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RUFFALO WAS THERE ALL ALONG.

Byline: Evan Henerson Theater Writer

A few things have changed around the Hudson Guild Theatre since Mark Ruffalo was punching a regular time card.

``The coffee bar has gotten nicer,'' says the 32-year-old actor/director. ``There's more of a feeling of something going on here. They've got (the musical) 'bare' happening here, and that's bringing in a cool young theater-going crowd.

``When we started here, it was just a great space and relatively inexpensive. We basically took over the theater. We got about $30,000 in debt to them and then they kicked us out. Who knows if we would still have been here if we had made any money.''

Ruffalo returns to the venue with many of the same people he worked with back when the Hudson was first the Igloo, then the World Theater. He's back with longtime friend Timothy McNeil, whose new play, ``Margaret,'' Ruffalo is directing in the Hudson's Backstage Theatre.

Of course, more than the coffee bar has changed. Ruffalo is no longer the dependable but semi-anonymous stage actor toiling in the trenches of L.A.'s countless Equity-waiver theaters.

He's still dependable - still, in his own words, a stage actor first and foremost. But at the moment, he also happens to be an in-demand movie star. While rehearsing ``Margaret,'' Ruffalo has spent his days shooting ``Windtalkers,'' John Woo's World War II drama about a group of United States Marines assigned to protect the lives of two Navajo code talkers. The film stars Nicolas Cage and Christian Slater.

Next up, Ruffalo starts the romantic comedy ``A View From the Top'' for Bruno Barreto, opposite Gwyneth Paltrow. Then it's on to Nashville, where he'll film ``The Castle'' with Robert Redford and James Gandolfini for director Rod Lurie. Ruffalo will play a West Point cadet, busted for using drugs, who has to grow into his leadership qualities.

These days, a sojourn in L.A. also means Ruffalo - who lives in New York - can save a bundle on airline tickets for the duration of awards season. ``You Can Count on Me,'' the critically praised film he made with another old friend, playwright Kenneth Lonergan, keeps getting plaudits. It has already earned Ruffalo the Best Actor prize at the Montreal Film Festival and the New Generation award from the L.A. Film Critics Association.

Co-star Laura Linney is a near shoo-in for an Oscar nomination for her work as a small-town single mother. Ruffalo, who played Linney's none- too-dependable brother, Terry Prescott, got a heaping of critical praise of his own, not to mention a flock of new job offers.

Stephen Holden in the New York Times wrote, ``Ruffalo's star-making performance deserves to be added to the list of charismatic, grown-up lost boys that includes the Marlon Brando of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' and the Jack Nicholson of 'Easy Rider.' ''

Nevertheless, Ruffalo figures an Oscar nomination for his own work would be a serious long shot, and laughs off the journalists who are comparing him to a young Marlon Brando.

``What do you do with that?'' he says. ``Thank you, but hopefully I've got my own stuff going on too.''

Even so, with his business and domestic calendar fast filling up, (his wife, actress Sunrise Coigney, is expecting the couple's first child in June), who has time for a small play at an Equity-waiver house?

Actually Ruffalo does, thank you very much.

``It's hard to split focus, but I like being busy,'' says Ruffalo, sporting a way-past-5-o'clock shadow and dressed Hollywood Boulevard casual. ``It keeps me from being crazy and getting depressed and being too much in my own head.

``This is an easy place for me to come to at the end of the day. With all the craziness of Hollywood, this is really where it all started for me and where it will end for me.''

``This'' is a small stage in a complex of performance spaces on a rather isolated stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. It's a freezing Thursday night, about a week before the opening night of ``Margaret'' (the production runs through Feb. 25).

Ruffalo has had a long day, but by now the routine is familiar. He spent the day shooting ``Windtalkers'' in Valencia. In the evening, it's grab a quick bite, then on to the Hudson for rehearsal from 7:30 p.m. until midnight. The process starts over the next day at 6 a.m.

``What he did with this play is kind of superhuman in a weird way,'' says McNeil, an actor in ``Margaret'' as well as its author. ``I don't really understand where he found the fortitude to do it.''

The two men have an extensive history together both at the Hudson and as classmates at the Stella Adler Conservatory. They've acted together, both in classics and in contemporary works. ``Margaret'' is the second time Ruffalo has directed McNeil.

``We did a few things in front of Stella Adler, and that can cement a friendship pretty quickly,'' says McNeil. ``I like how we have a sort of shorthand as far as how my plays work. He has a great eye for shaping plays.''

Set in 1969, ``Margaret'' is about how the suicide of a young girl affects a suburban community in Illinois. Ruffalo, who, like McNeil, has known someone who committed suicide, was attracted to the way the play deals with the splintering of the American family.

``This is sort of the beginning of the splinter,'' says Ruffalo. ``A lot of ideas about ways of dealing with tragedy of the '50s are starting to not really work for people.''

``I had a close friend of mine commit suicide, so for me this was interesting to tackle,'' he added. ``It becomes a milestone. If you're a victim of it, you start to measure your life by it.''

``Margaret'' wasn't the opportunity for Ruffalo to take the stage himself, although he plans to return to the New York stage either this summer or fall. He hopes to do some Eugene O'Neill or possibly a new play, and he expects to work with Lonergan again, after winning the Lucille Lortel award for his work in Lonergan's ofroadway play ``This Is Our Youth.''

Strangely enough, he says it was that play, and not his role in any films, that brought about the sudden discovery of Mark Ruffalo.

``It's really bittersweet in a weird way,'' he says. ``I was here doing all these plays. Then I did a play in New York, and I came back and everyone was saying, 'Where did you come from?'

``I'm like, 'You idiots! I was under your nose all the time.' ''

``MARGARET''

Where: Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6537 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday; through Feb. 25.

Tickets: $15. Call (323) 856-4200 or (323) 860-8835.

CAPTION(S):

3 photos

Photo:

(1) Actor-director Mark Ruffalo shares an off-stage moment with Macy, a friend's dog, on the set of ``Margaret'' at the Hudson Backstage Theatre.

(2) Kacy Peacock plays the title role in ``Margaret.''

(3) Rick Peters, left, Jon Lee Cope, Susan Vinciotti and Hillary Hunter perform a scene from ``Margaret'' at the Hudson Backstage Theatre.

Charlotte Schmid-Maybach/Staff Photographer
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 3, 2001
Words:1199
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