For a while, it looked as if Mark Ruffalo owned the patent on slacker-speak, playing grown-up boys who refused to become men.
As Warren, the Reagan-era pothead in Kenneth Lonergan’s hit play “This Is Our Youth,” Ruffalo was sweet-faced yet damaged, the eternal kid trying to be cool. Ruffalo appeared in two separate off-Broadway runs of the play - in 1996 and 1998.
But it was Ruffalo’s co-starring role in a Lonergan film, the sleeper 2000 hit “You Can Count on Me,” that was his breakout part. As Terry Prescott, the nomadic brother to Laura Linney’s single mom, Ruffalo made an indelible drifter - a boy-man hesitant with words and haunted by life.
Now 35, Ruffalo is a kid no more, as is clear from his performance as Malloy, the detective who romances Meg Ryan in the Jane Campion film “In the Cut.”
Q: Was it nice at last to play a proper grown-up?
Ruffalo: Malloy’s a man, and I was dying to play a man. I am a man. I have a wife (Sunrise) and a (2-year-old) child. I have responsibilities; I’ve always had responsibilities. Several times, I’ve had people say to me, ‘We’re really surprised you speak so well; you’re articulate.’ They think I’m either Terry Prescott or Warren. But, I mean, I’m an actor.
Q: Between “This Is Our Youth” and “You Can Count on Me,” do you feel as if you owe your career to Kenneth Lonergan?
Ruffalo: He really has contributed in a very big way. I was really lucky to run across Kenny after 15 years of slogging around in the lower depths of acting hell; finally, I was touched by an angel.
Q: “In the Cut” is pretty in your face. Will people come see the movie?
Ruffalo: I kinda feel like they might fall for it, in a weird way - like the ‘Seven’ audience: whoever went to see ‘Seven’ is going to go see this movie. And just visually speaking, there’s a whole visual narrative outside of the actual story that’s so poetic; it really is.
Q: You have two other films coming out - “My Life Without Me,” with Sarah Polley, and Jim Carrey’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Is it nice to achieve this degree of attention when you aren’t 21?
Ruffalo: It’s odd - blessings often times come disguised as a curse. At the time, I was really impatient about it, of course, but now I feel really lucky that it’s taken me so long. I know what I’m doing now. If you’re young, and it comes too fast, you don’t read anything. All you read are scripts, and you pull out of life.
Q: Have recent life events renewed your commitment to acting?
Ruffalo: Man, I was out of acting; I thought I was never going to act again. I had a brain tumor (in 2001); it was benign and they removed it. I came out of surgery and I could move my face, but two days later the left side of it went paralyzed. I had a 12 percent chance that the left side of my face might die - that the nerve would be severed and destroyed. I was struggling for 10 months before it came back.
Q: So life now, presumably, is good?
Ruffalo: I was lucky, man; I feel really lucky. It was hell, absolute hell, but out of it I sort of got my priorities straight. I realized what I love about what I do and about my life. In a weird way, (the tumor) turned out to be this enormous sort of gift.