I imagine that it would be a dream job for an actor to play the parts of twin brothers Dominick and Thomas Birdsey in I Know This Much Is True. They are both deeply complex and multifaceted characters, while also being starkly different from each other. There is so much room there for an actor to play within, and to shine as they give two nuanced and powerful performances. In the case of HBO’s six part limited series, the lucky actor who gets to take this on is Mark Ruffalo.
I have been a fan of Ruffalo for a long time. He first popped up on my radar when he debuted as Bruce Banner in The Avengers (2012). Since then, I have been nothing short of amazed by his truly raw talent. His performances in movies such as Begin Again (2013), Foxcatcher (2014), and Spotlight (2015) — the latter two garnering him Oscar nominations — cemented him for me as one of my favorite working actors. Anything that Mark Ruffalo is in will immediately have my attention.
In I Know This Much Is True, Dominick (Ruffalo) struggles to care for his paranoid schizophrenic brother, Thomas (Ruffalo). The more Dominick fights to help his brother, the more he feels he is losing the war. It’s within his moments of absolute loss and devastation that we see who Dominick truly is as a person.
As the series progresses, we also come to learn more about Dominick’s past. His relationships with his brother, his stepfather Ray (John Procaccino), his ex-wife Dessa (Kathryn Hahn), and his mother (Melissa Leo) all have secrets that are slowly unearthed. That is the biggest aspect of I Know This Much Is True that makes it as compelling as it is: the secrets and mysteries that take their time to be fully revealed.
The series takes the approach of studying its characters more than telling a story. There is a very loose narrative connecting all the episodes; rather, it focuses more on following Dominick and getting inside his head. It feels as if we are living with these characters for a period of time rather than watching a story unfold. That kind of approach doesn’t work for everything, but with I Know This Much Is True, I think it works excellently.
Derek Cianfrance directs all six episodes of this miniseries. I have limited exposure to Cianfrance’s work, as I have only seen two of his movies. I love The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), which I think has a beautifully told story with phenomenal performances. I was not a fan of The Light Between Oceans (2016), which I found to have an uninteresting story with lackluster performances. So I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this series. Luckily, I was invested in it from episode one.
Accompanying each episode on HBO are some brief behind-the-scenes featurettes that delve into different aspects of the making of the series. A couple of these focus on Cianfrance’s approach to directing, which I found to be utterly fascinating. He is ultimately trying to capture the authenticity of the moment between characters. His films tell the stories of people, and with that comes a desire to retain as much realism as possible.
When filming scenes between characters, Cianfrance encourages them to dive deep into the moment. If an actor forgets a line, they don’t stop filming; they improvise and keep the scene going. It’s the mundane pauses, the interruptions in speech — the imperfections — that give us the glimpses of genuineness. I really appreciate this approach Cianfrance takes. The lengths he goes to in order to capture the nuances of human beings only elevates his work.
Everyone should give the series’ casting director Bonnie Timmermann a massive round of applause because I don’t think you could have picked a better actor to play a younger Mark Ruffalo than Philip Ettinger. He looks so much like Ruffalo that, when he appeared on screen, my first thought was that they must have used CGI to de-age Ruffalo.
With this series, however, Timmermann didn’t just need to find someone who looked like Ruffalo; she needed to find someone who could also play the dual roles. That is no easy feat. Ettinger is excellent in the role, and it is his scenes that really give context for Dominick and Thomas’ connection, as well as their relationship with their stepfather. Ettinger’s scenes are incredibly crucial in the overall progression of the show.
Another thing that is discussed in the behind-the-scenes featurettes is how Mark Ruffalo lost 20 pounds to play Dominick. They shot all of his scenes as Dominick in 15 weeks, and then Ruffalo took 5–6 weeks off in order to gain back the weight and add another 20 pounds in order to play Thomas.
When they filmed Ettinger’s scenes, they hadn’t yet done any scenes with Ruffalo playing Thomas. Ettinger had no basis for how to play the character, and so it was really his ideas and his approach that helped define who the character is. I think that says a lot about not just Ettinger’s abilities as an actor, but also about Cianfrance’s trust in Ettinger to deliver.
I Know This Much Is True is limited when it comes to diversity. Michael Greyeyes plays Ralph Drinkwater, a Native American character who plays a significant role by the end of the series. I would rather not specify what that role is, as to not spoil the series’ conclusion. Dr. Patel (Archie Panjabi) is a psychiatrist Dominick frequently speaks to about Thomas. Ruffalo and Panjabi have some fantastic scenes together, one of which is the focus of the behind-the-scenes featurette analyzing Cianfrance’s direction.
One of the biggest pleasant surprises of the series was Rosie O’Donnell as Lisa Sheffer, a doctor who works with Dominick to help Thomas. Most of what I’ve seen O’Donnell in have been comedic roles, so it was great to see her doing something completely different. While there is some comedy involved with her character, there is a great deal of pure dramatic acting that she pulls off marvelously. I wish her character was in the series more, as I thought she added so much whenever she was on screen.
Overall, I Know This Much Is True is a truly compelling long-form character study. While the performances across the board are excellent, Mark Ruffalo especially shines playing both Dominick and Thomas Birdsey. This series should quell any doubts that Ruffalo is one of the best working actors today, if that wasn’t already abundantly apparent. Derek Cianfrance does a phenomenal job directing, and my appreciation for his approach only increased upon watching the behind-the-scenes featurettes for the show.
In the larger scheme of things, what happens in this series isn’t monumental. The fate of the universe isn’t at stake or anything like that. However, what happens is monumental to the lives of these characters, and that is what makes this show so brilliant. It is all about digging deep into who these characters are, and looking at them first and foremost as people.
All six episodes of I Know This Much Is True are available to stream on HBO.
Author: Nathanael Molnar, originally published [6/18/2020]