Mark Ruffalo, Peter Krause, Laura Dern and John Curran – Adultery Education
Updated: Apr 2
Mark Ruffalo, Peter Krause, Naomi Watts and Laura Dern in “We Don’t Live Here Anymore.”
Mark Ruffalo, Peter Krause, Laura Dern and John Curran
by Jay S. Jacobs
We Don’t Live Here Anymore is a haunting, sometimes even devastating, look at modern marriage. Based on two short stories by Andre Dubus (“We Don’t Live Here Anymore” and “Adultery”), the movie focuses on two couples. The film chronicles the casually cruel things that people can inflict upon each other in the name of love. It is rare for marriage, divorce, affairs and arguments to be so intimately captured on screen.
Jack (Mark Ruffalo) and Hank (Peter Krause) are English professors in a small New England college. They are also best buddies, jogging partners and highly competitive. Both of their wives are stay-at-home moms, and they are also close friends. Jack’s relationship with his wife Terry (Laura Dern) is like a war front. They are constantly arguing about money, sex, housekeeping and drinking. Hank’s marriage with Edith (Naomi Watts) is cooler. They live in a perfectly orderly house. They are very civil. They don’t fight much. They don’t talk much, actually. However, a chasm is growing between them just as gaping as their friends’ split.
Things come to a head when Jack and Edith embark on an affair. Terry suspects the relationship and confronts Jack. He passive-aggressively turns it back on her and practically goads her into fooling around with Hank. None of the four even seem to enjoy the flings that they are having. They are just going through the motions to fill some need like safety or danger, intimacy or revenge. However, the ripples spread quickly, putting all four relationships on the course to peril.
It may sound like uncomfortable viewing. However, the film is put together with a spare, personal quality that makes you feel like you are eavesdropping on these couples. The script, which was written by Larry Gross (48 Hrs., Prozac Nation) twenty-five years ago, is quietly devastating. (The film won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.) The acting is superb. It carries the characters through all the rough spots. They may do unlikable things, but with this accomplished cast, they are hard to dislike.
Since his breakthrough role in You Can Count On Me, Mark Ruffalo has done a dizzying variety of roles and characters on film. In just three years he’s done such stimulating films as Collateral with Tom Cruise, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with Jim Carrey, In the Cut with Meg Ryan and The Last Castle with Robert Redford. His role in the recent hit comedy 13 Going On 30 has made him a hot commodity. Undoubtedly an upcoming film with Jennifer Aniston, which is a loose update of the classic film The Graduate, will only make him bigger.
Peter Krause is the star of the celebrated HBO series Six Feet Under. He also starred in the critically acclaimed series Sports Night. At the time of this interview, he is on Broadway doing a revival of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall with Carla Gugino.
Laura Dern has been a respected actress since she was a teenager. A few of her best known films include David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jurassic Park and her debut performance in Mask with Cher and Eric Stoltz. She is returning to film with the role of Terry, after taking time off to have her first baby. She plans on continuing working on several projects. She will take a little more time off soon, though, because she mentioned during the interview that she is pregnant again.
Australian actress Naomi Watts has also been on a hot streak. She captured people’s attention in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. She has since done a series of quirky films like The Ring, Le Divorce (with Kate Hudson) and 21 Grams (with Sean Penn and Benecio Del Toro). She has been tapped to star in Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson’s new remake of King Kong.
The film’s director John Curran and three of the stars, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Krause and Laura Dern all sat down with us at the Regency Hotel in New York a few days before the film’s debut.
How did you go about getting the four main stars?
John Curran: “Mark was first. I read the script then went to Sydney, Australia and bumped into Jane Campion. She had just done a film with Mark [In the Cut with Meg Ryan]. To make a long story short she called. By the time I got back to America, he had read it and seen my other film [Praise, which was released in 1998]. He said he wanted to do it, which started the momentum that made other actors want to get onboard. At the same time I was trying to convince Naomi to do it. I’ve known her for years from Sydney. She was sort of on the fence because she was doing 21 Grams and exhausted. When I met Laura it was instantaneous. Peter was the last one cast and by the time we had settled on that it was only a few weeks before shooting so we didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time. We just jumped into it.”
Mark Ruffalo: “It was a combination between John and [screenwriter] Larry Gross. I read the script. Although I thought it was outstanding, it really scared me. I couldn’t think of any directors that could handle it in a really mature, sort of balanced way. This movie’s impossible! Then I find out it’s been around since the 70’s. It seemed appropriate. It was at the cusp of a lot of these types of films that were coming out in the 70’s. I met with John and started talking to him about where he was coming from. I saw his first picture, Praise, and I thought yes, absolutely yes. This guy can do something really special with this film.”
Of the four characters, I think that Laura Dern’s character of Terry gets to be the most emotional. Did you enjoy that? While these people where being very reserved and Laura gets to just let go?
Laura Dern: “It’s interesting, because you’re only the experience of your character, in a way. Having worked now for 24 years or something, it was the first time I took time off, to have a baby and be with my child. Then I went back to work to do this. So, I had this voracious appetite for a character that would just let me go and hopefully try to be brave emotionally, in terms of going places I haven’t gone. I love playing flawed people and morally ambiguous characters. That interests me. Because it’s human nature that we’re all things, so I’m interested in seeing movies about that. I’ve played some extreme people. But I had never played someone who, specifically, had this much rage to explore and expose. That had been built up, probably for a long time. That really interested me. So that was really fun.”
Mark Ruffalo and Peter Krause in “We Don’t Live Here Anymore.”
Mark Ruffalo: “Those scenes were crazy. The fight scenes, as an actor, those are really fun scenes to do. They have a lot of dramatic material in them. I never want to be mean to Laura Dern. I love Laura Dern. If you were a race car driver and you get to drive the best Lamborghini in the world or if you’re a violinist and get to play a Stradivarius, that’s what it’s like to work with Laura Dern. She’s the best. She’s so present, giving, and committed. It’s so much fun. All those people are really great actors. It was very satisfying to do those scenes.”
There are a lot of sexually charged scenes in the movie, but they’re not titillating or provocative. It’s a release that they do to get over their angst. As an actor, you have this activity all around you. How can you do those scenes take after take?
Mark Ruffalo: “You hope there’s not a lot of takes of it. It’s always awkward. Naomi [Watts] doesn’t want to be there. It’s not as enjoyable as it may look, especially if the girl’s not into it. There are laws against that. The sex, like you said, comes out of this release. There’s a lot of guilt and shame involved with the sex scenes. It’s not the kind of sex that comes out of loving, fantastic relationships. It’s sex that they use to cover up the shabbiness of their lives. Those scenes carry that kind of ickiness in a way. That also makes them even more difficult to play.”
They’re very effective, but that part out in the woods. You’re surrounded by thirty crewmen…
Mark Ruffalo: “That was a particularly horrible day. Both Naomi and I, before we did the movie, didn’t feel that the movie needed explicit sex scenes. Neither of us wanted to get nude in any of the sex scenes. John was like; we’re going to shoot it where you only see the sides of you. What am I going to wear? You mean you need to see the sides of us naked. That’s pretty much our whole bodies. He’s like, we won’t see it. Who’s we? You won’t see it? The camera won’t see it, but everybody else will.”
Which of the four actors had the most questions about their characters?
John Curran: ”All of them want to know what you’re thinking and all of them have a different process. Some do a lot of prep work and have many ideas. Mark is very intuitive. He just kind of reacts to the moment. Naomi, because of her [Australian] dialect is a little more prepped. Laura very much goes into a state, which is amazing. But we could still communicate. All of them enjoy getting to a place where they feel a little off balance and because we didn’t have rehearsals I had to rely on their talent and craft to draw ideas from.”
Laura Dern: “Naomi was more embracing. In some ways, as you reflect back on their affair, there was a coldness to her in a lot of ways in their affair. A lack of warmth and love. Because of her hidden agenda of why she was doing it in the first place, which was her grief of her marriage. I loved the complexities of the choices and of all the characters.”
What seemed like the really tough scenes were when Mark was hanging out with Peter’s character? Did you guys have discussions about them?
Mark Ruffalo: “They were hard and difficult scenes to work your way through, because you have to play it on the edge. Does he know? Peter has to play it in an ambiguous way. We don’t know if he knows, but he’s sort of pretending. He makes a comment. Finding those moments are difficult. The night before we shot that scene, [we] worked on it for hours. We rewrote it and reworked it and pulled stuff from the book and then cut stuff. A piece of that scene was cut in editing too. Those were difficult scenes.”
Mark Ruffalo and Peter Krause in “We Don’t Live Here Anymore.”
Peter Krause: “Some people want to fight against the way things are. I think Hank accepts the way things are. His way of fighting is, ‘well, we’ll have an affair.’ He’s dispassionate, in a way. He is struggling to have an authentic life. For him to have an authentic life is to witness his life and other’s lives honestly. We’re not newlyweds anymore. We’ve been married for years and have kids. The relationship has grown kind of cold. If you live in New York for a long time, you may want to take a trip to Jamaica or something. Not that I’m using that analogy, but I think that’s the kind of analogy that Hank would use. I need a vacation. I’m going to take a vacation from my life. That’s okay, as long as nobody gets hurt by it. Of course, what ends up happening is people do get hurt by it. He ends up getting hurt by it. For years he hasn’t been honest with Edith. They don’t have good communication. They don’t have much of a relationship at all. They just keep the household functioning. For their daughter and themselves, it’s a place to sleep, eat and take a shower.”
The character of Hank seems to be the most selfish of the four. The other three all seem to be torn by everything that is going on, but he we never know for sure how much Hank knows. He seems okay with everything staying as it is.
Peter Krause: “I don’t think it makes him a bad guy. When I think about Hank, in terms of flaws, I would say that his greatest flaw is that as authentic as he tries to be, he skips over the rough stuff. Maybe that’s anokay way to go through life. To say, ‘I’m after my satisfaction. I don’t mean to hurt you. I have my own sense of morality. My wife is my home. Once in a while I take a vacation.’ Jack, my best friend, sees me getting my satisfaction elsewhere. Why shouldn’t he have some satisfaction? He kind of digs [Edith]. He ends up falling in love with her. They have an affair. Hank, because of the way he has been living his life, and because he really doesn’t want a lot of conflict in his life, doesn’t address the fact that he knows they are having an affair. How can I call them out if I’m doing the same thing?”
John Curran: “I think it’s more that he’s blindsided since he’s so self-absorbed that he didn’t see it coming. I think Jack, Edith and Terry sense something looming, which Hank doesn’t see. He thinks that he’s got everything under control, even though he is suffering anxiety about his work. That’s all he cares about anyway.”
Mark Ruffalo: “Totally, [Jack’s] tormented by it. You sense that he’s really reticent about going forward with the relationship through three-quarters of the film. When he finally says, I love Edith; it has no passion in it. I just think he’s unconscious until that moment, when he realizes what he’s going to lose. All of this meanness that he’s displaying with his wife is a perfect manifestation of the way he’s feeling about himself, the hateful feeling that he has and this guilt. It’s eating him alive. The only way he can deal with it is either push her off into a relationship or attack her in a way that’s destructive to their relationship. I think this guy is at the darkest time of his being. And you see it. He has a morality. What’s amazing is that he does have a deep moral compass. Because of that he’s deeply affected. Hank, it’s so easy for him. I had a woman say to me; ‘your character is such an asshole.’ What about Hank? ‘He’s fine, he doesn’t know better!’”
This film seems to speak a lot about the difficulty of monogamy. It almost seems to suggest that monogamy isn’t natural…
John Curran: “I don’t think the film is about infidelity. I think it’s about marriage and the compromises you make trying to keep it together. It’s also a study about the time after you’ve had kids. The passion is worn out and you’re getting a bit older. Then the choices you make. I think monogamy is as natural as infidelity. There is a duality to it. If you didn’t have that pull towards something outside your marriage you wouldn’t value what you had as much.”
Laura Dern: “What’s interesting about this movie is that I feel like the affair is sort of a character in the story, more than an event itself. When there is a long-term relationship, if people aren’t communicating, if people are in fear of all of themselves being revealed and reflected back to them by a partner… because the ugly stuff gets looked at just like the pretty stuff… then it is likely that a betrayal may reveal itself. A betrayal can be your partner shutting down and not talking to you for months at a time, and you’re feeling like you’re in the room with a stranger. Or a drug or alcohol addiction. It’s not just having sex with another person. There are all kinds of ways to betray a partnership. So, I love that the movie doesn’t look at sex with another person, infidelity, as the topic as much as it looks at how do we stay together in terms of being in our truth. That’s so interesting to me.”
Peter Krause: “[Hank] ends up sleeping with Jack’s wife Terry, which I think on some subtle level is revenge. It’s like leveling the playing field. If you can sleep with my wife, then I can sleep with yours. So there is something that bothers him about his best friend sleeping with his wife. The one thing, arguably, that Hank has not done is brought an affair close to home. Maybe he’s been with some of his students, but he’s kept it away from the home. He hasn’t made it so incestuous. Granted, it’s a small college town, so it’s not like having an affair in a big city like New York or wherever where you can kind of get lost in the multitudes. He fails in not being communicative with Edith. He ends up not really talking to her. There are two types of warfare going on in the movie. The Jack and Terry relationship is an all out ballistic war. On the other side is a cold war. They’re not really talking to each other, Hank and Edith. It sounds so trite about relationships, but you have to communicate. They are both communicating ineffectively. One couple is just yelling and screaming at each other, making each other feel bad. The other couple is not talking at all. They’re not having an actual progressive conversation, asking questions like, ‘why are we married, if we’re going to do this? Let’s have a conversation.’ So that’s something that’s akin to a Road Runner cartoons with the audience’s frustration. Why don’t you just communicate??? But they don’t.”
Mark Ruffalo: “These are people that had a relationship that has been working for ten years. There’s never been this sort of thing going on between them. What’s different, and this is a phenomenon that actually happens in relationships, is this thing called ‘The Gray Itch.’ His perception of his youth has passed him. His dreams will never be realized. He’s financially no better now than when he started. The children have come between him and his wife. They’ve neglected their relationship. He’s been out of communication. He hasn’t said the things to her that he needs to say. The horrible things that you never want to say to another human being, but you have to for a healthy relationship. This guy is not a jerk-off. This is a decent man who’s gone way off. He’s in deep misery. They both are. Dreams haven’t been realized. She’s really, in the book, the smart one. She’s the smart one of the whole group. She’s subverted her intelligence to be a mother. She’s sold herself short. She has a lot of resentment. She’s not a housewife. They should have a housecleaner. She should be teaching school. They didn’t honor each other and this is where they’ve ended up.”
Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern in “We Don’t Live Here Anymore.”
No matter what her husband did to her, or how he pushed her away, Terry stuck with him. Mark said she was actually the smart one. How did you feel about playing a role that was so multi-dimensional?
Laura Dern: “Well, I loved her. A lot of it is attributed to the writing that offers a female character with that kind of strength. And a filmmaker who sees what in many movies would be the victim part. Her choices would even be perceived with judgment by an audience, but I think he wanted my strength. Whereas another filmmaker might cut away from that, make it more his point of view. She was the victimized sort of ogre wife. There were a lot of ways to play out the story. It was really good for me, because it’s very easy, particularly for women, to be in judgment of other women in a specific circumstance. Certainly in the press, it was interesting to read many points of view, for example, of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Somehow this sort of ‘Stand by your man’ mentality was perceived as weakness or denial. Exploring this character made me realize that there is incredible strength in a woman who wants to look beyond the weaknesses of her partner.”
John Curran: “Hopefully the movie is not judgmental towards any of the characters. I don’t think it’s about black and white but gray. It can be good people dealing with dumb things. They know it and are trying to deal with it. I have great affection, pity and understanding for these characters. We all think of ourselves as fairly good people then you make a few decisions and it can be over.”
I thought the film was to a certain extent a little ambiguous. At the end, I was sitting there trying to decide whether I think that Hank and Edith or Jack and Terry were the lucky couple. Maybe it was time for a certain amount of breaking up of that dynamic. I was wondering if Jack and Terry are going to go back together and six months down the line it’s going to be the same exact thing.
Peter Krause: “It is difficult to let go of that which is familiar. You become familiar with this combative relationship. When push comes to shove and you think about leaving it, because its familiar Jack and Terry don’t want to leave. Of course Hank, who has masterfully for years had his cake and been eating it too, is finally backed into a corner by Edith. When that happens, he panics and says some disingenuous things.”
John Curran: “I think we’re jumping into four people in a crisis. I wasn’t interested in the backstory and overstating how happy they once were. Hopefully there are touches of that. But, I kind of like how muscular the script was. We jump into a crisis and we’re waiting to see what the follow-up is going to be. The characters are one step beyond their comfort zone. That’s what we’re watching, everyone trying to keep it together but little by little it’s falling apart.”
Naomi Watts and Peter Krause in “We Don’t Live Here Anymore.”
Getting back to Jack’s crisis, it seemed to me that he hit bottom on the cliff with his two children.
Mark Ruffalo: “I think he’s so depressed and at a loss. He sees that roiling water and all these thoughts come into his head. What do I do? When he picks up those kids, he picked them up out of utter love for them. This is my life. That’s what I was playing, but you can’t see that. All you see are their feet. [John] plays it that way [so that you worry he may try to kill himself and his kids]. I was playing it like, how do I get out of this? I look in the water like I could throw myself [in]. I’m a wretched wretch. What do I do, dear lord? Then he looks at the beautiful girl. That innocence and sweetness looks up at him. This is my life. That’s how I played it.”
The movie ends kind of vaguely. You see Edith in the middle of a snowstorm, parked on a railroad crossing and hear the sound of an oncoming locomotive. Then you cut to Jack bicycling through the town. What do the last two shots of the film signify?
John Curran: “I used the sound of the train to reflect on the epiphany that Jack has on the river. A lot of people have asked about the train, but it’s not that heavy. It just signifies a dangerous intersection that all the characters are at. For me the last shot is a time jump. It’s snowing and then it’s green. Early on Mark and I decided we didn’t want him driving around town. We wanted something else like a horse riding off into the sunset. So he has the bicycle. I had the idea that instead of him riding off into the sunset, he rides back into the suburbs.”
The actors have this great screen chemistry. Can you tell us what you did the night before to really flesh that out? What are the nuts and bolts of that?
Mark Ruffalo: “Where should we eat tonight? Do you want Chinese? You sort of tend to counter what you’re going to be doing the next day. There’s a real gentleness and sort of familial vibe, a lot of joking around. It’s sort of staged really light. That’s the best way to deal with those scenes. The best thing you could do for your fellow actor is learn your lines. There’s not a lot of aggressive emotional stuff going on between us. That set needed lightness in order to play those scenes. I always find that actors that are walking around in their angst-filled characters are just fucking boring. They tend to be shut down. They don’t have a sense of play, so the scenes lose a spontaneity that I think you need. I always find it to be incredible boring.”
Laura Dern: “I know people say, ‘Oh, God, was this so heavy to work on?’ Then you’ve probably talked to everybody else and realize we had such a good time. Maybe you need to, when you’re working on a movie like this. Also, Mark and John are such nice people. It’s easy to have a good time with lovely gentlemen.”
John Curran: “Casting is so much of it. Beyond their talent, I just got lucky with the fact that as a group of people we all got on really well. There wasn’t an ego out of place. Everyone just jumped into it. I can’timagine what it would have been like if some people weren’t getting along.”
Mark, how does it feel for things to be going so well in your career? You work with Tom Cruise and Jim Carrey and do all these interesting films. Are you waiting for the other shoe to drop? Or are you just enjoying it?
Mark Ruffalo: “I’m always waiting for the piano to fall out of the sky. It’s a blue-collar, struggling actor holdover. I’ve been working a lot. I’m always afraid it’s going to come crashing down. This world is so fickle. It eats people up and spits them out every day. I feel that you have to establish yourself as an actor, as someone who is able to do character work. Those are the careers that I really love. Those actors that have been pushed into movie stardom, but they’re just actors.”
Peter, what’s it like being able to work with such amazing talents as Aaron Sorkin (Sports Night) and Alan Ball (Six Feet Under)? Now, you’re doing a play with one of the most celebrated playwrights of the 20th Century, Arthur Miller.
Peter Krause: “At this point I’m spoiled. From the time I started Sports Night. The writers, Aaron Sorkin, Alan Ball, Andre Dubus, who Larry Gross wrote the script based on his short stories. Now I’ve gotten to spend hours with Arthur Miller. Yeah, Aaron Sorkin I knew, I bartended with him. Alan Ball worked on Cybill [in which Krause played Cybill’s son-in-law]. So I knew these guys from different contexts and then I work with them. These guys are really great writers. The best writers working in TV. And now I’m sort of like, wait a minute. That’s all great fun. But it’s Arthur Miller in my dressing room. This is the third night he’s been here. And he sits in here for an hour after each show and talks to me about the play and about my performance. So, I’m pretty spoiled right now. Working with Arthur Miller. That’s great.”
Laura, one thing I’ve always found interesting about your career is you have tended to make sort of left of center but intimate, thoughtful films. Like Citizen Ruth, or my personal favorite of yours is one that many people haven’t seen, Smooth Talk. Is that something you look for in choosing a project?