When news broke that Mark Ruffalo was playing the Hulk in the superhero-bursting blockbuster The Avengers, the blogosphere lit up with snarky posts from Marvel fanboys.
Routinely cast in edgy indie films ( The Kids Are All Right, You Can Count on Me), the actor himself initially doubted he was right for the part and says the criticism stung.
"Even my own son said, 'You papa, the Hulk?' Which was pretty much every fanboy's reaction to me playing the part," the father of three says ruefully. "But I like a good dare too. I feel like a good part of my career has been about proving peoples' assumptions about me wrong."
For inspiration, Ruffalo turned first to the original TV series, which starred Bill Bixby ("Don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry") as the boiling-over behemoth.
"My son and I went back to watch the TV show, which I loved as a kid, and after the third episode, he turned to me and said, 'Papa, he's so misunderstood.' And I was like – Eureka, that's it."
Hence, Ruffalo's Hulk – a multilayered, emotionally complex man-beast who's a decent chap at the core, but one with serious anger-management issues.
To prepare, Ruffalo says he drew on own insecurities – he's never starred in a superhero flick, let alone worked in live-motion CGI – to create a raging bruiser with more humanity, more (as his son surmised) misunderstood angst.
"I dedicated my performance to [my son]Keen because he's my little Banner Hulk at home," says the 44-year-old. "[He]has all the forces of nature boiling up inside of him, while at the same time the whole world is telling him to behave."
For his part, director Joss Whedon went to Ruffalo first to play the Hulk. And the two men spent hours talking about how they could make this version more distinct, more mature than previous incarnations brought to life by Eric Bana and Ed Norton.
"We talked about anger and how it manifests so we could get the Hulk away from being this roaring creature," says Ruffalo, who was in Toronto for the film's Canadian premiere Monday night. "What appealed to Joss and I about the character is that he would have a common man sort of feel to him and possess this world-weary charm."
Ruffalo says Wheedon also wanted his Hulk to physically embody the giant green creature (usually computer-generated). Ruffalo dropped 15 pounds and studied footage of gorillas to perfect the Hulk's lumbering gait. His goal was to have a marked, physical connection to the character, so when his body and face explode fans would see the actor's features through the raging snarl.
Most intimidating was Ruffalo's first go at motion-capture technology. "It scared the crap out of me," he says, but once he was into it he got over any awkwardness and was in awe of the possibilities.
"The technology is still nascent, but it blows me away where we're going to be able to go with this in 10 years, and how completely the actor will disappear in the role," he says. "There are no boundaries and no physical limitations. You're not wearing prosthetics so all of a sudden you're set free.."
And the fans? With The Avengers already breaking box office records overseas (it's earned over $220-million U.S.) and Ruffalo's Hulk getting overwhelmingly positive reviews, it's safe to say he's silenced critics who thought he couldn't pull off both the mild-mannered Bruce Banner and his beastly, green alter ego. He's also signed a lucrative, six-picture deal to keep playing the character.
He probably won't stick around for Hulk No. 6 though.
"Who really wants to see a 60-year-old Hulk?," he says with a laugh. "I mean he's already got grey chest hairs."