After a slightly wobbly start, we're off, the Oscar-nominated actor pedaling hard up the Hudson Street bike lane with a journalist on the back. He dodges an old lady crossing the street with groceries and manages to avoid being sideswiped by a cab. At one point, I accidentally let the child-seat strap dangle in such a way that it gets caught in the spokes, yanking the chain off the derailleur and sending the bike lurching to a stop. "Don't worry about it!" Ruffalo says, hopping off to inspect the shredded strap. "I've got another one at home." He flips the bike over and starts fixing it in the middle of traffic, practically whistling.
Ruffalo has hit his share of speedbumps in life, but you'd never know it from the way he radiates optimism. As we sit on a park bench next to an old man feeding pigeons, he tells about his first big break, after 'You Can Count on Me'. He was filming 'The Last Castle,' starring Robert Redford. "It was big-time," Ruffalo says. "There I was with one of my heroes, Robert Redford, doing this walk-and-talk. I'm like, 'What the fuck am I doing here? This is my wildest dream come true!'" He waits a beat. "And then I found out I had my brain tumor."
Ruffalo was diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma, a walnut-size tumor behind his left ear. He first suspected he had one after he had a dream about having a brain tumor, and when he went in for a CT scan, the doctors told him he was right. They said they could operate, but there was a 30 percent chance he might lose the use of the left side of his face. To complicate things even further, Sunrise was about to give birth to their first child, Keen, and Ruffalo didn't want to stress her out.
"He didn't tell anyone for weeks," his mom recalls. "When he finally did, I was like, 'Oh, my God. How could you bear all that?'" A week after Keen was born, Ruffalo broke the news; two weeks later, he went in for the surgery.
"I was certain I was going to die," he says now. But what terrified him the most was the idea that Keen might grow up without a dad. "I made a tape for him," Ruffalo says. "For when he was old enough to understand. Just saying, Hey, this is who I am."
The tumor turned out to be benign, but the surgery rendered the left side of his face almost totally paralyzed. Ruffalo went into hiding for months. He wouldn't take calls, wouldn't talk to anyone. He lost his equilibrium and started falling down a lot. One time he got lost for hours, two blocks from his apartment. He was at the peak of his career, with a newborn son – and he wasn't sure if he would ever work again, or even function.
As it turned out, Ruffalo made a full recovery, but the tumor was a mere prelude to another tragedy. On December 1, 2008, his little brother, Scott, was murdered at his home. Ruffalo was a popular hairdresser in Beverly Hills. A toxicology report found trace amounts of cocaine and morphine in his system. But police determined that he had been shot, as news reports put it, "execution style." A key witness who was also in the house was later reported to have died of a drug overdose, and to this day, the case remains unsolved.
Back when they were living together, Ruffalo says he sometimes felt like Scott was the older brother, not the other way around. He'd loan Mark money to get his car out of impoundment or give him pep talks about getting his life straight. "I was the actor who was pushing 30 and still doing 30-seat theaters," he says, "and he was the mayor of Beverly Hills. For years, people would meet me and go, 'You're Scotty Ruffalo's brother? I love your brother. He's fucking amazing.'"
At the time of Scott's death, Ruffalo had seen the script for 'The Kids Are All Right' and noted how much the character reminded him of his brother: "His charm, his spirit, his sense of humor, his daring. How great he was with women. How he sort of devoured life." He decided to make the role an homage. "I'm only capturing a tiny glimpse of him," he says. "But I think it ended up honoring him in a really nice way. He's a beautiful guy." He pauses. "He was a beautiful guy."
Ruffalo says that for a long time, he felt guilty about Scott's death. "You always wonder, What could I have done differently? But there's also the healthier part that says, You integrate it, and you get on. You never get over it; you just get used to it. You get calloused, a little bit harder maybe, so be on guard for that. But take these tragic things and turn them into something meaningful and worthy of the loss. Make it count. From here on out, do the best you can to make it count."
Ruffalo met Sunrise in 1998 in L.A., literally on the street. He was walking with a mutual friend of theirs, whom Ruffalo suspects had intentions of his own. "I don't think he wanted us to meet," he laughs. "But I saw her and was like, I'm going to marry that girl."
Ruffalo says the courting process "took some doing." "All I had was my decency, wit, and charm – I didn't have anything. When I met her, she was like, 'You don't have a driver's license, you don't have a credit card. What is wrong with you, dude? I can't be with you!' I was living in a converted garage, and she was there for that, she was game. She believed in me. She was like, 'I know you're a really good actor,' and I was like, 'You haven't really seen me act yet.' And she was like, 'I just know it, I can tell.'"
These days, the Ruffalos spend much of their time at their house in Callicoon, New York, a little town on the Delaware River two hours from Manhattan, population 167. Ruffalo first went up there in the mid-1990s, when one of his actor friends took him to visit the plot he owned. "It was amazing," he recalls. "I was like, 'How the fuck did you do this, man? Did your dad give you this?' And he was like, 'No, I just saw it, and I bought it.' And I was like, 'Holy shit! And you own it? I could do that!'"
Ruffalo was 28 when he bought his house, a one-room cabin on 27 acres for $63,000. Nowadays, Callicoon is his sanctuary, but back then, it was his fallback plan: Plan B, in case he washed out as an actor. "It was not a bad fallback," he says. "My mortgage was 600 bucks a month. If worst came to worst, I could get a job up there and be OK." Ever since he could remember, he'd had this irrational fear that he'd wind up homeless. Now he could stop worrying. "I have a place to go," he remembers thinking.
After Ruffalo got successful, he and the family kept going up there, and eventually got their current place, a big house on an old dairy farm with a 1953 John Deere tractor and a 19th-century post-and-beam barn. "Smartest thing I ever did," Ruffalo says of moving upstate. "It ended up having a huge influence on my life in many ways," he says. "Like the whole environmental thing – I'm not sure that would have gone down the way it has." He's referring to his status as the most visible face of the antifracking movement. He's spoken out on the issue at rallies and public hearings and on 'The Colbert Report'; he's even lobbied President Obama about it. "But my real baby," Ruffalo says, "is renewable energy. I feel like whoever starts to crack this nut is going to have a pretty clear shot at the White House. It's a $2 trillion business that America's being left out of."
For a few years the Ruffalos were splitting their time between upstate New York and L.A., where they had a house in the Hollywood Hills. But after his brother was killed, he had an epiphany: "The summer was winding down, and we were getting ready to go back to Los Angeles. In L.A., we were always in our car, we had this huge mortgage, like 10 times what it is in New York. And then we have this place upstate, which I love, our home. Sunny and I were looking at each other like, It's good to get to know you again, we're so happy here. And I was like, What the fuck are we doing?"
Ruffalo realized he was basically taking every job that came along in order to support their L.A. lifestyle. "And my kids were growing up without me." And so, in a single afternoon, he and Sunrise decided to sell the house in L.A. and move to Callicoon full time. They left the kids with their longtime nanny, flew back to L.A., packed up the house, put it on the market, and drove a U-Haul back across the country. "Within four or five days," Ruffalo says, "our whole lives changed."
Ruffalo has built a woodworking shop that he used to make Sunrise a bookcase, and has also dabbled in bow hunting. Lately he's been getting into welding. "Bikes. Lawn mowers. I built a chicken coop a few years ago – that was cool." Sadly, that coop was lost in what's gone down in Ruffalo family lore as the Great Chicken Coop Fire of 2010. It started one cold February night when a chicken knocked over a heat lamp inside. "It was just ashes," Ruffalo says of the aftermath the next morning. "The wheels were completely melted off."
"I was fucking devastated," Ruffalo says. "It was so sad." He starts to giggle a little, because he's talking about chickens – but you can tell he also means it. "There were like eight chickens in there, and I loved them, I really did. We raised them from chicks. That was a bummer, man." Still, Ruffalo would not be daunted. "I was like, 'We can't let this beat us,'" he says. "The chickens would want us to rebuild." And so he took his welder and built a new coop – this time with a solar heater.
For a while Ruffalo wanted to get some alpacas, but he says Sam Shepard talked him out of it – which is a pretty awesome thing for Sam Shepard to talk you out of. ("He was like, 'Uh-uh, don't do that. They're mean as shit.'") He did, however, get some rabbits. "We ended up giving most of them away," he says. "But we still have one left. As far as animals go, they're pretty chill. It's hilarious to see a rabbit hopping around the house."
But by far Ruffalo's favorite thing about the property is his garden. He spends nearly all his time out there. "In my underwear and a ratty shirt," he says, "barefoot and covered in mud and rabbit shit." He has "strawberries, rhubarb, tomatoes, basil, corn. A beautiful asparagus bed that's five years old. And watermelon, which is hard to grow up here. Now I'm doing a little orchard – raspberries, honeycrisp apples, blueberries, a pear tree. My wife is like, 'That fucking garden, man. It must cost $100 a strawberry!' But I don't care. That's my hobby. I like that."