Joshua Yepez Martinez / Daily Nexus

“Hulk smash!” yelled the energetic crowd outside the Arlington theater in efforts to be noticed by Mark Ruffalo. Others desperately held out posters in hopes of getting an autograph from their idol. 

Ruffalo stepped out of a black suburban, only erupting more chaos between fans and press hoping to talk to him. The sixth night of the Santa Barbara Film Festival celebrated Ruffalo receiving the American Riviera Award for his role in Oscar-nominated film “Poor Things” on Feb. 11.

According to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) website, the American Riviera Award recognizes actors who have made significant contributions to American Cinema. Ruffalo, an Emmy winner and four time Academy Award nominee is in good company, with past recipients including Brendan Fraser, Kristen Stewart and Jeff Bridges. The actor had previously received the award in 2016 with co-stars Rachel McAdams and Michael Keaton for their roles in “Spotlight” but was unable to attend the ceremony.  

This time around, Ruffalo accepted his award for his role as Duncan Wedderburn opposite Emma Stone in Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things.” The role is a sharp contrast to his previous characters as Wedderburn is narcissistic, misogynistic and unlikable. Ruffalo delivers a career-high performance utilizing physical comedy and body language to garner laughs. The hotheaded Wedderburn becomes a comic-relief with biting one-liners and absurd dialogue. Despite it being Ruffalo’s first time in a role like this, he embodied the role like he was born as Duncan Wedderburn.

Even though he was already being fashionably late to the red carpet, Ruffalo halted his interviews to take more pictures with the fans he missed when he first arrived. 

The event began with a triumphant compilation of Ruffalo’s extensive iconic roles from “The Brothers Bloom” to “Zodiac” but “13 Going on 30” summoned the largest applause by far. The Q&A was hosted by IndieWire Editor at Large Anne Thompson, who has also appeared several times in LA Weekly, The New York Times and Variety. She studied film and hosts a weekly podcast entitled “Screen Talk.” 

As soon as she sat down with Ruffalo, his effortless charisma was apparent. Thompson started by congratulating Ruffalo on receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame earlier this month. Ruffalo responded by describing his humble beginnings doing theater productions in Hollywood back in the 80s,

 “I was there for about seven years when Hollywood Boulevard was pretty much a warzone … it was a really tough place and I was so broke I couldn’t pay attention,” Ruffalo said.

 He went on to explain how incredible it feels to be among the greats on the Walk of Fame listing icons Marlon Brando and Kermit the Frog. 

“It was so far away from anything that I ever imagined happening. I would’ve been happy to just pay my rent,” Ruffalo continued. 

Ruffalo stopping to talk with student press on the red carpet. (Joshua Yepez Martinez / Daily Nexus)

The conversation took a serious turn as Ruffalo opened up about his health struggles after being diagnosed with a benign brain tumor in 2002 while his wife was pregnant. He spoke candidly about his experience. 

“That was really scary. When I had it removed, I woke up and my face was partially paralyzed then over the course of eight hours, it was just totally paralyzed on the left side of my face,” Ruffalo stated.

Ruffalo was able to make a full recovery, despite losing some hearing in his ear.

“I made a deal with whatever entity that’s greater than us and I was like, ‘Dude, you could take my hearing but don’t take my kid’s father,’” Ruffalo explained.

 He consistently thanked his wife of 24 years, Sunrise Coigney, for her ongoing support and care during this difficult time.

The Q&A continued as Ruffalo shared his affinity for playing characters based on real people, citing films like “Foxcatcher” and “Infinitely Polar Bear.” 

“I’ve been very lucky to have some parts that I’ve played that were real people, I’ve gotten to know them and I’ve gotten to understand them. I’ve been honored to bring them to life on film,” he explained. 

When discussing his role in “The Normal Heart” he shared that he got very close to the late AIDs activist, Larry Kramer.

“There’s the gift of you guys, the gift of being able to do what I love to do,” Ruffalo said, “and then there’s this other gift of getting to see and experience people like [Kramer] and worlds that most of us will never be invited into and people invite me in, in such a deep way that they’re baring their souls to me.”

Ruffalo went on to touch on some of his most important projects including “Spotlight” and “Dark Waters,” which had larger impacts off-screen. Ruffalo praised  “Spotlight,” specifically how it forced responses from the Catholic Pope and the Vatican.

“That movie created laws,” Ruffalo stated. “All throughout the world, that movie changed things for the better … that’s the power of cinema.” 

In the same vein, Ruffalo worked hard to get “Dark Waters” on the big screen. The movie is the story of a real-life lawyer who took on a corporate conglomerate that was polluting drinking water with harmful chemicals resulting in many deaths. The movie falls in line with Ruffalo’s advocacy for clean energy and environmental justice. In fact, Ruffalo shared that just two weeks prior to SBIFF, he was at Capitol Hill testifying against the Environmental Protection Agency and against the chemical pollutants from “Dark Waters.” 

 “Four families lost people from forever chemicals, and all from diseases that they’re related to. Finally, we’re going to get regulations passed,” Ruffalo elaborated in regards to his advocacy on Capitol Hill. 

Nearing the end, Ruffalo confessed  his most recent character in “Poor Things” initially scared him.

“I’d never done anything quite like that,” he stated. “I’ve never done an accent like that, I haven’t done a period piece. I’ve been playing crusaders, I’ve been playing the opposite of that guy for a while.”

Despite the fear, Ruffalo had lots of fun on set, remembering moments on set, especially having an incredibly rare three-week rehearsal period before shooting.  He expressed gratitude for the playfulness as it created a space to explore.

After the Q&A, surprise guest and Ruffalo’s co-star in “Poor Things” , Emma Stone offered endless kind words as she presented him the award. 

“Mark has that rare ability to marry pathos with comedy and I knew I would do anything to be in the presence of this man and work with him,” Stone said on watching Ruffalo on set. “Thankfully, when ‘Poor Things’ came to life, I got my chance.”

After a warm embrace, Ruffalo accepted the award and in his acceptance speech. He spent a minute talking about himself, and used the rest to highlight the current political climate in the Middle East. .

“It’s goddamn hard to be a human being,” Ruffalo remarked. “Tonight, there’s 1.9 million people on the border of Egypt who are so afraid for their lives right now,” garnering a roaring applause from the audience. 

He ended by speaking on the Israel-Palestine strife. 

“We can’t bomb our way to peace and we can’t act like what’s happening isn’t happening,” Ruffalo said. “It’s a scary time and I just want to state that because so few people are right now.” His words were meant with approval from the crowd, many cheering in agreement.

The night ended on a triumphant note as Ruffalo raised his award in the air with gratitude evoking a standing ovation from the crowd. “Poor Things” is in theaters and is nominated in 11 different categories at the 96th Academy Awards which will air on March 10.