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Captain America and Hulk are Now on TV as Compassionate, Fallible Beings
May 10, 2020  | By Mike Hughes

There are many reasons we all enjoy miniseries on cable and streaming services. For example, they give superhero actors the chance to show their acting muscles rather than their physical force. Now we have two of them on the small screen.

Chris Evans is in Defending Jacob, which is halfway through its eight-episode run on Apple TV+. He plays an assistant district attorney whose teen son becomes a murder suspect.

And Mark Ruffalo (top) stars in I Know This Much is True, a six-parter that starts Sunday on HBO at 9 p.m. ET. He plays twins, one of them schizophrenic.

To large chunks of the world, these two actors will forever be Captain America and Hulk. “If I’m spotted in a crowd, it’s probably because of the Marvel stuff,” Evans (below) told the Television Critics Association in January.

He’s clearly capable of other genres. In the film Gifted (2017), Evans gave a nuanced performance as an earnest working guy, raising a genius niece; in the film Knives Out (2019), he was a scheming playboy.

And Ruffalo has done steeply serious roles. He’s starred in an Oscar-winning movie (2015's Spotlight) and an Emmy-winning TV film (The Normal Heart, 2014); he’s been nominated for three Oscars and an Emmy.

“Life is short,” Ruffalo said in a separate TCA session. “I just think it’s important…to challenge yourself.”

Still, few people take on this sort of double challenge, playing both brothers, Dominick and Thomas.

For boyhood scenes, they’re played by real-life twins; for college-age scenes, when the brothers look somewhat similar, they’re played by one actor. Beyond that, Ruffalo takes over.

Ruffalo (below) filmed as Dominick first, but Thomas adds weight – a side effect of his medication – and changes character. So Ruffalo then was given five weeks to gain 30 pounds and become Thomas.

“I thought I was going to be having a fun time” gaining weight,” he said. But “when you’re force-feeding yourself, some of the romance of food sort of leaves.”

Even rougher was the emotional transformation. “Those five weeks were really kind of lonely…. There were a couple weeks where I was just by myself,…going down into the heart of mental illness.”

He transformed completely, said writer-director Derek Cianfrance. “When Mark came back to the set as Thomas, the crew was in like a state of awe and shock. He was a completely different guy.”

Both miniseries represent the new reality for fiction. They were based on successful novels that could have become big-screen movies. Defending Jacob, for instance, with its crime-mystery feel, was optioned for movie rights eight years ago. “Twenty, thirty years ago, this is a movie that we all know is in a multiplex,” said screenwriter Mark Bomback.

But theaters often became the province of action films – including those Marvel and DC superheroes – nudging others aside. At the same time, TV has been creating quality dramas and miniseries. “In eight-hour storytelling, we have all this space to really explore the characters,” Bombeck said.

Cianfrance may see the advantages of that. He says he “likes to explore harsher, darker sides of the human soul.”

That’s not necessarily box-office magic, but the small screen can give everyone the chance to explore.

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