Whether he’s starring in a Marvel action movie, an Oscar contender or a romantic comedy, one thing is for sure – Mark Ruffalo is one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood. But his road to fame wasn’t an easy one.
Ruffalo could trace his interest in acting all the way back to his early childhood, he told New York magazine. “I was probably eight years old. My mom let me stay up one night. She’s like, ‘You have to see this movie,’” he said.
Even as a child, Ruffalo appreciated the leading man in the film his mother was watching, A Streetcar Named Desire. “It was a big deal,” he said to New York. “And I saw Marlon Brando and I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ That’s where it started.”
But Ruffalo didn’t jump right into the acting scene at that point. Instead, he focused on sports and became a state champion wrestler by the time he was in high school. That was why his decision to forego a sports scholarship and pursue acting instead shocked so many.
“I was tired of [wrestling],” Ruffalo said to New York. “And I was harboring this secret desire.” While his coaches and teammates couldn’t believe he’d turn down the opportunities in front of him, his parents “were totally 100 percent cool about it,” he added.
Along with his entire family – including his parents, two sisters and a brother – Ruffalo moved to San Diego, California, after graduating from high school. But it wasn’t until he started acting classes at the Stella Adler Academy in Los Angeles that he felt like he was in the right place.
Not long after his big move, Ruffalo experienced his first taste of success: he landed a part in a Clearasil commercial in 1989. He told Rolling Stone, “I was like, ‘I’ve made it, I’m rich, I’m quitting my job, I’m on my way!’”
But the commercial didn’t lead him straight into the A-list career he envisioned. Instead, Ruffalo starred in a series of straight-to-video horror movies that he described to New York as “kind of a low point for me.”
Fortunately though, Ruffalo used that feeling as the inspiration to do something better. “I realized nothing was happening for me,” he told New York, “I thought, ‘I gotta make something happen.’” So he co-wrote his own film, The Destiny of Marty Fine, and played a supporting character in it.
From there, he secured parts in other indie movies, as well as on TV shows. And then, he finally got his big break, but it wasn’t on the silver screen – it was on stage. He nabbed a spot in the Los Angeles production of This Is Our Youth in 1996.
Between then and its 1998 off-Broadway revival in New York City though, Ruffalo admitted that he had quit acting – something he had done multiple times throughout his time in Los Angeles too. His mom called him and gave him her opinion on his decision.
Ruffalo told New York, “She called me and said, ‘You know, I have never told you to do anything in your life. But if you don’t get back to California, I’ll never forgive you. Are you crazy? You can’t quit now!’”
It turned out that his mother’s intuition had been right. By 2000 there was Oscar buzz surrounding Ruffalo for his role in You Can Count On Me, in which he starred alongside Laura Linney and Matthew Broderick.
“I didn’t start supporting myself as an actor until I was 28, and then suddenly after You Can Count On Me, I’m getting all these multi-million-dollar offers,” Ruffalo said to New York. But his taste of success would be fleeting – his entire life was about to change.
Ruffalo said that he predicted his own crisis in a dream. “I woke up one morning with knowledge that I had a brain tumor,” the actor told New York. “It wasn’t so much that I dreamt I had a brain tumor; it was like someone just poured the knowledge into my head. It was so weird, which is why I paid attention.”
So he made an appointment with his doctor the day after his dream and underwent MRIs and CT scans. “Afterward, my doctor walks in and she says, ‘You have a mass behind your ear the size of a walnut,” Ruffalo recalled to New York. It was benign, but removing the tumor posed a risk of damage to his facial and auditory nerves.
Because of that, he had to come to terms with some pretty frightening odds before his operation. “I was told I had a 30 percent chance of losing the left side of my face in the surgery,” he told New York. The actor awoke with the feared facial paralysis, and his doctor couldn’t say whether it’d be permanent or not.
That left Ruffalo in an upsetting position for any actor – he had to step back from a role in what would be a blockbuster film, M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. This undoubtedly lead to his biggest post-op problem. “I lost all my confidence. Just across the board. I completely lost my gut,” he said to New York.
Of course, anyone familiar with Ruffalo’s work will know how his story ends. Six months after surgery, riding in the passenger seat of a car, he pulled down his visor mirror and saw something. “I was looking at my face, and I went, ‘Oh, my god.’ I’m screaming, ‘It moved! It moved! It’s coming back!’” he said to New York.
It took a full year for him to regain complete function of his face, and, from there, Ruffalo’s career skyrocketed. Since then, he has earned three Academy Award nominations for roles in The Kids Are All Right, Foxcatcher and Spotlight, while starring in several other films. He couldn’t have had his health-related success without professional success though. “It was acting that brought me back,” he said to New York.