Mark Ruffalo Interview, Zodiac

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

With an expansive list of diverse film credits, Mark Ruffalo is one of Hollywood's most sought-after actors. Movies Online recently caught upwith him to discuss his new movie, "Zodiac,” and his role as Homicide Inspector Dave Toschi of the San Francisco Police Department. Based on the actual case files of one of the most intriguing unsolved crimes in the nation's history, "Zodiac” is a thriller from David Fincher ("Seven," "Fight Club") who directs from a screenplay by James Vanderbilt inspired by the bestselling novel "Zodiac” by Robert Graysmith. The film also stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr., Anthony Edwards and Chloe Sevigny.

In the summer of 1969 the San Francisco Bay Area was swept by a wave of panic as a serial killer stalked its residents. The killer called himself the ‘Zodiac’ and he manipulated the news media and law enforcement agencies with menacing phone calls and taunting letters that created a sense of helplessness, fascination and fear among the population. The elusive cipher slayer was America's modern-day version of Jack the Ripper and the ultimate bogey man who was always one step ahead of the police.

As the Zodiac terrified the San Francisco Bay Areaand mocked police with his ciphers and letters, investigators in four jurisdictions searched for the murderer. Hunting down the hunter would become an obsession for four men and turn them into ghosts of their former selves as their lives and careers were built and destroyed by the killer’s endless trail of clues.

Of the four, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) was the wild card. A shy editorial cartoonist, Graysmith didn't have the cache and expertise of his seasoned and cynical colleague Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), the San Francisco Chronicle's star crime reporter. He didn't have Avery's connections with San Francisco Police Department's celebrated and ambitious Homicide Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his low-key, meticulous partner Inspector William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). What he did have was a crucial insight no one anticipated, and he became obsessed with unraveling the mystery of a murderer. His determination ultimately resulted in the book upon which the film is based.

Ruffalo was totally impressed with Toschi and how Fincher portrayed him in the film. "I don't love the genre; it's usually pretty violent," he says. "When I read [the script], I saw that this character I was going to be playing had come to life in a nuanced, beautiful way. Then I took a trip to meet the guy, and at that point I just felt so fortunate to be doing the movie. After all, he is the model for actors who attempt to play detectives, and I am playing the one that some actors have modeled their career-making roles on."

Toschi, who became famous for his relentless pursuit of Zodiac, was once the template used by Hollywood in earlier years to model its superhero cops. The characters based on Toschi would prove pivotal roles launching the careers of Steve McQueen ("Bullitt”), Clint Eastwood ("Dirty Harry”), and Michael Douglas ("The Streets of San Francisco,” the 1970s’ long-running hit television series).

Ruffalo recently wrapped production on Focus Features' "Reservation Road," opposite Joaquin Phoenix; "Where the Wild Things Are," directed by Spike Jonze; and the Kenneth Lonergan-directed film "Margaret," with Anna Paquin and Matt Damon. "Zodiac" producer Phoenix Pictures also recently purchased the rights to "The Brass Wall" as a starring vehicle for Ruffalo who will play an undercover cop who infiltrates the Lucchesi crime family in New York to solve the murder of a city firefighter.

Mark Ruffalo is a fabulous guy and a terrific actor and we really appreciated his time. Here's what he had to tell us about his new film, how he researched his character, and what it was like working with David Fincher:

QUESTION: Did you know about the Zodiac? What kinds of research did you do?

Mark Ruffalo: It’s like one of those names that you’ve heard all your life, ‘the Zodiac killer,’ but you’re mistaking him for The Hillside Strangler. You don’t, or I didn’t really know where he fell in that whole iconography. Then I read the script. I really didn’t realize who this guy was as far as the serial killers go.

Then, the research started and there’s a mind-boggling amount of material around this case. We were given…. basically sand-bagged with the entire…I have the entire investigation sitting at home in a murder book, and I probably have more information than any one particular police department has because the one thing we were able to do was to get all of them to cooperate with the making of the movie but [laughs] none of them cooperated with catching the guy.

MoviesOnline: What does that tell you about justice in America?

Mark Ruffalo: Well, nothing that we didn’t already probably know. I think the time period… they weren’t set up for this in any way. The word ‘serial killer’ hadn’t been invented yet. Certainly there were serial killers but they hadn’t popped up into the culture the way this guy did. He’s the first dude who sort of popped up into the minds of the culture and used the media and all of this to get himself off. I have to assume that is what he was doing with this, make himself important in the world.

MoviesOnline: Hence the obsession with catching him where people go beyond the pale and ruin their lives trying to catch him.

Mark Ruffalo: Yeah. They hadn’t been desensitized to the idea that there was… they began by calling him a ‘mass murderer.’ They hadn’t invented the term ‘serial killer’ yet. They hadn’t been desensitized to someone who would just go out for the sake of killing and do these things. So, to them, it was something so much more atrocious. We’re used to serial killers now. They weren’t. So it really was ‘this is a monster. We have to get this guy’.

MoviesOnline: So why bother making a movie about it in 2007? I’m playing Devil’s advocate because there is something really compelling about watching it.

Mark Ruffalo: I don’t know. Yes, it was compelling to read it and compelling to work on it. With David Fincher, it just makes for great storytelling and great drama and also, it’s about, there’s the moral question of ‘do you go by the law or do you go by a hunch?’ If we really want to make this a big question, even vigilante, like going out into the world trying to kill terrorists today, there’s the assumption and there’s a lot of emotion going on behind that assumption and then there’s the law and the science. Dave Toschi told me, the second he saw Arthur Leigh Allen walking into the room he said in his heart, ‘That’s our guy.’ That’s what he said, but the cop in him said, ‘there’s not a single piece of evidence.’ All we really have in the end is the law. If you don’t follow the law and you go and kill the guy, how do you know that you got the right guy? Even if someone believes so deeply in their heart of hearts that that is the guy, if they don’t follow the law, then we live in a world of chaos.

MoviesOnline: But as a film, it’s sex without the orgasm because there’s no…?

Mark Ruffalo: The orgasm is the mystery. That is the gestalt of the film. That is the mystery. That is the finale of the film. That’s what people walk away from the film in, that’s what they’re feeling. That’s where their terror comes from. That’s where their imaginations blossom. It’s in the mystery that is the finale of the film. That’s what they are responding too.

MoviesOnline: Several actors have played characters based on Toschi (Clint Eastwood in "Dirty Harry,” Michael Douglas in "Streets of San Francisco,” Steve McQueen in "Bullitt”). Did you have to block those performances out of your mind or did you not even think about that?

Mark Ruffalo: I’m the type of actor, I want to go and see the real deal. So, first thing I said is ‘How do I get in touch with Dave Toschi? How do I go up and meet him? I want to spend time with him. I want to spend a few days with him.”

MoviesOnline: Was he cooperative?

Mark Ruffalo: Totally. The first thing he said to me was [in whispery Toschi voice] ‘Uh, Mark, why are you here? Why do you want to talk to me?’ He talks just like that or I hope he talks just like that. (laughs) And so, I got to spend time with him and, all of a sudden, all of that other stuff just fades away when you’re sitting there with the real McCoy. He did tell me that he was the inspiration for "Bullitt,” played by Steve McQueen.

MoviesOnline: Was he kind of proud of that?

Mark Ruffalo: Yeah. He’s got a picture of him and Steve McQueen together.

MoviesOnline: Here’s a movie that is long, meticulous, but intriguing all the way through. What is the key to making a long movie work?

Mark Ruffalo: Specificity, going to real life and really doing the background work and the specifics of what happened. Real life is infinitely more interesting than we can try to imagine. It’s that old adage, ‘God is in the details.’ Fincher just painstakingly went and created that world, that time which we all have touched or known. We remember it. It has almost a sentimental value to most of us. He really did his work to recreate the time and the feeling. He really was true to the investigation. There’s not one dramatic departure for the sake of dramatization in the movie which is pretty remarkable I think for something that spans such a long period of time. It was a real act of trust on his part to do that.

MoviesOnline: Is there one particular thing about Toschi and/or your research into that person that you really wanted to explore?

Mark Ruffalo: Dave Toschi’s relationship to his family. He just adored his family and his three daughters and that wasn’t really in the script as much and it was something I thought was important just so we feel the other side of this guy. I just think it gives him another dimension that wasn’t exactly in there so that was worked into it. I was always trying to bring them in. I even added a line at one point, ‘Shhhh, my daughters are upstairs’. That wasn’t in there. The guy was a beautiful family man.

MoviesOnline: And his family remained intact unlike Graysmith’s marriage?

Mark Ruffalo: Yes. They handled it incredibly gracefully. It still is that one thing that destroys your life. It really did take its toll on him. He’s gone on and he’s not bitter but it is something in him that hurts.

MoviesOnline: Does it help him that he thinks Arthur Leigh Allen did it and Allen is dead now?

Mark Ruffalo: I think it helps that there are no more murders, or that the murders have seemed to stop although Graysmith presupposes that he just morphed into…. he just became quiet about it and that’s what the Zodiac said he was going to do, he was going to start doing it in a way that nobody knew who was doing it. It’s an open wound I think for all of these guys who put so much time and energy into it that they never caught him.

MoviesOnline: Can you talk about working with David Fincher? Robert Downey Jr. was rolling his eyes about how long the shoot was taking and he was getting a little annoyed at that. Was the process enjoyable?

Mark Ruffalo: Where David departs on this movie more than he does on some of his other movies is he really wanted to do a character drama where he could take two people or three people and let them speak and do long dialogue scenes without having to cut away or cut in to close-ups. And, when you do that, and you’re working with someone like David Fincher who I call a ‘full frame director’ -- the actors only have to be in about 30 percent of a frame, and you have five extras, that car going by, how far the lamp’s hanging down, the branch on the tree -- he sees all these things and he’s aware of them and they’re all part of [the frame]. Fincher knows this is his stab at eternity and he wants it to go down the best he can.
 
So, yes, when you want to do a long dialogue scene and you want to do it in one take, you’re gonna shoot it twenty times. You’ve got to get that extra in the right place at the right time and the camera has to be…. I mean there’s so many elements at play and that was sort of what he was hanging the look and the feel of the movie on from very early on. But I come from the theater, man. You do five hundred performances. So, to me, it’s tough and Dave expects the best from people. He wants you to show up and be ready to work. He wants the best from people. He uses the best people and he expects the best from them. So, it’s tough. It can be nerve-wracking at times but I’m game for that journey. I dug it. It gives you another chance to get it right but it is nerve-wracking.

MoviesOnline: Did Toschi really walk out of "Dirty Harry”? Why?

Mark Ruffalo: He couldn’t take it. It was so simplified. He was in the middle of one of the biggest cases in the United States at the time and they were having no movement on it and he knew they had a mountain of evidence and it took them nine months to get a search warrant to toss the guy’s trailer. He was just crawling out of his skin and the guy [Dirty Harry] just walks up and he’s like ‘I don’t care. If you’re going to walk free, I’m gonna blow your brains out’ and the audience [he starts clapping] Yeah, we all did it, right? I think that was frustrating for him. He would like to do that probably.

MoviesOnline: Has he seen "Zodiac” yet?

Mark Ruffalo: He hasn’t seen it yet.

MoviesOnline: Are you a little antsy about that? Does it mean at lot to you that he likes it?

Mark Ruffalo: Yeah. The first thing I said to him, he was like ‘why are you here’? And I said, ‘I’m here to honor you, man. I’m here to be as honest as I can about playing you.’ That family doesn’t want to reopen this. His wife was adamant that we couldn’t use her name in the movie. They don’t want it. It’s a painful time for them and they have no idea what Hollywood intends to do with it. So, I made sure he got the script before I went to see him and I asked him if there was anything in there that was prickly or that he felt uncomfortable with and he said ‘no’, he felt good about it. And then slowly but surely, he started to reveal himself to me. I feel like it was a fair portrayal of who Dave Toschi was in the little time that I had to do it in.

MoviesOnline: Including the animal crackers.

Mark Ruffalo: That’s Dave Toschi. That’s classic Toschi, the Tiparillos, the animal crackers and I hope the way he talks.

MoviesOnline: The bow tie too?

Mark Ruffalo: Dave Toschi. Totally Dave Toschi.

MoviesOnline: The relationship between him and his partner, they’re like Mutt and Jeff. The two seem so different. Were the real people that different from one another?

Mark Ruffalo: Totally different. Dave Toschi was an anomaly. They were all dressed like G-Men. They had their G-Men jackets and the ties and the G-Men glasses. That was the prototype cop at the time. Then you have this very flamboyant dude who wears bow ties and bright clothes and is very laissez faire and so they had an interesting relationship, the two of them. It was contentious at times.

MoviesOnline: How close is the final film to the script that was originally presented to you?

Mark Ruffalo: It’s pretty close. I know there’s a couple of scenes cut out. It was long. It was longer than it is now so there was some stuff that was cut out that probably didn’t serve the movie totally but it’s pretty close.

MoviesOnline: What are you doing now?

Mark Ruffalo: I just wrapped a movie called "Reservation Road” that Terry George directed with Joaquin Phoenix and now I’m just hanging out with my kids. (laughs)

MoviesOnline: Who do you play in that?

Mark Ruffalo: It’s about a hit and run, two fathers. I play a guy who hits his son and kills him and runs -- a light, jaunty, romantic comedy [everybody laughs].

MoviesOnline: Is that an indie?

Mark Ruffalo: Yeah, it’s Focus Films so it’s a mini-indie.

MoviesOnline: What’s it like going from a big picture like "Zodiac” to an indie? Is it totally the opposite?

Mark Ruffalo: Totally, it’s fun. I like that. I get bored so I like to keep… I’ll say ‘Let’s try this. Let’s see this.’

MoviesOnline: Did you meet Robert Graysmith or anyone else?

Mark Ruffalo: Yeah. I spent a lot of time with Robert Graysmith. Then, I met Narlow (Det. Ken Narlow). People were coming around as we were shooting. People who weren’t in the movie were coming around. I met the guy who was stabbed at Lake Berryessa [Bryan Hartnell]. I met him and his kids came along. There were a lot of people who were attached and part of this time. Fincher and Brad Fischer were doing their best to get all of their stories and really make it an open place for them to come.

MoviesOnline: Has this experience whetted you appetite for contemporary murder mysteries? Do you look at the paper and say ‘Wow, it happened again’? Do you get immersed in those cases?

Mark Ruffalo: No. I’m too sensitive to it. It’s too scary to me. The astronaut who went across the U.S. in a diaper, it’s hilarious. It’s weird.

MoviesOnline: Is there anything about David Fincher that’s not in the press notes that you could tell us?

Mark Ruffalo: I haven’t read the press notes but I was kind of scared to work with Fincher. I had heard that he was an intense guy and sometimes he yelled at people. So I didn’t know what to expect, but I was really surprised by how gentle and easygoing a guy he is. Oddly enough, I was having a conversation with him and he said something to me about having faith about where the world is going and everything. It just struck me as odd from him in a weird way because he has such dark leanings. But he’s really an enormously optimistic and positive guy. He’s obsessive.
 
The film is kind of eating itself because he became obsessed with the case -- down to when Arthur Leigh Allen died and they went to his house and gathered all the evidence. There was a tape sitting in a cassette player and it was a tape of a child being spanked by Arthur Leigh Allen and it is the most gruesome and you want to kill the guy. You do want to Dirty Harry his ass kind of. But Fincher was so obsessed that he knew about this tape, he’d heard it. His obsession with the movie became the movie itself kind of. He’s very, very, very meticulous. I don’t know if that’s in the press note. (laughs)

MoviesOnline: Is that very far from other directors you’ve worked with?

Mark Ruffalo: Michael Mann is a little bit the same way in a weird way. He’s also a full frame director. He likes to do lots of takes, very much immersed in the world that he’s creating, knows all the minute details, much more than any of the actors knows. He knows more about your character than you do mostly.

MoviesOnline: Do you find that to be helpful?

Mark Ruffalo: If they can convey it in a way that you can understand, it’s very helpful, yeah. If it’s too much detail you, just kind of shut down to it after a while.

MoviesOnline: Mann is superb at breaking down his movies and deconstructing them even for the press. There’s no Fincher today.

Mark Ruffalo: No. Do you know what Fincher’s idea of the perfect press junket is? ‘Everyone give us your questions. Give us all your questions, give us a thousand questions. Wherever they’re doubled, we’ll just ask them once, or tripled, we’ll just ask them once, and we’ll sit down in front of a camera with mikes and we’ll put together the entire thing and you guys don’t have to come here all day. I think, ultimately, he really believes the proof is in the pudding and all the talking around it only clouds the issue.

MoviesOnline: Do you believe that because you talk about and represent your movies very well?

Mark Ruffalo: Well, I like to talk [everybody laughs]

MoviesOnline: Do you think it was Arthur Leigh Allen?

Mark Ruffalo: I keep flopping back and forth on it. I know they did this genetic test but we don’t know that it was his saliva on the back of the stamp. I have seen this guy. He was a bad, bad dude. He was a sociopath.

MoviesOnline: He was guilty of something.

Mark Ruffalo: Yes. He also wanted people to believe that he was Zodiac. Is it beyond a shadow of a doubt? That’s where I’m stuck because there are those few little things that don’t quite jibe.

MoviesOnline: But Dave Toschi thinks it’s him.

Mark Ruffalo: Yeah and I want to believe it’s him too. I really do want to think it was him.

"Zodiac” opens in theaters on March 2nd.
 

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