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Mark Ruffalo

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At 13, Mark Ruffalo was too busy skateboarding to even think about the big screen. Now what would’ve seemed like a pipe dream is the 36-year-old’s life: He’s a movie star, acting alongside Jennifer Garner in 13 Going on 30 and even sharing the screen with Robert Redford (The Last Castle) and Jim Carrey (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). But while Garner gets to skip the long trip to success in their new movie, Ruffalo, whose big break came in 2000’s You Can Count On Me, had to endure all the growing pains, including overcoming a brain tumor.

The actor recently chatted with PEOPLE about his recovery, making it through the ’80s and that painful rite of passage: the first hangover.

What kind of kid were you at 13?
I was a really kind of insecure, chubby kid with buckteeth. I wasn’t as cool as even this kid in this movie.

How did you come to terms with that?
I have embraced it and moved on. I got my teeth fixed.

So if someone told you at 13, ‘When you grow up you are going to be a movie star …’
I would have just been like … “Shut up!” I never would have bought it.

You grew up during the time when this film takes place. Do you embrace that era?
I hated the ’80s. I was like, what is this? What about the ’70s? What about the ’60s? The funny thing is we only embrace it every 20 years. We are really embracing the ’80s now. How sad is that?

It means we are getting old.
I guess so. I was more into the punk scene. I was more of a skate punk.

What’s the worst thing you got busted doing as a kid?
Robitussin. (Laughs)

Did you ever get grounded?
Oh, yeah, man. I got grounded for … (getting) drunk one night at 14. I was just a wreck. I was sick for, like, four days. I never drank before and I drank like a whole bottle of peppermint schnapps. It was a disaster. And I ran myself over with a bike.

While you were drunk?
Yeah. I went over the handlebars and the bike rolled over me. That’s really drunk. I was pretty miserable. And my mom was like, “You’re grounded.” But I never wanted to drink again.

What about girls?
You know what? The summer of my 13th year I met this girl and was with her for six years. And that was, like, my great first love. She was in her early 30s. (Laughs) She was one of my mom’s friends. No, seriously … She was my age and I can’t say enough about how great she was. But I blew it.

You blew it?
We moved away and I didn’t stay in touch.

Seems like lots of actors moved around as kids.
When my family moved and I started in a new school, I didn’t have any identity. … So I made up this lie that I was a great wrestler. And the next thing I knew, when I got into practice, I turned out to be a great wrestler. So the good thing about moving around is that you get to recreate yourself everywhere you land.

Did you ever wrestle Jennifer Garner?
No. But she tried to throw a couple of moves on me.

Was it hard to work opposite her when she was acting 13?
She is that. That is Jennifer Garner. When I met her, I was expecting a girl in a leather bustier with chopsticks sticking out of her hair. And then she walked in and she had a ponytail, no makeup and sweats. I was like, “Who’s that girl?” I was expecting this ass-kicking Alias girl.

You had surgery a couple of years ago to remove a brain tumor. How has that changed your perspective?
You become very acutely aware that one day you are going to die. At the time things were going very fast for me. I had just been cast in Signs, I did The Last Castle. I was focused on success and getting big studio movies … I didn’t care about acting as much anymore. During that year off, there was a time when I thought I may not be able to act anymore. I really missed it. It was like, whose life am I living?

Are you okay now?
Yes, completely. They took it out and it was benign and there is very, very little chance of it coming back.