Mark Ruffalo talks Spotlight, Thor: Ragnarok and Columbo

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Three-time Oscar nominee, fan favourite and possibly the World's Nicest Man, things are looking rosy for Mark Ruffalo just now. His turn as Spotlight's passionate and impulsive reporter Mike Rezendes is a highlight of an Oscar-garlanded drama that landed in cinemas this weekend. As he cheerily tells Empire in an expansive West End hotel suite, he's pretty excited by the chance to rejoin the man he just calls 'Hemsworth' in Thor 3 too. One sticking point? What to call this burgeoning MCU bromance? 'Muscle Buddies' is considered but discarded, although possibly too late. "By tomorrow there'll be a whole new meme coming out with me massaging Chris Hemsworth," he laughs.

Mark Ruffalo in SpotlightMark Ruffalo as The Boston Globe's Mike Rezendes.

Congratulations on your third Oscar nomination.

Thank you. Does that equal an Oscar, if you get three nominations? That’s how I figure it (laughs).

Yes, I think you get to keep something. Do you have a stash of goodie bags from previous ceremonies?

I do. There’s some great stuff in those things. I have a bag full of stuff that I give to people when they come to my house.

Have you had a text from Michael Rezendes himself, because I gather you know him pretty well now.

Oh yeah. He was like, “My man, congratulations, you deserve it. So happy.” He’s become a good friend of mine.

He’s talked about your first meeting, and about how you went to his house, sat down, took out an iPhone and started asking him personal questions. What did you want to know straightaway?

Well, I’d spoken to him a couple of times on the phone but that was more about the case. I wanted to know more about who he was and what his relationship to Catholicism was. Was he a Catholic? And, you know, how he got along with the other journalists. I just wanted to get an understanding of who he was.

Mark Ruffalo and Mike RezendesRuffalo with the man he plays in Spotlight, investigative journalist Mike Rezendes.

So they weren’t that personal.

I did ask him about his wife, but he didn’t want her to be part of the story. People like him don’t want to talk about their personal lives, just like we [as actors] don’t want to talk about our personal lives, but it felt essential to the guy. I sensed there was something about his attitude towards the Catholic Church, his work ethic… there was a pulse inside his writing that wasn’t just about the story, it had a personal aspect to it. That’s what I was after and that made him uncomfortable.

How did he feel about the haircut?

(Laughs) Tom [McCarthy, director] said to me, “Buddy, you got an Oscar nomination through that haircut! That’s the real feat, man.”

So if you win you have to thank the hair.

Exactly. Tom said, “I can’t believe you got an Oscar nomination with that haircut.” But that was Mike’s haircut at the time.

Tom McCarthy said to me, 'Buddy, you got an Oscar nomination through that haircut! That’s the real feat, man.'

Tom McCarthy was famously in season five of The Wire, playing a kind of anti-Mike Rezendes. Did that come up in conversation?

Well, it came up in his understanding of journalism and his love for journalism and Spotlight was informed by his work on The Wire. The creators of that show were journalists and held it in very high regard, and Tom came to this with that same attitude.

Do you have a favourite season?

The first. It’s awesome.

You and Michael Keaton have both done great underpants work in movies. Him in Birdman, you in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind.

Yeah! I hadn’t thought about that before but I’m gonna definitely mention that today when I see him. “Nice underwear work, brother.” Really the first time I’d met Michael was when we were rehearsing. We’d walked out of rehearsal together and I said, “Hey, where are you going?” He told me he was going somewhere about ten blocks away and I said, “I’m going that way. I’ll walk you there.” We start walking and I say to him, “I’ve been a big fan for such a long time and this renaissance you’re having is amazing, this is kind of re-emergence,” and he said, “(Clipped) Really? I didn’t know I went away.”

What do you say to that?

(Laughs) I don’t know. I still had nine blocks to walk with the man. I was like, “No, no, no! You’re right, of course. Of course, you haven’t gone away at all." It was a very uncomfortable moment.

But he must have known what you were driving at.

It’s amazing what he’s doing. Actors, you kind of have these ebbs and flows. These moments where you’re in your glory – where you’re really cracking – and moments where you’re not.

Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams in SpotlightRuffalo with Rachel McAdams and Brian d'Arcy James in Spotlight.

After Spotlight with you and Birdman with Edward Norton, he must have a line in his contract where he has to work with people who’ve played the Hulk.

Of course! He has to work [Eric] Bana next.

You were nervous when you first played the Hulk. How do you feel about it now?

I feel good, and I feel like we’re at a little bit of an advantage with these movies over maybe the original Batmans, because they’re trying to be more nuanced, they’re using indie actors and they take a lot of input from us. I love acting and I love it in all its different manifestations. It’s kind of another style. I come from the theatre where there are no boundaries to the style you’re doing; you’re doing Molière, then you’re doing Chekhov and then you’re doing Arthur Miller in a season and no-one bats an eye. No-one says, “Oh, he only does Chekhov” (laughs). So that attitude is how I look at movies, too. And with people like Joss Whedon you can explore these characters in ways that normally wouldn’t be acceptable in that genre. It’s a different time and we can do much more interesting things than they could when these things first launched.

So the space between an indie and a superhero movie has become more blurred?

When I started in this business it was ’97, ’98 with You Can Count On Me and at that point an independent movie was an independent movie and a studio movie was a studio movie. And in that time, from then til now, I've seen this hybrid grow out. Studio movies are looking more like independent movies and independent movies are looking more like studio movies, and I think our cinema is better now because of it.

Studio movies are looking more like indie movies and indie movies are looking more like studio movies, and I think our cinema is better now because of it.

Marvel are making really interesting directorial choices. Taika Waititi, who's making Thor: Ragnarok, did What We Do In The Shadows. I'm sure you've seen it. Do you have a favourite moment?

I loved when they're just floating, threatening one another. It's genius, so funny. I'm excited to see what we're going to do with [Thor: Ragnarok]. There’s a little bit of Midnight Run, with [Charles] Grodin and [Robert] De Niro. I feel like that’s kind of where we’re heading with this relationship between Thor and Banner.

That's a great movie to reference.

I think that's where we're going for.

Is it a road movie in that sense?

A universal road movie is where we’re heading. It's not where you'd think it would be, so it's not your classic road movie but it has that structure, I think. I haven't read it yet but this is what we're talking about.

Mark Ruffalo as the HulkGreen-eyed monster: Ruffalo about to go postal in The Avengers.

Are you looking forward to heading to Asgard, the glamour heart of the MCU?

Hells yeah. I love Chris and it’s not an accident that we’ve been put together because we have a good time together and we goof off. The fact that we’re moving towards the smart-comedic bent plays into our relationship.

We interviewed you and Chris for The Avengers and there was much talk of donkeys. Any news on that front?

(Laughs) Donkey Yoté. No, that was Avengers 1 and we've moved on to other things now.

The idea of a Hulk movie has been bubbling under for a long time. Is there still time for that for you?

Mark Ruffalo and Chris Hemsworth in The AvengersRuffalo's Hulk and Chris Hemsworth's Thor in The Avengers, pre-punch.

I don’t know. It depends on how old a Hulk they want to see. Do they want to see a grey chest-haired Hulk? I don’t see it anytime on the immediate horizon. No-one’s talking about that. There’s some rights issues with that character. Universal owns that character, so there’s nothing we can do with it anyway. That makes a Hulk movie prohibitive. But we have a good arc that we’re starting in Thor 3 that will carry out all the way to Avengers 4 that I’m excited to play. So with those three movies put together it’ll feel like Hulk movie (laughs).

My dad sent me a text saying, 'You know who you should play? Columbo. That's your Academy Award.'

People will cut it together into one now.

That would be a great idea because there’s a continuity that we’re looking towards achieving, that Banner and Hulk have an arc that starts in Thor [Ragnarok] and carries all the way through to Avengers 4.

You and Robert Downey Jr. are famously Science Bros. Do you and Hemsworth have a nickname in mind? Maybe 'Muscle Buddies'?

Muscle Bros? I can only imagine what's going to come out of that. By tomorrow there'll be a whole new meme coming out with me massaging Chris Hemsworth or something like that.

Ruffalo as ColumboRuffalo and the man his dad wants him to play, Peter Falk's Columbo.

Just one more thing... Columbo. It's another project the internet wants to make happen so badly. Any news on that?

(Screenwriter) Gary Whitta started this thing and, yeah, it's become a Twitter sensation. It's funny, Steve Golin, who produced [Spotlight] and The Revenant, said to me the other night, "You could play Columbo," and I told him that Gary Whitta had already started an online campaign to have me play him. And Steve was like, "I'm gonna look into the rights." My dad, who doesn't know anything about this and isn't surfing the internet, sent me a text saying, "You know who you should play? Columbo. That's your Academy Award, no doubt about it."

So he doesn't think you're going to win for Spotlight?

(Laughs) Probably not. Not when you're up against Rocky.

Spotlight is in cinemas now. Click here to listen to an edited version of the Ruffalo interview on the Empire podcast. For Empire's review, head here.