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If you're looking for a smart, grown-up movie amid all this summer's exploding 3D blockbusters, look no farther than "The Kids Are All Right." It's about a pair of teenagers who track down the anonymous sperm donor who helped conceive them.

(Soundbite of "The Kids Are All Right")

Mr. MIA WASIKOWSKA (Actress): (As Joni) Each of my moms had a kid with your sperm.

Mr. MARK RUFFALO (Actor): (as Paul) Like in both of them?

Mr. WASIKOWSKA: (As Joni) Uh-huh, like in gay.

Mr. RUFFALO: (as Paul) Right on. Cool, I love lesbians.

KELLY: That's actor Mark Ruffalo. He had a breakthrough performance 10 years ago in the movie "You Can Count on Me," and he's been a film fixture ever since.

NPR's Neda Ulaby visited Ruffalo near his home in New York State.

NEDA ULABY: Callicoon, New York is a village tucked in a foresty corner of the Catskills; population, just over 200. That includes Mark Ruffalo, who seems to know everyone else, from the waitress at the diner to the guy who owns the wine store.

Mr. RUFFALO: Hey, Robin.

Our kids go to school together.

ULABY: Ruffalo has owned a home in Sullivan County since the early 1990s. That's when theater critics first began comparing him to Marlon Brando.

Callicoon, New York is barely bigger than a pine cone, so the tour Ruffalo gives me lasts about 15 seconds.

Mr. RUFFALO: Good morning. How are you?

Unidentified Woman #1: How are you?

ULABY: The chatter at the coffee shop is about companies leasing farmland to drill for natural gas. Ruffalo is organizing a protest.

Mr. RUFFALO: Are you on the email list and stuff?

ULABY: We hike outside the town and he tells me about the old dairy farm where he lives with his kids, his wife of 10 years, chickens and maybe soon, a family cow.

Mr. RUFFALO: You know, dairy farms are dying here. There's actually a big movement to - God, that's a kingfisher. That is a beautiful bird right there.

ULABY: Ruffalo loves raising his family someplace where people watch birds, not celebrities - away from New York and L.A.'s glitzy distractions.

Mr. RUFFALO: As a family, that's been the healthiest thing I think we've ever done. We're always together. You know, it's not like that in the city. Here, it's just - there's nowhere to run.

ULABY: Immersing himself in the drama of a long-term relationship and family is central to Mark Ruffalo's life. And as it happens, his latest film, explores the same themes.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Kids Are All Right")

Mr. RUFFALO: (as Paul) So how'd you two meet?

Ms. ANNETTE BENING (Actress): (as Nic) We met at UCLA. I was a resident...

ULABY: Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play a couple with a high-achieving daughter and struggling son. Ruffalo, their previously anonymous sperm donor, shows up and makes everyone grapple with old problems and new realizations.

Ms. JULIANNE MOORE (Actress): (as Jules) I just keep seeing my kids' expressions in your face.

Mr. RUFFALO: (as Paul) Really?

Ms. MOORE: (as Jules) Like that. Like, really? Like, yeah. That's like Laser.

ULABY: In "The Kids Are All Right," Ruffalo plays an easygoing restaurant owner, shocked to discover the sperm he donated long ago actually produced two kids. Slowly, he gets invested in their lives, then falls for one of the mothers.

Tens years ago in his breakout role, Ruffalo played another charming screw-up who disrupts a family. In "You Can Count On Me," he was Terry, a drifter damaged by family tragedy. Ruffalo is riveting as Terry's attempt to connect with his sister and young nephew slips into emotional freefall.

(Soundbite of movie, "You Can Count On Me")

Mr. RORY CULKIN (Actor): (as Rudy Prescott) Where you gonna go?

Mr. RUFFALO: (as Terry Prescott) I don't know. I just want to get out of this town. And if you've got any sense, when you get old enough, you'll get out of here too. You know, your mom is going to stay in this town for the rest of her life. And you wanna know why? Because she thinks she has to. Now, she thinks there's all these things that she has to do. But I'll tell you one thing about your mom...

ULABY: He's agitated and the little boy is terrified. They both are, about losing their attachment.

Mr. CULKIN: (as Rudy Prescott) I could go with you.

Mr. RUFFALO: (as Terry Prescott) Well, thanks, man. But I can't really take care of you.

Ms. LISA CHOLODENKO (Director, "The Kids Are All Right"): You could say he was (bleep) person, if you wanted to say that.

ULABY: Director Lisa Cholodenko, of "The Kids Are All Right," wanted to work with Mark Ruffalo ever since seeing that complex, layered performance in "You Can Count On Me."

Ms. CHOLODENKO: On the other hand, he was always just redeemable and kind of lovable at the same time, without being pathetic. That's a very hard thing to pull off. How do you stay sympathetic and do things that are unsavory and painful.

ULABY: Ruffalo fills out the skins of men, heartbroken by the realization they've underestimated their capacity for love. In both movies, they're broken by the films' conclusions. But Ruffalo says they're not destroyed.

Mr. RUFFALO: You know, people got to be torn apart to be put back together in the right way, sometimes.

ULABY: Mark Ruffalo speaks from personal experience. Right at the moment when Hollywood deemed him a white-hot commodity, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. A 10-hour operation left him with a partially paralyzed face. He had lost an actor's most important tools.

Mr. RUFFALO: You know, it was really, really hard to concentrate, to form ideas, to even talk at times. Oh, it was such a bad time. Man, so scary.

ULABY: He embarked on exercises and alternative treatments for the next nine months.

Mr. RUFFALO: I was in the car and my wife was driving, and I was looking at my face. You know, I tried to move it, you know, and I saw the slightest, tiniest little twitch by my eye. And we were both, like screaming, oh, my God. It's moving. We were crying.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: Ruffalo fully recovered. He worked with directors like Martin Scorsese, Jane Campion, David Fincher, Spike Jones, but he was desperate to direct his own movie. It took 10 years to get made and it won a prize at Sundance this year.

Right when Ruffalo began shooting it, his brother got murdered.

Mr. RUFFALO: And there was mornings where I would be in my trailer literally, like, curled up in a ball. And they're banging on the door, like, we're ready for you, boss. You know, come on out to set. And I just - I don't know how I'm going to face this day.

ULABY: But he finished the movie. "Sympathy For Delicious" is about a paraplegic homeless man who discovers he has faith-healing powers.

(Soundbite of movie, "Sympathy for Delicious")

Mr. CHRISTOPHER THORNTON (Actor): (as Delicious Dean O'Dwyer): What do you want woman? What do you want?

Unidentified Woman: My sight. I want my sight. Please. Please, heal me. I want to see my children.

ULABY: Ultimately, he says, making the film helped save him during the wrenching investigation of his brother's murder, which remains unsolved.

Mr. RUFFALO: It gave me a place. You know, the whole movie is about healing. The whole movie is about - and you get the healing that you need, not the healing that you want.

ULABY: Afterwards, he retreated to his farm and his family, and he didn't work for a year.

Mr. RUFFALO: You can't escape grieving. Last winter was - up here, it was a perfect place; and the silence, and death everywhere, and the snow, and the quiet.

ULABY: But Ruffalo is ready, he says, to go back to acting and, hopefully, more directing. As a young man, he never thought he would love anything as much as theater. But he says what gives him equal pleasure now is raising his family here in the Catskills forest.

Mr. RUFFALO: That's it. Look at these bluebirds. These bluebirds are pissed at this squirrel because he's probably trying to raid their nest.

ULABY: That's the kind of family drama Mark Ruffalo would buy tickets for right now.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

KELLY: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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