LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
"I Know This Much Is True" is a six-part series on HBO Max adapted from the best-seller of the same name. It opens with an act of protest in the form of self-mutilation. It's committed in a Connecticut library by Thomas, who has paranoid schizophrenia. He's later institutionalized. And he's played by Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo also plays Thomas's twin, Dominick, whom he's both devoted to and resentful of. The series finale is tonight, and Mark Ruffalo joins us now. Welcome to the program.
MARK RUFFALO: Thanks for having me, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Glad to have you here. Mental illness - right? - is such a complicated thing, especially in the way that it plays out in families - how they react, what effect it has. And this dives straight into the heart of that by really looking at the relationship between these two brothers. I want to start by talking about Dominick. He has this push and pull between his wants and what he feels are his obligations, right?
RUFFALO: You know, he comes from this Italian background that is so family-oriented - also full of family secrets. But, you know, the way the immigrants survived was looking out for family in some regards. But he's basically, in a big sense, given up his life because the amount of care that is needed is so great.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And how does Thomas view their relationship?
RUFFALO: Thomas is a person living with schizophrenia in the show. And as the disease progresses, he becomes more and more detached from reality. And that relationship is, in a way, sort of disintegrating all of the normal ways that people relate to each other.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The book by Wally Lamb came out in 1998. Hollywood was immediately interested. But it didn't happen, in part because it was such a huge, complicated book, right? I think it clocks in at 900 pages.
RUFFALO: Yeah. I - you know, it was funny. I hadn't read the book, although so many people that I loved and admired - it was on their top 10 list. And so - and I laid in bed the whole weekend, gladly, and devoured it. It was so profound and moving to me, the - this Italian American immigrant story, you know, that was real people. It wasn't, you know (laughter), this gangster genre that is the only relationship that we have of Italian Americans.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you're from an Italian immigrant family.
RUFFALO: Yes. So my grandfather started as a house painter and came from Calabria with nothing and had to scrap and fight his way up in a racist culture, you know, that saw Italians as, you know, less than human people, as well, and really assimilate and go for the American dream. You know, it was a dog-eat-dog world, and that's the world that I saw in the book.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You wrote a letter that ultimately ended up in the hands of the author, Wally Lamb. And there's one line that I want to ask you about. You wrote, culturally, we are more ready to deal with this material in this manner than ever before. Tell me what that means.
RUFFALO: At that moment, we were having a real discussion about immigration and what it is to be an American.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was 2015, right?
RUFFALO: Yeah. And I felt like because of mental illness, because of the conversation we were having about mental illness, because of the conversation we were having about immigration and the conversation we were having about masculinity, it just seemed this was the time. You couldn't tell this story 16 years ago.
The reason they couldn't get a draft that they felt was redeemable enough to actually commit to film was because it couldn't be a film. It had to be serialized for it to have its breadth and depth. And that was the pitch I gave to Wally. And, you know, I think it's what sold him on the idea (laughter) of basically giving me the project on a handshake.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Speaking of cultural moments, you are an activist. There's a lot going on right now. You know, we've seen a lot of backlash to some recent celebrity activism. I'm thinking of the recent PSA on taking responsibility for racism shot in black and white.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you see as your role now?
RUFFALO: First of all, the way to do activism is by listening, by using your celebrity to draw the light to you, the lights and the cameras to you, and then throw the people that we need to hear from into the spotlight. I've been dealing with the intersection between racism and climate change for years and making sure that those people are who we're hearing from - or I've tried to do that as much as possible, you know?
You know, people want to see action now. We're past the point where a celebrity can just make a video and tell people what to do, and that's going to move people. You know, we've been doing that for decades. Now we have to put our bodies and our money and our time and our comfort on the line. That's what's being asked of us. When we're being asked to be allies, that's what's being asked of us.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mark Ruffalo. The series finale of "I Know This Much Is True" is tonight on HBO Max. Thank you very much.
RUFFALO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.