Mark Ruffalo, knowing his host liked sweets, showed up at playwright Larry Kramer's Manhattan home with pastries in hand -- unaware that the then-77-year-old writer's health now restricted such pleasures.

That was spring of last year, when the actor was set to begin production on the long-planned film adaptation of Kramer's groundbreaking 1985 AIDS political play, "The Normal Heart." Little did Ruffalo know at that moment that his true audition was just beginning.

"Are you queer?" the playwright asked right off.

"No, I'm not queer."

"Have you read my book ("Faggots")?"

"No."

"Well, you have to read it, otherwise you can't fully play this part."

Ruffalo, describing the conversation in an interview at a Hollywood hotel, calls that his moment of recognition. "He was testing me," the 46-year-old actor says with the sort of sheepish smile that hindsight affords, "and I remember just feeling a sense of fear in that moment."

Ruffalo, whose film roles have ranged from a brawny green superhero (the Hulk in "The Avengers") to a hapless sperm donor to a lesbian couple ("The Kids Are All Right") over his 25-year-career, has taken on Kramer's quasi-autobiographical Ned Weeks, the ornery gay activist at the center of "The Normal Heart" who fervently tries to jolt the public to action after a mysterious disease begins plaguing the gay community in the early '80s. Even his friends at times find him beyond obnoxious.


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After enduring a winding road from stage to screen, the story, which was significantly reworked, ultimately came to be marshaled and directed by Ryan Murphy, the openly gay producer of TV's "Glee." It premiered May 25 on HBO.

Imbued with passion, pain and fury, the drama takes viewers back to a different time, a period before gay TV characters were common and same-sex marriage was a reality in more and more places.

The action in "The Normal Heart" takes place between 1981 and '84 in New York City, when the gay community was still feeling reverberations from the Stonewall riots and the sexual revolution. It homes in on sexual politics during the early days of the AIDS crisis -- with its central character experiencing moments of rage and powerlessness in the fight to raise awareness.

The film, which also stars Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer and Taylor Kitsch, has arrived on the heels of last year's critically acclaimed "Dallas Buyers Club" and the 2012 documentary "How to Survive a Plague," both of which tackled the early years of the AIDS crisis.

It's a period that Ruffalo lived through in Los Angeles, where he read about the unexplained virus as a teenager. "It felt like a pandemic. And I was young, so I was still idealistic, and it was jarring to see the inhumane response to it all," he recalls. "It didn't compute. But Larry was right, I didn't fully understand how deep it went."

That's not to say Ruffalo is unfamiliar with unbridled zeal for a cause. Today a resident of upstate New York, the actor has cultivated a profile as an outspoken anti-fracking advocate -- hosting rallies and speaking out on various cable news programs. "I knew what activism looked like inside and out," he says, pointing to the ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) movement, a grass-roots AIDS initiative co-founded by Kramer.

Kramer and Ruffalo's initial meeting lasted three hours. From there, a friendship developed, and tutelage followed. Kramer, a legendary, divisive figure in the gay rights movement, shared photos and stories of the places and people at the heart of the turmoil.

The playwright, who is HIV-positive and has undergone health complications since receiving a liver transplant more than a decade ago, retains his sense of humor. In an email, he said he could hardly believe it when Murphy proposed Ruffalo for the role of Ned.

"To be played by such a fine and handsome actor (I should have looked this good.)" he wrote. "We hung out together a lot, and I didn't ask myself, can he play me? Actors are hired to portray, and good ones like Mark make it their job to go for it all-out, which Mark did. He was also extremely passionate about his taking on the part, consumed with it. And this was very touching to me."

Ruffalo, as instructed, did read "Faggots," a pre-AIDS, '70s-set novel that explored sexual excess on New York's Fire Island. Ruffalo ranks it as one of the "great American novels. ... I really started to understand where the gay culture was before, where it was after, how prophetic Larry was. He was already saying, 'We are not the sex that we're having!'

"This movie is less about AIDS than it is about love," he says. "That's what blasts through. That's what carries them. That's what saved them. It's the grace. It's so powerful. ... Ugh. It's so moving -- love in every sense of the word, every permutation."

Ruffalo pours vehemence into his portrayal of Ned -- as his friends, particularly his first true love, Felix (Bomer), become stricken with the disease.

The performance is so convincing that one might never suspect Ruffalo had trepidations about taking on the role. "I sort of felt like we were in a place where the character should and could be played by a gay actor," Ruffalo says. "I think I was just insecure.

"The play was meant to get you out of your seat, to take you out of your ennui and drive you to action," he continues. "But a lot of time has passed, so it becomes something else. We don't have to shake the audience out of apathy (today). What we do is deepen the picture, show what kind of journey we were on that led us to where we now find ourselves."