Hollywood producer Bradley Fischer concedes that Hollywood producers occasionally lie. For instance, when they claim that a certain actor was their first and only choice for a particular role, they’re usually lying.
A role is often filled by the first competent actor who accepts the part.
“I know people always say that, but I swear that it’s true in this case,” the producer says. “Mark was always our first and only choice.”
Fischer says that he respects Mark Ruffalo’s work from their collaboration on last year’s “All the King’s Men,” and has been a fan since he first saw the actor in the 2000 film “You Can Count on Me.”
Ruffalo, 39, was cast by Fischer and director David Fincher to play a real-life San Francisco homicide detective whose investigation of a serial killer becomes an obsession in “Zodiac,” which opened Friday.
“Most directors and producers never say they need a movie star. That’s something you might hear from the marketing department,” Fischer says. “What most directors and producers say they need is an actor, and Mark is one of those actors who directors and producers always go to when they need one of the best in the business.”
High praise, indeed, for an actor who says that as recently as five years ago, he was considered “damaged goods” in the movie industry.
Fresh off his triumphant turn in “You Can Count on Me,” Ruffalo was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Surgery was successful, but he was out of action for 10 months, a lifetime for an actor just coming off his big break.
“Right after the movie, lots of offers were coming in, but then my career completely cooled off,” he says. “There was no work at all, and rumors were circulating that I had AIDS and leukemia. Some people actually heard that I was dead.”
Ruffalo credits two directors — Jane Campion and Isabel Coixet — for resurrecting his career by giving him major roles in their films “In the Cut” and “My Life Without Me.”
It wasn’t the first time a director had saved Ruffalo from oblivion. A chance meeting with director/playwright Kenneth Lonergan in 1986 literally dragged Ruffalo out of a Los Angeles bar and into show business.
Ruffalo was working as a bartender.
In fact, the aspiring actor tended bar in Los Angeles for nine years while trying to get his foot in the proverbial show business door.
The most frustrating aspect of his bartending career was that he was working at the bar of Hollywood’s legendary Chateau Marmont hotel.
“It was a horrible period,” he says, the pain still evident in his voice. “I was interfacing every night with everyone I wanted to be. All the young working actors hung out there, and there was a lot of resentment on my part. My friends used to call me Bit O’ Honey, because I was really bitter about these actors having the jobs I wanted, but I always acted sweet to them.
“I admit that I’m pretty much one of those glass-is-half-empty kind of guys, rather than the glass-is-half-full guys. I even take it a step further by saying: ‘And look how small the glass is, too.’ In my heart, I hoped that something would happen, but deep down I kept thinking that it was never really going to happen for me.”
The two men hit it off, and Lonergan asked Ruffalo to star in a one-act play he was directing in a small Los Angeles theater.
That one-act play eventually expanded into the off-Broadway play “This Is Our Youth,” and Ruffalo’s performance won rave reviews. Lonergan later cast Ruffalo opposite Laura Linney in “You Can Count on Me.”
UNDER HIS SKIN
Ruffalo, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children, was born in Kenosha, Wis., but spent his high school years in Virginia Beach, Va., before the family moved to San Diego. He set out on his own for Los Angeles, where he attended acting classes and auditioned for roles he didn’t get.
“I was too tall or too short, too ethnic or not ethnic enough,” he says. “There was always some reason for them to say no to me.”
But his career is in full swing now, with three more films awaiting release.
The new film also stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith, then-editorial cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle whose two books on the Zodiac case are the basis of Fincher’s film, and Robert Downey Jr. as Paul Avery, the newspaper’s colorful crime reporter whose obsession with the serial killer almost destroyed him.
Ruffalo’s character, homicide detective Dave Toschi, also became obsessed with the mystery murderer who terrorized the Bay Area, starting in 1968. He is believed to have killed at least five people, and boasted of his dastardly deeds in letters to local newspapers. He taunted law enforcement agencies and dared them to catch him.
Fincher, who grew up in the area, says he has few memories of the terror that gripped northern California. He does, however, remember riding the school bus accompanied by a police escort.
The director has made a serial killer movie before, 1995’s “Se7en,” but this film is different. “Zodiac” does not follow the killer, but rather the investigation of the crimes and the pursuit of the killer.
RIGHT FOR ROLE
The producer says he never doubted the filmmakers’ choice for the actor who would play Toschi, who was the inspiration for the character played by Steve McQueen in the 1968 film “Bullitt.” But the brilliance of the casting choice was confirmed after he set up a meeting between Ruffalo and Toschi.
“Mark shadowed Dave all day and, when he returned to L.A. that night, he was speaking exactly like Toschi. It was eerie.”
The soft-spoken Ruffalo can do a dead-on but respectful impression of Toschi, who is in his 70s but works full time for a Bay Area security firm.
“The man is remarkable,” Ruffalo says. “He still dresses to the nines, and he has managed to maintain his dignity, even though the case did not end as he had hoped.”
No one was ever charged in the Zodiac murders, although investigators privately were satisfied that they had found their man.
“In his heart, Dave Toschi knew that the suspect he was chasing was the right guy,” Ruffalo says.
“He spent so many years on this case, only to have it end in frustration. To maintain your dignity after an ordeal like that makes Dave Toschi an amazing character to play.”
Partial filmography “You Can Count on Me” (2000) “The Last Castle” (2001) “View From the Top” (2003) “In the Cut” (2003) “My Life Without Me” (2003) “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” (2004) “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) “13 Going on 30” (2004) “Collateral” (2004) “Just Like Heaven” (2005) “Rumor Has It” (2005) “All the King’s Men” (2006) “Zodiac” (2007)
Read movie critic Craig Outhier’s review of Zodiac on www.getoutaz.com