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Mark Ruffalo shape shifts as twins for moving HBO journey of self-discovery

Actor Mark Ruffalo
“He’s on a journey of forced self-discovery,” Mark Ruffalo says of one of the two characters he plays in the HBO limited series “I Know This Much Is True.”
(Pernille Loof & Thomas Loof)

It’s like the Book of Job at times, the path of protagonist Dominick in HBO’s “I Know This Much Is True.” He’s put through trials that could break a person as he tries to do right by his paranoid-schizophrenic twin, Thomas (both roles played by Mark Ruffalo). Dominick is not as virtuous as the biblical figure, though. He can’t get away from his demons because some of them are him.

“He’s on a journey of forced self-discovery,” says Ruffalo. “Most journeys of self-discovery are forced on us. It’s usually something that makes us very uncomfortable, so we don’t go until we’re forced — whether through suffering, loss of a person we love, hitting some sort of bottom ... we probably learn the most about ourselves there.”

Ruffalo’s physical transformations are remarkable: He lost 20 pounds to inhabit Dominick, then gained 35 for Thomas. But it’s the depth of those portrayals that define the limited series, which is much more concerned with character exploration than plot movement.

“It was really about the responsibility we have to each other and how, as hard as that can be sometimes, that’s where we really grow. And there’s nowhere that’s more apparent and potent than in families,” Ruffalo says of the themes that permeate Wally Lamb’s 1998 bestseller.

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“There’s the idea of masculinity. It’s not a mistake that Wally uses twins and one is hyper-masculine and uses violence to solve all his problems, and the other one is effeminate and has this kind of sweetness and care for the world,” he says. “In a lot of ways [Thomas is] more free because he’s not bound by the toxic masculinity we all learn to survive.”

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After failed attempts to make it as a feature film with others, Lamb asked Ruffalo, through their mutual agent, to star in and executive produce an adaptation. Ruffalo pitched his friend Derek Cianfrance to write and direct.

Cianfrance says, before they ever met, he had tried to get Ruffalo for the lead in his film “Blue Valentine” (for which Ryan Gosling would gain an Oscar nomination) and jokes he was mad at him for taking the studio rom-com “13 Going on 30” instead (Ruffalo protests that he never received Cianfrance’s script).

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The two would finally meet as directing peers at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival when “Blue Valentine” and Ruffalo’s helming debut, “Sympathy for Delicious,” were in competition. Cianfrance says, “We had so much in common, similar upbringings; we were both Italian American. And since that first time I met him, he immediately felt like my brother; over the 10 years I’ve spent with him, I’ve realized that everyone who meets him feels like that about him.”

Yet when Ruffalo asked him to write and direct “I Know This Much Is True” years later, Cianfrance initially demurred because of the technical concerns.

“I didn’t want it to feel like we shot one half in the morning and then Mark put on a mustache and we shot the second half. I wanted to embrace a real process and have him become two different people,” he says.

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“Mark Ruffalo in Character” featurette for HBO’s “I Know This Much Is True.”

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The way to a man’s heart is through his body

HBO granted them the freedom to make the series as they wished — six hourlong episodes, with a six-week break built into production for Ruffalo to physically transform from Dominick to Thomas.

Ruffalo says, “I have to give it to Derek. In the first few days, it was going well but it was lacking something. Derek said to me, ‘Hey — do 50 push-ups!’ Starting off I could probably do 35. When I came up, I was winded and all my energy was in my chest, I was breathing hard, and he’s like, ‘Let’s go, right into the scene!’ It made Dominick very chesty, kind of rushing somewhere, way ahead of himself. Derek knew, physically, how to access the character.

“So I would do 50 push-ups between takes, up to hundreds a day, and my chest was … " He indicates with unabashed pride his pectoral broadness of the time. “One of the Teamsters said, ‘Holy ... ! I just counted you off — you did 100 push-ups! I never thought you’d be a guy who could do 100 push-ups!’

“Then with Thomas, he was insistent I put the weight on. ‘Can’t we just get a fat suit? I’m 50, it’s probably not healthy for me.’ And it’s not, but he was like, ‘No, man, I really think it’s going to give you something you can’t get any other way.’ When I put that weight on, it did change me.

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“He said, ‘Look at “The Devil and Daniel Johnston”’ [the 2005 documentary about a musician with severe mental-health issues] — that was when Thomas sort of solidified for me.”

Cianfrance says, “To play Dominick, he had lost 20 pounds and was eating 1,000 calories a day. He was very, what you’d call hangry. Very alpha. He’d walk on the set, shake everybody’s hand, look ’em in the eye, very Dominick.

“We broke for six weeks so he could put on this weight as Thomas. Now, the first day we came back, Mark wouldn’t show up to set. It’s very unlike Mark to behave that way. I knocked on his door and there was the smallest voice inside his room: ‘Come in.’ As confident and alpha as Dominick was, here was this vulnerable, kind of puddle of a guy. He was scared about coming to set. He has been zapped of all of his confidence.

“When we walked on set together, the crew — it was a wave of disbelief that this was Mark. He couldn’t look at anyone. He was walking on set with his head down, trying to disappear.”

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Ruffalo says, “Thomas was a much more difficult part. It was hard to live there, in that world of mental illness at that level, and in that body. It’s not healthy. I never felt good, I had terrible indigestion all the time and I had to constantly eat. And that solitude …. The last two weeks, I sequestered myself in Poughkeepsie, running these tapes of all these horrible things that were being said — 90% of the things a [severe] schizophrenic hears are these negative voices: ‘You ... loser, jump in front of that car.’”

Cianfrance says, “It happened to be Sept. 11. My assistant director said, ‘Let’s have a moment of silence’ and everyone bowed their heads. About a minute went by, and we heard this voice saying a prayer for America, and it was Thomas. He went on for about five minutes, praying for the sins of America. I started rolling the cameras, and a little of what he said went into the final show. It was poignant and chilling that Mark had gone through this Method process to become Thomas.

“Thomas became a human being to us.”

The ensemble includes a scene-stealing Juliette Lewis, John Procaccino in a layered depiction of the twins’ problematic stepfather and Kathryn Hahn in an empathetic performance as Dominick’s ex-wife, Dessa. Philip Ettinger plays the college-age versions of the twins. Ruffalo says they walked together for “like 50 blocks, like five hours,” working out the characters’ physicalities. Gabe Fazio played the twins off camera, giving what Ruffalo called “fully realized performances” to which he could react on camera.

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“We had like seven different versions of Thomas I’d do for each take: Thomas as a 7-year-old; Thomas on medication; Thomas so deeply in love with his brother, in admiration,” and others, says Ruffalo. “They would take us in different directions.”

Mark Ruffalo as twin brothers Thomas and Dominick Birdsey in HBO's "I Know This Much Is True."
(Atsushi Nishijima / HBO)

Lessons in the scenes

Two key scenes with Hahn are among the deciding blows that break through Dominick’s shell.

Cianfrance says, “When they’re doing dishes together and he’s being a real ass to her, I said, ‘Let’s do something real quick: Switch roles.’ When Kathryn got to be Dominick, she showed him what an ass he had been. And I think Mark, for the first time, saw Dominick’s behavior, and how it felt to be talked to the way Dominick talked to people. It shook him.”

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Ruffalo says, “After we shot that dishwashing scene, Kathryn said, ‘I don’t think Dessa loves him anymore. I don’t think she even likes him anymore.’ That really struck me. I was like, ‘I think he has to apologize.’ That came out of reading Eve Ensler’s ‘The Apology’ while I was shooting it.”

Cianfrance had them improvise the apology as they waited for another setup, then abruptly stopped them: “‘We’re going to shoot this tomorrow.’ We didn’t even write the scene, we just improvised it.

“So that’s Take 1. We didn’t need another one because it was all there. Her reaction to it is the real reaction.”

Ruffalo said though the scene wasn’t in the book, he and Cianfrance agreed it was essential for a man who has to reconcile different parts of himself to move forward: “It’s about redemption and forgiveness; that’s an important part of it.”

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Trailer for the HBO limited series “I Know This Much Is True,” starring Mark Ruffalo


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