That year, 2009, was a watershed for Ruffalo. Still reeling from the death of his brother Scott, a hairstylist who was found shot in the head at his Beverly Hills home, he directed Sympathy for Delicious, a film he'd spent 10 years trying to kick into production. The actor Christopher Thornton, a longtime friend of Ruffalo's, wrote the script, about a paraplegic DJ whose faith-healing powers lift him from Skid Row washout to arena-rock spectacle, after a climbing accident left Thornton himself paralyzed. It's a fervid, gutty rush of a movie, with all the kaleidoscopic storytelling and redemptive punch of a Denis Johnson novel. Yet "no one wanted to make it," Ruffalo says. "The star was in a wheelchair, and no one really knew him. No one wanted to give us the money." That decade-long grind—"it must have fallen apart five or six times," Thornton recalls, "and both Mark and I would be like, 'Fuck this, it's a pipe dream'"—contributed to a disillusionment with Hollywood that had already been brewing in Ruffalo, despite his success. By 2009, he says, "I'd had it with L.A., and I'd really had it with the business side of acting, the machinery of it all. You're an artist, but then all of a sudden you're a product at the same time, and there's this company that's sprung up around you. I got depressed. I was losing my love for it. So I said, 'I'm done.' I fired everybody and moved my family out here. I had to make a radical move."
One last commitment remained, however: The Kids Are All Right, a project Ruffalo had initially turned down. He reconsidered when Julianne Moore, a close friend of Ruffalo's wife's, dangled it after another casting choice fell through. "The Kids Are All Right was my swan song," he says. "I didn't know what I was doing next."
This was not, for the record, the first time Ruffalo had sworn off acting. At the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting in Los Angeles, according to fellow alum Benicio del Toro, Ruffalo "was the star of his class." At their first meeting, del Toro, who was new to L.A., asked Ruffalo what his plans were for the night. Ruffalo's answer: He was catching the train back to San Diego (where he'd moved with his parents after high school). "I remember thinking, 'This guy's commuting two hours each way every day?'" says del Toro. "That's hard-core." But talent and hard-core commitment, as every young actor comes to realize, are really just qualifications for a bartending job. And for eight years that's what Ruffalo did: mixed drinks by night (at venues as disparate as his future film roles would be—the Chateau Marmont, Olive on the Sunset Strip, and Smalls, a dive where a guy was shot to death while Ruffalo was on duty) and auditioned by day. But after 800 auditions—Ruffalo has seen that number quoted so often in gobsmacked press accounts that he jokes, "Let's go to a grand"—he still hadn't caught a break. "It was brutal," he recalls. "The years are stripping away, but when you're talking to anyone from home, you're saying something like, 'Well, I'm just working on my craft right now,' when the truth is that I can't get a fucking job because no one will hire me. It was humiliating." He took his frustrations out on the walls of the apartment he shared with five other actors, punching hole after hole, and "must've quit," he says, "four or five times." One of those quittings landed him back in Wisconsin, doing sandblasting work for the family painting business.
But then, as now, Ruffalo came back. "He can't help but do what he does," explains David Fincher, who directed Ruffalo in 2007's Zodiac. "It's not a choice. He literally cannot imagine not doing this." What brought Ruffalo back this latest time was sitting in the audience at Sundance, where The Kids Are All Right made its debut in 2010, and, after the first peal of laughter, "watching everyone's jaded, supercool Hollywood identities melt into the communal experience of filmmaking and storytelling. It reminded me: I'm an actor, and my whole life has been geared towards being an actor." That same year at Sundance, Sympathy for Delicious also made its premiere and, despite an ambush of acid reviews, won a Special Jury Prize. Finishing Sympathy, he says, was "a cathartic grace" for him. "In the real-life sense of catharsis. Not the heavens opening up. More like: I fucking didn't die. I'm still getting by. Which today for a human being is a lot, you know?"