxcatcher" and "Spotlight." And I read that for two of those movies, the people you were portraying were still alive, and you got to spend time with them, got to know them. And this was Dave Toschi, who was one of the detectives investigating the Zodiac killings. And then for "Spotlight," you spent time with one of the reporters who was investigating the sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Mike Rezendes. So when you're portraying a historical figure, an actual person, like, how much of an effort do you make to try to be as much like them as possible? Let's stick with Mike Rezendes. Like, how much time did you spend with him?

RUFFALO: Oh, days. And, you know, we became friends. And I asked that he - if it was OK for him to be with us while we were shooting. And, obviously, he's so invested in it. He was actually a filmmaker first. He went to AFI in the screenwriting program. And he just became this invaluable reference for all of us. But I went to the Globe the first day. You know, I had my phone camera, and I had my notepad. And I just said, hey. I really just, you know, like to sit down and watch you work and watch you, you know, work the phones and, you know, just watch you do what you do. And if you don't mind, I'd like to, you know, shoot a little bit of it. And he's like, OK. I'm not really used to that. I'm usually the one who's doing the questions and, you know, the recording. But, yeah, OK.

And it's funny 'cause this - I know what this process is now. People - they come to you, and they're nervous, and they're afraid in a way. And then they start to slowly get to know you, and they start to open up. And they feel safe, and they realize that you're just there trying to do right by them. And eventually they show you who they are.

BRIGER: Well, what were some of the mannerisms that you saw that you tried to emulate in your performance?

RUFFALO: Certain people have, you know, tension in their bodies in certain places, or - and it makes them move a certain way. Mike had a sort of, like, tension in his solar plexus area. And it sort of, like, tilts his pelvis forward a little bit. And it's just a subtle thing, but, you know, the physical work that I learned how to do was - you know, if you could start picking up some physical qualities of a person, it actually starts to inform a lot about them.

And there's a toughness about someone who's holding their pelvis, I mean, you know, where they're holding their solar plexus like that, you know? It's someone who's, like, protecting something, and it makes you walk a certain way. And it sort of pulls down on your spine, your vocal cords in a certain way. And if you can just listen to that a little bit, you start to get something about the person. And, yeah, so for Mike, it was that, you know? These little things - I don't know what it is, but when I'm watching someone, I'm like, oh, that's really interesting. I want to try to assume some of that. I want to - but I also found when you start doing that, there's an inner quality that starts to come into view.

BRIGER: Well, I think that's really interesting. So...

RUFFALO: OK, good. I mean, I - sometimes I start talking about this, and people, like, literally glaze over. They're like, pelvis - OK.

BRIGER: Mark, I wanted to ask you a little bit about your childhood. I think your family was Catholic, but it sounds like there were some active seekers of religion in the household. Is that correct?

RUFFALO: Yes. It was a very interesting household, religiously speaking. My family was, you know, Italian Catholics. Then my mom and her mother became evangelicals in the First Assembly of God, Pentecostal, Jimmy Swaggart era. And my dad split off completely in a whole nother direction into the Baha'i Faith. And so, you know, you're in the family, and everyone's participating. And so I was introduced to all three.

BRIGER: Well, you actually were - you were saved by the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, right?

RUFFALO: I was.

BRIGER: How was that? First, like, was that on TV?

RUFFALO: No, no, no. You know, there was the First Assembly of God in Kenosha, Wis., at the time, and my grandmother was a member of it. And, you know, these different evangelical preachers would, you know, sort of tour. And he was the star of that at that time. He was - you know, he was their, you know, Elvis of evangelical - and there was music. I mean it was a pretty lively experience. And so my grandmother for her birthday asked me to be saved. And I was like, saved from what (laughter)? Like, I was just - I mean, I was - I'm like, I'm 8. I - you know, like, what am I - I haven't even gotten to do anything yet, really. And it was like, no, you were born. I mean, the second you come through the birth canal, you've sinned, you know? Like, that's - you know, that's the original sin. And I'm like, oh yeah, OK. Oh, yeah, makes sense to me (laughter). But I was like, yeah, I'll do whatever you want, Grandma, you know?

BRIGER: So what was that like? Did everyone sort of line up or get, like...

RUFFALO: Yeah, so they bring the kids down. Like, it was a special moment. We're like, OK, we're going to bring the children down, you know? And so I'm walking down there. I was like, I want to be saved. I mean, I don't want to go to hell. I certainly don't - you know, like, that would suck. And it's going to make my grandma happy. But, man, this is so intense down here, and he's so sweaty, and everyone's, like, talking in different languages. And (laughter) it was - so I got down there, and we're lined up, and they're going - you know, each kid's getting prayed on from kid to kid. And they're falling down, or, you know, people are falling over. And I was like, I'm not feeling it. And then finally I was like, oh, man, I'm not going to be the one who's - like, doesn't get Jesus today. I'm like, no, not me. And I just kind of went with it, you know?

BRIGER: So you fell over too?

RUFFALO: Yeah, and it was horrible.

BRIGER: Did you feel bad? Did you feel like you were kind of lying or something?

RUFFALO: Oh, God, I felt so ashamed. Yeah.

BRIGER: Yeah.

RUFFALO: Are you kidding me? I was like, I didn't feel anything. Like, I was supposed to - everyone here is, like, feeling so much, and I didn't feel anything. And, oh, man, I mean, what that sets up in you at so early an age is so difficult for your, you know, your ongoing relationship. It just became this thing that was always there that I didn't understand. Now I do, but I didn't then. And it was just a, you know, just shameful feeling.

BRIGER: If you're just joining us, our guest is actor Mark Ruffalo. He's been nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his role in the movie "Poor Things." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Mark Ruffalo. His role in "Poor Things" has been nominated for an Oscar this year in the best supporting actor category.

How did you get into acting? Like, is that something you felt good at right away? Did it come easy, naturally to you?

RUFFALO: No. No, no, I sucked. I wanted to be an actor from very early on. I just didn't know what acting really was. You know, I had already found myself performing. I found myself, you know, doing skits from "The Three Stooges," you know, doing slapstick, pretending I was Charlie Chaplin. Like, I was doing all that, but there was no culture for that in - you know, in my family. They were house painters. Then they became construction painters. They were businesspeople. They were very serious about making money. And there wasn't a lot of room for this kind of being a dreamer. So it just wasn't anything that was a possibility to me. My year of high school, I dropped out of wrestling. I was an avid wrestler. And I dropped out of wrestling to join the drama department because I'd walk by the drama department, and they'd all be wrestling on the ground just like us. But it was, like, 10 girls and two guys. And, you know, I was like, why am I not doing that wrestling, you know?

And so I - and I went in there, and I was just thrilled by it, how emotionally open it was and diverse and accepting and silly and, you know, everything you couldn't be as a young man, you know? And one of the kids in the play broke his arm. And my teacher, Nancy Curtis, who was, like, this great theater teacher in the middle of Virginia Beach - like, really great - came to me and said, I want you to replace Scott (ph). And I said, you do? And she's like, yeah. And I was like, I don't know. I don't know if I could do it. She's like, I think you could do it. And so I did it, and I did the first scene. And I was basically just ripping off Peter Falk in "Columbo." And I did the first scene, and I got a big laugh. And I said, oh, my God, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. This is amazing.

BRIGER: So it was, like, that feedback that you got from...

RUFFALO: Yes, that relationship, you know? It was, like - it was just magical because not only did I get to laugh, but I knew the laugh was coming. I felt this communication with the audience, and it was telling me what it was asking for. And then it was responding with the laugh or the silence or whatever. And I went to Nancy afterwards. I said, Mrs. Curtis. Yes, Mark. Do you think it's too late for me to, like, become an actor? I mean, I'm already 18 (laughter). And she's just like, no, Mark. I don't think it's too late. Yes, I think you can become an actor.

BRIGER: That sounds like a very vulnerable moment for you.

RUFFALO: Oh, it was horrible. I mean, I was a jock. I was a surfer. I was a skater. I was in a punk band. You know, like, I was as much a dude as you could possibly be. But I also just had this - you know, this other thing that I wanted to try.

BRIGER: Yeah. And at some point, you decided to make a go of it, right? Like, you must have been getting some encouragement from her and then from other people to sort of get you to take a chance and to move to LA eventually.

RUFFALO: Well, my family moved to San Diego the day after I graduated from high school. And, you know, all my friends had gotten into colleges. I didn't get into any colleges. I was a terrible student. I didn't even really apply to that many. And I ended up in San Diego, and I didn't have a plan. And, you know, through a whole fantastical set of circumstances, I heard about the Stella Adler Conservatory in Los Angeles that was, like, two hours away.

BRIGER: Was Stella Adler teaching there when you were there?

RUFFALO: Yeah, yeah, she was there. But, you know, I had the good fortune of walking in the school, and there's a woman there, Joanne Linville, who I recognized immediately as the Romulan commander of "Star Trek."

(LAUGHTER)

RUFFALO: And she said, what are you doing here? And I said, I don't have an audition. I don't know what I'm doing. I don't have any real training. But I want to spend my life being an actor. And she said, well, darling, you've come to the right place. And she really took me under her wing. And I wasn't good (laughter) in the beginning, and it took me a long time. You know who I was in class with who was amazing was Benicio Del Toro. Like, literally the second he walked in, he was amazing. And I looked at him, I was like, oh, my God, I'll never be that guy. And yeah, it took me a long time and a lot of auditions before I started to figure out what I was doing.

BRIGER: Well, it's been a real pleasure speaking with you. Mark Ruffalo, thanks so much for coming on the show.

RUFFALO: Thanks, Sam. It was a great interview. It was, really, a great interview. I appreciate it.

BIANCULLI: Mark Ruffalo speaking with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger last month. Ruffalo is nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in the film "Poor Things." The Academy Awards are this Sunday, scheduled to be broadcast by ABC. On Monday's show, comic writer, director and actor Julio Torres talks about the absurd obstacles he faced in the U.S. immigration system after coming to the States from El Salvador. He satirizes the system in his new film, "Problemista." He formerly wrote for "Saturday Night Live" and co-wrote and starred in HBO's "Los Espookys." I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Adam Staniszewski. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN'S "IN THE SPIRIT OF BADEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Sam Briger