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Mark Ruffalo on his 'Poor Things' sex scenes, Oscar talk and the villain that got away

Mark Ruffalo hasn't always portrayed good guys, father figures and a heroic Hulk.

He inhabited some not-so-great dudes in early 2000s movies like "XX/XY" and "In the Cut," so playing a sex-crazed, obnoxious scoundrel in "Poor Things" is sort of a throwback – and a nice change of pace.

"It felt so good to throw off whatever the brand of Mark Ruffalo has become and that you get comfortable with, and that you almost start to believe yourself," Ruffalo, 56, says with a chuckle. "Just to go back to those days and be raunchy and vulgar and naughty and misbehaved … was really freeing for me."

In director Yorgos Lanthimos' Victorian-era dark comedy "Poor Things" (in theaters now), Bella (Emma Stone) is reanimated by scientist Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) with the brain of a child. As her maturing mind begins to sync with her body, she becomes really into sex and Ruffalo's roguish attorney Duncan Wedderburn is happy to oblige. They abscond for a European romp, but as she becomes her fully realized self, his insecurities and all-around jerk behavior grate on her.

Mark Ruffalo returns to playing a not-so-great guy on screen with the dapper and debauched Duncan Wedderburn in "Poor Things."
Mark Ruffalo returns to playing a not-so-great guy on screen with the dapper and debauched Duncan Wedderburn in "Poor Things."

Nominated for the supporting actor Oscar three times, Ruffalo could be looking at No. 4 with awards-season buzz and an early win courtesy of the National Board of Review. ("Poor Things" also made the list of top 10 films.) "I was really afraid of playing this character because of how big he was. I hadn't really done anything that comedic (on screen). A lot of it was like early-days stage stuff," says the actor, whose influences for Duncan range from Charlie Chaplin to English comedian Terry-Thomas.

Ruffalo, who next stars in Bong Joon-ho's sci-fi film "Mickey 17" (out March 29), talks with USA TODAY about his "Poor Things" sex scenes, the supervillain role he didn't nab and a look back at a busy year.

Question: Oscar season is upon us again. Do you enjoy being in the mix?

Mark Ruffalo: I enjoy it for what it is. I have the career I have, and it doesn't really mean the same things to me as it did in the past, so I can enjoy it more. It isn't so loaded for me and I get a chance to be with people that I really wanna spend my time with, that I never get a chance to do. And if me and Willem get to do this whole thing together, I would be so happy. Or me and (Robert Downey Jr.) in that category would be cool. Just me being in it at all would be fun.

Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) quickly becomes tired of boorish love interest Duncan (Mark Ruffalo) in the dark comedy "Poor Things."
Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) quickly becomes tired of boorish love interest Duncan (Mark Ruffalo) in the dark comedy "Poor Things."

In a recent interview with you and Downey, he called you "bangable" in "Poor Things." At 56, are doing those sex scenes with Emma fun days or awkward times?

It's fun. If it was more serious and heavy, it would be much harder. It's always a little uncomfortable because you're like, "Is this cool? Do we feel comfortable with this? Are you OK?" You're doing that dance and there's a intimacy coordinator there, and so you're trying to be really conscious and present with all that stuff.

But at 56, I don't know how many more of these I got in me where I want to take my clothes off. Stuff's starting to move around and sag faster than I can fix it. So this might be the end of that.

Mark Ruffalo has played the Hulk in "She-Hulk: Attorney at Law" and several Marvel movies, but in the 1990s auditioned to be a well-known comic-book villain.
Mark Ruffalo has played the Hulk in "She-Hulk: Attorney at Law" and several Marvel movies, but in the 1990s auditioned to be a well-known comic-book villain.

You haven't played a lot of villains like Duncan, but you auditioned to be Doctor Doom in Roger Corman's 1994 "Fantastic Four" movie. What was that like in the old days of comic-book flicks?

It was so long ago, and people were like, "You did," and they show me where I signed in but it's a vague memory. There were no superhero movies back then. There was like Batman, and it was Roger Corman so it was going to be so low budget. But at that point I was probably going on seven or eight auditions a week between industrial films, short films, student films, commercials, television, movies and theater. Like anything you can get, you know? I don't remember a lot of it.

Daniel LeBlanc (Mark Ruffalo) and his blind daughter Marie-Laure (Aria Mia Loberti) flee Nazi-occupied Paris with a legendary diamond in Netflix's World War II drama "All the Light We Cannot See."
Daniel LeBlanc (Mark Ruffalo) and his blind daughter Marie-Laure (Aria Mia Loberti) flee Nazi-occupied Paris with a legendary diamond in Netflix's World War II drama "All the Light We Cannot See."

You released "Poor Things" and a Netflix show this year, and also navigated an actors' strike. What did you learn about yourself in 2023?

I'm sleeping a lot less. (Laughs) It's been a year of extremes, from the sad, beautiful, caretaking father in “All the Light We Cannot See" to this character (in "Poor Things") who's the guy that the father is trying to keep his daughter from. And then "Mickey 17," in which I'm like a quasi-dictator. I guess (it's) just how facile I've become as an actor. I really know what I'm doing now, and I can play all different kinds of things. The only limitations that I have are the ones that maybe people will put on me as far as the jobs they won't give me and the ones that I have cooked up myself, and at 56, in a lot of ways, I feel like I'm just getting started as far as what my capabilities are.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Poor Things': Mark Ruffalo on sex scenes, Oscar talk and Doctor Doom