Mark Ruffalo on Joining ‘She-Hulk’ and His Future With Marvel: ‘I’m Always Surprised That I’m Still Here’

SPOILER ALERT: This story discusses plot elements from Episode 2 of Marvel Studios’ “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law,” currently streaming on Disney+.

Mark Ruffalo barely hesitated when Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige and co-president Louis D’Esposito asked him if he’d be willing to appear on the Disney+ series “She-Hulk: Attorney at Large” as Bruce Banner and his giant green alter ego, Smart Hulk.

“I was a little like, what’s the tone gonna be?” Ruffalo tells Variety. But after reading — and loving — the script from creator and head writer Jessica Gao, he was totally on board for Bruce, aka Smart Hulk, to hand the baton to his cousin Jennifer Walters (Tatiana Maslany), aka She-Hulk.

During his interview, Hulk’s future within the Marvel Cinematic Universe seemed to be weighing on Ruffalo’s mind. The 54-year-old has been playing the character since 2012’s “The Avengers,” when he took over the role after Edward Norton parted ways with Marvel Studios following 2008’s disappointing “The Incredible Hulk.” Since then, Hulk has fought alongside Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) — all of whom have since departed from the MCU. Ruffalo’s Banner, however, has thrived, tussling with Thor on the trash planet of Sakaar in 2017’s “Thor: Ragnarok,” melding his Banner and Hulk selves into Smart Hulk in 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” and welcoming Shang-Chi to the MCU circus in the post-credits scene of 2021’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”

With “She-Hulk,” however, Ruffalo relished the chance to cut loose in one of his first productions after the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. He talked with Variety about working with Maslany on how to navigate the performance capture filmmaking process, what Smart Hulk’s appearance on what Smart Hulk’s appearance on the Sakaaran ship in Episode 2 could mean.

What appealed to you about making “She-Hulk”?

It was something that I’ve always sort of wondered: How does Hulk or Banner live their lives? I mean, if he is living on his own, like, how does he not hit his head on doorframes? It just opened up a whole world that’s really funny and playful that I was craving after COVID. It was light. It was playful with other people. It wasn’t in Zoom. It was like a desperation for me when I got to it, to have that kind of experience after being locked down and imprisoned, in a way.

Other than the obvious COVID protocols, how did making this show compare with your experiences making movies in the MCU?

The one thing that has been interesting is how the technology has just evolved to make it more free for the actor, to the point now where I can be on any set and play that character. That’s something that hasn’t really evolved until this and the film before it, “Endgame.” At the same time, there’s a machine that’s built up around motion capture that can be a little alienating at times. Just making sure that everyone understands that yes, this is its own beautiful thing, but we still have to be animated by a performance — and let’s not forget there’s a human dimension to this.

There’s more focus on these characters. We got to just play more. In that way, it’s very different, because with the Avengers, everybody’s there. The storyline’s very terse, and you’ve got to do your part and there’s not a lot of space to goof off. In this, there was just endless amount of space to do that, improvise and focus on the relationship with these characters and try to get the comedy right with that technology.

Just as Bruce trains Jennifer about being a Hulk, what about the performance capture process did you discuss with Tatiana?

I didn’t really feel like I had to do what what Smart Hulk’s doing with her. I know she knows what she’s doing. She’s totally accomplished and really, She-Hulk’s her own thing. But what I could do is give her some idea of how to how to use that technology and be free in it. Like I was saying, this machine comes up around it. “We’ve got to calibrate! Stay still!” The acting can be secondary to that. You sort of have to fight against that, because that’s the suck of the game: to automate things and for it to lose that freedom and spontaneity. So, for me, it was showing her how to keep it loose inside there, and how to to be free, even playing these huge, unwieldy characters. I feel like that was probably my my greatest contribution to her, because she’s already a genius — so beautifully, physically comedic and free. Just making it comfortable in the technology was something that I that I know so well and done for so long now. It’s hard.

It would seem that Bruce’s time on Sakaar in “Thor: Ragnarok” plays some kind of significant role on this show, given that we last see Smart Hulk on a Sakaaran ship heading into space. Should we expect to see more of Hulk on Sakaar in the future?

I don’t know. It certainly does suggest that. There has been some conversations about what happened in the two years where Hulk abandoned Banner and the Avengers [on Sakaar], and the emergence of Smart Hulk, which hasn’t ever fully been answered. I think maybe we’ve given four sentences to that time period since then. It’s really an interesting, exciting part of the Hulk story and Banner story. I do think that the trip to Sakaar is a good place to start and what that means to the idea of what the fans have been asking for — this idea of Planet Hulk or World War Hulk or just the journey that Banner and Hulk have to make to come to peace with each other. That’s really interesting to me, and I do feel like there is some interest in exploring that down the line.

Half of the original six Avengers are no longer part of the MCU. How long do you think you’ll be playing Bruce Banner?

I don’t know! I’m always surprised that I’m still here. I mean, me and Ed Norton joke that the Hulk is like our generation’s Hamlet — we’re all going to get a shot at it. I keep waiting for the next version of it. I mean, I’ll probably do it as long as they’ll have me, if people are interested, and I can bring something that’s interesting to me to it, and interesting to the fans. But I have no idea. I mean, you know, when you look at the comics, there’s some pretty grizzled, old versions of him. I’m like, OK, the 67-year-old Hulk, that would be interesting — if all of us are still here making movies and there’s a world that allows for us to do that anymore. With what we’re living in and heading towards, the future feels more precarious than any other time. So I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. But I hope I’m still around to do it.

Finally, if you think back to your first time as Bruce in 2012 Avengers, how have you evolved and how you think about and approach the character?

Oh, man, it’s been a long journey since then. You know, when I started, in a lot of ways I saw myself as a kind of a kid. I have gotten more successful. I have kids that are adults now. The world is a very different place. Taking my knocks and growing up as a man in that time period, and [I’ve] gotten to really explore all of those different dimensions of Banner and Hulk during during the course of that. I’ve really gotten to probably play like five different iterations of the two of them during that time, and bring some important, meaningful part of myself to each each one of those things. I mean, that’s been a great journey working with Marvel, is that I’ve been able to input on all of those things. The other thing is that Marvel’s like, in a strange way, this kind of modern mythology that really does reflect the times that we’re in a strange way. It’s really remarkable, actually, how on the head they can be, metaphorically speaking, or allegorically. Yeah, it’s been a great place to express myself and to grow. Now I’m in this other stage, where it’s like, the twilight of myself and my career and probably winding down in a way. I feel like the same thing is probably happening for Banner. He’s one of the three that’s left standing, and that’s probably going to, at some point, come to an end as well.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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