During actor Mark Ruffalo’s early career struggles, the handsome and humble star of “Zodiac,” “The Brothers Bloom” and “Shutter Island” admits to having performed strange jobs for money (“things that weren’t exactly above board, but weren’t hurting anybody”), but donating sperm wasn’t one of those. However, if you’d care to imagine what Ruffalo’s good genes might produce, look no further than “High Art” director Lisa Cholodenko’s progressive new dramedy “The Kids Are All Right.”
Ruffalo co-stars as Paul, a blithe bachelor and L.A. restaurateur who discovers his most personal of donations has resulted in two teenage kids who have been raised by a lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore). An unconventional bonding ensues, not only between Paul and his offspring, but between him and Moore’s straight-curious character. I sat down with Ruffalo to discuss potentially awkward sex scenes, his best dish, and the stigma against actors who become filmmakers (such as himself).
How conventional was your family growing up?
I think it was pretty traditional. Big Italian family, and a lot of family around a lot. My parents were together until I was in my mid-20s. They were really open parents, and sweet, and weren’t really strict with us. So maybe it wasn’t in that sense, but then, what is a traditional family?
Before you were married, were you as carefree a bachelor as Paul?
I wish I was. I had two things going against me: I didn’t have money and I had too much conscience. I had a pathological, overly active conscience that felt like you couldn’t really sleep with two women at the same time. [laughs] I tried juggling many different mates, but in the end, it was just too exhausting. It’s a lot of work to get that lifestyle going.
Speaking of mates, I read that your wife Sunrise Coigney is friends with Julianne Moore. Even as a professional actor, did it make your racy scenes together awkward?
You’d be surprised. It actually takes a lot of pressure off. I don’t have to go home and hear, “Who is she? What was she like? You’re into her!” When a woman doesn’t know, when it’s a question mark, an unknown, they fill the void with the worst. But because they’re friends, she knows, loves and trusts Julie. In a weird way, it was a lot easier than it was with [co-star YaYa DaCosta], so to speak.
So you’ve had that awkwardness with other actresses?
Yeah, can you imagine your spouse going off and doing that? That would suck. I wouldn’t be into that, and I know guys are dogs, too. [laughs]
Why is that? Or specifically in this film’s case, why are men prone to seeking unusual conquests?
Well, genetically, I think it’s to keep the human race going, but there’s some ego in it. I think Paul lives his life purely for his own pleasure. When he hears he has two kids, it’s a vague curiosity and there’s a bit of machismo in it: “Yeah, I made them.” Then he’s taken by them, and you see a really confident man fall apart at the seams.
Where do your own worldly pleasures lie, outside of work?
Honestly, just being with my kids and having nothing to do but swim and run around and play video games. Whatever they’re doing is a real gift to me.
Are you much of a foodie, like Paul the restaurant owner?
Yeah, I come from an Italian family. My grandfather had a big garden, so it’s not that foreign to me. I’ve had gardens over the years whenever I could. I had to support myself by my garden, and I’m a passable cook. I could work my way around the kitchen. I make a pretty mean eggplant parmigiana. I have about six eggplants growing in my garden right now, so I’m looking forward to harvesting them. It’s my wife’s favorite thing. She could literally have that every night.
You’ve said before that Lisa Cholodenko is wonderful with actors. How so?
It takes a special kind of director to trust an actor, and to open themselves up to having an actor bring something that maybe wasn’t what they saw or thought. Lisa is a rare director that knows actors, by the time you’ve finished your first week of shooting, probably know the characters better than the writer or the director. She creates a safe environment, and she casts well. She knows what to bring out of people.
Because of that, you feel free to move and live between the lines. She lingers on a scene. She loves behavior. She’s not afraid to explore. You’re not getting, “Well, the line is actually… I really just want you to say the line like it is.” It’s not that formal. You get a chance to stretch yourself out. That’s a fun way of working.
But you’ve worked with greats like Martin Scorsese, Jane Campion and David Fincher. Can you think of any instances that are specific to Cholodenko?
In the sex scenes, as odd and uncomfortable those are, we knew we wanted it to be funny. How do you make a sex scene funny? When Jules is riding Paul and using his face as a pommel, that was a moment that showed an interesting side of human sexuality that we don’t get to see often in film.