Mark Ruffalo is one of the most talented and versatile actors in Hollywood today. His career has spanned over five decades, and he is known for impressing audiences and critics alike with his wide variety of film roles, from gritty character acting to smash-hit blockbusters.
But did you know the real story behind this Hollywood star’s tragic origins? Despite his success and worldwide adoration, it hasn’t been a comfortable ride to the top for this talented artist.
Read on to find out the truth about Mark Ruffalo’s long, challenging journey to where he is today.
Birth of a Legend
Mark Ruffalo was born Mark Alan Ruffalo on November 22, 1967, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Marie Rose Hébert worked as a hairdresser—a career that Ruffalo’s two sisters and one brother would also follow her into.
His father, Frank Lawrence Ruffalo Jr., had a successful career as a construction painter.
Ruffalo did not grow up surrounded by showbiz’s bright lights, but it was clear from an early age that he was destined to head for stardom.
But no one could have predicted the rocky road he would have to take towards success.
Growing up in Wisconsin, Mark Ruffalo enjoyed a loving, happy, and stable home life. He attended First Colonial High School in Virginia Beach, VA, before graduating in 1986.
During his time as a high school student, Ruffalo got his first taste in performing—but not as an actor. Ruffalo’s high school years were spent as an amateur wrestler!
Little did anyone know, the future star would grapple with all sorts of unexpected challenges in life before making it big.
Despite his loving and happy family, Ruffalo struggled with mental health and difficulties relating to others in his early years. Ruffalo has spoken openly about his struggles as a child, having suffered from ADHD, dyslexia, and depression.
“One of the things that were always very difficult for me was grade school,” he said to the children’s mental health organization Speak Up for Kids. “Feeling like I was strange and unique and freakish. I didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere.”
After graduating from high school, it was time for the young Ruffalo to think about what he wanted to do with his life. Having got the performance bug during his time as a high school wrestler, he decided to pursue a career as an actor.
Determined to make it in the cutthroat world of showbiz, he knew he needed to get a thorough grounding in his acting skills—and so he won himself a place at the prestigious Stella Adler Conservatory, a post-high-school acting school in Los Angeles.
The Day Job
For someone as successful and famous as Mark Ruffalo, you might think that his rise to Hollywood’s success would have been an easy and straightforward journey.
However, even for the super talented and determined Ruffalo, the showbiz world is a complicated place, and he would struggle through many years of hardship while trying to make it big.
In an interview with Moviemaker magazine, he shared that he attended over 800 auditions before landing his first part, making a living as a bartender while pursuing his dream.
On the Way
After a long, difficult time pursuing a showbiz career, working long shifts as a bartender, and going on a whopping 800 auditions, Ruffalo finally landed his first part—a small role in 1989’s CBS Summer Playhouse.
Once he had finally made his way onto a screen role, more and more parts would eventually follow, even branching out into small roles in various movies.
But just as Ruffalo’s career seemed about to take off, something happened that would rock his world completely.
In 1994, it seemed that Mark Ruffalo’s hard work was finally paying off, and he was well on his way to carving out a successful career. But then suddenly, something happened that rocked his world.
That same year, Ruffalo’s best friend died suddenly—a terrible blow for the star who already suffered from depression. “He was the only one I knew as sad as me who I could talk to,” he said to Parade.
But in fact, the tragedy inspired Ruffalo to beat his depression, rather than sink deeper into it. “I realized that death wasn’t an escape,” he said. “That [dying] wasn’t an answer.”
Despite the tragedy of losing his beloved best friend and confidante, Mark Ruffalo knew now that it was even more important to live a full and happy life and pursue his dreams as much as he possibly could.
Thanks to that perseverance, he continued to win more and more minor screen and stage roles, including a part in the inaugural Broadway run of Kenneth Lonergan’s classic play. This is Our Youth, and the popular drama movie You Can Count On Me.
It seemed that things were looking up once again for this rising star—and little did he know that more adventure was just around the corner.
The success he was slowly building in his career; there was another happy occasion in Ruffalo’s life during this time. In 2000, the rising star married fellow actor Sunrise Coigney.
Ruffalo credits Coigney with inspiring him to persevere in his career, even when things seemed hopeless. “She believed in me and kept encouraging me,” he said to Closer Weekly. “I don’t know if I would have made it without her.”
But little did he know, Ruffalo was about to need her support more than ever, as his life and health were about to take a darker turn than anyone had foreseen.
Not long after getting married and landing his first significant acting role, Ruffalo found himself waking up from a bizarre dream. In the plan, he discovered that he had a brain tumor, seriously endangering his health and life.
It was such a vivid dream that Ruffalo was shaken by what he had seen in his slumber even after he woke up. He headed straight to the doctor to check out if there was anything untoward inside his head—and what he discovered would change his life forever.
Incredibly, Ruffalo’s strange dream about a brain tumor was, in fact, in some way, prophetic—that was exactly what his doctor confirmed he was suffering.
Fortunately, after a series of tests and investigations, they realized that the tumor was benign, but he still needed surgery to remove it.
Ruffalo had no idea the long and challenging journey that was ahead—and he had other personal reasons for delaying the surgery, completely separate from the issue of his health.
Around the time that Ruffalo was diagnosed with his brain tumor, other things of a happier nature were also taking place in his personal life. His beloved wife, Sunrise Coigney, was expecting their first child, and he didn’t want to do anything to put pressure or stress on her while she was pregnant.
Ruffalo decided to delay his surgery until their baby was born, so he could focus entirely on their new child before undergoing the complicated procedure.
But the truth was, he had other, secret reasons for doing this.
King of the Castle
As well as being newly married and expecting a baby, there were other reasons that Ruffalo had for not wanting to undergo his surgery straightaway.
After years of struggling through as a bartender and jobbing actor, he finally seemed to be getting noticed, making a name for himself in the world of showbiz.
In 2001, he starred alongside Hollywood heavyweights Robert Redford and James Gandolfini in the movie The Last Castle.
It seemed that once filming for this movie wrapped up, Ruffalo would have to head straight into surgery—but there was one more thing keeping him from taking the plunge.
That same year, as Ruffalo enjoyed married life and the first signs of success in his long-awaited movie career, he added another happy event to his world: the birth of his and Sunrise Coigney’s first child, Keen Ruffalo.
Keen would grow up to follow in his parents’ footsteps, becoming a successful and talented actor, starring in movies such as 2013’s Begin Again.
But back in 2001, Keen Ruffalo was simply a tiny bundle of joy, a moment of bliss in his parents’ stressful times.
And now that the baby was safely delivered, Mark Ruffalo was time to head into surgery.
Under the Knife
A few weeks after his son’s birth, Ruffalo finally headed into the hospital to take his place on the operating table.
The surgery was a mixed success—though the doctors did manage to remove the tumor entirely from Ruffalo’s brain, he was left with some pretty severe side effects.
The actor’s hearing was severely affected—but another side effect would leave Ruffalo wholly devastated.
The rising star’s entire future was called into question when he woke up from surgery—and realized that his face was paralyzed.
As you can imagine, Ruffalo was utterly devastated by what had happened to his face. With no idea of whether this paralysis would subside or if it would last forever, the talented actor withdrew from the public eye.
Sinking back into a deep depression, the once-shining star became something of a recluse. “I didn’t want any visitors,” he said to New York Magazine. “I was so unbelievably miserable, and what was worse was people’s reactions to seeing me. It was shattering to them.”
A New Hope
Despite the hard times that Ruffalo was going through, he still had the love and support of his wife to help him stay positive. And sure enough, about six months after his brain surgery, there was suddenly a chance for hope once again.
“One day, six months after my surgery, I had the visor mirror down in our car—I was in the passenger seat, Sunrise was driving, Keen was in the backseat—and I was looking at my face, and I went, ‘Oh, my God.’ Then I showed Sunrise. And then we were both crying, and I’m screaming, ‘It moved! It moved! It’s coming back!’”
Back in the Game
Overcome with joy that his face had made such a miraculous recovery, Ruffalo knew that it was time for him to return to the Hollywood circuit.
Happily, despite his time away, the young actor’s reputation had survived his period out of the spotlight, and directors and producers were still keen to work with him.
Ruffalo marked his return to showbiz with the 2003 psychological thriller In the Cut.
The movie grossed an impressive $23 million at the box office, and film critic David Thomson called it “one of the great films of the twenty-first century.”
Ruffalo was well and truly back.
In the Cut, he firmly established Ruffalo as a bona fide movie star and respected talent. So, it came as no surprise when he followed the success of this movie with two equally successful blockbusters—the fantasy comedy 13 Going on 30, alongside woman of the moment Jennifer Gardner, and the similarly fantastical but much deeper Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind alongside Kirsten Dunst, Jim Carrey, and Kate Winslet.
Ruffalo’s performances in both of these films made him a household name and national treasure.
And his return to form was only about to soar even higher.
As if the miraculous return of Mark Ruffalo’s facial muscles, as well as the resurgence of his glittering acting career, was not enough, the Hollywood star received yet another blessing around this time.
In 2005, Ruffalo and his wife welcomed their second child, a daughter called Bella Noche.
“It’s intense,” he joked to People about the pressures of parenting. “The times when my wife is gone, and I’ve had to take care of everything … the laundry alone is enough to destroy you.”
But in reality, marriage and fatherhood are what saved Mark Ruffalo—in more ways than one.
Hot on the heels of welcoming his second child into the world, Ruffalo continued to enjoy his long-awaited success and worldwide stardom.
Even the hard worker and big dreamer, Ruffalo, was not content to simply sit on his laurels. No—he carried on pushing his boundaries and trying new things.
His next project was starring in Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! At the Belasco Theatre in New York.
Ruffalo’s performance in this earned him a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Play.
Ruffalo followed up this huge stage success with a return to the big screen in two mega-smash hit blockbuster movies, David Fincher’s mystery horror Zodiac in 2007, and Brian Goodman’s real crime drama What Doesn’t Kill You in 2008.
Zodiac grossed a whopping $84 million worldwide and received widespread critical acclaim, with the BBC ranking it as number 12 in the greatest films of the century.
What Doesn’t Kill You proved just as successful and saw Ruffalo nominated for the Satellite Award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama.
Back on Top
It seemed that Ruffalo was well and truly back on track with every aspect of his life. His face and motor functions had made a full and miraculous recovery. He had a globally successful international film career and millions of fans worldwide, and of course, he had a happy, loving marriage and two beautiful children.
It seemed that, finally, after so much heartache and sadness, Ruffalo’s life was yet looking perfect.
But little did he know that another tragedy was just around the corner.
Heartbreak and Horror
With Ruffalo’s career, health, and personal life fully back on track, he could have been forgiven for thinking that things were seeming only too good to be true—and unfortunately, he was right.
In 2008, Ruffalo’s beloved younger brother, Scott, was found unconscious outside his home in Beverley Hills with a gunshot wound to the head. Scott Ruffalo later died from his injuries, and the police ruled it as a homicide.
Despite years of investigation and research, the murder remains unsolved to this day.
After so much heartbreak already in his life, how would Ruffalo respond to this latest tragedy?
After losing his brother, on top of so much tragedy and sadness he had already gone through in his life, you would not blame Ruffalo for falling back into a terrible depression.
Indeed, he was devastated by his brother’s loss, who he regarded as his hero and inspiration. “I was the actor pushing 30 and still doing 30-seat theaters, and he was the mayor of Beverly Hills,” he said to Men’s Journal. “For years, people would meet me and go, ‘You’re Scotty Ruffalo’s brother? I love your brother. He’s f–ing amazing.'”
Despite everything he had been through in his life, and now struck with a fresh and unexpected tragedy, Ruffalo refused to succumb to the heartbreak around him and determined to fight his depression.
Rather than dwelling on the injustice of losing his brother so young and in such terrible circumstances, Ruffalo instead preferred to remember him for the positivity he had brought to his life.
This commitment to honoring his memory also inspired him to keep acting—for more reasons than one.
Ruffalo knew that the best way to honor his brother’s memory is to seize on to life and live every day to the fullest.
And it was around the time that he read for Paul’s role in the 2010 movie The Kids Are All Right and decided it was the perfect tribute to his brother.
“His charm, his spirit, his sense of humor, his daring,” he said to Men’s Journal about how similar the character was to his brother. “How great he was with women. How he sort of devoured life. I’m only capturing a tiny glimpse of him. But I think it ended up honoring him in a really nice way. He was a beautiful guy.”
Ruffalo’s starring role in The Kids Are All Right not only brought him comfort as a way to honor his late brother in a way that genuinely celebrated his life and character, but it also brought him a new level of fame and worldwide critical acclaim.
For his role in the movie, he was nominated for a SAG Award, a BAFTA Award, and the most prestigious accolade of all—the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Ruffalo’s tribute to his brother touched the hearts of millions across the world.
Despite the terrible tragedies he had been through, losing his brother gave Ruffalo an unexpected source of strength, as he began to see a new perspective on life and its beauty.
“You never get over it,” he said to Men’s Journal about that kind of loss. “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.”
Friends in High Places
Now a bona fide megastar and critically acclaimed actor, Ruffalo was about to receive one of the most exciting offers of his career. His next project was working with Hollywood legend and icon Martin Scorsese, starring in his 2010 psychological thriller Shutter Island alongside Leonardo DiCaprio.
“What you have with Mark is a strong emotional connection,” the legendary director said of Ruffalo’s unique talent. “He is believable on every level while playing a multifaceted character.”
“It was very collaborative,” Ruffalo responded humbly to the compliments.
After reaching a level of success most aspiring actors can only dream of, Ruffalo thought that it was time to try turning his hand to another showbiz talent—directing.
After directing several plays at the Orpheus Theatre Company, Ruffalo directed his first full-length feature film in 2010 with the semi-biographical drama Sympathy for Delicious.
The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival that year and won Ruffalo the Special Jury Prize for Drama.
But Ruffalo’s next role would take his level of fame to even greater heights.
Mark Ruffalo’s next role was somewhat of a departure from his traditional roles. Apart from his stunning turn in the teen classic 13 Going on 30, the actor had made his name in more indie and gritty, character-based films rather than shiny action blockbusters.
But what is an actor without the ability to be versatile? That is what Ruffalo proved beyond all doubt when he starred as The Incredible Hulk in the 2012 smash hit The Avengers. He received critical acclaim for his performance and went on to star in four other Avengers movies.
But off-screen, Ruffalo had a very different kind of role as a superhero.
Saving the World
Throughout his career, Ruffalo has not shied away from talking about causes and topics that he is passionate about.
In particular, he is a committed humanitarian activist, and regularly speaks out and stands in solidarity with causes he finds essential to improving the world around us.
And in 2014, this commitment and passion were recognized officially when Ruffalo received the BAFTA Britannia Humanitarian Award for his efforts working alongside the non-profit organization Water Defense, ensuring water safety and sanitization around the world.
And that’s not the only serious issue that Ruffalo isn’t afraid to speak about publicly.
As well as worldwide issues where he can make a difference, Ruffalo also has spoken candidly about his struggles, particularly his lifelong battle with depression and mental health.
“It’s dysthymia,” he said in an interview with The Observer. “It’s a long-running, low-grade depression all the time. I’ve been struggling with that my whole life. It’s like a low-grade depression that just is running all the time in the background.”
Despite his struggles and ups and downs with his mental health, that didn’t stop Mark Ruffalo from becoming one of the most successful and well-respected actors in Hollywood.
His next role was in the chilling real-life biopic Foxcatcher in 2014, where he starred as Dave Shultz, the famous American wrestler murdered by his friend and sponsor John Eleuthère du Pont.
Ruffalo’s powerful performance gripped audiences around the world and saw him receive his second Oscar nomination.
But his next role would inspire even more viewers—in more ways than one.
Normal Hearts Club
That same year, Ruffalo starred in a TV drama adaptation of the classic Larry Kramer play The Normal Heart, starring as a gay activist and AIDS awareness campaigner Ned Weeks.
Ruffalo received an Emmy nomination for his performance, as well as an outpouring of support he had never seen before in his career.
“I’ve never had so sincere and vulnerable a response from people for anything that I’ve ever done,” he said to the Deadline of the fans’ responses to the movie.
King of Hearts
Ruffalo, a longstanding advocate of the LGBT community, sang the praises of the reception his performance had received, and how important it was to him.
“Of everything that I’ve done since I’ve been on social media, which hasn’t been that long, by the way, I haven’t had such an overwhelmingly positive response as I have from The Normal Heart directly to me. And it’s a blessing, man. If this is it, if I have a piano dropped on me tomorrow, then I would go down thinking, ‘You know what, I did okay as far as my career goes,’ because that’s a gift. That’s rare.”
With such a long-standing and super successful career, we couldn’t blame you for wondering, just what else is there left for Ruffalo to do in his career. Well, for this super talented and versatile actor, there is always something new and exciting for him to try.
Ruffalo’s latest role is in the 2020 TV miniseries I Know This Much Is True, where he stars as TWO main characters in the show! For his double starring turn, Ruffalo was nominated for a Primetime Emmy and a TCA Award.
A Beautiful Journey
Knowing what we do now about the truth of Mark Ruffalo’s life story, and the incredible hardships and heartbreaks he has lived through over the years, our admiration for him as an actor and human being is even greater.
“I struggled for so long,” he admitted to Parade. “But inside my heart of hearts, in the quietest part of me, something was saying, ‘This is what you were meant to do in the world. You have to continue.’”
And we are so glad he did. Ruffalo’s perseverance through heartbreak and tragedy, and his beautiful outlook on life throughout, is an inspiration to us all.