As one of the industry’s most talented actors, Mark Ruffalo managed to elude the attention of casting directors for over a decade during which he survived as a bartender while tending to his own Los Angeles-based theatre company. The son of Italian-American parents, Ruffalo was already 30 when playwright Kenneth Lonergan met him by chance and cast him in his play This Is Our Youth. The collaboration was so successful, Lonergan gave Ruffalo the male lead in his feature directorial debut You Can Count on Me. His performance was so mesmerizing that critics were tripping over themselves with accolades and acting awards.
Seven years later and Ruffalo, 40, has his pick of Hollywood screenplays, including David Fincher’s Zodiac, based on the famous Zodiac serial killer who terrorized the San Francisco area during the 1960s and 1970s. Ruffalo plays Inspector David Toschi who, along with other detectives and journalists, becomes obsessed with the case.
Tandem talked to Mark Ruffalo about Zodiac.
What kind of research did you do for this?
“I actually ended up doing quite a bit of research. The one thing I wanted to do was get together with [real] Dave Toschi. And so I went to San Francisco for a few days and spent some time with him at his work and hanging out with him. And that was a big part of the whole performance, was that time I spent with him.
You’ve played a cop a number of times. Is it a role you like?
“They’re as close to being bad guys as you can get without being a bad guy so they’re walking a very fine line, you know. And I mean they’re certainly in the realm of good and bad and black and white and all that. So it usually has some dramatic stuff around it. It isn’t like I choose it – those are the only jobs they’re giving me, that they offer me. You’d be surprised how little there is of choosing. And it’s ended up that I’ve been a cop a few times now and how that’s happened, I don’t know. I’ve been running from cops most of my life.”
This is different because he’s a real a cop where you’re involved in the nuts and bolts of police procedures.
“Completely, yes. This is the most kind of procedural police work I’ve done and it is all about procedure. I mean the other things that I’ve done was more, like Collateral which is a much bigger cop conceptual thing or In the Cut which is really about the love story. But this is the most procedural thing and that has its own amount of work and research that has to go much deeper than laying in your hand.
What’s the real Toschi like?
“He’s a real guy and I feel like I owe it to him to be as honest about who he was and what it cost him and what he went through as I can for the movie. And that’s basically what I said to him when I went to meet him. He’s like: ‘I just don’t know why you’re here to talk to me’. And I said ‘I’m here because I want to honour you, man. I want try and be as honest about your life as I possibly can in the context of this film.’ I had to say to him four or five times but after a couple of hours he was very open and you know you spend a couple of days with somebody and they start to trust you and then they reveal themselves to you more and more.”
His character’s been played before in movies. If I’m not mistaken Steve McQueen in Bullet was based on him.
“Yeah, he had a pop culture sort of iconoclastic career too. He’s been in front of the cameras. He told me the story about that. He’s like, ‘Oh by the way, he didn’t base his character on me. He saw me getting coffee one day and I had my holster on and he just walked over and said ‘Where did you get that holster?’ and that’s really as far as it goes’. But then he brings in his pictures of him and Steve McQueen and Michael Douglas.”
Could you relate to the obsessive nature of his character?
“I’ve been doing this for 20 something years and you have to be a little obsessed I think to keep going. I don’t have that kind of obsession. I guess I do in my acting and what I want and what I’d like my career to look like and all that and I keep hammering at it and this was like a career defining moment for him. And actually when it all blew up in his face it destroyed him and his family.”
Why did you take this role?
“The first thing was that David Fincher rang and I’d always liked to work with him. And then I pretty much go by the material. I mean that’s pretty much first and foremost. Then I read it and I just thought there’s a whole metaphorical side to this movie about where we are in the world today and about the way we treat evidence and law and presumptions and so that also struck me as well. Sociologically where we are today in the world because of a lot of presumptions, because we didn’t follow the letter of the law in evidence, because we weren’t as thorough maybe as some of these cops were back then. And so there was that aspect of it too. There was the metaphorical aspect as an artist. And then there’s me just playing this guy, this real guy that really took this journey. And I saw a picture of him and I was like ‘I have never played that. I have never played that guy’. So that was another thing.”
Do you see this movie getting under your skin?
“It’s like the perfect snake eating its own tail. Fincher, who became obsessed with this case makes a movie about obsession – about people’s obsession about the case. It just keeps going around and around and around. Fincher, when he’s working on something, becomes obsessed with it. He wants to know every little detail about it. He is so detailed oriented. Only because he doesn’t want to be the guy who shows up and knows less than anybody else there. He is an incredibly conscientious filmmaker. But he steeped himself in this material. He steeped himself. I mean we probably came closer to solving this case than anybody has. I mean, we had the resources, we had the people, we had the technology. I mean we’ve been able to do stuff with … he’ll talk to these cops and they’ll say ‘I never knew that’. He’ll spit out pieces and they’re like ‘I never knew that’ – guys that worked on this case, whose whole life was this case.”
What are you doing next?
“I’m hanging out with my kids.”
Zodiac is currently playing in local cinemas.