Mark Ruffalo and Christopher Thornton sit next to each other in a Hollywood recording studio, trading tales and jokes about their latest escapade. The two longtime friends collaborated on the new indie movie “Sympathy for Delicious;” Thornton as writer and star, and the immensely likeable Ruffalo, normally the big name on the marquee, behind the camera in his debut as a director.
With Ruffalo, Orlando Bloom, Juliet Lewis and Laura Linney adding star power, the film tells the story of a paralyzed DJ living on skid row who enters the world of faith healing in an effort to regain use of his legs, and his career, and discovers he has the gift to heal other people, most of the time. Healing himself is an even more mystifying challenge. The New York Daily News called Thornton’s performance “charismatic,” and Time Out New York described the picture as “a mess-but a beautiful one, crammed with enough big ideas and outsize performances for three movies.” Asked why XFINITY customers should watch, Thornton says, “Because it’s good – and you haven’t seen anything like it.” Ruffalo laughs. “It’s wholly original,” he says. “And it’s funny, moving, and it has a lot of pathos, and there’s a lot of satire in it. And in the end it is actually very, very hopeful and uplifting.”
The story behind the picture is worthy of all those adjectives – and more. In real life, Thornton is wheelchair-bound, the result of a rock climbing fall in the ‘90s, and he and Ruffalo have been friends since both were studying acting with legendary teacher Stella Adler.
“It was in ’87,” says Thornton. “And Stella was still alive.”
“And he was able-bodied,” says Ruffalo.
“Yeah, I was still walking then,” says Thornton. “It was a great time for us.”
“We were these rats,” says Mark. “We weren’t even there on scholarship. We were on work-study programs. We’d clean the toilets. Fixed up the prop room.”
“Painted. Dry-walled,” says Thornton. “That’s how we paid for class.”
“We were always doing plays,” says Ruffalo.
“We met in a production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’” says Thornton. “He was Lysander and I was Demetrius. So we had a lot of scenes together. It was very competitive at first. Then we became really good friends.”
“We did a whole play about upstaging,” says Ruffalo, grinning as he leans back in his chair.
“Trying to upstage each other,” continues Thornton. “During a show in front of a full house, he set his shoelaces on fire during my monologue.”
“That’s not true,” says Ruffalo.
“It is true,” says Thornton.
“I wouldn’t do that,” says Ruffalo.
“It was a powerful monologue,” says Thornton.
“I had to do something,” says Ruffalo with a shrug.
At the end of ’92, Thornton was free-climbing in a rock quarry north of Griffith Park, “goofing around,” he says, when he fell and ended up in a wheelchair. Ruffalo was among those with Thornton at the hospital. “It was devastating,” he recalls. After recovering and a stint in rehab, Thornton decided to quit acting and return to New Orleans, his hometown. Ruffalo wouldn’t let him. “Me and a few other friends said absolutely not,” he says. “We’re throwing you back onstage. As soon as you get out, we’re going into rehearsals of ‘Waiting for Godot.’”
“I thought they were insane,” says Thornton. “I told them now.”
“And we said, ‘We’ll just rehearse it. You don’t have to open it.”
“I said, `Good, I’m not an actor anymore,’” says Thornton.
“I told him to shut the hell up,” says Ruffalo. “It got very contentious.”
“I felt there was no way I could do that,” says Thornton. “I don’t know any wheelchair-bound actors. It seemed too crazy of an idea. But they wouldn’t take no for an answer. Literally, six months after my fall, I was rehearsing the hardest play I’ve ever done, and it ended up being one of the best experiences we ever had in our theater group.”
At the end of 1997, Thornton began writing “Sympathy for Delicious.” The first draft took four months and topped out at 250 pages. “It was a novel in screenplay format,” says Thornton, who adds he “kind of blurted out” the story, which was inspired by “an intense time” following his accident when he sought the help of numerous faith healers. Ruffalo was a fan of the script after his first read. ‘I thought my God, this is the most original, interesting, zany, and wild ride,” he says. “I could see there was a film inside this story, but it was just incredibly unwieldy. “The idea of trying to manhandle it into shape was daunting.”
Nearly 14 years later, after numerous rewrites and several failed efforts at securing the financing, they made the movie. The original cut was more than 3-1/2 hours. The final version is 96 minutes. “My favorite stuff had to be cut,” says Ruffalo. “The movie started to insist what it needed, what should be in there. There’s nothing worse than losing your audience by boring the shit out of them. I hope I didn’t do that.” Coming up with a title was probably the hardest part of the whole effort.
“The original title was ‘Mojo,” says Thornton. “There was a line in the original draft where my character can only explain his special ability by saying, ‘I got the mojo, dudes.’ And other people would say, ‘You got the mojo, man.’ I loved that title because it was simple and cool.”
“But then ‘Austin Powers’ came out,” says Ruffalo.
“’Austin Powers 2,” adds Thornton. “Where his mojo gets stolen, and he’s literally dropping the word mojo every other line. I sat in the theater and said, ‘He owns the word now.’”
“Chris went into the script and stripped out mojo,” says Ruffalo. “And then there was this long, disastrous search for a title.”
“We spent a weekend at his apartment in New York when his wife and kid were upstate and for about three days we did nothing but brainstorm titles,” says Thornton.
“Out of the blue, I’d hear him yell, ‘What do you think about Heels on Wheels’”? says Ruffalo, laughing. “Or Wheeler Healer.”
“We topped each other with the worst titles you’ve ever heard,” says Thornton. “His big doozie was ‘Miracle in the Mosh Pot.’”
“And you had ‘Come Back to Skid Row, Delicious Dean,” says Ruffalo.
“The worst one was ‘The Fifth Wheel of the Apocalypse,” says Thornton.
“We had a good time,” says Ruffalo.