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Ruffalo's northern exposure

Actor professes love of Canada - and Joaquin Phoenix - at fest

Canadian Press

Toronto — It's first thing in the morning at the Toronto International Film Festival — 10:15 a.m., to be exact — and actor Mark Ruffalo confesses to having tied one on with a hard-partying posse of Mexican actors the previous night.

“Do I look hungover?” Ruffalo, dressed in a grey blazer, navy shirt and jeans, asks in his trademark bedroom voice. “Do I look fresh?”

When assured he's looking good, he says with a sigh of relief: “It's amazing what a little makeup will do for a man.”

Ruffalo, 39, is at the festival to promote Reservation Road, a dark but powerful film that co-stars Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly as a married couple whose young son dies in a hit-and-run accident.

Ruffalo plays the divorced dad who kills the boy on a dark stretch of New England highway as he races to return his own son to his ex-wife. The film, from Hotel Rwanda director Terry George, goes into mainstream release Oct. 21 and is almost certain to get some attention come awards season due to the top-notch performances from all three actors.

And while he's keen to talk about the movie, Ruffalo went off on an unexpected tangent Thursday as he proclaimed his love for Canada.

His grandparents on his mother's side are Quebecois, the Wisconsin-born Ruffalo says, and he's currently pondering moving to Canada because of the dire state of affairs in the United States.

“You come to Canada and there's an ease here, there's a sense of well-being here — in the streets of America right now it's very oppressive, it's very uneasy, it's very tense,” Ruffalo says of the mood in the U.S. in the aftermath of 9-11 and as the current war in Iraq rages on.

“I'm actually trying to get a Canadian passport because I would totally move here; it's so cool in Canada,” he says.

He predicts big changes are afoot for the U.S. movie-making machine — changes that will benefit Canada.

“There's going to be a cultural backlash against America — it's already happening — that's going to really affect the film business as well. It's going to cause Canada to pop out,” he says.

“There will be a much more level playing field for world cinema in general because America's not going to be able to impose its content on the world in the same way any more. And Canada is so well-positioned to pick up the slack — I mean you are already making this amazing content and have been for a long time.”

With a string of romantic comedies under his belt, including Just Like Heaven and Rumor Has It, Ruffalo is returning to the type of character in Reservation Road that earned him such critical acclaim for You Can Count On Me seven years ago — a troubled guy who means well but makes terrible choices for what he believes are the right reasons.

Ruffalo plays Dwight Arno, a lawyer who's embroiled in a bitter custody dispute with his ex-wife, played by Mira Sorvino. Fearing he'll lose all access to his boy if he's charged and convicted of a crime, Dwight keeps driving after the accident, only to find himself tormented with guilt and fear in the weeks to come.

Ruffalo says it's a role he couldn't have taken on if not a parent himself. He's the father of two children with a third on the way soon.

“I wouldn't have understood on that gut level how much you love those kids and how much you would put yourself in front of harm's way for them. I wouldn't have understood the nuances of the struggle he's going through,” he says.

“Part of his struggle is that he's destroyed these other lives — his life, up to this point, really has nothing in it but this boy and then the idea of turning himself in and destroying his son's life, and shattering all his son's ideas about what his character is, is really difficult.”

Despite their heart-wrenching onscreen clashes in Reservation Road, Ruffalo says he and Phoenix shared a house during the shoot and became close friends — and it's an “opposites attract” kind of relationship, he readily acknowledges.

Ruffalo is known for being good-natured and easy-going, while Phoenix has a reputation for being moody and mercurial. The Oscar-nominated actor certainly looked the part when he showed up for media interviews at a downtown hotel on Thursday morning, wearing sunglasses and huddling in his hoodie as his assistant warned one of the studio officials to ensure no cheese showed up in his lunch.

Ruffalo giggles when told Phoenix looks like he himself might be nursing something of a hangover on Thursday morning.

“I like to play and he likes to play,” Ruffalo says. “I love him, actually. He's probably the closest I've come to a genius ... he's one of the best. He works his ass off. He's very laissez-faire about it but I've never seen anyone work like that. I'd come home and he'd be there with his notes and notes and notes and he'd scribbled all over his script, smoking, pacing around.

“Then I see him in interviews and he says: 'I don't know, they just give some lines and tell me where to stand and I do it' and it's such bullshit.”

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