Mark Ruffalo Reveals The Message Of “The Normal Heart” And The Personal Reason LGBT Equality Is Important To Him


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.

the-normal-heartWhat attracted you to The Normal Heart? Had you seen the original 1985 production or the Broadway revival?

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.

the-normal-heart-1024There are some vocal people out there who believe gay men should be cast as gay characters. Did you, as a straight man, have any trepidations about playing such an iconic gay role?

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.

ruffaloBesides writing the screenplay, how involved was Larry during filming?

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.

images-1You and Matt Bomer have really strong chemistry and are completely believable as a couple in love. How did you two become so at ease with one another?

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.

10258732_654931027877142_681272169548943897_n-452x670You 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.

lead_largeWhat do you want people to take away from The Normal Heart or what do you see as the story’s ultimate message?

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.

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  • middleagespread

    Makes me like him even more.

  • sejjo

    Great interview, great guy.

  • toberlin

    1.I use to like Matt Boomer as an Actor.I never waste one Thought on his sexual Orientation till a Friend of mine told me that he is gay.And I still waste no time to think about his sexual Orientation/private Live etc.when I watch a show with him…I said it.
    2.Good Interview.EQUALITY:
    Beautiful or Ugly,all People should have the same rights and feel free not to think so much about their sexual Orientation or Gender…

  • Mezaien

    I am not sure who have started this war , but the Anunnaki, fought for their equality thousand years a go.

  • Desert Boy

    36 million people worldwide have died of AIDS as of 2014. Would the outcome be different if the U.S. has made finding a cure for HIV a priority? I think so. All of this happened before I was born. What I took away from the story was the utter incompetence and neglect by the Reagan administration. He just didn’t give a damn.

  • breal

    Excellent interview. Kudos to Ruffalo.

    One thing he makes a great point about is history. People forget the many people who died from this disease and also the many people who suffered emotional and physical abuse fighting for equality.

    We really should stop and think about that from time.

  • BJ McFrisky

    I cannot take seriously the opinion of any mega-rich actor who trumpets the evils of fracking and global warming while jetting around the world with impunity. Hypocrisy like that lends one’s voice no credibility whatsoever.

    Having said that, it was a pretty good movie. Ruffalo, however, is at best a capable actor.

  • pierre

    @BJ McFrisky: You are a cold, bitter, nasty creature.

  • stranded

    Liked the movie very much. Powerful and heartbreaking. But to be honest, Ruffalo wasn’t my favorite in it. There was so much raw emotion from so many actors, but he seemed subdued.

  • toberlin

    I haven’t seen the movie with Matt Bomer:) till now because of heartbreaking part…need to be in a good mood for these kind of movies

  • Cam


    It’s what he does. If there is anybody pro-gay in the post BJ will automatically either attack them, or support and defend anybody anti-gay written about.

    As for the Normal Heart, can’t wait to see it.

  • toberlin

    …thought the film starts running already .I know I will not watch it in cinema .I will get whiny for sure so everybody knows this here and just asks me to watch movies like this on DVD…

  • Absinthe_Alice

    @Desert Boy: The actual “REAL” research and development of treatments didn’t truly begin in earnest until the cause of actor Rock Hudson’s illness was released. Once HIV literally exploded in the media with Hollywood movers and shakers, THAT is when you can pinpoint the government actually began to step in.

    I’ve lost more dear and sincerely loved friends than I care to mention here. I apologize if it seemed like a lecture or a rant. The movie did what it was intended to do. Make people remember and talk about it again. HIV & AIDS haven’t been cured… yet. Close, maybe… but not close enough.

  • BJ McFrisky

    @pierre: Did I state something untrue, or is it just that opinions that clash with yours make you cold, bitter and nasty?

  • Kenover

    I love Mark Ruffalo. A great actor and a fantastic human being.

  • Ben Dover

    @BJ McFrisky: “cold, bitter, nasty creature”

    Maybe it was your clammy, reptilian nature, and all the hissing, and your saying “PRECIOUSSSSS” all the time. Oh, and your uncanny ability to grab a fish right out of the water and chomp it whole. Gollum, gollum, gollum, gollum…

  • lusitania

    For all those faggots, queers, poof and butt munchers out there. that have been aroun the scene for 2 minutes, and seem to think that, the words we call each other. are what the fight for gay equality is all about. for those that think that o ne gay person calling another gay person a fag is internal homophobia. and the what the gay movement is all about i say to u this…. grow the hell up! watch HBO’s the normal heart. then manage to obtain a copy of “And the band played on” and watch that to. THAT is what Equality is all about.
    fighting to literally stay alive and not be ignored by those that want us dead. that is what we should still be fighting for. not attacking our ally’s and each other…take a look at those films, and remembering that the reality was so much worse than u and i will ever know. because of those that came and died before us. then tell me that u have the right to tell those very people what word is considered offensive…like a word is even important!!!

  • jasentylar

    @Ben Dover: Can we not bash someone because their opinion differs from ours? It’s that kind of intolerance we fight against. Lets respect that we have the right to voice our opinions and be better for it. I don’t agree with BJ, but he has a right to say his piece.

  • Ben Dover

    @jasentylar: Sweetie, that kind of namby-pamby attitude is exactly what he takes advantage of.

    BJ has this weird idea that liberals are all trying to be “tolerant” all the time. So he loves to say “gotcha” and call people hypocrites. Somehow the supposed hypocrisy trumps the merits of any policy issue.

    By contrast, nobody can call conservatives hypocrites because conservatives like BJ take pride in being hateful, nasty fucks, and in trashing the environment on purpose, and so on.

    “I don’t agree with BJ, but he has a right to say his piece.” Sure, and nobody’s stopping him.

    But tolerance is way overrated IMO. Enough already.

  • Ben Dover

    @jasentylar: Anyway – I agree with BJ that it’s a pretty good movie!

    Also agree with the poster above who notes that Ruffalo seems unexpectedly subdued in it.

  • inbama

    @BJ McFrisky:

    Ruffalo gave a terrific performance – Larry Kramer, founder of both GMHC and ACT UP – is a genuine hero. He can also be insufferably self-righteous and unsympathetic.

    It is one of the sadder aspects of modern times that we expect artists, politicians and scientists to be normal, moral and likeable people when what we really need is greatness.

  • Lefty

    @lusitania: Well said, sir! x

  • Paul

    We had to FIGHT for our lives! I was there, I saw my friends dying. I saw people dying. It was a FIGHT! Many brave people had to become activists of one form or another and pound it into the politicians’ heads that SOMETHING HAD TO BE DONE! We marched! We protested! We bled! We cried! We became a stronger community. STRENGTH THROUGH MANY! I am alive today to share the stories of those that fought before. Many are not here. If you want to see the lives lost on a grand scale, Look at pictures of the AIDS Quilts. My friends names are there.

  • Ben Dover

    @BJ McFrisky: Gollum was smart, resourceful, and good with riddles. In fact, if you think about it, Gollum is the hero of the story! He saved Middle Earth by destroying Sauron’s ring. (Albeit unintentionally.) That weenie Frodo tried, but couldn’t bring himself to do it.

    Frodo was a typical liberal: all talk, no action. It took a conservative man of action… I mean, dried-up old ghost of a hobbit of action like Gollum, to actually get it done. Too bad he got himself killed in the volcano, but otherwise he’s a good example for you, BJ. So, please consider it a flattering comparison. :-)

  • BJ McFrisky

    @Ben Dover: Well golly gee, your flattery is somewhat overwhelming—I mean, gosh, being compared to Gollum, oh dear, I’ve never been paid so high a compliment, I just, I just, I just—like, wow!

  • Ben Dover

    One thing that surprises me about The Normal Heart is that Larry Kramer seems to tacitly admit that some of his methods MAY have been counter-productive.

    When one character quotes the saying “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” LK/Ruffalo just scoffs. (And a few scenes later, gets fired from GMHC.)

    Calling your own friends “murderers” is probably not the best use of excitable gay-stereotypical hyperbole. For one thing, it doesn’t leave much room to describe the real murderers.

    And then there was the odd scene where the self-righteous self-proclaimed romantic LK/Ruffalo doesn’t even remember previously having sex with a new friend years earlier (in a bathhouse yet, LOL).

    Surprising that LK ever admits he might be wrong about anything, ever! – if that’s what he did here.

  • reeshard

    The lionizing of Ronald Reagan by the right wingers continues even though he & red-obsessed Nancy were the ones who actually headed up the ‘Evil Empire’ and did less than nothing to stop the epidemic.
    Ed Koch totally qualifies as a closeted & clueless narcissistic windbag.
    NYC and the US deserved better, but instead got strapped with these self-aggrandizing scum.
    A perfect storm of incompetence and moral vacuum.
    Best line: “I don’t think they like us.”

  • Blackceo

    This movie was so amazing. Phenomenal acting job by Bomer, Ruffalo, Parsons, and Roberts. I watched it with some friends and definitely noticed an age gap in terms of the emotions that came out. My age group (36 and younger) were not as emotional as the older guys for obvious reasons. I was 5 years old in 1983 so it wasn’t until I got much older that I read about and saw via TV documentaries and other movies about the panic and isolation during the early years of the AIDS epidemic.

    The older guys I watched it with cried during various moments of the film because they remember the early days and lost friends during that time from AIDS. May seem strange but the one scene that really got me was when Bomer’s character visited Ruffalo’s brother (Alfred Molina) and then collapsed and then at the hospital when Molina hugged Ruffalo and they both sobbed in each other’s arms. Of all the very emotional scenes in that film (particularly Bomer breaking down in the shower) the hug between Molina and Ruffalo was so poignant because for so long Ruffalo’s character wanted his brother to just accept him. They had gone so long without talking and it was just a great moment to see them come together at the end. Ruffalo’s character definitely needed him after that given he had just been banished by the Gay Mens Health Crisis Org, and he was about to lose his partner.

    I saw an interview with Ryan Murphy and I appreciated what he said in the interview about wanting to make this movie to get people fired up again because he feels people have become too apathetic. The new “face of HIV/AIDS” is very different than it was back in the early 80s. It is of epidemic proportions amongst young, low income Black and Latino males, and amongst Black women. There is still so much that needs to be done to educate and instill prevention among this group. I’ve read other stats though that in all demographics, the amount of bareback sex has increased sharply over the past decade. I think there is this false sense of security that because HIV is no longer a death sentence that people aren’t as cautious and/or have that “it won’t happen to me” mentality, or have that “he looks healthy” naivete. We need those loud voices again sounding the horn that yes there have been amazing advancements in medicine, but that prevention is the key to stopping the spread of new cases.

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