LOS ANGELES -- Marlon Brando just walked in the room.
"Good morning, good morning. Anyone sitting here?" he says, smiling and unshaven, taking the seat left open for him and running his hand through his already tousled curly brown hair. His handsome presence is magnetic. His trademark gaze, vulnerable yet penetrating, rousts the vestiges of sleep in his voice.
It's as if he just walked in from the set of The Wild One or On the Waterfront and wants to meet some reporters interested in his work. He's dressed casually -- blue shirt under blue sweater -- as if this is just an impromptu, unplanned chat.
Oh, wait a minute! Wrong decade; wrong generation.
Brando has long since moved on to other career stages, for better and worse. But Mark Ruffalo, the 36-year-old actor who sits before us today in a Beverly Hills hotel to talk about his latest film, 13 Going on 30, has as Brandoesque a presence as any young actor working today.
Ruffalo has been active in New York theater since the 1990s, but his discovery didn't come until 2000. That's when he co-starred in the award-winning independent film You Can Count on Me.
As Terry Prescott, the emotionally wounded and confused yet well intentioned younger brother of Laura Linney's Sammy, Ruffalo commanded attention for his nuanced, doomed-romantic performance. He was a classic dreamer late getting started with real life, trying to fight being a loser. He reminded many of Brando's Terry Malloy in Waterfront -- even the names were similar.
While trying to capitalize on the sudden interest in him, Ruffalo became seriously ill. Doctors had to remove a benign brain tumor, and it took a year for him to fully recover physically from the delicate, difficult, paralysis-risking surgery.
"I'd been out for a year," he says in a voice simultaneously soft and reassuring, humorous even, and also resonantly warm.
Some of those roles have been dark and edgy. He was a police detective who might or might not also be a killer pursuing Meg Ryan in In the Cut. In XX/XY, he couldn't quite make the shift from the wild college years to faithfulness in adult relationships and suffered for it. And in the current Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he's an inattentive technician who carelessly forgets to closely monitor a memory-erasing experiment involving Jim Carrey.
"I've been in very dark, edgy, conflicted moral dilemmas for a while," he says. "I was longing to do something that had a little more innocence to it. I read this (screenplay) and said, 'This feels right; I'd like to do this now.' "
13 Going on 30 is a Hollywood romantic comedy confection about innocence regained, directed by Tadpole's Gary Winick. Alias' Jennifer Garner, playing cute and loveable rather than tough and sexy, stars as an arrogant 30-year-old New York magazine editor who magically reverts back to being the sweet girl she was at 13. That means rejecting her New York Rangers boyfriend (and his icky requests for sex) and searching for her old childhood friend, played by Ruffalo. He's now a scruffy but honest 30-year-old photographer.
"All I knew of her was from Alias," Ruffalo says of Garner. "We were doing a reading, and this girl comes in with no makeup and a ponytail and sweats and looking like she just rolled out of bed, but very fresh-looking. I went, 'Who is that girl? She's really cute.' I didn't know it was Jennifer Garner because I was expecting someone in a leather bustier and high heels. I thought she was going to come in and kick my ass."
Hearing this comment later, Garner laughs and then comments on Ruffalo's contribution to the film. She uses a slightly mannered, precise voice that really does sound like a precocious 13-year-old.
"It's weird to see the poster now with my big old head on it because the movie is (the result of) a team," she says. "As soon as Mark was cast, I never felt overwhelmed. When they cast Mark, I said to the producers, 'Thank you. Thank you so, so, so much.' "
13 Going on 30 is inundated with 1980s Pop music. When Garner's character becomes possessed by the spirit of her 13-year-old self, one of the ways she shows it is getting people to dance to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and sing along to Pat Benatar's "Love Is a Battlefield."
Ruffalo, who as a teen loved the more punkish rock of The Clash and Dead Kennedys, wanted nothing to do with the big "Thriller" dance scene. He viewed it the way other actors might view a nude scene.
"They literally had to drag me out there," he says, laughing at his trepidation. "I'm not a dancer. I read that part of the movie and didn't want to do it and just dreaded the day when we were going to have to shoot that. There were all these extras and cameras and stuff, and I was very reticent."
While 13 Going on 30 isn't his first foray into Hollywood-studio filmmaking -- he was also in the dreadful Last Castle with Robert Redford -- it's relatively rare. Through art house films like You Can Count on Me, My Life Without Me, XX/XY and even Eternal Sunshine, he's developed a reputation as an indie-film actor.
He is loyal to indies -- even having helped to arrange financing on the upcoming We Don't Live Here Anymore, a relationship drama co-starring him, Naomi Watts and Laura Dern that debuted at this year's Sundance Film Festival. So he plans his forays into Hollywood with caution and even second-guessing.
"I hear myself saying about myself, 'Are you a sellout, man? Don't be a sellout,' " he says. "But I also know the way this business works, and the cold, hard facts are that you have to have commercial success in order to have choices, unfortunately."
He confides that a couple days before he'd turned down a chance to star in a new Jennifer Lopez movie.
"It's going to be a big movie with Jane Fonda and it was going to be a lot of money, but for me it didn't feel like where I want to go," he says. "The role didn't speak to me. I was to play J-Lo's fiancé. It just didn't push my buttons like this did. That's my litmus test. If I'm going for the money or because I think it's going to be a hit, that's the quickest way for me to be miserable."
Ruffalo has tended to take supporting-male parts in movies that feature women in lead or at least equal roles. He accepts this gracefully.
"You're working, you don't have a plan and then all of a sudden after five or six movies a pattern has developed," he says. "I get to be with great leading ladies. I've always seen myself as a journeyman actor. It scares me that a movie would be built around me, especially a big movie. That's a lot to have to hold on your shoulders. Maybe one day I'll graduate, but I'm cool with where I'm at right now."
Left unsaid, of course, is that he's glad to be working -- and be alive -- after what he went through. ©