Living Out Loud
By Jenelle Riley
August 16, 2004
It has become a cliche to talk about people who are so close they finish each other's sentences. But spend a few minutes with Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern, and it is impossible not to notice the way they continually complete each other's thoughts. This is only appropriate, considering the startling intimacy they achieve portraying the long-married couple Jack and Terry Linden in the heartbreaking new film We Don't Live Here Anymore. The second feature film from director John Curran, the movie is based on two short stories by Andre Dubus, whose short story Killings inspired the film In the Bedroom. Peter Krause and Naomi Watts co-star as Hank and Edith Evans, another married pair whose lives seem more content and organized than that of the Lindens. Jack and Hank are professors at the same small college and longtime friends. But whereas Jack has a conscience, Hank is a self-absorbed narcissist. An ongoing affair between Jack and Edith reveals an aching emptiness that each character must confront.
Unlike most Hollywood takes on such material, the film is a brutally honest and gut-wrenching portrayal of a world in which nobody seems to love their lover and, as Terry puts it, "Even adultery has morality." As a wife so desperately in love with her husband that she is driven to erratic behavior, Dern delivers one of her best performances in a career full of risks and triumphs. Ruffalo, an actor of startling talent who burst on the scene with his breakout role in Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me only four years ago, continues a string of impressive and radically disparate performances in a year that includes projects from the quirky (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) to commercial (13 Going on 30, Collateral). Ruffalo, who holds an impressive stage resume as actor and director, is also branching out as a first-time producer on We Don't Live Here Anymore. The film marked the first time Ruffalo and Dern met, a fact that surprises them, given how well they instantly clicked. "We're kind of mourning that it took so long for us to find each other," notes Ruffalo.
Back Stage West: What drew you to this project, both as actors and, for Mark, as a producer?
Mark Ruffalo: It wasn't like something that I'd been with for a while or found and said, "I have to make this movie." It came to me in an odd way, it came to me through Jane Campion [his director on last year's In the Cut]. She said, "There's this filmmaker [John Curran] you should see, and he has a script, and I think he's really talented, and you should check it out." I read it and thought, "God, this is really difficult material." And I was inclined not to do it at first because I thought it would need a really strong hand from a director, and I couldn't think of many directors who were mature enough to not make it too melodramatic. It could have been handled badly, this film. And then I saw his movie Praise, and it was just incredible, and I said, "I've got to do this." They offered me a producing credit at that time, and I said no. I didn't really have any interest in producing anything. As time went by and I got more involved, I saw that I could help the movie and help John by coming on as a producer and using whatever leverage that gave me to always back up the movie and his vision of it. That was pretty much the main reason that I took that credit.
Laura Dern: I don't even know how I got lucky enough to play the part, because I felt really privileged to. I think Mark and Naomi were already involved as producers and actors, and John asked to meet with me for the part and luckily felt I was the right person for it. So I came on later in the process. But I know for me, when I read it, I thought it was a great part and amazing material, but I had what I guess I'd consider a rather chauvinistic point of view on what I thought the movie was about or what I thought the trajectory of the story was. When I met with John and Mark and the three of us talked over the script one day, John informed me that his vision about the story was unlike my, I hate to say, typical-Hollywood-ending point of view. Meeting John and having him say--and Mark resonate the same opinion--that he perceived it as a love story between Mark and my character, I just thought that was so beautiful. And that's immediately when you know he's the director for the film. That was so exciting. And his respect for a long-term partnership is kind of extraordinary. And I don't think [another] filmmaker could have made this movie, certainly not in the same way. But I think it's John's sort of sobering point of view that we're educated in all other skills as adults except partnership and parenting. And it seems to be the things we need to have a little bit of college on. And he gets that in such a human and really passionate way. It's about true love to him.
BSW: There are scenes of such raw emotion in this film, it can almost be painful to watch. I'm wondering if it was hard to do those scenes and what you did to leave it behind you at the end of the day.
Ruffalo: Drank. [Laughs.] No, we've been doing it awhile, Laura and I, and we've been to dark places in our choices, I think. So we know from experience that you just kind of leave it. And entering and leaving it becomes easier and easier as time goes on. And knowing that you don't have to live it to have it resonate is a great thing for a young actor to learn.
Dern: Beautifully put. And it's essential for a good life.
Ruffalo: It was such an enormous joy working with Laura that even [with] the heavy stuff [we] had a real fun sort of working relationship. We didn't have any rehearsal, and we had such a short amount of prep time that we were all kind of running around with our pants down a little bit, getting it on the fly. So working a lot of problems out on the film was exciting and harrowing at times.
Dern: I was asked if we all had different approaches to acting or different ways of working, but I feel that we're very similar. There are some actors you work with, and they don't really like acting that much. I mean, they like it OK and it's their job. But we love to act. We are so into being actors, and we feel really privileged, and we've been doing it for a long time, so we had this shared thing about just loving acting and loving the process and screwing up and failure and finding truth through it being the mess.
Ruffalo: It was sloppy at times.
Dern: Even John would be, like, "Whoa, where are you guys going?" But somehow, together, we were really in sync with knowing that we were trying to find something, and this is the way we do it.
Ruffalo: We were dancing. And we dance well together, we know the same dances. It's very theatrical, too, because we were shooting six-, seven-, eight-page scenes in one take on a stage, and we would do the whole scene in one take, and it always reminded me of theatre in that way. It wasn't breaking it up. Laura really works moment to moment. I keep telling her she's the greatest theatre actress alive having never really done theatre. It's that moment-to-moment acting that comes from a theatre actor that she does so beautifully.
Dern: As much as you want film acting to be that experience, it is very stop and start. And of course, because of coverage, things are broken up.
Ruffalo: They were, like, "You cannot shoot another master!"
Dern: Because once we knew the master, we had the rest of the scene. In most cases, you don't need the master except for an opening shot. And he used, for our fight scenes, a lot of the masters.
BSW: It sounds like shooting low-budget movies can be more rewarding for an actor. Is that true?
Ruffalo: It can be. It can be harder.
Dern: I've experienced both. Sometimes you're on a huge-budget movie, especially if there are effects and things, and there's not as much time as you'd like. And sometimes you have all the time in the world to do take after take. Sometimes on an independent film, you're lucky enough like we were with John Curran, you have a director who, despite the fact that there's no time and no money, makes sure you get your takes. And then on another independent film you can work 19 hours, and if you lose the light or whatever, they're going to use that one take, and there's no opportunity to come back to that location. It's really a bit of a crapshoot in that way. It's based on the filmmaker's prioritizing what they have to get in that day.
Ruffalo: I'd say a lot of it is relegated to what a director thinks is most important. In two different locations. It has a Virginia Woolf feel.
Dern: I think he knew it was going to be contained, and it was about getting these performances as honest as he could.
BSW: Because you two hadn't met before and had very little rehearsal time, how did you go about creating this intimacy of a couple who's been married for many years?
Dern: I have to tell you, I've had the privilege of some interesting partnering stories in a few different movies, and because of the passion of the story, it sort of works and the actors are, hopefully, doing their job and you feel it. But I got so lucky because I felt like I found either my long-lost brother, my best friend, or my husband of 20 years. It was like we instantly were family. We were both new parents at the same time, we had shared friends from work experience, and there was an instant "getting" of each other. I think Mark is such an extraordinary actor, he would make anyone feel like that. Maybe he's just been faking me out the whole time. But he made me feel like we were totally--
Ruffalo: Simpatico. Or kindred.
Dern: And we played it out whenever Naomi came around. I tortured him with my jealousy. We allowed the dynamic to be fun. We just got along, and we wanted to laugh at the same time, and we knew when to really be in the moment. I'm waiting for him to direct me.
Ruffalo: We'll do something together, I'm certain of it. I just don't know what yet.
BSW: You both have been fortunate enough to form collaborations with other artists that have helped your success. For Laura, I think of your work with David Lynch. For Mark, it's the stage and screen partnership you've had with Kenneth Lonergan. Can you tell us how you went about finding and forming those relationships?
Dern: From my experience, it's total luck.
Ruffalo: You're always trying to make the situation work best for the piece, but you don't always get people. You find yourself trying to negotiate around someone's personality more often than just jibing completely, fitting like glue.
Dern: And there are directors who love finding a tribe, if you will, and there are directors for who, as amazing as the connection may be, that will be the only time. They don't work with the same actors again and again. There is something remarkable about that in terms of feeling safe, especially if you're being required to do something that feels extreme to you or is a place you've never been before. When it's your friend at the camera asking it of you, it's just a very different experience.
Ruffalo: It's trust. The one great thing about a continuing collaboration is that they know you. And if you're really lucky, they really believe in you and think that your talent has some unending bounds to it. Those are the things that generally seem to push you to different areas and play to your strengths.
Dern: It's amazing, too, because they will know you enough to see you doing something you've never done before, and if you're not doing it, you'll have a close enough relationship, and they'll say, "That's not it. No."
Ruffalo: "Nice try, you'll have to work a little harder."
Dern: It's scary. It would probably be intolerable with a stranger.
Ruffalo: But you grow in those relationships.
Still Growing After All These Years
BSW: You mentioned how much you love acting, but was there ever a time when you didn't love it and thought about leaving?
Ruffalo: Oh, yeah. [To Dern] Did you ever stop?
Dern: I remember a very specific time I was on a movie and I was 17. I had always studied, and continue to, various forms of Method acting, which involved things like emotional memory and using your life experience, and it was a very emotional part, as I seem to consistently do. And I wasn't enjoying myself. I was depressed, the character was depressed, and I didn't understand yet how to deal with it. I was a girl just trying to have a good time, and all I knew was, 14 hours a day I was crying. I didn't understand how this could be fun. Within a year, I met the teacher I've worked with for a long time, Sandra Seacat, and she has quite an amazing connection to the concept of healing through any creative process, that knowing oneself is sort of its own art. All of sudden this new idea that the parts I play help me discover myself and I could maybe be kinder to the ambiguous places and the flaws--I was so lifted by that. Since then, I feel like it's an extraordinary experience of therapy and learning about being in the moment and honoring that. All of a sudden, acting wasn't this torment where you're supposed to be a screwed-up artist, but it's an opportunity for self-growth. And I think I've had fun ever since.
Ruffalo: I was bartending for a long time and going on auditions and was constantly being rebuffed. Finally I was, like, "Why don't they see how great I am?" Literally, I think I've quit acting three or four times, only for a few days. Maybe for a few weeks. But the frustration of not being seen, not having anyone acknowledge this great talent that I was sure was in me, was really frustrating. The last time I quit, really, that was it. I went back to Wisconsin and was going to start doing construction painting. And my mother caught wind of this. She never had really tried to guide my career or really had any say in my life as an adult, but this was the one time she said she would never speak to me again if I quit acting.
Dern: That's beautiful.
Ruffalo: Isn't it? She said, "I will never forgive you." And that was the last time I quit. So listen to your mothers.