Interview: Mark Ruffalo on ‘Sympathy for Delicious,’ Artistic Integrity, and Commercialism

By  · Published on May 12th, 2011

Sympathy for Delicious marks Mark Ruffalo’s directorial debut. It explores themes of faith, selfishness, and also, in a way, artistic integrity. It chronicles the story of a man, Dean (screenwriter Christopher Thornton), who discovers he has the gift to heal others. Ultimately, he uses this gift for financial gain. Instead of doing something bold and wonderful, he sells out, and one could apply that idea plenty of actors who don’t act under the purest of intentions. Some see it as a business and some see it as an art form, and Mark Ruffalo falls into the latter category.

Speaking with Ruffalo, the actor reminded me quite a bit of his character Paul from The Kids Are All Right. He didn’t come off as an oblivious hipster, but one of those rare people ‐ mainly, actors ‐ that seemed completely comfortable in his own skin. Even over the phone, there was a laid back and open quality to him that set a smooth and easygoing tone for the conversation.

The actor/director was nice enough to make the time for an interview while on the set of another one of his little ensemble indies, The Avengers, and we discussed at length the challenge of keeping artistic integrity in a business, the themes of Sympathy for Delicious, finding realism in take 100, and even Michel Gondry.

Note: If they ever make an epic Michel Gondry biopic, Ruffalo has a spot on impersonation that makes him the obvious choice to portray the man and his wonderful accent.

The film explores the idea of “selling out” and losing artistic integrity. Is that an idea that you and Christopher Thornton wanted to delve into?

You know, there is that question. There’s the commodification of everything in our culture, and I think that’s an interesting thing to talk about. We live in a very selfish culture. It’s a culture where money is above all else. It’s the most worshiped thing in America [Laughs]. We’re taught to get it, no matter the cost or whom we have to climb over to do it. I just thought that was an interesting dilemma to have all these people trying to commodify this gift. The movie is really meant to be a parable. I don’t believe in faith healing, and I was just using that as a jumping off point to have this discussion about the commodification of everything.

Is commodification something you think about when it comes to choosing roles? Do you think it’s tough for an actor to maintain their artistic integrity?

I’ve been lucky. I’ve been able to really do things that I’ve been drawn to do. I can honestly say I’ve never done anything just for money, and I’m very proud of that fact and I’ve been able to have a career in spite of it [Laughs]. For me, I’ve been able to do the movies I care about, think would be fun to do, or get to work with people I’m interested in working with. I do think it’s hard, though. I certainly haven’t gotten rich having that be my guide, which is fine with me. I do feel like, as an artist, I still own my career.

Looking at your filmography, you’ve gotten to have your cake and eat it too. The biggest films you’ve done are probably Shutter Island and Zodiac, and you still got to work with great auteurs.

Yeah, I’ve been really lucky that. I’ve gotten to do some big stuff that I think is really, really worthy. I might slip up along the way [laughs], but, for the most part, I feel like I have gotten to do it pretty much my way. I do think of actors as artists. I really believe that. We have a certain responsibility to what we’re putting out in the world. I do feel like I’ve been pretty lucky to maintain some sort of pride over what I’ve been doing.

Is it wrong of Dean to use his gift to make a profit?

I mean, you know, the great modern drama is two truths that are in direct confrontation with each other. I think, in one sense, it’s true to say, “What does it matter?” If you live in a culture that our greatest aspirations are to be rich or wealthy, or not to be homeless, then how can we fault somebody for actually doing that?

Then the other great truth is maybe human decency would bar us from thinking of no one but ourselves, and that’s equally as strong, as noble and kind of worthy and true. The idea that two truths, in some regard, can’t really live side by side with each other is what makes it a really interesting modern drama.

Joe says to Dean, “I can’t pay you for doing God’s work,” in regards to moving people. This is a stretch, but couldn’t you say the same thing for actors? Don’t they use their gift and make a profit from it?

It’s a little bit different because you’re sort of working toward that. This whole idea that this thing just happens to him overnight is another thing.

But I do the acting for free. It’s all the press that they have to pay me to do now. Before I was getting paid to act. Originally I did 30 plays, and I didn’t receive any payment for them, but I derive an enormous amount of pleasure and joy from it. Being able to feed my family on top of that makes it all the more beautiful. I would do it for free if I could and if I wasn’t living in a world where you have to pay for everything.

I do think you have to give back, in some way. I do feel like that’s an important thing as an artist or someone who has a gift. It shouldn’t just be all monetized.

If you help make a good theatrical experience, that’s giving back, in a way.

[Laughs] I hope so! I mean that’s really why I got into it, that kind of communal experience, and to tell stories, which I think can be very, in a weird way, healing to people and bring us together as human beings, and illuminate the condition of being a human being.

I hope that that’s what it is. It’s such an abstract idea. And please don’t tell my agents or people in the business this [Laughs], but it’s abstract to be… the idea of receiving money for it, it’s great, but it’s something that is very abstract to me in a strange way. I don’t equate it to money, so I equate it to, “How are people going to like it? Is it going to speak to people?”

I do think it’s good to be paid. In the world we’re living in, that’s just the way it is. What makes it different is when… Like, I’m doing okay. There’s an enormous amount of selfishness in the world as well, and that’s what I was interested in. I understand why people are selfish, too. I get the world that we’re living in. I mean, if we’re talking about Sympathy for Delicious, to do a selfish act, there’s a gift in that for the person doing the act that isn’t a monetary gift.

Doing theater for all those years, I loved doing that because I really got something from the experience of having an audience be moved or having them laugh or just simply being entertained, and that was its own sort of gift or its own payment in a way.

Even though the concept is heightened, the film is very grounded in reality. What sort of atmosphere did you create on set as a director to achieve that tone?

Well, what I’d say about that movie, none of it happened, but it’s all true. It’s so outrageous that I felt like the only way I could pull it off was just to make it as honest as possible ‐ to make the people in it and what they’re doing as honest as possible, even when they’re being outlandish.

I like to collaborate and I like to create a safe space for people to feel free to kind of explore, to find their way, or to explain to them, but mostly to push them outside of their norm a little bit. I had a lot of understanding of those worlds. I lived near Skid Row as a young actor. I fed the homeless. I worked at a guitar store. I had helped a lot with really big rock ’n’ roll personalities and bands, and I worked at a rock ’n’ roll bar. I’ve lived in Hollywood for 15 years. All of those aspects of it I knew pretty well, so it was just looking toward reality. You know, is this real? Is this honest? Basically, I just kept that as a principle guide for the movie.

You mentioned how you wanted to create a very safe environment on set where an actor could feel free to try anything. What’s it like working in an environment where you don’t have that sense of freedom, where the filmmaker is more calculating?

That’s like its own style. When you’re an actor, you’re sort of entering into a new world and a new style. Each director has their own style and creates their own world, and my job is to go inhabit that world and play the style. In the theater there’s many, many different styles of acting. There’s histrionic, there’s realism, there’s naturalism, there’s clowning, and there’s slapstick, so it’s pretty broad.

As a young actor in theater you learn all these different styles, so you become very plastic. You become very valuable to a style. It’s its own challenge trying to find the style and also still be creative inside of it, even if the style itself is very stilted. So I find that I get off on the letting myself go inside of whatever the director is trying to create, or try to serve that as much as possible.

Is it difficult when what a director maybe doesn’t give you the chance to do something that you think would be…

Well, you don’t always feel great about it. You might be a little like, “I don’t really see it that way,” but he’s the boss, man. You always sort of… that’s just kind of the nature of the beast. I have a very loose acting style and I kinda try to go for realism, and a lot of directors who don’t work that way aren’t going to necessarily hire me. They know what I do, for the most part, and they want me for that or don’t want me for that.

So I’ve never really found myself in a place where I’m, like, “Oh God, what the hell am I doing here? This sucks.” I feel like that’s always a little bit at the beginning, sort of, “Why did they pick me?” But in time I start to relax. I’ve never really felt just totally, completely out of it or not really respected or desired for what I bring or do. I’ve been lucky that way.

When you work with a director like David Fincher, what’s it like finding realism in, say, take 97 of a scene?

Funny enough, it’s a lot like theater working with him. In a lot of movies you don’t get that much time to figure out really what you’re doing. Plus, wen you do a play, you’ll do 100 performances. You don’t even hit your stride until you do 100 performances in theater.

So I am really enjoying that process. At first I thought, “Oh my God, I’m stinking so badly that he just has to keep going over and over again.” Then one day he literally was walking right towards me and walked right by me, and he moved a background artist a couple inches behind me. I realized, “Oh my god, this guy’s not…” I’m only 20% of the frame. Fincher is taking a stab at eternity here. He knows exactly what he wants and he’s going to get it.

He also does live frames. Especially in Zodiac, he didn’t want to do a lot of coverage. He really loves and respects actors working off of each other and he thinks it’s a shame to have to cut away. He wants them all firing on full cylinders all at the same time. He’s going for a certain kind of perfection, which is his style.

After the initial shock of it, or self-doubt, or lack of confidence, I realized what he was doing and then I was happy to do it. Because of my theater training, you can do it in 90 takes. You can get actually better. It doesn’t go away. There’s always new ways to find it. One of my favorite experiences was working with him on Zodiac, honestly.

Is it even more rewarding when you actually get to see the final film?

Yes. I really love that movie. It’s just a fine piece of filming. I think it will be remembered well. Yeah, it’s very rewarding. I adore David. He’s a young master in a strange way.

Don’t you think it’s already starting to get its recognition? I don’t think you could look at a top 100 films of the decade list last year without seeing Zodiac on there.

Yes, yes, yes. You’re right. It was vindicating to see that. It didn’t have that kind of cache when it came out. You know, we know that’s true. A lot of good movies do take their time for people to find them. Fincher put that genre on its head a little bit, and they didn’t like that [Laughs].

When do you think we’ll actually be able to see Margaret?

[Sighs] Oh, it’s so… I don’t know. Marty Scorsese has come on now to do a pass on it with Kenneth. It was a movie that started at 186 pages. It was just a very, very finely interwoven piece of material and it’s so beautiful. When he tried to cut it down, he had a very hard time. The studio was saying they wanted no more than two hours, and the rough cut I saw was a little bit over three hours long. It was absolutely incredible. It was beautiful, moving, and such a fine piece of work on so many levels. It was beautifully shot, beautifully acted, and the writing is incredible. It’s a love story to a post-9/11 America and New York City.

He couldn’t get it cut down. He had a really hard time. The studio, basically, said they weren’t going to release it. That’s where it’s been. It got tied up in lawsuits with Gary Gilbert, who tried to take the movie away and have someone else edit it behind Kenny’s back. It was a surreal, big, ugly thing. Now Kenny has got it and Marty is kinda arbitrating his cut. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing it soon.

Do you think he could get it down to two hours?

I’m sure he could get it down to two hours, but I shutter to think what he’s going to lose because what I saw in three hours was so beautifully interwoven. He asked me specifically to look at it for what he could cut, and besides clipping off a few tails of some scenes, I thought it was like a house of cards. I really didn’t know what card you could pullout without it falling down. I told him he made a masterpiece, but it just happened to be in the wrong decade and the wrong country. I’m hoping if you see that two-hour version, it will have the same impact the three-hour version has. I have a feeling you’ll be impressed one way or another.

My final question: I’m talking to Michel Gondry in the next week or so, and whenever people talk about Gondry, they always mention his visuals, not the great performances he gets. How is he as a collaborator when it comes to building a character?

You know, he was a great collaborator. We did a lot of improvisation. When you’re an actor and you’re working like that, the characters really start to get nuanced and come to life, even if 95% of that doesn’t make it to the screen. You still sense there’s a real nuanced, complex person under there. He created a very open place for us to be playful and bring our own ideas to it, and he really celebrated those ideas when we came to him with them, even as offbeat as they were. I think that’s really what he does beautifully.

When I met him, I said I imagined Stan [in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind] with this fauxhawk and he said, “[in a perfect Gondry impersonation] A fauxhawk? What do you mean?” and after I said it was like a pompadour, he went, “Oh yes! Pompadour! That’s cool!” I also saw him as someone who plays the bass in his underwear and listens to The Clash ‐ that was just my idea of him. When I read the script, it just said “lab technician.”

Stan always felt like that nerdy, hipster intern that’s still stuck in college.

That’s him [Laughs]. I love him for that.

Sympathy for Delicious is now in limited release.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.