While speaking with Mark Ruffalo it’s easy to understand why Ryan Murphy insisted he was the only actor to play the coveted role of Ned Weeks, a gay writer who evolves into a walking bullhorn of an activist that he was needed to be during the devastating early years of the AIDS crisis, in the long-awaited, star-studded film adaptation of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (premiering on HBO tonight). Although Ruffalo is usually cast as soft-spoken, sensitive characters in quieter films such as the LGBT-themed The Kids Are All Right and his breakthrough drama You Can Count On Me, Ned isn’t so far removed from the actor’s best-known role as Bruce Banner who turns into the Hulk when outraged in the blockbuster The Avengers. In real life, the 46-year-old father of three is also an unflinchingly dedicated activist who raises his voice about issues that provoke his strong sense of injustice, including the struggle for marriage equality. Ruffalo chatted with Queerty about why The Normal Heart is still timely, how he developed romantic chemistry with costar Matt Bomer and the personal reason LGBT equality is so important to him.
I hadn’t seen it, but as a young actor in Los Angeles it was a play that everyone was working on and doing scenes from in class. At the same time the AIDS epidemic was in full bloom and I had friends who had AIDS or were HIV-positive or were fighting AIDS or had passed away from AIDS so it was definitely part of my experience in the mid-to-late ‘80s. It was part of my life.
You’ve spoken out against numerous issues including fracking, climate change and people who want to outlaw abortion. I wonder if your past activism informed your performance and if you think Ned’s work aligns with your own beliefs.
Yeah. My experience doing that kind of work was very informative for my performance. I was reminded of how these different personalities within the group dynamic interact with each other. Every group has a Ned. It takes a lot of different people and their input to make a movement, so I really understood that. I had a lot of compassion for how they got to the place where they’re so upset with each other. The fight seemed so big and impossible to win and the tactics you have to use to be heard…so I was very familiar with a lot of it. A lot of it felt very commonplace to me and useful.
Yeah. [Laughs] I said that to Ryan, but he told me I was missing the point completely. The meaning of the movie is that it doesn’t matter what a person’s sexuality is. He said he chose me because I was the right actor for it. He was much more evolved about it than I was.
Since this is one of the most important gay-themed projects ever written, what kind of pressure did you and the cast and crew feel to get this right?
It was huge. We were all aware of that. Part of the reason I was worried about taking on the role is it means so much to so many people and if we got it wrong it would be a disaster. I didn’t think we were going to get it wrong, but there was an onus on it. We owed it our all. It was important that we just went for it 100 percent. Everyone came to it that way. At the same time, that vulnerability made us embrace each other in a way that was good for the ensemble as a whole. We all felt the weight of the material and the importance of it and the despair of all the people who lost their lives and the people who survived and what they desperately fought for and against. And then there’s Larry Kramer, who’s really ill. He was fighting for his life at the same time we were making the movie and the DOMA trial was going on literally right in the middle of making this. It was so heavy and had such meaning that was coming from so many different areas. None of it was wasted on any of us. At the same time al of that made us vulnerable and fearless. It made you put yourself out there in a way that otherwise we might have been afraid to do.
He only came a few times because he was sick. It was disturbing for him to come. I remember when we did the White Party on Fire Island scene he had to leave. He was there for an hour or two then he had to go. He said, “It’s just too sad for me.” It had to be tough.
Larry is known for being irascible at times and your performance is informed with this quality. Ned seems like a tough character to shake off when the director yelled “cut.” Did you find that his anger was difficult to leave on the set at the end of the day?
Probably. You don’t realize it, but you end up spending most of your day as someone else. You can’t come into contact with those images and those speeches without it affecting you. What I really take away from Larry, or Ned in this particular inception of it, is his love. It’s so great. That’s really what’s driving it all the time. Even if it comes out as anger it’s still based in a deep love. It’s the love of a lot of things. It’s the love of belief in your country, love of democracy, in the belief of your culture and then the love of your friends your lovers. That’s a really powerful healing thing to come into contact with in the face of so much adversity.
A lot of it was just the material and being committed to it. There was a lot of care and reverence toward each other and the journey we were taking together. Those people you carry this story for who are either dead now or suffered or were treated so badly and cruelly you give away your ego to that and then there’s a lot of compassion. And Matt and I have a lot of compassion for each other. We were always checking in and asking “how are you doing?” “Oh, man this is going to be such a tough journey.” This was daunting in different ways for each of us but for similar reasons. So we were raw and I just knew. He’s such a sweet guy and I was so comfortable with him. He’s gay so I was able to rely on him to help me with that even though it’s not that different a straight relationship as you come to find out. He’d never played a gay character either, so that had its own kind of challenge for him. We were both really vulnerable. When you see two people who have chemistry there’s either a lot of trust or some other thing going on between them. But mostly when you’re excited by two people’s chemistry it’s because they really trust each other as performers.
You starred in Kids Are All Right. You cast transgender actors in the film you directed Sympathy for Delicious. And you and your wife appeared in a video for marriage equality. Why have you taken such a personal interest in gay rights and stories that portray positive images of LGBT people?
It started with my upbringing. We believed in equality between men and women and between races and between sexes. This idea of equality for human beings applied to people’s sexuality to me, as well. When I was growing up people were in the closet. When I was in high school my best friend came out to me. I thought he was the only gay person who could possibly be in the whole town. He came out to me and I had to really check myself a little bit. At that time, I’m talking 1984-85, homosexuality was still this fringe thing. It wasn’t out in the open. In certain places you could be gay, but in other places you knew not to be and that was acceptable to the gay community as well as the straight community for the most part. What these guys did and much to Larry Kramer’s genius was to say no, this isn’t cutting it. We have to be gay everywhere. There’s no shame in who we are. We have to let the world no who we are. Otherwise we will always be the other. They will never know us as them. I was 17 years old and my best friend came out to me with basically a declaration of love attached to it. I had to look into myself and ask myself “How do you feel about that and how does that sit with your values of equality?” It took me a moment to get my head around it, but I didn’t stop being his friend. Actually, to a larger degree he felt more uncomfortable about it than I did. Leading up to his telling me he was in so much pain and physical agony. I could see he was disturbed and I kept asking, “What’s the matter?” He said, “I can’t tell you.” This was going on for weeks. I asked if he killed somebody. I couldn’t figure out why he was suffering so much that he couldn’t talk about. Then he told me he was gay. So I started looking around and thought that was messed up. I looked around and understood he didn’t have a choice about it. It was very clear to me as a 17-year-old that that wasn’t something you chose. Why would you choose to live under such angst and persecution. Who would choose that? That’s the way the culture responded at that time.
When you began your acting career you must have encountered more gay people who helped you evolve even further.
As I grew up and got to know more gay people and came to Hollywood and had friends who were gay, I wondered how can you look at these people and think they’re not as good as you. I started to develop this real righteousness about it or a feeling of justice about it, especially when I saw the persecution. The “fag” talk really started to rub me wrong. When we were living in Los Angeles my son had a friend whose parents were a gay couple and he played at their house. This guy had been a friend of mine for years and he found someone he loved. This was when Prop 8 was starting to go down. I was like “This is fucking bullshit man!” My son goes to their house every single day and not once did he ever come home and ask why his friend had two papas. Not once. Their house was no different than mine. They ran a better household than we did. There were such lies being told about these beautiful people. He asked, “Would you come to a rally and speak for us?” I said, “Absolutely.” As an actor you have a responsibility to speak out on things you believe in. That became my introduction to that world. The more I saw it happening, the more outraged I got at how it was being handled. At the end of the day the only thing they could do was lie and cast aspersions on people’s character. There was nothing of value about science or society or humanity or any in depth understanding of religion. So that’s why it became important to me.
I think it’s that this really happened in America. This is part of our history and we are better by facing it and embracing it and understanding truthfully what happened. I was talking to a lot of young gay people who don’t even really understand. I spoke to a young reporter who didn’t know that that had happened. Not only is it important because AIDS is still an issue, but this is your history. Gay marriage is happening today because of these guys, this handful of men and women who put their lives and souls and reputations and careers on the line for something bigger than themselves changed the world and have informed all modern activism today. There’s not one activist group, whether it’s right or left, whether they hate gays or love them, that doesn’t use tactics and the strategic mastermind playbook that these people created. That’s significant to us. And by the way, this is still happening all over the place in different forms, with climate change, with gay marriage, toward Muslims…This bigotry, this fear, this lack of compassion is alive and well and it should be routed out and we should do it the kind of love that these guys had. Ultimately, the message of this movie is that love conquers all and love is the grace that transcends any kind of injustice in the end.