Miscast Roles: The Case For Mark Ruffalo in Rise of the Planet of the Apes

You know this movie, and chances are that you loved this movie -- except for that one role that almost ruined it all. Miscast Roles is where Movieline and its readers swap out those roles to make it right.

One of last year’s surprise critical and commercial darlings, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, wowed audiences, stoked many an awards-season debate and revitalized an important science fiction franchise — all while still managing to appeal to moviegoers unfamiliar with the original 1968 film (or that film's 1963 source novel). As chief chimp Caesar, Andy Serkis’s performative collaboration with the motion capture geniuses from WETA was a great spectacle, presenting viewers with a gorgeously rendered CGI-animated character.

Yet one consistent flaw in Rise left me scratching my head: James Franco’s weirdly aloof performance as scientist Will Rodman. The film presents Rodman as an Alzheimer’s disease researcher who claims to have found a cure that necessitates extensive animal testing and, subsequently, brings about a race of intelligent, self-aware chimpanzees, as well as the titular “rise” of the primate-centered culture in which the rest of the series is based. Imagining Franco as a brilliant researcher even in the best of performances would be, let’s face it, a bit of stretch. But add the fact that this character is motivated by a desire to cure his own father of the debilitating effects of the disease in question — not to mention Rodman's somewhat unhealthy attachment to the first subject of his animal tests — and you’ve got a complex emotional palette that seemed to flat-out confuse Franco.

A much better choice for this role would have been the expressive Mark Ruffalo, an actor capable of communicating exactly what was needed of the Rodman character in this story. This is not to say that Franco is a bad actor, far from it. His talents are just misplaced here: Franco is best at lengthening the emotional distance between character and audience, arresting viewers’ attention through enigma and idiosyncrasy, rather than connecting through direct emotional appeal. He rarely lets the viewer into his head space, and this role really needed someone with whom the audience could immediately connect. Ruffalo, meanwhile, has acted powerfully in two films in particular — You Can Count on Me and Shutter Island — that required exactly the two traits most vital to the Rodman character: a palpable sense of sympathy and an ability to play a straight-man to a more eye-catching lead.

Rodman’s psychology, hovering between helplessness and an ambitious determination to set things right, was meant to parallel the emotional instability of his primate pal Caesar, as the latter scales from animal behavior up the rungs of human cognitive development. Franco consistently hit the wrong notes in his interaction with Serkis’s Caesar, and often left John Lithgow, who played the dementia-stricken father, adrift in scenery chewing overtures. The scenes between father and son didn’t work like they could’ve, and the potential to cast the conflicting motivations vying for Rodman’s attention in terms of Caesar’s own dual nature went unrealized.

In Ruffalo’s breakthrough role in You Can Count On Me, he showed huge emotional range as the wayward brother to Laura Linney’s maternally protective big sister character. You Can Count On Me highlights a young man’s floundering crisis of identity, as played out within a family drama. [Clip NSFW]

The film is one long assurance by Ruffalo’s character that, wherever he might wander in the greater world, the bonds of family holding him and his sister together still remain. Sound familiar? Rise of the Planet of the Apes features a strikingly similar theme, though its identity crisis and negotiation of familial loyalty covers an inter-species bond. In You Can Count On Me, Ruffalo plays the “Caesar role” to Linney’s big sister; he is the one breaking out into new territory of self-determination, while it’s Linney who plays the concerned, yet ultimately quiescent guardian. But Ruffalo reverses that relationship in his mentorship of Linney’s young son, played by Kieran Culkin, and there he shows some very strong Rodman-type characteristics.

Meanwhile, Ruffalo’s pensive second fiddle to Leonardo DiCaprio’s go-for-broke investigator in Shutter Island also fulfills the required qualifications for stepping into the Rodman part. Ruffalo stays in the background of the drama for most of Shutter Island, allowing DiCaprio to serve as a fixed center to the film’s horrifically shifting sense of reality. The fact that the audience isn’t supposed to be looking too closely at Ruffalo ends up being important, given plot developments. Yet when all is revealed, and Ruffalo is finally able to communicate what his watchful, subdued presence in the film actually entails, he shines.

Watch Ruffalo’s eyes in the final scene of Shutter Island in the clip below, and imagine how applying that level of character layering to Will Rodman in Rise of the Planet of the Apes would have benefited the whole production.

Nathan Pensky is an associate editor at PopMatters and a contributor at Forbes, among various other outlets. He can be found on Tumblr and Twitter as well.


  • Jake says:

    Very interesting article. I had never thought about it, but you are correct in saying that Franco's character felt a little aloof. He also came across a little young and hearthrob-ish for a role that could have used a little more... maturity, I guess?

    But what really made that movie work was Andy Serkis. He seems to be the only one who can make this motion capture process work. I hate mo-cap and sometimes I can overcome it and still like the movie (Tintin is an example) and sometimes I can't (almost everything else, particularly, the terrible Avatar). But Serkis always seems to do well. Haddock was the best looking and emoting character in Tintin, Caesar is awesome in ROTPOTA, and Gollum is tolerable in LOTR. I wonder what it is about him, his face and the way that he emotes that allows it to transfer through the technology. Even his Kong in King Kong was pretty stellar.

    Thanks for the great article.


  • What worked about his aloofness, though, is that it made the departure between him and the apes, their own future collective story, cleaner, totally securely demarcated and without any anxious disavowal. Leaving him behind is like a rocket leaving its launchpad; appropriate stuff when the film catches some of what is clearly manifesting / aggressing as our wholly new social milieu, the societal context we want to work with/in ... readily topple the old, let what is gestating thoroughly coalesce, and just bring it on already. If Ruffalo was in it would irritate for it reminding us that the old "ways," for all their fully mature "personality," still got game, and so so much challenged and depressed are all the patient, tentative, community-forming efforts by the damaged apes. They would never quite climb high enough to go beyond Ruffalo's reaching, breaching lips and kiss.

  • Thank you, Jake! I really liked ROTPOTA, too, and excited to see Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/the Hulk in the upcoming Avengers movie.

  • What'syourproblemwitFranco says:

    I'm not sure that the person who wrote this article has taken some Pineapple Express.

    What movie were you watch exactly????

    One of the key reason's this movie works it's because of the relationship between Franco, Serkis and Lithgow.

    I'm not sure why there is so much hate for James Franco. Maybe, because the movie was so very successful.

    Even though in part it was all due to Serkis performance (and any normal person would expect so, since the movie was called Rise of the Planet of the Apes), he played a vital part too as well as the rest of the cast to drive the movie home.

    Furthermore, Franco is an outstanding actor in general (can play any role), so replacing him with all people as Ruffalo’s is insane.

    Don't get me wrong, Ruffalo is another great actor but this role works with Franco hence again, another reason this movie was a hit.

    I've wait over 40 years for a decent movie of the apes franchise. We finally get it and you want to change one of the reason's why it worked. Again, did the person who wrote this get high.

    People can hate on Franco if they wish (I don't understand why - comes across as one of the most honest actors out there - what you see is what you get) but heck no to changing him in this new franchise.

    Whether he comes back for the 2nd movie, he played a key role as well as Lithgow to drive this franchise forward. I hope he does even, if he dies in the end and the 3rd movie is all about Serkis without his father.

    Anyway, I read this article and felt I had to comment, no crazy talk - WOW (the jealously for Franco is so strong).

    By the way, let's see how Ruffalo handles Hulk before jumping to conclusions.

    Both Franco and Ruffalo have different styles of acting (we could all produce evidence with Franco playing James Dean, 127 Hours, Howl etc) but their different performances usually adds a positve to a movie (even a bad movie, which they do very rare).

    In this case, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was awesome - bring on the next one!

    • Jake says:

      You have some good points in here. I certainly don't hate Franco and I don't think Mr. Pensky does either. It's sort of an interesting exercise to contemplate how the film might have changed with a different lead actor. I am as big a fan of Franco as anyone. I mean, he was Desario! And I love all the interesting projects he does. But I have to agree with Mr. Pensky that something didn't quite work for me in this one. Again, he was not bad, but I think the Ruffalo idea is a good one.

      The miscast role that always stuck out for me in my youth was Jeff Daniels in Dumb and Dumber. I always wondered what would have happened had the other top comedian of that time teamed up with Jim Carrey. I speak of Chris Farley and I can't help but think there was some weird cosmic slip that didn't put those two together in those roles.

      Anyway, you are right about Franco. He's awesome. But even then, he can't play every role in the world. If I'm being honest, there are probably a number of people who could have played this role, and each might have had an interesting affect on the movie.

      • What'syourproblemwitFranco says:

        Thanks Jake!

        However, I don't think Franco was miscast at all and my additional reasons are:

        1. Again, his character's relationship with Caesar made the story more human and believable.

        2. His performance wasn't meant to be better than Serkis performance but still brought structure/subtle emotional acting to the core of the movie.

        3. He came across smart enough to play the role and showcased his vulnerability that most people who watched the movie understood the reasons for his actions. It wasn't some mad over the top scientist who overacted and you didn't care about. You actually cared about him, and the whole family.

        Dumb and Dumber, so very dumb, it's good.

        "If I'm being honest, there are probably a number of people who could have played this role, and each might have had an interesting affect on the movie", you could say that about every actor on the planet.

        Sometimes, I wonder, if River Phoenix, was alive what roles might he have taken. Did Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp or Leonardo Dicaprio take his future roles - we will never know.

        I feel this movie worked on so many levels but I consider your points.

        Hey, again some people would still prefer to see Edward Norton playing the Hulk but see what Ruffalo does. This year is great for movies.

        I love that finally Serkis is getting serious recognition for his work (seriously, he should be picking up an Oscar this weekend for his brilliant performance and Rise of the Planet of the Apes for Best Picture) but again, I feel some credit should be awarded to Franco's performance too, their bond was very strong.

        Whether some people love him or hate him (glad you like him - reminder to watch Freaks and Geeks) he still brought something to the table that made the steps of the movie work. Some people get it and some don't......

  • Hiro says:

    I think Eric Bana would have also been a better choice.

  • KevyB says:

    You saw only ONE consistent flaw in this movie? How about the niggling fact that the smart juice apparently made all the apes able to communicate via telepathy, unless suddenly Caesar's eyes became even MORE ridiculously expressive? Well, it probably HAS to be that since the appoximately 5 billion apes crowding together in the zoo never sniffed any of the smart gas and yet they were still somehow able to follow Caesar's everchanging plan. A plan, I might add, that had the apes take ALL NIGHT to cross San Francisco, so they could cross the Golden Gate Bridge when it was sunny and crowded. I think an ape that can figure out how to make his co-captives smart enough to follow him would be smart enough to escape to the forest in the dead of night! And what happened with the moronic human virus plot? In the weeks between pleas to James Franco, he never once went to the hospital? Even on his literal deathbed he couldn't call 911? But I found Franco's low-key performance perfect for the film. How else would he and his girlfriend be together for FIVE YEARS and not be married, let alone not bother ever telling her that Caesar was an experiment? At least his aloofness explains that unrealistic relationship.

  • Max Renn says:

    Maybe if Ruffalo was Mr Scientist and they put Franco in a chimp suit. Andy Serkis does good work, but he gets too much credit. There are a dozen or more CG artists and animators involved in that character (and while the CG was impressive at times, it wasn't all that convincing).