A brush with death will get you thinking about things more deeply than ever. Just ask Mark Ruffalo, who has had rubbed shoulders with death on too many occasions.

The 43-year-old actor (Collateral, Zodiac, Shutter Island, The Kids Are All Right) survived a brain tumor in 2002 that left half of his face temporarily paralyzed and left him deaf in his left ear. His best friend committed suicide in 1994 at the age of 26. Two years later, another best friend, Christopher Thornton, was injured in a climbing accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. And in December 2008, Ruffalo's brother Scott, 39, was shot to death in Beverly Hills in a still unsolved homicide.

At about the same time of Scott's death, Ruffalo and Thornton were just beginning to make a movie, Sympathy for Delicious, which released to limited theaters last week. The film, Ruffalo's directorial debut and based on a script by Thornton, has been in development for the better part of a decade since Thornton penned the original story, and while they looked for investors to fund the project. Sympathy stars both men, while the supporting cast includes Laura Linney, Juliette Lewis, and Orlando Bloom.

The title character, played by Thornton, confined to his wheelchair, is "Delicious" Dean O'Dwyer, a paralyzed musician who lives on LA's Skid Row. After attending a charismatic healing service, O'Dwyer learns that while he hasn't been healed, he now has the gift of healing others. Father Joseph (Ruffalo), who ministers to those on Skid Row and has befriended O'Dwyer, notices that donations for the homeless shelter have begun to skyrocket since his friend started healing people. As the money grows, so do the desires of both men—they both want a "cut" of the income, both for valid reasons: O'Dwyer is poor and penniless, Father Joe to grow his ministry. But greed and materialism end up affecting both, and both men experience crises—personally and spiritually—in the end.

It's an edgy film full of mature themes and coarse language (it's unrated, but would certainly be rated R) that won't appeal to some viewers. But for those willing to look past the rough content, it's a compelling exploration of spirituality, faith, and life that raises some good questions—though, in the end, it doesn't necessarily answer them. Ruffalo says that it's ultimately a lesson in what we really mean by "healing"—is it merely physical, or something else? And it's a familiar lesson from none other than the Rolling Stones: "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find you get what you need."

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We talked to the affable Ruffalo, an Academy Award nominee for the Kids Are All Right, about Sympathy for Delicious, about what he and Thornton have learned from—and grown through—their hardships, and what they hope audiences will take away.

You weren't with Chris when he had his climbing accident, right?

No, but when I got the call, I was in shock. I rushed to the hospital and there he was. It was terrifying to see him laying there. Someone pulled me aside and said, "He'll never walk again." It could have easily been me; I had climbed in the same place before.

Christopher Thornton in 'Sympathy'

Christopher Thornton in 'Sympathy'

Since the movie is a spiritual journey, how would you describe your own spiritual journey—before Chris's injury, right after, and to this day?

There was a great line in the movie that didn't make it into the final version. It was, "It's easy to be a nonbeliever until your body breaks." Both of us have had our brushes with mortality, and when those things happen, you find yourself ranging around for some system, some relief, somewhere, to make it have meaning or logic. I grew up in a household that had Catholicism, Christianity, and the Baha'i faith, all under one roof …

That's quite a mix.

Yeah. I was trained in all of the different vernaculars, and all of the faiths were carrying the same message, but on different motifs. Our adversity leads us to the experience of faith. We can talk about it all we want, but it's through suffering that you know it.

We started to come upon this theme in the movie: Maybe there's a blessing in our hardships, and that's really where you grow as a human being, and that's where you learn compassion. That was our journey. I saw that happening with Chris. I watched him turn toward his Catholicism in a real experiential way. Then when I had my brain tumor, that opened up for me what I had seen him go through.

When those things happen, you tend to shake your fist at God and say …

Why me? What have I done? Why have you forsaken me?

Time and perspective can soften those initial reactions.

Yes. You spend your time shaking your fist and being angry, but turning to God at the same time. Because the act of shaking your fist at him is a way of turning, a way of engaging, a way of acknowledging him.

Would you both describe yourselves as men of faith today?

From what I've experienced, every man's relationship to God and spirituality is their own. It's a very personal thing. My relationship to God and my own spirituality aren't based in any dogmatic religious belief system, but it is very vibrant and fruitful for me.

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You and Chris have been promoting the movie with this tagline: "You get the healing you need, but not always the healing you want." Are you channeling Mick Jagger there?

It is kind of a riff off of the Stones, yeah. But that saying is completely true. It's the summation of the entire journey for us.

But you did get the healing you wanted from your brain tumor, while Chris wasn't healed of his paralysis.

Yeah, but I lost my hearing in my left ear. Now, that's nothing compared to what Chris has gone through. I don't have a brain tumor anymore, but what happened to me during that time was so much bigger. It was a really intense, rigorous journey into self-understanding, gratitude, acceptance—some really big lessons that have had a profound impact on me. The same with watching who Chris has become since what happened to him. So, we're handed a bag of doo-doo in life sometimes, but from that, that's where a lot of really beautiful, positive things can grow. That's the grace part of suffering.

Ruffalo and Thornton in a scene from the film

Ruffalo and Thornton in a scene from the film

The film implies that you and Chris believe faith healers are showmen who just want to be rock stars, but some of them really can heal.

Yes. When there's money attached to it, or when victims are blamed for not being healed because they didn't give enough money or have enough faith, is a real ugly sham. I would err on the side of saying that I've never seen any compelling evidence that there are actually faith healings.

There's a placebo effect. When people are given a placebo, 30 percent of them say they're better, and those numbers pretty much line up to the same number of people who say they're healed at these revivals. People get so worked up, they want those healings so badly that they're almost willing it to happen.

Did you go to some of those faith-healing events with Chris?

Yes, and I've lived through them myself. I was at the First Assembly of God when one traveling minister or another would lay hands on people and heal them of their smoking or their little daily ailments. I'd see the strut and the grandeur and the emotions. Then two weeks later, my grandmother was smoking after she said she'd been healed.

Ever see anything really remarkable, like a paralyzed person get up and walk?

No. I've seen old people in wheelchairs, who say they can't walk, get up and take a couple of steps with the pastor holding their hands. I've never seen anything I would call miraculous, at least physically. What I think is miraculous occurs spiritually, in the heart, where I think it really counts.

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Isn't that what the movie is saying?

Yes. We put way too much importance on the physical healings. This is a spiritual work. This is soul work. Part of the movie brings up that question. Everyone is running around looking for a fix on the outside. We want our noses fixed. We want our depression fixed. We want our teeth fixed. We want our hair fixed. They're all on the exterior.

Is that what you want audiences to get, a redefinition of "healing"?

That's thematically in there. Another is the idea that if you live in a culture where money, fame, and materialism are the pinnacle of success, where people will do anything in pursuit of those things, does charity really thrive and exist? When everything in your culture is commodified, does charity really exist?

It's a gritty film that will be hard to sell to a conservative Christian audience.

I know, but we've screened it for some Christian audiences, and it went very well. I've walked into some screenings and thought, This is going to be a disaster. But I've been pleasantly surprised. Christ was not afraid of coarseness, and there are a lot of coarse things in the world today—and not all the magical thinking in the world is going to change that reality. This is the reality of a certain kind of street-level faith that is happening all around us—in Skid Row, in those places you want to see grace. You want to experience the essence of some of Christ's teachings? That is where it's happening. And it's not pretty. It's ugly. I mean it's ugly and beautiful in turns.

Real life is 'coarse,' says Ruffalo

Real life is 'coarse,' says Ruffalo

Many Christians like "safe" movies that wrap up with a nice tidy bow.

But that isn't honest. Look around. We can't be in denial. If you can't face it, you can't interface with it. You can't even dialogue with it if you insist that it doesn't exist, or you find it too coarse for your beliefs. Then you are part of the problem.

Talk about Father Joe, your character in the film.

He's like a lot of people who are trying to do the right thing. He has to sell something in order to feed the homeless. Let's face it: Every non-for-profit out there today has got to sell people tax deductions and benefit dinners. Are people really giving out of the kindness of their heart, or are they giving because they expect something in return? Even a priest on Skid Row who has dedicated his life to doing a beautiful work like this, still has to sell something in order to get something. Or that's what he believes. He's a metaphor for the whole non-for-profit culture in a strange way today.

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What is the biggest thing you and Chris have learned while working on this film, and finally releasing it for people to see?

That if you step out with a dream, with an intent that's pure, the world steps out to meet you. Along the way, I've just seen the most generous, beautiful, kind, selfless things come from people, even where I didn't expect it. If you go into the world with that kind of pure idea, then that's the way the world shows up to you. And I really have learned that it is what you create; it reflects back to you what you're putting out.