- The Washington Times - Friday, October 19, 2001

This might have been the season of back-to-back military outings for actor Mark Ruffalo.In "The Last Castle," which opens this week, Mr. Ruffalo plays an inmate at a military prison. His character becomes caught in a power struggle between the characters played by James Gandolfini and Robert Redford. Mr. Gandolfini is cast as the prison commandant, a petty tyrant of a colonel who is outranked by the latter, a supposedly revered general who derives satisfaction of a highly dubious kind from fomenting insurrection shortly after he pleads guilty to a court-martial charge and joins the prison population.

Mr. Ruffalo (it rhymes with "buffalo") also will be seen as a Marine captain in John Woo's combat saga about the battle on Saipan, "Windtalkers" but not now. Originally announced for November, the movie was postponed to next summer in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

What remains a bafflement is why a movie that celebrates authentic Marine heroism would be less timely than a polemical melodrama about military incarceration that concludes in a battle to the death between former soldiers and their guards. Such is the mind-set of contemporary Hollywood.

The rescheduling makes it likely that Mr. Ruffalo will have contrasting titles on display next summer because he also has completed a romantic comedy with Gwyneth Paltrow. That is "A View From the Top," directed by Bruno Barreto of "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands" fame.

Mr. Ruffalo emerged as a potentially stellar attraction at the end of last year when he was cast as Laura Linney's restless younger brother in "You Can Count on Me," written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. The playwright and screenwriter's recent theater work often has used the 33-year-old actor.

A Manhattan resident, Mr. Ruffalo shares an apartment with his wife and their 3-month-old son "about 20 blocks north" of the Sept. 11 disaster site. He and his family were visiting relatives in upstate New York on the day of the terrorist attacks.

"I'm pretty tied into part of the off-Broadway theater community, and the tone is certainly different now," he says. "More somber. As an actor, you question your decisions a little more and try to think carefully about, Where do I fit in? How do I make my work relevant? You kind of feel it isn't very relevant when something like this happens."

A certain reassurance has come from those professionally involved in rescue work. "Someone I know, a pretty famous actor, met with New York City firemen and was kind of lamenting that his work seemed meaningless compared to what the emergency people had to do," Mr. Ruffalo says. "One of the guys said, 'No, no, are you kidding? When I'm depressed, I come home and feel better about things if I put on one of your movies .'

"So, it helps to hear generous remarks like that, but you don't know. I'm sure it won't be long before actors will be considering numerous roles as New York City firemen and policemen and emergency medical workers. That may help."

Mr. Ruffalo hails from Kenosha, Wis. At age 13, he moved to Virginia Beach, where his father was starting a business. By 18, Mark Ruffalo was on the West Coast, first in San Diego and then in Los Angeles, pursuing a career. "As a little kid, I was always kind of playing roles," he says in a telephone interview. "I was active in high school drama stuff and began to take it seriously."

He attended the Stella Adler Conservatory in Los Angeles for "six or seven years" and "did a bunch of little plays," not to mention scattered television and movie parts. To make a reliable living, he worked steadily as a bartender. He was associated with one theater company, the Hudson Backstage Theatre, for about a dozen years before a Lonergan play, "This Is Our Youth," brought him to New York. He promptly attracted attention and became something of an off-Broadway matinee idol.

Mr. Ruffalo also wrote an obscure feature of 1995, "The Destiny of Marty Fine," in which he played the leading role. He has written and directed plays and has a film-directing project on the back burner. Before "You Can Count on Me" gave him a decisive identity, he had roles in "Ride With the Devil," "54" and "Committed."

Judging from his work, Mr. Ruffalo may be particularly good at embodying characters who are torn between one thing and another.

"I thought the character in 'The Last Castle' was interesting and challenging," he says. "It's a pretty fun part, being the loner. There's more going on than his ambivalence. I also thought the topic was interesting. You can be dehumanized by being in prison, lose a sense of self-worth and dignity.

"Basically, these men are soldiers, and when that identity is reawakened in them by the general, they can remember what was decent and promising in their lives.

"There were some themes that hadn't been explored. Even a patriotic theme: that the American spirit stands up against oppression whether you're still in uniform or paying a price for crimes committed while wearing the uniform."

Mr. Ruffalo went through a miniedition of boot camp before "Windtalkers" began production. "Ten days with 65 Marines. It was really tough, but in retrospect, it starts to look like fun. It was very intense, and I bulked up a bit. That turned out to be useful for 'Castle' and then the Gwyneth Paltrow movie, where I was supposed to be pretty fit also. It's a big sex comedy, an over-the-top sex comedy harking back to the 1970s. Think 'What's Up, Doc?' or 'The Owl and the Pussycat.'"

During the finale of "The Last Castle," Mr. Ruffalo, whose character once was a helicopter pilot, is supposed to climb a chain that has ensnared a hovering chopper and seize control of the cockpit from the overwhelmed pilot and co-pilot.

"I'd never done anything like that before," he says. "There were some grueling elements, but I really enjoyed it. All of it was done on the actual location, the prison yard at this former state penitentiary in Tennessee. A lot of it was pretty high up, with the helicopter rigged to a crane.

"Just the rig alone was pretty remarkable. At one point, I had to climb this chain with the real helicopter over it. I did a lot of pleading before they agreed to let me do it. But once it started, I wasn't quite sure what I had gotten myself into. I did five takes, I think, and most of what they used was the first take. I just kept going up until I was about 10 feet from the helicopter. I finally looked down and saw all these people frantically pantomiming, 'Cut.'"

Mr. Ruffalo describes his co-stars as "pretty down-to-earth guys."

"I hung out with James a little bit more. Bob has to devote a lot of his time off-camera to keeping other projects rolling along. Not that James doesn't have a lot going on in his career, but of the two, he seems to have the lighter burdens.

"Bob isn't aloof. He's very personable and kind of looked out for me, told me a lot of stories about his past. He's just incredibly busy. At one point, I opened up the New York Times, and there was an Op-Ed piece under his name, opposing [President] Bush's desire to open up the [Arctic National] Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. I said, 'When did you do that?' He said, "Oh, a few days ago.'"

Mr. Ruffalo also relished the company of the helicopter pilots hired for the production. "They were extremely cool," he says. "They explained that [the helicopter] is a very responsive, incredibly sensitive machine, as long as you're very gentle at the controls."

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