Mark Ruffalo: Actors must be political

"The Avengers" star and outspoken anti-fracking activist explains the difficulty in making a political film today

Topics: mark ruffalo, The Promised Land, matt damon, Gus Van Sant, fracking, anti-fracking, political movies, Film, entertainment news, Interviews, Editor's Picks, Movies, The Avengers, The Kids Are All Right,

Mark Ruffalo: Actors must be political (Credit: s_bukley via Shutterstock)

Mark Ruffalo, the standout in last year’s biggest hit “The Avengers,” has been dividing his time of late between acting and advocacy: He’s worked with New Yorkers Against Fracking to raise awareness of the environmentally destructive drilling method.

On occasion of the release of “Promised Land,” Matt Damon’s anti-fracking drama (which opened softly at the box office and hasn’t won over critics), Ruffalo called from the set of Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” to discuss the challenges of merging art and politics.

Have you seen “Promised Land”?

I haven’t gotten to see it yet — I’ve been working a pretty grueling schedule here in Pittsburgh. But I know a good deal about it. I know Matt, and we corresponded about this — he didn’t want to make a polemic. I understand that. I’m pro-gay marriage. And when I read “The Kids Are All Right” [for which Ruffalo was nominated for an Oscar], I thought, This would be a great way to show the human side of that debate. I find myself interested in the human side of the story more than the sheer power structure and how that works, and lobbying. I wish I were a better writer and could create something that could do it. I haven’t come across anything yet that turned my head and made me feel it’s what I need to do.

Why are there so few political scripts these days? The 1970s, for instance, were a golden age by comparison. 

A lot of it has to do with financing and accessibility. It’s harder to hit straight on like in “All the President’s Men,” or “Three Days of the Condor,” or these movies that came out in the ’70s that were politically charged. We still have them. If you’re going to show what happened in Iraq, you run into the problem of funding and accessibility and, those government agencies are really heavy about propaganda and what they want to see in the world. They’re like a corporation, they have trademarks on their insignias, on their weaponry. You have to get those things cleared. There should be a line between propaganda the country wants to give to its people, and the people who are making the art.

But “The Avengers” co-starred Chris Evans as Captain America, a U.S. supersoldier who represents the military might of the nation and is an unambiguous hero.

“The Avengers” isn’t saying: We’re going to make a journalistic style true story about a military operation. And even though a great deal of it is fictionalized, we’re going to tell it as a journalistic effort. You look at “The Avengers,” and Captain America, and one thing you see, he’s anachronistic. He’s no longer really part of the American culture, and it’s something they play on in jokes. His idea of weaponry is so primitive.

The character I’m playing is basically a pacifist. But he also has this giant green rage machine that’s part of his makeup. It’s kind of a good metaphor for us, for America. The difference between that movie and other movies is that that’s a fantasy, and when people go to ["The Avengers"], they’re very forgiving. They’re open to that experience. Culturally we work out a lot of things sitting watching “The Avengers,” thinking, This is so intense. It’s not my favorite genre, but people are willing, and the suspension of disbelief is so strong they’re going so wholeheartedly along with this ride. What’s the difference between this and the ancient gods? Mankind needs to have these kind of stories and have these characters to play with, and work out some need in their psyche. Maybe that kind of film has a positive place in our culture. [The villains] are aliens. They’re not people. You’re not seeing violent bloodshed. I see it as something totally different.

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Do you worry that artists who take strong political stances lack a certain credibility?

You constantly hear it: Why should we listen to you? My belief is that actors are artists and we do have a responsibility to the culture and to the people we are making movies about and to a certain level of honesty. That was part of my training as an actor. That went part and parcel with learning to project. It wasn’t alien to me and when you look through history, art and artists have always had a hand in political movements, in shifts in cultural thinking. It’s part of our cultural function. But, coming out of the ’70s, and Vietnam, more specifically, there’s an entrenched right-wing faction in the U.S.

For me, it’s [comparable to] the Iraq War. They shut down the press line at the Academy Awards the night before the Iraq War. They shut down the press line for the Golden Globes. The only ones that refused to shut down the press line were the Independent Spirit Awards. I had someone from CNN ask me what I thought was going to happen to people who talked about the Iraq War. I had never heard of a blacklist. CNN was pushing this story, it had a chilling effect on all of us artists that were there. Where does that come from? It became a character assassination. That has a chilling effect on artists, and they lost their voice for a long time. I was one of a few people who was vocally and publicly against the Iraq War — but no one gave a shit because I was an indie actor.

Have you personally been attacked?

I’ve been called a carpetbagger, I’ve been called a liberal elitist. I’ve been called a lot of names. The one thing they haven’t been able to do is attack my personal life. I live a quiet life, I’m married, I have kids.

There’s always that 25 percent who’ve drank the Kool-Aid on the right wing or left wing or whatever that they’re so entrenched in ideology that they won’t change their beliefs. Those aren’t the people I’m interested in. Polling shows Americans don’t trust the oil and gas industry for good reason. They’re not winning. Look what they’re doing with Matt’s movie. They’re doing that stupid little commercial that they’ll spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on to discredit the film, to basically say these are just actors. They don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.

Do you think you’ll end up losing that 25 percent of the audience, though?

Maybe! I don’t tend to worry about it. There are things that trump that. There’s moral issues. There’s things that trump my ability to make money and be able to say come and see my movie. That’s my feeling. I’ve been becoming more outspoken and feeling vindicated, and it’s like, You were right about the Iraq War when people were afraid to talk about it and you’re right today. I have to follow my heart.

Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_

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