"Family is where everything about us is challenged," says three-time Oscar nominee Mark Ruffalo. "It's an amazing place for drama and comedy and pathos. It's a very rich, fertile ground for storytelling."
And family is at the heart of Ruffalo's new TV series, I Know This Much Is True, a six-part adaptation of the acclaimed 1998 novel by Wally Lamb. Ruffalo plays Dominick and Thomas Birdsey, identical twins whose lives have turned out very differently, although both are impacted by Thomas' struggles with his mental health.
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Film and television history is littered with instances of a sole actor portraying identical twins, but Ruffalo and writer/director Derek Cianfrance take the practice to a whole other level.
Instead of relying upon costumes or makeup to make the characters visually distinct, the production shot all of Dominick's scenes first, then took a five-week break so Ruffalo could gain weight to better reflect how Thomas' paranoid schizophrenia medication, and indeed his life experiences overall, have resulted in him having a markedly different appearance to his brother. Ruffalo then shot the same scenes as Thomas, and seamless special effects allowed the actor to deliver two performances at the same time with two very different looks.
"When we were talking about how we would do it, we didn't want it to be like I run and put a wig on, and then run and do the same scene on the same day," Ruffalo tells TimeOut.
"Thomas is on a lot of medication. These mood stabilisers and antipsychotics cause people to put on weight. And their life experiences after their teens are so extremely different. It was important for us to really have these guys be two different people."
"I remember when Mark came back to set as Thomas, the crew was in a state of awe and shock," says Cianfrance, the man behind well-regarded films such as Blue Valentine (2010) and The Light Between Oceans (2016).
"He was a completely different guy, and it felt weird talking to him. It was an astounding performance to watch, and a commitment from one of the great actors."
Ruffalo, best known these days for playing Bruce Banner/The Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok and the Avengers movies, says the break in filming wasn't just about changing his appearance, but also allowed him to properly engage with Thomas' unique headspace.
"Those five weeks were really kind of lonely," says Ruffalo, sombrely. "There were a couple of weeks where I was just by myself in the place I was staying up in Poughkeepsie [in upstate New York], going down into the heart of this mental illness and studying it."
The plot of I Know This Much Is True, which tracks the twins' upbringing, but primarily takes place in the very early '90s, follows house painter Dominick's attempts to get Thomas released from a brutal state hospital following a public act of self-mutilation. Although Thomas is the "damaged" brother, it reveals Dominick to have considerable internal struggles of his own.
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In 1️⃣ week, I Know This Much Is True will premiere on @HBO at 9 pm ET. I wanted to share this photo from when Derek Cianfrance, @filmnationent, and I were still pitching the show back in 2017. I’m incredibly excited to share this one with all of you soon. #IKTMIT
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"There are some interesting differences," says Ruffalo of the twins. "One of them is that Thomas is free in a different way than Dominick is. He doesn't have the same burdens that Dominick does and expectations and responsibilities. And so that makes him really emotionally honest. Thomas is much less bound to ideas of manliness and masculinity and domination and control."
The series examines family dynamics, and Ruffalo says he drew on his relationship with his own brother, Scott, who died in 2008.
"I do like to draw on my experiences, and I've had a lot of them. And my brother will always be a big part of that. A lot of us have siblings. We know how complicated that is and how deep that goes and how powerful it is and how messy it is."
Although he's starred in some of the biggest blockbusters ever made, Ruffalo remains committed to grounded, emotionally challenging work like I Know This Much Is True.
"Listen, you know, life is short, and I just think it's important as someone who's doing this kind of work to challenge yourself and break yourself up. I want to be the kind of artist who can't be labelled; who surprises people and surprises myself and sometimes f**ks it up and sometimes makes it work. I want to keep challenging myself so I'm not dead."
WHO: Mark Ruffalo
WHAT: New HBO drama, I Know This Much Is True, adapted from the book of the same name
WHEN: From May 11 on SoHo and Neon