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Art & Life, On & Off-Screen: Infinitely Polar Bear's Maya Forbes and Imogene Wolodarsky's Mother-Daughter Creative Dynamic + Mark Ruffalo On Film Roles and Politics (VIDEO)

06/23/2015 09:06 am ET | Updated Jun 21, 2016

What's it like to put your art and reputation where your mouth is? Or to portray your Mom when she was your age, dealing with her bipolar Dad -- in a movie directed by...your Mom?

Life imitating art imitating, well, life : Maya Forbes and Imogene Wolodoarsky merge"Take Your Daughter To Work Day" with Freaky Friday...

MAYA FORBES AND IMOGENE WOLODARSKY 1

There are varying degrees of bipolar disorder, and any cinematic depiction of same will inevitably be refracted through a relativistic, Goldilocks prism, with audiences deeming the portrayal too light, dark, or perhaps, just right. One hopes that through these varying conclusions, Infinitely Polar Bear, a wortwhile film based on director Maya Forbes' own upbringing, will engender greater public dialogue about a condition with which most of us can claim familiarity -- either intimately, or through someone we know.

Discussing tone, Forbes notes, "There's darkness in real-life, but I wouldn't say that was the majority [of my upbringing]." In the translation of her own experience into cinema, she estimates that the ratio was "Maybe ten-percent darkness and maybe ninety-percent good, lightness. My father could have a temper, but we were never hurt; I didn't feel scared of him that way? So, that was an important element to emphasize; he might go off the rails, but the girls [characters' based on my sister and myself] aren't really in danger."

When asked about the emotional toll accrued from revisiting sometimes painful episodes of her life, she recalls a jarring hospital visitation scene during which the father (played by the ever-rangey Mark Ruffalo) emerges from a psychiatric ward disheveled, overweight and vacant-eyed, clutching a pack of cigarettes. "It was like re-living [my own experiences]. Any time I had ever seen my father in the hopspital, medicated, it had the feeling of a horror-movie. It was like seeing someone stagger out, that you didn't really recognize; it was just like seeing somebody gone in front of your eyes."

Maya's daughter Imogene, who plays her in the film, had her own observations to share about her mother on-set: "I feel like that last scene, when we walk way..." "Oooh the last scene", her mother recalls: "Yes, yes, that's [pausing] yes -" Forbes concedes, looking down. Returning to her directorial instincts about process and impact, Maya adds, "Of course, it wasn't the last scene we shot, because it never works out that way. But the last scene where the girls say goodbye to their father was very moving for me. My father died in 1998, so it had a feeling of saying goodbye. If we'd shot it as the very last scene? There probaly would have been even more of a toll taken on me. But it was still quite emotional for me."

For Imogene, the movie-making experience "enhanced" her relationship with her grandmother (portrayed by Zoë Saldana, beautifully delivering an unsentimental real-world heroine) who, after going back to school to get her degree, faces discrimination by the investment houses of Boston, and has to move to New York to find a job, so she can support the non-bread-winnng but very loving and kitchen-capable father to raise their daughters in Massachusetts, where they are settled. "I have a great relationship with my grandmother, but doing this film, I understand just how incredible she is, and how incredible the things she's done are."

Imogene adds that seeing her Mom on set also opened her eyes to the fact that "She's a really good boss. She's tough, but she's not mean. She's not gonna just let everyone do whatever they want. She gets what she wants done, without being mean to anyone. I was pretty imppressed."

When asked about the risk of placing her daughter into her own dark past, Forbes notes that when she was writing the script, she shared many anecdotes with Imogene and her siser about their grandfather, who was very open about his illnnes, so she was not concerned. She adds that in her own parenting, her upbringing as "free-range" kid informs a need to instill a similar resilience in her children, "To trust that they would be able to deal with obstacles that come their way. And I think that's missing in today's parenting culture: the free-range kid". Her comment reminds me of a conversation I had with Amy Adams, during which Adams contrasted her own childhood with our present-day micro-management and regimentation of childhood, concluding that "Nowadays parenting is almost a sport."

Through a quarter-hour, we cover more than a few topics, concluding with the question of whom amongst the many great women in America's history each person would most like to see represented on American money. The additional topics covered I leave for you, dear reader, to discover.

Maya and Imogene share thoughts on process, family and upcoming projects -- incuding the story of the "Liberace of Polka music"...who created a Ponsi scheme. "It's about the American Dream," quips Maya. Jack Black plays the lead.

Mark Ruffalo doesn't just play an activist on TV and in the movies; he is one...

MARK RUFFALO

Waiting to meet Mark Ruffalo at Sony's offices -- where a framed movie poster featuring a smoldering Marlon Brando reminds one of the similarities between these two Stella Adler Conservatory alums -- I have a couple of the admin staff enthralled, as I recount the interview I'd conducted with him a year ago, during which he offered advice on eating Amanita muscaria, AKA, 'shrooms (1."Take them!" 2."Take them with a friend, maybe in the country." 3."Don't eat too much, maybe some fruit.")

Earlier in the day, this affable, everyman-superstar said hello to one of them, and she's still wearing a big Kool-Aid grin, as her envious colleague curses her own fateful decision to have lunch at her cubicle. Such is the appeal of one of the most relatable, effortlessly charismatic and seriously rangy actors of his generation.

To say this brother is well liked is to deal in understatement. When he stated in GQ that he'd been placed on the NSA terror-watch list after organizing screenings of the fracking documentary Gasland, a New York magazine blogger wittily asked: "Who among us besides a high-strung lesbian Mom played by Annette Benning could have a bone to pick with Mark Ruffalo?"

Ostensibly a rhetorical question, in reality it doesn't seem far-fetched to think he's made some enemies, given how consistently he stands up and speaks out about matters of consequence, via a triple-threat of committed action: online, he's published a series of well-informed blog postings and videos covering fracking, women's reproductive rights, and the threat to New York City's parks; in the political arena, he fearlessly supported former Democratic Alaska Senator Mike Gravel's presidential run, and his earnest endorsement of Kathleen Kane helped her get elected as Attorney General of Pennsylvania; in the realm of his craft, his production of, and star-turn in the film adaptation of the 1985 play, The Normal Heart delivered a necessary memory-refresher on the American AIDS crisis of the 80s, and earned Ruffalo two SAG awards.

And while Spotlight, his upcoming film examines Catholic Church sex-abuse scandals, when asked about his upbringing and what informs his willingness to forego a very comfortable existence by taking a stand, he muses: "Maybe it did come from those parts of the Catholic teachings that care about people, that believe in social justice, and believe that love and equanimity is the way towards peace."

He adds that manifesting social awareness is a historic function -- indeed, is dharmically built-in to the pay-grade -- of an actor: "It's always been this way; artists historically have an important voice: we carry the voice of the minority, the unheard, the disabused, the victims -- those whose voices can't carry."

In Infinitely Polar Bear, he inhabits the bipolar mind state, delivering a deeply troubled, yet plucky and loving family man who has to take on the domestic responsibilities of maintaining home and hearth for his two daughters, making for a kind of based-on-a-true-story, life-with-bipolar-disorder Kramer Vs. Kramer.

I ask if he could see the family dynamic and the storylines of Infinitely Polar Bear being developed into a weekly Cable/Network TV/Web dramedy, bringing the good, the bad and the sadly unspoken realities of mental illness to the forefront of American pop-culture, and he enthuses, "That's genius; I'd work on that show."

After we finish our conversation he leaves for a National Board of Review screening, after which we meet up again for a longer chat about politics. He dissects the key elements of the recent twelve-hundred-page fracking study by the EPA, lambasting the official spin parroted by almost every "major" news outlet, about how only one percent of wells contribute to water damage. Scaling this statistic up through the real-world number of wells, he calculates -- after first pointing out the number of failed wells and the problems they've created -- that even if it were one one-hundredth of a percent, it's an untenable number.

He opines that the EPA scientists -- despite bizarre placed on their methodology -- actually did a good job, and he flatly states that anyone opting to ignore the headlines and actually read the report will realize that it's "A damning piece of evidence." I'll be posting the full interview, including Ruffalo's selected excerpts from the EPA report, later this week.

Mark Ruffalo notes how, since the Vietnam Era's actualization of artists' voices in the service of mobilization and change, reactionary forces have circled the wagons...and how this clash played out during the Iraqi War.

Infinitely Polar Bear is in theaters now, in limited release.