There’s a reason we need all those big-deal cable and streaming mini-series.
They let Marvel stars remind us that they’re also serious actors. Now we have:
– Chris Evans in “Defending Jacob,” which is halfway through its eight-episode run on Apple TV+. He plays an assistant district attorney whose teen son becomes a murder suspect.
– Mark Ruffalo in “I Know This Much is True,” a six-parter that starts Sunday on HBO. With the help of editing, he plays twins (shown here). One of them is schizophrenic … which is not to be confused with when Paul Rudd recently played a guy and his clone in “Living With Yourself” on Netflix.
To large chunks of the world, those three actors will forever be Captain America, Hulk and Ant-Man. “If I’m spotted in a crowd, it’s probably because of the Marvel stuff,” Evans said.
He’s clearly capable of other genres. In “Gifted,” he gave a nuanced performance as an earnest working guy, raising a genius niece; in “Knives Out,” he was a scheming playboy.
And Ruffalo has done steeply serious things. He’s starred in an Oscar-winning movie (“Spotlight”) and an Emmy-winning TV film (“The Normal Heart”); he’s been nominated for three Oscars and an Emmy.
“Life is short,” Ruffalo said. “I just think it’s important … to challenge yourself.”
Still, few people take on this sort of double challenge, playing both Dominick and Thomas.
For boyhood scenes, they’re played by real-life twins; for college-age scenes, when the brothers are still fairly similar, they’re played by one actor. Beyond that, Ruffalo takes over; Thomas adds weight – a side-effect of his medication – and changes character.
Ruffalo filmed as Dominick first, then was given five weeks to gain 30 pounds and become Thomas. “I thought I was going to be having a fun time” gaining weight,” he said. But “when you’re force-feeding yourself, some of the romance of food sort of leaves.”
Even rougher was the emotional transformation. “Those five weeks were really kind of lonely …. There were a couple weeks where I was just by myself, … going down into the heart of mental illness.”
He transformed, said writer-director Derek Cianfrance. “When Mark came back to the set as Thomas, the crew was in like a state of awe and shock. He was a completely different guy.”
The physical part was done in reverse by Gabe Fazio, who played the twin – often replaced by editing in the final cut. Fazio started as Thomas, then had five weeks to lose 30 pounds and become Dominick.
Both mini-series represent the new reality for fiction.
They were based on successful novels that could have become big-screen movies. “Defending Jacob,” with its crime-mystery feel, was optioned for movie rights eight years ago. “Twenty, thirty years ago, this is a movie that we all know is in a multiplex,” said screenwriter Mark Bomback.
But theaters often became the province of action films – including those Marvel and DC superheroes – nudging others aside. At the same time, TV has been creating quality dramas and mini-series. “In eight-hour storytelling, we have all this space to really explore the characters,” Bombeck said.
Cianfrance may see the advantages of that. He says he “likes to explore harsher, darker sides of the human soul.” That’s not necessarily box-office magic.
In 2012, his “The Place Between the Pines” had stars (Bradley Cooper, Ryan Gosling) and praise (ten major top-10 lists), but made only $47 million.
And “Avengers: Endgame,” with Evans and Ruffalo and such? It passed $1 billion – more than 20 times as much – in five days. Now we’re reminded that its stars are also serious actors.
– “Defending Jacob,” new episodes Fridays on Apple TV+; May 8 is the fifth of eight.
– “I Know This Much is True,” 9 p.m. Sundays, HBO, debuting May 10. The opener reruns at 11:30 p.m. and 2 a.m.; then 6 and 10 p.m. Monday, 8 p.m. Tuesday; 9 p.m. Wednesday; 10 p.m. Saturday.