TORONTO—If instead of “Blindness,” you called the new film by Fernando Meirelles “Illness,” you might be telling the life story of actor Mark Ruffalo.
In “Blindness,” based on the 1995 novel by Nobel Prize-winning writer Jose Saramago, Ruffalo plays an eye doctor who must lose his sight before he can see his life.
“And when I told him the story,” Meirelles said during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, “he said ‘Fernando, this is my story.’”
In 2001, Ruffalo learned he had a brain tumor called an acoustic neuroma, which could have become life-threatening if left untreated. He underwent a 10-hour microscopic surgery, struggled with complications while recovering in New York at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks and didn’t act for a year.
But with three new films coming to theaters—including, in addition to “Blindness,” a comedy called “The Brothers Bloom” and a crime drama called “What Doesn’t Kill You”—Ruffalo is working like a man renewed.
“It’s that crazy actor thing of struggling for so many years,” he said in an interview in Toronto. “You think it’s going to be over so soon, so you have to take it all.”
And it was almost over sooner than he expected.
In “Blindness,” he plays a character who is made helpless by an illness and whose experiences were “magnified, amplified and retooled” variations of his own, Ruffalo said.
Meirelles said that Ruffalo told him: “‘There was a time I couldn’t button my shirt or buckle my shoes. Sometimes I was going in the street and I was lost. I had to call home and was 100 percent dependent on my wife. And I was irritated for having her help me with anything.’
“And that,” said Meirelles, the Brazilian director of the Oscar-nominated foreign-language film “City of God,” “is exactly what happens to” his character.
Ruffalo called his illness an “ego-shattering event.”
And even though he’s “not an actor who uses my past experiences to get me someplace in a scene,” he said he understands “the nature of becoming ... incompetent, incapable, powerless and out of control.”
Ruffalo and Julianne Moore, who plays his wife, “knew intuitively” their characters were detached.
“They were living in the same house but in different worlds,” Ruffalo said.
Their marriage was “deadened” and their love “was buried under the narcotizing effects of wealth, materialism, work and status.”
And when he becomes blinded by a contagious pathogen, he is made entirely dependent on his wife, who can still see.
The story by Saramago, an 85-year-old Portuguese writer and Marxist, is about such alienation and the breakdown of modern society.
Saramago doesn’t give the characters names but refers to them as husband, wife or doctor, roles “whose strong mythological boundaries ... take away our individuality and humanity,” Ruffalo said.
As a Marxist, said Ruffalo, Saramago believes that food, water and shelter “are basic human rights. That’s how he sees the world. And he also sees what holds people back from that. ‘Look at the shoes he’s wearing, his haircut, his car, his race.’ “
And by taking away the characters’ power of sight, Ruffalo said, “all the prejudicial things we use to separate ourselves from each other disappear.”
Politics aside, the actor said, the book is “loved by millions and millions of people and is totally accessible, because it’s well done. It’s scary. It titillates.”
And although the story is set in a timeless and unspecific place, like all classic speculative fiction, it says something about the here and now.
“People are scared,” Ruffalo said. “Life is uncertain. It’s chaotic. The things we once believed in don’t seem so strong and powerful.”
“Even though the book was written 13 years ago,” Ruffalo said, “I think we’re in the midst of it.”