After 12 years as a struggling actor, Mark Ruffalo became the next big thing with his exceptional performance in the Oscar-nominated independent film You Can Count on Me (2000). Wisconsin-born Ruffalo wanted to be an actor as a child, but he ignored his early aspirations until the end of high school. Not sure what else to do, Ruffalo headed to Los Angeles at 18 "out of desperation" to study the craft at the prestigious Stella Adler Conservatory. After taking classes for several years and evading career decisions, Ruffalo began to venture into L.A. theater and independent film. Along with acting in over 30 plays, as well as writing and directing one of his own theater works, Ruffalo spent the 1990s amassing roles in indie movies, beginning with A Gift From Heaven (1994). Working mostly in comedies, Ruffalo appeared in The Last Big Thing (1996) and alongside comic character actor stalwarts Steve Zahn and Paul Giamatti in Safe Men (1998); he also starred as an artist with love problems in the romantic comedy Life/Drawing (1999). Trying his hand at screenwriting, Ruffalo penned Slamdance success The Destiny of Marty Fine (1996). Two potentially higher-profile films, the disco period film 54 (1998) and Ang Lee's Civil War epic Ride With the Devil (1999), failed to make a positive impression on critics and audiences.
Ruffalo's luck began to change, however, when he was cast in an off-Broadway production of This Is Our Youth. Not only did he win an acting award, but Ruffalo also got to know the playwright, Kenneth Lonergan. Despite his non-resemblance to future onscreen sister Laura Linney, Ruffalo talked Lonergan into auditioning him for the role of Linney's brother in Lonergan's first film, You Can Count on Me. Well-matched in familial chemistry, Ruffalo's self-destructive, irresponsible, sensitive Terry meshed perfectly with Linney's uptight Sammy and her sheltered son, Rudy (Rory Culkin), creating a deeply felt portrait of troubled yet strong family bonds. Earning raves for its nuanced performances as well as sharp writing, You Can Count on Me garnered Ruffalo the Montreal Film Festival's Best Actor prize and talk of an Oscar nod. Though he didn't get the nomination, Ruffalo swiftly moved up the Hollywood ranks, starring as an imprisoned military pilot caught between Robert Redford and James Gandolfini in The Last Castle (2001), and as a soldier in John Woo's WWII saga Windtalkers (2001).