Mark Ruffalo Recalls Early Days at Stella Adler: ‘I Was Afraid and Had So Little Confidence’

Mark Ruffalo has a clear recollection of the first time he walked into the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in Los Angeles.

“I was living in San Diego and basically just surfing and smoking weed and going nowhere really fast,” Ruffalo tells Variety. “Someone told me I should go study there so out of my desperation and my secret of wanting to be an actor, I took the train up there for an interview with my teacher Joanne Linville.”

He was excited, but also very nervous. He looked around at the photos on the walls of Adler from her various theater work. “Here I am, this kid from Kenosha, Wis., who was dyslexic, could barely read, I barely got through high school and I went in and I talked to Joanne,” Ruffalo says. “She interviewed me for like 10 minutes. She was like, ‘You belong here, darling.’ I never had anyone tell me I belong somewhere. I had never been so excited about learning in my entire life as I embarked on that journey.”

Variety caught up with Ruffalo ahead of In.Live’s table read of Kenneth Lonergan’s play “Hold on to Me Darling” to benefit the Stella Adler Studio. Ruffalo stars in the one-time-only event with a cast that includes Michael Cera, Gretchen Mol, Adelaide Clemens, C.J. Wilson and Jonathan Hogan.

Ruffalo’s relationship with Lonergan dates back more than two decades. The actor’s role in “You Can Count on Me,” which Lonergan wrote and directed, is considered his breakout performance.

Did you click with it right away at Stella Adler or did it take some time to convince you that you could be an actor?

It was six months of sitting in class and not getting up to do one thing when Joanne had said to me, “Although I think you can learn almost as much sitting and watching, you can’t learn what you have to learn unless you get up and act. You have to work today.” When I got up that first time, she saw something in me that not even I saw in myself. That day was the beginning for me. I knew I would do it for the rest of my life. I never thought I’d be successful like this, but I knew I found my home.

What was the first scene or monologue you had to do?

It was a monologue from “Spoon River Anthology,” which has these little monologues about all of these kinds of working class American people at the beginning of our country. It was this little piece and I made a character and it worked. Everyone was like, “That was great.” I was like, “Really?”

Did you start going on auditions right away?

No. It was a long time. I was afraid and had so little confidence. I did a few play auditions, but my first real audition was after high school for SUNY Purchase. After my audition, the head of the department said, “What are you going to do when you realize you’ll never make it as an actor?”

If you could talk to that person today, what would you say?

Maybe you should get a new line of work. [Laughs]

Is it bittersweet to be doing a benefit for Stella Adler because you may not be doing this if there wasn’t a pandemic?

Yeah. Everything is on the line right now. More than 400,000 small businesses have closed in the U.S. during COVID. It’s hard to run an acting school where kids can’t be in person.

Do you think we could lose a generation of artists because how many people were about to pursue their dreams and now they couldn’t? Who knows what opportunity will be there after the pandemic and will they be in place to even keep trying?

These windows open for you when you get the courage, especially sensitive people. It’s hard for them to step out into that world. Those windows all can close. We don’t have trade schools, but this is a trade school. There are not a lot of places for people to go. It’s sad. It’s scary. We don’t put a value on that as a country, as a society. Every other developed country in the world has an arts fund, they have state schools, they have national repertoires, they have repertory companies. We don’t have any version of that here in the United States. We’re going to be left behind because it’s the creative mind, the creative artist who is going to be leading the world as we move toward automation.

What’s your advice to someone who has dreams of acting but doesn’t have the confidence? What do you say to someone who moves to San Diego to surf and smoke weed?

Say to that little part of yourself, “Listen, you son of a bitch. I know you’re there, but you don’t control me. I want to live my dreams and I’m going to make one step towards them. And the road will meet me there.”

Could you have ever thought in your wildest imagination in the early days, “One day, I’m going to play the Hulk?”

Never. We had this little theater and that was my dream come true. We were doing, like, 10 plays a year on Santa Monica Boulevard. I was bartending, but as shitty as the day could be, when I walked in the theater, I was in heaven. It’s when I met Sunrise [Ruffalo’s wife] and she was like, “I think you might be shooting a little bit low. I think you can probably expand what you think you’re capable of.”

When you’re playing the Hulk and you’re on set, do you ever pinch yourself like not believing where you are?

Yeah. Every time I’m whining like, “God damn, how long are we waiting for the set up?” I’m like, “Hey, Remember you’re not even supposed to be here.” Right. I just remember to be grateful because I still can’t believe it. I still keep thinking, “They’re going to throw me out of the club. I never belonged here in the first place and they’re all going to find out.”

Are you hopeful about what’s going to happen on Election Day?

I’m hopeful, but I’m also at the ready and primed for battle.

What do you mean by that?

We know what happened last time in 2016. The polls were wrong. People got lax and we had the great orange deceiver become president. It’s all hands on deck right now. We learned the lessons from 2016 and doing our best to stop bullying and cheating and win this election fair and square as a democracy while the other side is doing nothing but trying to cheat and delegitimize democracy.

You were the first person I thought of last night during the vice presidential debate when Kamala Harris said that Joe Biden would not ban fracking. [Ruffalo is a longtime anti-fracking activist.]

I know one thing with Biden, at least we have a shot of, if not banning it, then making sure that it’s done as safely as possible. And we have a shot of  keeping fossil fuels in the ground. And we have a shot of following up the science of methane, which has accelerated climate change, not mitigated against it. It’s 70 times a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and this massive rush to frack, frack everything, has created all of these methane leaks that have accelerated every single climate model that was put forward.

For more information about the In.Live table read of “Hold On To Me Darling,” go to in.live/ruffalo.

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