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Mark Ruffalo's manic panic

Mark Ruffalo explors bipolar fatherhood with "Infinitely Polar Bear."

Delving into a character with mental illness can be a tricky business, but Mark Ruffalo had a unique avenue for research for his latest, "Infinitely Polar Bear." First-time writer-director Maya Forbes hired Ruffalo to pretty much play her late father.

The indie calls on Ruffalo to portray Cam Stuart, struggling to raise his two daughters in 1970s Boston while his wife (fellow Marvel stable-mate Zoe Saldana) heads to graduate school in New York and his manic depression wreaks havoc on everyday life.

"I have bipolar family members, so it wasn't totally out of left field," Ruffalo says. "Then I met Maya and started hearing the stories about Cam and watching his Super 8 movies. It just felt like, OK I think I know the way into this. It feels right to me, and it's not a glossed-over, gilded version that as I get into doing research about I'm going to find some totally different person and then there's going to be some conflict between me and Maya about that."

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In fact, conflict with Forbes was happily minimal. Ruffalo found her to be incredibly collaborative, something he holds in high regard. "I'd have my moments of rebellion, as any actor should at some point or another, but never felt like our views of it were divergent," he says. "All the great directors that I've worked with are able to take collaboration without being threatened by it. But it's atypical to first-time directors, that openness, to have that kind of strong vision that you're confident to take collaboration from everybody."

For Ruffalo, although the film puts Cam's bipolar disorder front and center, it was important that didn't totally define the character. "If you have a guy who's an a—hole who's in a wheelchair, he's still an a—hole. And if you have a really nice person in a wheelchair, they're still a really nice person," Ruffalo says. "Yes, who they are is informed by having to live in that wheelchair, but to some degree who that person is is essentially who they are, and bipolar is something that swings in and out of their life. So for me, the really important thing was getting the specifics of Cam, who Cam was. Cam was this person who had a lot of really interesting qualities about him and would've been a really interesting person without being bipolar. That was the impediment that the family had to deal with."

Souring on Sundance
Despite the time he's been devoting to being an Avenger, Mark Ruffalo still has his feet firmly planted in the independent film world. Last year, for instance, he had a trio of dramas making the festival rounds with "Begin Again, " "Foxcatcher" and "Infinitely Polar Bear." That last one, in fact, made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, a venue Ruffalo knows very well — though the shine might be coming off the Utah-based winter retreat for him. "The sense of competition at Sundance, I think, can be a little toxic amongst the filmmakers," he says. "And then everyone's there trying to sell a movie."

Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter:@nedrick

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