From the New York Post:
“Life’s bulls – – t! There’s no way out!”
So declares a paralyzed and homeless deejay, played by Christopher Thornton in “Sympathy for Delicious,” upon finding that everything he owns has been stolen from the car he’s been sleeping in.
“There is a way out,” says the local skid-row priest, played by Mark Ruffalo, “but you’re gonna have to find it.”
As it happens, Ruffalo — who makes his directorial debut with the film, out Friday — understands the challenge of transcending life’s most trying situations as much as anyone.
In December 2008, while “Sympathy for Delicious” was in pre-production, Scott Ruffalo, the beloved little brother that Mark built many a treehouse with while growing up in Kenosha, Wis., was shot to death in his Beverly Hills condo. (Acquaintances on the scene claimed he died playing Russian roulette. The police consider it an unsolved homicide.)
His brother’s death at 39 made directing the film, which is dedicated to Scott, a surreal and devastating experience. Ruffalo says he was “in a state of shock” while making most of the movie. Yet as horrific as his brother’s death was, it was only the latest in a series of tragedies in Ruffalo’s life.
In 1994, his longtime best friend Michael, then 26, killed himself. Ruffalo later credited this for teaching him “the value of life,” and said it strengthened his resolve to carry on as an actor.
Ruffalo came to prominence with the 2000 family drama “You Can Count on Me,” and married a beautiful French actress named Sunrise Coigney that same year. Their son, Keen, was born in 2001. Several weeks after this joyous event, Ruffalo’s world came crashing down.
“I had a bad dream, and woke up in tears,” he told Parade Magazine. “In the dream, I knew I had a brain tumor.”
The dream seemed so real that he visited a doctor and learned he really did have a tumor, an acoustic neuroma that turned out to be benign. Still, Ruffalo endured a 10-hour operation that left his face partially paralyzed for most of the next year.
He was sure his career was over.
Rumors spread throughout Hollywood that Ruffalo was drunk, on drugs or had AIDS. He checked his face daily for months on end, praying for a flicker of activity, but believed the paralysis to be permanent.
Then, one day, he detected minuscule movement in one eye.
“I showed my wife,” he said. “We started jumping for joy, yelling, ‘It’s coming back!’ We’d been through so much together, and we just burst into tears. In another three months my face came completely back.”
As he re-ignited his acting career, Ruffalo also pursued a passion project on the other side of the camera. He had befriended Christopher Thornton while studying acting at LA’s Stella Adler Conservatory. They shared an apartment, but soon after moving in together, Thornton broke his spine in a climbing accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down.
Finding himself adrift, Thornton briefly looked into faith healing. Soon seeing the folly in that, he was inspired to write a 198-page script about a homeless deejay in a wheelchair who tries faith healing, rejects it, then discovers that he has the power to heal others, but not himself.
When he read the script, Ruffalo knew he had to direct it, and the film became the pair’s mutual obsession for the next 10 years. Ruffalo worked with Thornton to develop 40 different drafts of the script, and they immersed themselves in related experiences including Ruffalo sending Thornton to spend several days living in his car.
But the pair’s passion failed to move the studios, and even Ruffalo’s wife began imploring him to drop the project. The film was close to being made, only to then fall apart, several times before an old friend came through with financing. Then, as Ruffalo prepared to finally see his dream realized, Scott was killed.
With his brother’s death and his frustration with the film creating massive disillusionment with Hollywood, Ruffalo fired his handlers and deserted LA, moving with Sunrise and their three children to the small town of Callicoon, NY — about two hours northwest of New York City, near Port Jervis — where he enjoys growing eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes in his garden.
“It wasn’t until I lived through a winter in upstate New York, where it was all blanketed with snow and there was nothing but time, that I started coming to terms with what had happened,” Ruffalo, 43, told the Telegraph. “Looking back, I think there was a little grief-driven madness in what I did. They say you’re not supposed to make any major decisions while you are grieving, but I did the opposite.”
Ruffalo intended to leave acting altogether, but Julianne Moore, a good friend of Sunrise’s, persuaded him to take a part he had first rejected — that of the sperm donor in her new film, “The Kids Are All Right.”
Ruffalo saw an openness in the character that reminded him of Scott, and perceived the role as a way to celebrate his brother’s life. Playing the part not only rejuvenated the joy he found in acting, but earned him his first Oscar nomination.
Next up for Ruffalo is the most uncharacteristic part he’s played, that of Bruce Banner — a k a The Hulk — in “The Avengers.” He lost 15 pounds for the role, which was filmed using motion capture technology that transformed him into two tons of muscular green anger.
While Ruffalo is ready to embrace the joy and success to come, directing “Sympathy for Delicious” through a turbulent time in his life ultimately helped ground him.
Finishing the film provided him with a “real-life sense of catharsis,” he told Details. “Not the heavens opening up. More like: I f – – king didn’t die. I’m still getting by. Which today for a human being is a lot, you know?”