Mark Ruffalo appears as genial an A-list actor as it’s possible to meet – polite, smiley, willing to chat fully and openly on many a topic – but his big beating heart for social justice is clearly not far below the surface.
On the subject of his Oscar-nominated film, ‘Spotlight’, the true story of how the Boston Globe’s investigative team of journalists exposed the appallingly widespread cover-up of paedophiliac abuse within the Catholic Church, Mark reveals his fury on reading the script was built on his long-held suspicion of diocese practices, dating back to his childhood in Wisconsin.
“A long time ago, I felt the Church I experienced wasn’t observing the teachings I’d read about. It happened to me very young,” he tells HuffPostUK.
“When I left my Catholic school, I was around 10 or 11 years old, and it started to unravel for me there. Kids pick up on things, if you’re interested and inquisitive. I was seeing things that were not in line with what I’d been taught about Jesus. It didn’t jive with me.”
Despite his growing cynicism for the church’s role in his small community, Mark credits those early teachings for what drives him to want to make a film like ‘Spotlight’ – “it’s a paradox I know,” he smiles.
In ‘Spotlight', Mark plays one of the small, tireless investigative team of journalists who worked for nearly a year to root out those responsible for covering up the extent of abuse in Boston and then further afield. His role is Mike Rezendes, a reporter who continues to work for the same paper today. Mike told HuffPostUK it was the most intense, horrifying but satisfying period of his career, and Mark has been Oscar-nominated for bringing him to screen.
“That the Boston Globe was part of the story, that they looked the other way too,” was what shocked the actor the most, referring to a time before ‘Spotlight’ got hold of the story. “It’s not what you want to think about your media, because they hold such an important role in the way justice is meted out in the world.”
And Mark continues to be agitated about the Church’s reaction to what the team uncovered. Would he say the problem has been healed?
“They’re taking baby steps but it’s not healed,” he leans back. “Only a handful of dioceses have put out a list of the priests who were predators. Just the other day, the Seattle diocese dropped a list of 77 priests who’d molested hundreds of kids.”
Mark’s sense of fair play fuels much of what he does, even if audiences will generally think of his Hulk in the Avengers before many of his other, diverse roles, previously bringing him two Oscar nominations, for ‘The Kids Are All Right’ and last year’s ‘Foxcatcher’.
He agrees justice is often somewhere in the mix. “It resonates with me. It isn’t the lens or filter that I use to choose everything, but some things strike that chord. Some are just for the sheer joy of doing something I haven’t done before, some kind of new personal challenge.“
As a self-professed “white, privileged, male, Oscar nominee”, Mark gave me such a contemplative and troubled answer about whether he’d be attending the Oscars this year, you can read his thoughts on that in this separate piece. However, it’s by no means the first time he’s put his head on the block when it comes to speaking out. During this trip to London, he’s booked to work on a video with Friends of the Earth, addressing the fracking issues that fill one section of his activist brain.
“We’ve been there, there’s 500 different studies that show the negative health impacts on air, water, food, from fracking, and so it’s become an international movement. I like to think we’re winning the battle.”
Energised by the recent commitment to environmental protection protocols that came out of the Paris summit, Mark remains hopeful of a global solution to the problem. “We have viable technologies ready to go, that will create more jobs. You have to give them alternatives, otherwise they’ll move into denial. But now we’ve shown them that alternative, it’s going to give us more independent energy, it will make countries more independent, it will alleviate strife in the Middle East because we’re not going to be sending petrol dollars there. Almost all of the strife we see in the world is based on geopolitical interests.”
You can see I wasn’t lying when I mentioned that big beating heart of curiosity beyond his next close-up, something Mark Ruffalo traces back to his days as a student of Stella Adler, where he learned it “was part of an artist’s responsibility, that and what my father taught me about community”.
But should actors speak out? Are they morally bound to, based on their privilege, and are they qualified to? Here’s Mark Ruffalo’s take…
“Actors, like it or not, their voices carry deeply into the culture, people look towards them for attitudes, for right or wrong, and today the mainstream media doesn’t really balance the unheard.
“We don’t hear from those people in Bangladesh who are living on a 12-foot spit of land that used to be 100 yards. So as an artist I see my reach into other cultures to shine a spotlight on those we don’t get to hear from.
"Then, for every 100 people who go and see an Avengers film, if even five, two, whatever, get active, feel emboldened, mostly it’s just appealing to people’s sense of possibility. That we do create the world we want. We’re not the victims of the world, that we’re not powerless, that the system hasn’t been set up in a way that we’re no longer able to address the things that bother us, that we actually get a say in it, and I want to engender the possibility in people, because I feel like they’re so hopeless, and I hope that when they see an actor step up, it emboldens them.”
'Spotlight' is in UK cinemas from Friday 29 January. Watch the trailer below: