Mark Ruffalo, the most likable guy in Hollywood, is hitting his stride in upstate New York.
Credit: Aby Baker / Getty Images

The next night, Ruffalo and I stop in at a restaurant across the street from his apartment, where he orders mint tea and tapioca pudding. He just came from a long day of work, rerecording lines for Now You See Me. ("It was mostly action-movie stuff," he says. "Like, 'Wait, stop, freeze!' Or, 'Agghhhhhh!'") In two days, he and the family are leaving for Costa Rica – their second vacation in 12 years – and he still has errands to run. When he gets back, he'll start shooting Infinitely Polar Bear, a low-budget flick he's been trying to get made for three years; only now, after his Oscar nod and Avengers fame, he can.

Ruffalo is doing that a lot right now – making movies he loves that might not get made without him. This September he'll appear opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in a black comedy called 'Thanks for Sharing,' where he stars as a recovering sex addict. Then he'll star in 'Foxcatcher,' the wrestling movie, training for which Ruffalo calls the hardest thing he's ever done. "I'm usually 154, and I went up to 178," he says. He flips through his iPhone to find a photo of himself clean-and-jerking six plates: "I was yolked," he beams. Then he scrolls to the next photo, a close-up of himself in costume, with bald-cap makeup and yellow teeth. He laughs: "Sunny was like, 'We won't be having sex for a while.'"

Later this year, Ruffalo will strap on the green suit again and start work on a new Avengers movie. He loves playing the Hulk – especially because it's not as easy as it looks. "It's a tough nut to crack," he says. "You're spending two hours with a guy who doesn't want to do exactly what everyone came to see him do." But in the end, the key turned out to be simple. "We had to let Banner age," he says. "When you get to be a 45-year-old man, you start to realize: I know who I am, and I know who I'm not. I know my shortcomings, I know my strengths; maybe some of my shortcomings are my strengths. You start to face yourself as you truly are. And I think that's what Banner's doing. He's been running away from his life for 20 years, and he's realizing, 'I'm sick of running. I'm going to turn and face myself.'"

It's not lost on Ruffalo that he's talking about himself, too. "Over the past five years, my life's gotten a lot bigger," he says. "I'm feeling really free. I don't have to be a leading man. I can be a character actor. That's really what interests me anyway."

And after a life so filled with ups and downs, he knows there's not much point worrying, regardless. "It's been up, down, and sideways for me, man," he says. "I could become a huge star, or I could get cancer tomorrow. Shit happens. But at this point, I feel I'm starting to get close to the peak: In five or 10 years, I'll be peaking out and I really want to enjoy it while I have it."

But first, he has to make it back from Costa Rica. "I hear it's amazing," Ruffalo says. "They don't have a standing army, so they have one of the best school systems in the world. They get 92 percent of their energy from renewables. I'm telling you, Americans are going to be sneaking across the border into Costa Rica someday." His eyes start to come alive. "I'm so excited to go," he says, and all of a sudden it sounds like Sunrise might have another impulse move on her hands. Ruffalo starts to laugh. "Baby?" he says, pretending to look imploringly across the table at her. Ruffalo laughs. "What do you think?!"