Mark Ruffalo has never been in a movie like Poor Things before.

The actor is no stranger to demanding roles — he's received Oscar nominations for his performances in 2010's The Kids Are All Right, 2014's Foxcatcher and 2015's Spotlight — nor is he new to working with exacting filmmakers. But nothing he has done on the big or small screen properly prepared him for Poor Things, a surreal dark comedy centered on Emma Stone's Bella Baxter, a deceased woman brought back to life using the brain of her unborn child, who sets off on a journey to discover who she is in the world.

Along for the ride is Ruffalo's Duncan Wedderburn, a hedonistic, controlling lawyer who first sparks Bella's self-actualization when he convinces her to run away with him on a whirlwind tour of Europe. Ruffalo's role required him to perform in an over-the-top comedic key he'd never attempted on-screen. For those reasons and more, he had just one question for Poor Things director Yorgos Lanthimos: "Are you sure you've got the right guy?"

"To be really honest with you, I was surprised he was coming to me for the part," Ruffalo admits. "It's like nothing I've ever done before. I was scared, because I wanted to be good for Yorgos." To make matters even more daunting, Lanthimos' offer came while Ruffalo was in the midst of a COVID lockdown that had, by the actor's own admission, driven him a bit "stir-crazy."

"I got an email from him, and it just said, 'I want you to look at this part. I think you'd be very good in it.' That was his whole pitch. I read the script and it was… crazy. It was beautifully written, and so funny, and the language of it was so specific. I just thought it was incredible," Ruffalo recalls. "I just wasn't sure I could pull it off."

Mark Ruffalo, Emma Stone and Willem Dafoe behind the scenes of 'Poor Things.' (via @MarkRuffalo)

According to the actor, it was the three weeks of rehearsal time that he and his Poor Things co-stars had with Lanthimos before filming began that helped him understand exactly what was being asked of him. "Yorgos comes from the theater, so that rehearsal period is really productive because he knows how to do it," Ruffalo says. "Throughout those three weeks, I was just playing with the comedy and testing how far we could go with it."

Before arriving to set, Lanthimos showed Ruffalo examples of the Pina Bausch-inspired movement acting that he wanted the actor to internalize. "He showed me [Bausch's] Cafe Müller, and introduced me to the work of this Belgian dance theatre company called Peeping Tom." Ruffalo describes the references as simultaneously Vaudevillian yet refined, but watching them unlocked something in the actor's mind. "It just freed me. I realized, 'Oh, this is what we're doing.'"

To hear him tell it, Ruffalo still battled self-doubt on a regular basis while shooting Poor Things, but he ultimately realized that the only way to play Duncan was to have faith that Lanthimos would be there to stop him from falling on his face. "The movie has to have a certain energy and style to work, so I just leaned as hard into that as I could until Yorgos would say, 'That's enough,' which he occasionally would," Ruffalo explains. "I really trusted that he wouldn't lead me astray."

"Yorgos asked me one day, 'Why are you rushing?'" he remembers. "I said, 'I don't want the audience to get bored.' He said, 'No. Take your time.' There are always places where, as an actor, you think you've gotta rush to the next line, but there's so much to be gained from just sitting in the moment sometimes."

At the end of the day, "It was complete unadulterated, uninhibited fun," Ruffalo says of the experience. "At the same time, I always had the feeling that I was driving the ship as close to the reef as I possibly could without running aground. I was on the razor's edge of disaster almost all the time."

Mark Ruffalo at the 96th Oscars Nominees Luncheon. (Photo by Matt Sayles/AMPAS)

Poor Things has proven to be decidedly not a disaster. At the 96th Oscars, the film earned a total of 11 nominations, including Ruffalo's fourth nomination for Best Supporting Actor. With this latest nod, he ties the record for most nominations in the Best Supporting Actor category, a distinction that he shares with the likes of Walter Brennan, Jeff Bridges, Robert Duvall, Arthur Kennedy, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, and Claude Rains.

"I have the unbelievable privilege of making movies as a job. To be recognized by The Academy among the best is an honor that exceeds all one's expectations as an actor," he said of the nomination. "Thank you to our brilliant filmmaker, Yorgos, and thank you to the audiences who gave this film a chance. Congratulations to my Poor Things family for all the love today. Thank you from the bottom of my heart."

Ruffalo followed up Poor Things with the Shawn Levy-directed World War II limited series, All the Light We Cannot See, and a role in Parasite director Bong Joon-ho's next film, the sci-fi drama Mickey 17. He won't say much about the latter film aside from teasing that it's "out there," but Ruffalo isn't taking these opportunities to stretch his limits as an actor for granted — especially after spending more than a decade playing the Hulk.

"You know, I did 12 years in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I think when you do something like that, people come to expect a certain thing out of you. You maybe even come to expect a certain thing out of yourself, and that can be limiting because you can get too comfortable," he reflects. "It's been amazing to have a chance to move my career in other directions again, and to remember that I come from this tradition of theater that reinforces the idea that you can be anything. You never have to be stuck as just one character or rely on just one style."

"I've gone from working with Yorgos Lanthimos to Shawn Levy and then Bong Joon-ho. You really can't ask for much more than that," Ruffalo concludes. "I keep waiting for the piano to drop on me."

By Alex Welch

This article was originally published on Dec. 19, 2023 and has been updated throughout.

A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.

Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best Actor in a Supporting Role category for an interview.


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