Mark Ruffalo is absolutely lovely. Let's just get that out of the way from the off. Shaggy, shambling, a bit giggly and soft around the edges, he comes across in real life much as he does on screen in the roles one critic summarised as "the wounded hipster neurotic of modern cinema".
He fronts an organisation against fracking and other pressure groups for renewable energy and clean water, doing genuine hard yards on podiums surrounded by placards; he's marched with Occupy Wall Street. Meanwhile, he and his wife, Sunrise Coigney, have been together for nearly 20 years. Lovely.
Right now he is here to discuss Begin Again, in which he plays a washed-up, alcoholic record producer called Dan whose marriage has ground to a halt: a classic Ruffalo role, in other words. The film is directed by John Carney, who made Once; Begin Again, which used to be called Songs to Save Your Life (an infinitely better title: goodness knows why they dropped it), is in much the same vein.
Dan is about to be sacked from the record label he founded when he discovers a young singer-songwriter (Keira Knightley) playing in a drab New York bar. Fired with enthusiasm by what he sees as her freshness and originality, he persuades her to record an album in various fly-pitch locations around the city where chance noises and wild sound - and, on one occasion, the clatter of cops in pursuit - are incorporated into the songs. Of course we know exactly where the story is going from the minute we see the poster - Dan stops drinking, starts playing bass again, renews his relationship with his daughter (Hailee Steinfeld, wonderful) - but it's the details of performance that give it charm.
Ruffalo says he only does films that speak to him at some level; this story matched up with his own ideas about acting. "I believe we all just long to be creative in one way or another and we respond to that creativity when we see it outside of ourselves," he says. "That's why being derivative is what kills; that's why John [Carney] attacks that. I just want to try and do something I've never done before; that's been my kind of driving principle."
Street sounds: Keira Knightley and band with Mark Ruffalo in Begin Again.
He has turned down a lot of offers as a result. "And a lot of money, for no other reason than that it didn't speak to me as an artist. I think that is where you get into trouble, if you break that law."
He never had especially grand ambitions. "Honestly, I could still, at this age, be doing theatre in a 35-seat house off the Santa Monica Boulevard," he says. "I lived on nothing; all I cared about was being in there."
When he met his wife in the late '90s, he had no driver's licence and no credit card, both essential tools of citizenry in the US. "And I had a warrant out for my arrest for traffic violations I had never dealt with and she was like, 'Dude, you are totally irresponsible! You are a child!' And I was like, 'I can get a credit card; I can do this! Don't break up with me for that'!"
Been working out?: Mark Ruffalo gets the Marvel treatment as the Hulk in Avengers.
For a lot of his life, he admits frankly, Ruffalo was depressed. On the one hand, he had more than his share of actors' hardships - nine years as a bartender, 800 unsuccessful auditions by his own estimate, even a period when he gave up entirely and went back to Wisconsin to work in his father's painting business - plus some terrible one-off misfortunes. In 2000 he was diagnosed with a brain tumour, just after he had played his first successful film role in Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me and was finally seen as having momentum; it was successfully removed, but his face was paralysed for a year. Then, in 2008, his younger brother Scott was murdered.
At that point, Ruffalo and his wife decided to ditch everything and move to their farm in upstate New York. It was while he was there, tending his vegetable patch, that Lisa Cholodenko's script for The Kids are All Right - "a terrific piece of work" about two middle-aged lesbian parents and the sperm donor who unexpectedly comes back into their lives - landed on the doorstep. The performance he described as a tribute to his lost brother, "a fantastically beautiful, fun guy" - won him an Oscar nomination in 2010. "And it was a joy to do," he said later. "For the first time in my life, I didn't feel any pressure. It was just like starting over again."
Ruffalo turns 47 this year; after all the travails, he does the work he always wanted. "Although I didn't think I would be as successful as I've been, honestly," he says. "So I didn't envision anything."
Along with his niche fame in independent films, he is properly famous as the Hulk in the Avengers franchise, the second episode of which is now in the works. Even his Hulk seems vulnerable, however: he's the superhero version of damaged goods, "the indie-est Hulk imaginable", as one writer put it. "I think you can subvert things by just doing what you do," he says, "inside any genre".
He has also put depression behind him, although there were aspects of Dan's disintegration in Begin Again that he recognised. "Things that relate to my own life, you know," he says. "There is a bit of a midlife crisis that starts to happen, these big shifts in the way you look at the world and what your priorities are. I related to that in Dan."
So are there any songs that have helped to save his life? Ruffalo doesn't hesitate: his go-to guy is Elliott Smith, the depressive singer-songwriter who is supposed to have stabbed himself to death.
"I like down music," he says, smiling in an apologetic and frankly lovely way. "I don't know why. It just resonates with me."
Begin Again is in cinemas now
- Sydney Morning Herald