Sunrise Ruffalo on the endless pursuit of adventure and authenticity

BY PHOEBE DE CROISSET

Sunrise Ruffalo is someone who has played many roles in life; model, mother, shop owner, farmer… Her ability to pick up and start afresh comes from a childhood spent on the move. Whether she was living out of a van with her dad following the Rolling Stones, or trying to make it as 16-year old model in NYC, Sunrise was constantly searching, tackling new challenges and reinventing herself. We talk to her about a life full of adventure, surprises, joys and let-downs: basically, real life, and the very zen approach she takes to living it.

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PHOEBE DE CROISSET You have been moving around your whole life. Do you remember your first journey?

SUNRISE RUFFALO When I was 2, my parents sent me to France for a couple of years to live with my aunt. By the time I came back to America, my parents were getting a divorce. My mom had gone to Jazz Fest in New Orleans and had fallen in love with the music and the life there. She decided we had to move, took everything we owned and drove us down there. I was about eight when we moved there for good. But I ended up living full time with my father.

PC And New Orleans is where you stayed until you were sixteen? What do you remember most about those years?

SR I remember feeling like an alien when I arrived. It was like no other place I’d been. And I remember the decay – it was so romantic and so beautiful. The music was old and the people were old, but age was valued and respected, and you learned from it. It had stories to tell you. Every time I walked into an old building, I could almost feel that. New Orleans is a place where time stands still. It taught me about slowing down; removing yourself from so many of the normal constraints of a city.

And the music really influenced me. The music made me attuned to my body, almost in a sexual way, even at that young age. Everything is so provocative. The Mardi Gras parades and the women in little shorts and batons – they all had these beautiful, unique bodies that were so sensual. I kind of picked up on that – I don’t know if other people did!

PC How did growing up with your father play into those years?

SR I was not a rich kid. My father was a waiter at Arnaud’s – and he was an immigrant, so his experiences were different. He had this philosophy where he would work for five years, and take one year off. And that’s how he lived his life. He wasn’t a career guy – he was a life guy. One year, we followed the Rainbow Festival and the Rolling Stones across the country. We lived in a van…

PC You did? Do you remember feeling like this was a little out of the norm?

SR I was about ten. I could kind of tell that the people around me were eccentric. We picked up some real hippies. And I slept in the back of A LOT of cars. Having a kid on the road was not super easy… I would get sleepy at night and someone would lay me down somewhere. But that year was phenomenal. The people we met and picked up – and the adventures we’d have – those are some of my fondest memories.

PC How did your nomadic childhood help prepare you for your life as an adult?

SR I think I was probably drawn to spend my life with an artist because of it. The artist lifestyle doesn’t disrupt my natural rhythm that much. I am always looking for new visual, tactile, auditory experiences. I look for adventure. I am of the philosophy that one should try anything once. That’s the way I learn. I think my children also have a bit of that too. They have sort of found their own way and I have let them do that.

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PC When you finally married Mark, and started a family, how did you adjust to “normal” family life – in upstate NY, no less?

SR Mark and I had lived in upstate NY for a while even before we had kids. We owned this 25-acre property with a teeny tiny wood cabin on it that was built by a Vietnam vet. It had this great wood-burning stove – our own little love cabin. And years later, when we got married and pregnant with our first child, we ended up getting a bigger house up there. That was where we lived after Mark’s tumor…

PC Is it true that Mark knew about the tumor but didn’t tell you until the day after Keen was born?

SR Yes! Mark was doing a movie with Robert Redford and [James] Gandolfini at the time. And while he was there on set, I was nesting, getting ready for the baby. One night, Mark had this dream that he had a tumor in his brain. So he went to the doctor who said, obviously: “I think you’re nuts, but to make you feel better, I will get you an MRI.” And the results came back, and he did have tumor. It’s called an acoustic neuroma and it’s a slow growing one, but Mark didn’t know yet if it was benign or malignant so he decided not to tell me right away. You don’t want to overshadow the birth of your first child.

Thankfully, the tumor was benign. He went in for surgery two weeks later. The tumor had been sitting on his auditory nerves, which are extremely sensitive. When they removed it, they disturbed something, which paralyzed his face and caused him to lose hearing in that ear.

 

I had snow to shovel, chickens to feed, we had to choose which pig was going to become the bacon for the winter.

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PC I would expect that experience was an enormous challenge for a first-time mother.

SR I think my experience is unique. I was raised by a man. Being a mother is not the most natural thing for me. I struggle with it all the time! My poor children have suffered tremendously, God bless them!

 

PC And as soon as Mark recovered, you were on the move again to LA.  Tell me about Kaviar and Kind, which you opened with your friend and jewelry designer, Katherine Azarmi.

SR I remember going to my accountant and telling him the idea. I was so excited, I just kept talking, and after about an hour of listening to me he said, “you know Sunrise, most new businesses fail within the first year” and I was shocked. It hadn’t even occurred to me! I went into it with so much blind faith. With zero expectations. And then Kirsten Dunst talked about in Vogue, and the Olsens talked about it in Harper’s Bazaar and people started coming through – even paparazzi sometimes! We really hit it at the right time.

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PC How did the partnership develop?

SR Our partnership really did start as a friendship. There are so many boundaries that get crossed when you’re in those kinds of relationships, and we really had to work on it – I mean, we actually went to couples therapy! We could have written a sitcom about some of the things Kathy and I were doing. It was really trial by fire in the beginning. There was a lot of ‘fake it til’ you make it.’ She had worked in retail and I had a fashion background (I had been a model) and was going to UCLA to study design and art history. The shop started out as one idea, which was very personal, by appointment only. The first couple months we were actually selling antiques and Kathy’s jewelry. We began to see how quickly the inventory was going, so I would have to spend months at auctions, driving around the country collecting things. We eventually fazed out the antiques and just sold jewelry.

PC The store was doing really well – sales actually peaked the year you closed down. Was it difficult to close up shop and embark on yet another chapter in your life?

SR I think we were at a point in our family where we were feeling disjointed. And it was time to regroup. Mark’s brother had just been murdered. It was terrible. Mark kind of quit everything, and let go of his entire team. He really had to re-evaluate his life. So we closed the store, and luckily, Mark and I are very good at just picking up and going. I think it took a total of four weeks from the moment we decided to leave to the moment we were in our home in Callicoon, NY. We packed up everything; the kids, the pets – even the lizard. We drove all the way across the country, spending the night in places along the way. I’ll never forget Mark, crouched in his underwear in some motel, feeding crickets to the lizard in the middle of the night.

PC That’s hilarious. How did you find life in Callicoon after all the excitement of LA?

SR We found a community of people that could really support us. Callicoon has attracted so many people; NY expats, artists, designers, actors, musicians. So we met a lot of likeminded people who were also looking for a more authentic lifestyle; getting closer to the earth and to family… And we became really tight with the people there. The weekenders aren’t going to hold your hand in the middle of January. I actually had more friends there than anywhere else I’ve lived.

PC How did you spend your time?

SR I did a lot of driving – the kids’ school was an hour away. But really, I was so busy being a community member! You’re on a farm. You’re dealing with the elements. I had snow to shovel, chickens to feed, we had to choose which pig was going to become the bacon for the winter. We were a community of neighbors. One neighbor had beef, one had venison, and we were always bringing gifts. I was embraced by a great community of people and I still count them as some of my closest friends. And my kids feel the same. It’s just so bucolic and gorgeous, you have a beautiful garden and all the kids have chores.

Listen, I watched a lot of Real Housewives too. When I run into Andy Cohen I always say thank you. You have no idea, those lonely nights! It was cold and dark by 4pm and all I had was ‘Housewives.’ I am not ashamed to admit that. It was like medicine!

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PC And this summer you are going back to your roots and opening up a Pop-Up shop in Callicoon!

SR Yes! I am opening a shop called “Sunny’s Callicoon Pop.” It will carry antiques and homewares and some mementos you can take with you. One of the cool things we’re going to do is to have some capsule collections from people like Jenna Lyons and Solange Azagury-Partridge. They’ll curate a selection of smaller things; antiques, furnishings and vintage clothing that they’ve collected and want to sell. And I’ll be there all summer, working in the store – very hands on!

Go for a ride and visit Sunny’s Callicoon Pop                       • 21 Lower Main St. callicoon ny, 12723 •

SUNNY-LOGO

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I was raised by a man. Being a mother is not the most natural thing for me. I struggle with it all the time! 

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