Academy Award nominee Mark Ruffalo and Writer/Director Maya Forbes were in Boston recently to promote their new film Infinitely Polar Bear. Based on Maya’s childhood, the film is about her bi-polar father (played by Ruffalo) who raises his two daughters while his wife (Zoe Saldana) is in New York going to college in the 1970s. Based in Boston, the film was shot in Rhode Island a few years ago. The pair talked about the movie, trying to keep the film authentic and more.
A little over a decade ago Ruffalo had brain surgery to remove a tumor. I asked the actor if having a medical issue in the past helps him to understand the loss of control and issue of his character Cameron. Mark Ruffalo, “Probably. I hadn’t really thought about it like that, but I definitely understand what it is to be fearful and out of control of things that are way outside your view and are existential.”
Because the film is based on Forbes as a child, she was asked what made her want to finally share her story. Maya Forbes, “I like personal stories like a movie like Squid and a Whale. When I saw it I thought ‘I love this kind of movie, so why am I not writing this kind of movie?’ Then when my daughters got to be about the age that I was when my father had his really big breakdown that changed our lives, in seeing these two little girls and what it was like taking care of them, I was sort of catapulted in my memories. And one thing that was really notable for me is that the culture that my girls are growing up in is, that parents are getting a lot of fear pushed toward them. It’s like everything is going to crush your children, they can’t go outside alone, they can’t do anything. It’s like fear is lurking all around and kids need to be protected constantly.
“And in writing it, I was sort of revisiting this idea that kids are actually quite resilient and are quite capable. Looking at some of the gifts I received from that hard period of my life, I felt that I had grown a lot and become a more self-reliant person, I had become a compassionate person, I became a person who was interested in people and things that they do. So the hard time had made me into who I am today and I felt like I would like to write a movie where people reconnect with or reevaluate their past and your own memories and reflect on your families and what made you who you are.”
With this being about her life as a child and Ruffalo playing her father, she was asked if she was taking a creative risk doing a film like this compared to her previous work and directing for the first time. Forbes, “I felt that I had avoided writing something that I was powerfully, emotionally connected to. I like the work that I do in Hollywood, but writing Monsters vs. Aliens is much less risky than writing something personal about people you love. In terms of directing, I was always telling my daughters to be bold and try to be the boss, but I felt like why am I not doing this? I’m telling my daughters to do it, and I have to be a good parent and show them. I can’t keep saying it if I’m not going to try it. So it was definitely leaping off into a place where I was taking these emotional risks and the risk offending everybody I know, of upsetting people and making a terrible film about an issue I feel very strongly about that I want to humanize this issue and show that when you have a bipolar member of your family, it becomes a family issue. Everyone is involved in this.”
She was asked how her family took the news of her doing this film. “My family was very understanding. They’re used to me writing about things that are personal outside of Hollywood things. My father died in 1998, but my mother, who started out in the theater before she went on and got her MBA and started to work in finance, she loves drama and art and saw it as my story and embraced it,” Forbes explained.
Mark was asked about the risk of playing the father of his writer/director. Ruffalo, “I think it could have been a lot worse if Maya wasn’t so charming, smart and talented and ecumenical as far as how she saw her father as a young girl. When I think of creative risks, I guess my job is to be as honest as I possibly could to her dad and who he was. That’s what I knew Maya was asking of me. So the risk was the easy part, because the further I played from myself, the riskier it was, but that’s exactly what she was asking of me. So the risk all of a sudden wasn’t so much of a risk in our relationship, but more of would people buy me in this part and would this bipolar stuff work. There are people who are bipolar, suffer from depression and have mental illness in my family, so I felt like I knew that part, but what was more difficult for me was the blue blood Bostonian. Maya’s family came over in the Mayflower a couple hundred years ago and my family basically rode a boat here. That part was really different for me.” Forbes, “To that, the great thing that happened was that Mark started to tell me things that was true about my father. There’s a scene where he picks up Zoe Saldana at the bus station. He’s like ‘I’m not sitting in the car watching her come towards us; Cam would never sit in the car. He’s a gentleman, he’s gonna get out of the car.’ And I’m like ‘You did it! You are correct!’ Because my father, he would always bring flowers, he was so romantic. I was probably thinking of the day, but he (Ruffalo) was thinking of the character, and he bested me. Ruffalo, “No, I didn’t.” Forbes, “You assisted me.”
Mark talked about what he found the most difficult playing a Bostonian, “The blue collar part of Boston I feel very comfortable with. It’s the blue blood part that I don’t. Other than Maya and her several generations away, I haven’t really come into contact with them. I didn’t go to college – I’m not proud to say that – so I never had that kind of preparatory or even scholastic or collegiate kind of influence. It was so far from what I knew. And that’s only because I didn’t come into contact with it. I spent a little time with it, I could pretty much pick it up quickly. I’m a pretty good mimic that way. That works well for me as an actor. But really it’s just a matter of not having any contact with it in any way that I could soak it up. It’s a whole way of looking at the world that is very alien to me. There’s a lot weird rules and this kind of seeing the world through a filtered glass that I just didn’t understand. Only looking “up” that I could understand, but couldn’t understand the looking “down” part. I think Cam, funny enough, he could play in that. He could go from changing the oil in a broken down car in one moment, and then walk into a very posh restaurant and put on his bow tie while having an argument in another. That’s what I thought was really exciting. Cam was somebody that didn’t really feel comfortable in that world and it put a lot of pressure on him. I would even say that it was triggering to him in a lot of ways.”
The pair was asked how they kept the movie feeling authentic and didn’t make just a message movie about someone being bi-polar and growing up in a mixed family. Forbes, “I guess just relying on my childhood and the truth. I was trying to tell the truth and I wanted to put all these things in because those are all issues that families deal with. My mother’s Black and I don’t look Black, and I wanted to show how when you’re a little kid, you don’t think about it, but when you get older, the world tells you it matters and you wrestle with that. Especially when the mom has gone away, there was something very poignant to me in that the daughter is wondering ‘How much am I identifying with my mother and how much am I identifying with my father? What is the mother giving up in terms of the connection with her daughter?’ It’s part of life, so I wanted these things to be part of the life of this movie without becoming an issue movie. For me, I wanted to tell a family movie and all the different things that people struggle within that family.”
Ruffalo, “Something like three percent of Americans are bipolar. And that’s like supposedly a very low estimate.” Forbes, “Because people aren’t diagnosed.” Ruffalo, “That’s based on the people who are diagnosed. That means three out of every a hundred people which means there’s a good chance that anyone of us can come across a person with bipolar disorder. Do we necessarily know they’re bipolar? No, because it’s not like a light switch that turns on and off and they’re not acting zany. It’s kind of an intensification of already certain qualities and they’re who they are. So what really became the most important thing was to find out who Cam was and just try to stay as honest to that as possible. I knew the stories. It was written in the script how far he would go in one way or another, so I could take it that far out, but always have it tapered to some reality even if I wanted to go farther as a performer because it would be more fun to do or it would be more flashy to do at times, it just wasn’t honest. I think that’s what we set out to do. It’s just to keep it honest and the rest would take care of itself.”
Ruffalo talked about Maya’s father’s portrayal, she was asked how she wanted to see her mother portrayed. Forbes, “I wanted her not to be crushed by these circumstances. She is a fighter. I guess I would say I get some of that from her and she’s an optimist. And these are really hard times for her. Now that I have three children of my own, my feelings about my mother have changed, because I recognize how hard it was for her to come in every weekend from New York. With work and all the stuff she was doing, she came, she came with a good attitude and she didn’t come complaining about her situation. She came and participated in the family, then she left and went back to work. It was really hard, but she always maintained this positive attitude. Both of my parents were feminists. My father always wanted me to fight with everybody. Obviously, he was a combative person himself, but he encouraged us to get out there and fight. As did my mother in her own much more charming way. The most important thing to me was that she was shown as a person with a lot of spirit. That’s what drew me to Zoe Saldana. She’s so strong and she has a great smile and a great laugh.”
Although based in Boston, the film shot in Rhode Island, but used a lot of Boston actors and crew. On having to shoot there. Forbes, “Well, I really couldn’t shoot in Boston because it was expensive. We were very Boston centric, but Providence looked very much like Cambridge of that era. It looked more like it than anyplace I could find here. It was evocative of that era and they have very good food in Providence. They have good food here too, but it’s good in Providence.” Ruffalo, “You can walk to every restaurant in Providence. I got to walk to work every day.”
Mark has a very diverse film resume. A lot of people know him as the Hulk in The Avengers movies, but he does a lot of these smaller, indie films as well. I asked him if these smaller films keep him more grounded. Ruffalo, “I feel like you’re doing the same thing whether it’s a big movie or a small movie. With a little movie, the energy stays compact. I like the familial, intense, really vulnerable feeling of making small movies. It’s just that I like that kind of experience more. But the creature comforts of a big movie, there’s a lot of pros in that world too that are nice to move between.”
Infinitely Polar Bear is in limited release with more theaters coming soon.
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