Mark Ruffalo Steps Into The Spotlight

The Oscar hopeful on fame, selfies and his latest acclaimed role

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How handsome is Mark Ruffalo? It's a question I ask myself as he leans forward in the chair opposite, clasps his hands together and greets me with a wide grin. "Let's do this," he says, in London to promote his new Oscar-nominated film Spotlight, where, as ever with these things, we don't have much time.

I am wondering how handsome Ruffalo is, not because his appearance is in any way strange – he's greying a little in the temples, but he's slim and in good shape, somewhat rakish in a breton T and an old denim shirt under a navy blazer – but because it is genuinely puzzling that, at 48 years old, 16 years after his breakout performance in You Can Count On Me drew comparisons with Marlon Brandon, Ruffalo still doesn't seem that famous, still has the air of someone 'coming up'.

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"It has changed in the last year or so," he tells me when I ask him about fame.

"I get recognised more now. More requests for selfies. My wife has noticed it. The only time I don't like it is when I am with my kids."

I wonder if this is thanks to his extraordinary turn in last year's Foxcatcher, the critically-acclaimed wrestling drama that won Ruffalo the first of his Best Supporting Actor Oscar nods (he lost out to J. K Simmons), but he thinks it is more down to the second Avengers film, which probably makes sense.

Still, the fame thing is curious. Unlike many male stars, Ruffalo had neither a 'heart-throb' nor a frat boy comedy phase to establish him as a household name in his twenties. Not handsome enough for the first but too handsome for the other, perhaps. Instead, his was a succession of supporting roles in acclaimed but relatively low-key movies like The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004), Zodiac (2007) and Shutter Island (2010). Now though, despite the lack of leading roles, he is closing in on most actors want in the end: the respect of their peers and recognition as a serious master of the craft.

In Spotlight Ruffalo plays Michael Rezendes, a real-life Boston Globe reporter who, together with his team (played by a fantastic cast including Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton and John Slattery), uncovers the child sex abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church in 2001, not just in America but around the world.

Spotlight is gripping from the first minute to the last, and a refreshing contender for Best Film at this year's Oscars because it deliberately shuns so many Oscar-worthy attributes. It is a technically unfussy, story-driven drama that, as Ruffalo puts it, "has no actor-y moments".

"I loved that about it," he says. "That it is all subtext. There are a few places where the character's personal lives come into view, but not many. In that sense it's also a reflection of their lives at that time, because they didn't have any lives They just had the hunt for the story."

An ensemble piece that goes out of its way to keep its stars in the background is a tough project in which to shine but as the Academy have recognised with his second nomination in two years, Ruffalo manages it. As with Foxcatcher, he seems to inhabit the character so completely you almost forget who he is. In that respect there is something of the Phillip Seymour Hoffman about him, that feeling you're seeing him anew each time.

Ruffallo talks about "still getting used to acting" - a strange phrase for someone who has starred in more than fifty films – insisting he is still "trying new things".

"The physical life of a character is a very interesting thing to me," he says. "And I find playing a real life person to be very challenging and subtle work. I enjoy the discipline of it and seeing how far you can take it."

More than once he mentions the 'weight' of telling such an important and distressing true story.

"There was an added pressure to get it right," he admits. "Because for many of the victims, justice still hasn't been completely served, even to this day."

"It also strengthened what I already believed about journalism – its importance. I know people don't like journalists but I actually hold them in very high regard - I am talking outside of 'gossip', you know."

Ruffallo says if he hadn't become an actor he would have become a teacher, but probably lacked the brains (you suspect that's nonsense). When he's not working he likes to spend time with his family in New York - he has a 15-year-old son and two younger daughters - "just lounging around with them and sometimes going snowboarding". He has just started taking drawing classes, but is finding it hard going. His favourite quote is from Michael Stipe:

Redefine all that has been taught you,
Grasp the unobtainable,
Plummet head long first,
Understand the power of a single action

In February, he will be at the Oscars again, a ceremony he only managed to attend for 15 minutes last year because he had to fly off to make another film. He's in a tough group - Tom Hardy (The Revenant) and Christian Bale (The Big Short) are both likely to be favourites ahead of him.

But even if Ruffalo does miss out for the second year in a row, you suspect it won't be long before he's up there doing his acceptance speech: handsome, yes, but more importantly, prepared to take his time.

What do you think?

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