Ruffalo was a C student who sucked at math but excelled at wrestling. In 11th grade he placed fourth in the city, and his coach told him that he stood a good chance of earning a scholarship. But Ruffalo was burned out, and quit wrestling for drama. "There were a lot of cute, loose girls," he says, "and the ratio was deeply in my favor."
Ruffalo applied to a bunch of colleges he didn't get into. After he graduated high school, his parents moved again, this time to San Diego, and he went with them. Ruffalo hated it; they lived in a seedy beach community full of burnouts and meth, and his dad, who by this time had quit the painting business, was trying to make a go of it as an entrepreneur, peddling a Sodastream-like invention called the Soda Butler – "He was 20 years ahead of his time," Ruffalo says – but ended up broke and bummed. Soon his marriage splintered, and Ruffalo's dad moved back to Wisconsin and back into painting. ("Within six months," Marie Ruffalo says, "we went from normal to bankrupt and eliminated as a family.")
"I always say he was an artist who never found his art form," Ruffalo says of his free-spirited dad.
Luckily, his son found his. Not long after his dad left town, Ruffalo moved to L.A. and started taking classes at the Stella Adler Academy, where his classmates included Benicio Del Toro and Salma Hayek. He started a no-budget theater company with some friends and paid the rent doing landscaping and painting houses. After a while he talked his brother, Scott, into coming to live with him. They shared a $600-a-month apartment with their cousin, who slept in the living room, and a friend, who slept in the kitchen, while the brothers shared a full-size bed in the only bedroom. ("They were like little bear cubs together," his mom says. "They dug a 20-foot koi pond, lily pads and everything – in South Central L.A.!") For a while Ruffalo's brother was on food stamps. "He'd make a fucking giant bowl of tuna pasta, and we'd eat off that all week long," Ruffalo remembers. "The best of times, the worst of times."
There were a lot of worst of times. They lived near MacArthur Park, which was a dangerous place. "It was the height of the crack wars," he says. "We'd go to the park in the morning and there would be bodies strewn out in the grass. Young women, totally strung out, sores all over their face, would knock on our door asking for money or food. It was so heavy." One day his neighbor got stabbed 12 times on Ruffalo's front porch after he tried to stop some kids from breaking into a car. Another time, Ruffalo was tending bar at a local joint when a gangbanger pulled a gun. The off-duty cop working the door drew his gun, too, and shot the guy dead.
Meanwhile, Ruffalo was going on auditions – roughly 800 of them by his count, which led to exactly zero jobs. Despite his convincing facade of chillness, he would get pretty mad. "I was so frustrated, so angry," he says. He swore off acting four or five times, and sometimes, after really bad auditions, he would come home and punch holes in the wall. (RUFFALO SMASH!)
It didn't help that he was now also tending bar at the Chateau Marmont, where he had a front-row seat to the Hollywood high life. "It was all these young stars," he says. "Johnny Depp, Nic Cage. I was grinding it out doing all these plays, and I couldn't get my foot in the door. I don't know if I was trying too hard, but I just wasn't admitted into that club."
By the mid-1990s, Ruffalo was ready to throw in the towel: "I was doing all these plays, I couldn't get anyone to come. I sucked at auditioning. It was a really low point." Meanwhile, Ruffalo Painting, his father's company, had just gotten a big job from Chrysler and was making money hand over fist. And so, washed up at age 24, Ruffalo moved back to Wisconsin to do sandblasting with his dad.
Ruffalo's mom tried to talk him out of it. "I was very angry when Mark even suggested it," she says. "I said, no way. The idea of any of my children going back to join that painting business would have been disastrous, but with Mark it was especially easy – because I knew he was talented."
Ruffalo found himself in an unusual position: He wanted to settle down and take a nice steady job with the family business, and his mom wanted him to go back to South Central L.A. and live on peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and follow his dream. For a while he toiled away, braving the asbestos and the silica flakes. But, in the meantime, he was also going on business meetings with his dad, where he'd watch him gladhand with the businessmen responsible for making bids.
"What I learned was, this whole American bidding-for-jobs thing is a con," Ruffalo says. "Whatever we want to think about American business – work hard, tell the truth, have morality – it's a myth. There's a lot of graft. They're paying off inspectors. Every day, you're asked to compromise your integrity in some way. And I didn't like it."
Ruffalo stuck it out for a while longer, until finally, fed up with the lying, cheating, and backstabbing that constituted the Middle American painting business, he returned to Hollywood, where, he says, people told the truth, and things made sense.