STORY BY ELLE EICHINGER | PHOTO BY RAMZI DREESSEN
In “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” which opened at No.1 at the box office this spring, the Incredible Hulk and his Marvel superhero comrades ward off such evils as an army of robot drones, a villain with superhuman speed and an artificial intelligence system set on exterminating the human race.
But in the real world, where the problems are decidedly less supernatural, Mark Ruffalo — the 47-year-old actor underneath the Hulk makeup and muscular green digital imaging — works just as hard to save the planet.
Case in point: Last week, Ruffalo helped launch the 100% campaign through The Solutions Project, which he co-founded. The campaign’s goal is to make clean energy accessible and affordable for 100 percent of the population by providing tools to switch to clean energy (such as a hotline to help find quality service providers) and spotlighting stories of clean energy leadership. Today, 91 communities in Illinois are operating on 100 percent renewable electricity.
And it doesn’t stop at energy. Originally from Kenosha, Wisconsin, Ruffalo has always had a deep connection to nature — and it was Lake Michigan that served as an early inspiration to clean up the water: He founded the nonprofit Water Defense in 2012.
“Growing up on Lake Michigan was the most significant thing for me,” the actor says. “I lived on [the lake] when it was really polluted — I used to see fish that were deformed and garbage floating around. … It started to dawn on me that this stuff needed to be protected and the things we did as mankind and the choices that we made affected it.”
Admittedly, Ruffalo does have one advantage over the rest of us mere mortals: his celebrity star power. “For whatever reason, when you’re an actor your voice happens to carry further,” he says. “There’s this spotlight I can grab to put focus on somebody else who has something important to say, who has a message I think should be out in the world. … Listen, the people who don’t want change or who are stuck in the past or who, for whatever selfish reason, want to keep us addicted to fossil fuels, they make a lot of noise about me doing it — so I must be doing the right thing. If people are attacking you, then you’re probably getting the job done.”
In an era of why-are-they-even-famous celebrities, Ruffalo, for one, earned his fame the old-fashioned way, beginning with minor roles in TV series and short films and, later, in thought-provoking indies like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” He eventually worked his way into Oscar-worthy roles — he’s been nominated twice, most recently for his supporting role in 2014’s “Foxcatcher.”
A quarter century into his career — or more, considering it truly began when he saw Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and knew he wanted to be like him — Ruffalo has made it to the top. Lauding his most recent performance in this summer’s “Infinitely Polar Bear,” Rolling Stone called him “one of the best actors on the planet.” Yet another accolade brought him back to his Midwest roots earlier this month: Ruffalo received the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Renaissance Award at its annual gala in Chicago June 6.
Having risen to the top on screen, Ruffalo is focusing more and more of his attention behind the scenes: He’s developing a TV show based on the book I Know This Much is True, and he executive produced “Infinitely Polar Bear.”
“It’s a little more difficult,” he says of the off-camera roles. “You’re always on when directing a film; there’s never really downtime. The course of shooting and prep is longer. … But I like the collaborative — I enjoy seeing people at their best and most creative. I see myself ultimately ending up there, as I get older.”
It’s a testament to Ruffalo’s two true passions: He is avidly committed to doing his part for the environment, and is fueled by the art of creating film — whether it’s a blockbuster action film or a heart-wrenching drama. Plus, being behind-the-scenes has its perks: “It’s one of my favorite things,” he says, “walking past the hair and makeup trailer in the morning and not having to stop there. I can show up looking however I want to look and just focus on filmmaking and nothing else. That’s a little bit of heaven on Earth.”