''Man up,'' quietly commands Mark Ruffalo. ''Seriously. Quit your whining.'' The actor has launched into a mock drill-sergeant riff sparked by the suggestion that working with notoriously demanding director David Fincher (Seven) on the serial-killer drama Zodiac (which costars Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Anthony Edwards) might have been more trouble than it's worth. ''Those valets outside parking cars do harder work in a day than we do all year,'' Ruffalo continues. ''Man up.''
This kind of bravado is unexpected from the guy who has spent the past hour and a half sipping peppermint tea and agonizing over work that takes him to far-flung locations away from his wife (boutique owner Sunrise Coigney) and young children (Keen and Bella). Then again, it's impossible to know what to expect from an actor whose idiosyncratic choices have kept leading-man status just beyond his reach. Hollywood doesn't quite know what to make of him: Is he a thinking woman's heartthrob (13 Going on 30, Just Like Heaven), a dramatic heavyweight (In the Cut, Collateral), or an indie journeyman (You Can Count on Me, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)? Perhaps that's because he's less concerned with short-term mainstream recognition than career longevity. ''Hollywood quickly defines people,'' says the 39-year-old, hunched over a Los Angeles coffee-shop table absentmindedly banging his spoon against a water glass. ''So I just keep trying to change it up before they stick the label on me. I want to keep the mystery.''
On the surface, his role in a big splashy drama like Zodiac might blow his cover. But there is nothing flashy about David Toschi, the lead inspector he plays in Fincher's ticktock account of the decades-long hunt for the serial killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s and '70s. Fincher sought out Ruffalo after hearing Jennifer Aniston rave about his ability to breathe life into a nondescript character in 2005's doomed postmodern romance, Rumor Has It. ''Jennifer was the one who said, 'You'll absolutely love this guy,''' recounts Fincher, '''because he'll do so much heavy lifting.''' Initially, even Ruffalo was thrown off his game by Fincher's perfectionist approach. ''My first day of work we did 68 takes,'' he recalls. ''And at one point I saw Fincher get up and I was like, 'Please fire me.' But then you learn to pace yourself. You have to know it so well you can make love to your wife and do your lines at the same time.''
When we last checked in with Ruffalo while he was promoting Collateral in 2004, the Wisconsin native had recently recovered from surgery on a benign brain tumor that left half his face temporarily paralyzed. He was also in the midst of rehabbing his 12-year career, which had taken off with Kenneth Lonergan's 1998 Off Broadway hit, This Is Our Youth, followed by the playwright's Oscar-nominated, fractured-family drama, You Can Count on Me. The potent combination of vulnerability and recklessness Ruffalo brought to those performances made for a heady time in which comparisons to a young Brando were bandied about. Ruffalo knew he had a lot of ground to make up, and, as he told EW, that would mean fewer light movies along the lines of 13 Going on 30. And yet, since then he has wooed Reese Witherspoon in the love-after-death confection Just Like Heaven, and played Jennifer Aniston's rock in Rumor Has It. ''I was experimenting and it was a little playfulness on my part,'' says Ruffalo, who makes no apologies for flirting with popular appeal. ''I kept hearing back from studios: Mark Ruffalo can't be a leading man. He can't get the girl. He can't do comedy. So part of it was a dare.'' He pauses, rubs his eyes, and groans. ''I was also aware that if those movies do well, I could go and get all my little movies made,'' he confesses. ''I like the idea that acting is one foot on the banana peel and one foot in the grave.''
Lately, Ruffalo seems to have found his sweet spot, somewhere between nihilistic and bleak. After Zodiac, he'll star in two darkly complex dramas later this year: Margaret, a melancholy coming-of-age story, reunites him with Lonergan; Reservation Road, a tragedy about fatherhood and grief, is directed by Hotel Rwanda's Terry George. Among other similarities, the movies share an eerily gruesome plot point Ruffalo's characters are responsible for car crash fatalities. ''I almost didn't do [both] because I had to kill two people,'' says Ruffalo. ''It was so painful. Awful,'' he says, briefly wincing at the memory before reminding himself that the alternative not working is much worse. ''I'm a glutton for punishment.''
My Brilliant Career: Mark Ruffalo
Safe Men 1998
Ride With the Devil 1999
You Can Count on Me 2000
''They didn't want me because other actors looked more like Laura Linney [who played my sister].''
My Life Without Me 2003
After brain surgery, ''It eased me back into my life with me.''
In the Cut 2003
13 Going on 30 2004
''My fan base grew when it came out.''
We Don't Live Here Anymore 2004
''Then all the 13 Going on 30 people were like, 'Traitor!'''
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind 2004
''I've stayed away from violent stuff. This is the one movie that straddles that.''
Just Like Heaven 2005
Rumor Has It 2005
All the King's Men 2006