In Dark Waters, the searing new drama from director Todd Haynes (Carol), Mark Ruffalo plays real-life attorney Rob Bilott, a rising star at a large corporate law firm whose job has been defending chemical companies. But Bilott unexpectedly finds himself drawn to the case of Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a Parkersburg, West Virginia farmer who comes to Bilott’s Cincinnati office to plead for help after 200 of his cows have died.
Tennant lays the blame at the feet of the DuPont plant that’s been in the town for decades. Having grown up nearby, Bilott has mixed feeling about taking the case. Yet he soon discovers that DuPont, the seemingly all-American company that has provided jobs and economic support for the area, has been poisoning the water for untold years–and that is just the beginning.
Over the course of the film, Bilott puts everything at risk–his family, his job, his life–to claim justice for Wilbur Tennant, the people of Parkersburg, and perhaps even more human beings than any of us can imagine. Remember this name: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), because once you hear about it in Dark Waters, you’ll never forget it.
Starring in and producing Dark Waters was a no-brainer for Ruffalo: he’s a passionate activist for human rights and environmental protection, and when he’s not smashing things up as the Hulk in Marvel movies, he’s pursuing projects like like Oscar winner Spotlight and Emmy winner The Normal Heart. Movies that touch on the issues and crises affecting communities large and small, mainstream or marginalized. Like many of his other films, the horror at the heart of Dark Waters goes beyond politics, an idea we touched on when Den of Geek spoke with the actor not long ago.
Den of Geek: It seems like you took a very active role in bringing this to the screen.
Mark Ruffalo: Yeah, I really did. I’ve been transitioning into developing more things and producing. I read the story, and my agents actually sent it to me as well. They represent Nathaniel Rich (author of the 2016 New York Times article that inspired the film) as well, and they said, “Hey, we know you’re looking to do stuff. We think this is really in your wheelhouse, would you be interested?” I read it and I thought it was amazing. I said I’d love to make a bid for it, and so we started that process.
In the course of that, I realized I was actually bidding against Participant, and we decided to join forces because they do what they do so well and we’d already had a great experience with Spotlight. They actually had asked me, “Let’s find something to do together,” during the course of all that. It all sort of worked out really beautifully.
I’m an activist. I am an environmentalist. I’m politically minded. But there’s only so far you can go with that, and I just feel like storytelling is so much more accessible for so many more people. It transcends the politics of an issue and just is people talking to people about their experiences. I felt like this is just a remarkable story at such a high level, and it was mind-blowing to me that nobody knew about it.
How much did you know about this yourself beforehand?
Almost nothing. I mean, I knew about PFOA. I knew what it was, but I didn’t know the extent of this criminal cover-up. I didn’t know that they had known for 50 years. I didn’t know that this had gone on from one presidential administration to the next. I didn’t know the EPA was looking the other way. I had no idea the depth of criminality that was happening and how many people must have looked the other way in order to have this keep happening.
It almost transcends partisan politics in a way, because it kept going on for decades.
Yeah. Oh, completely. This is more systematic, this is entrenched in our economic system. It’s the manifestation of a belief that anything for a buck, anything as long as somebody is making a buck and that the people in power get a little taste of that. We see it over and over again, whether it’s the fossil fuel industry, or ExxonMobil knowing about climate change for 30 years and hiding it, and making bullshit science to cover it up, or the tobacco industry telling us that tobacco’s healthy for us, or the pharmaceutical industry telling us that Oxycontin is less addictive than Advil. We’ve seen this shit over and over and over again.
What’s interesting about this story is that these people who are fighting for the community are all conservatives. They’re not a bunch of liberal environmentalists. This is a farmer in the middle of West Virginia, a corporate defense attorney who believes in corporate self-regulation and everyone else. I like to tell these stories because it reminds us of our humanity, it gets us off of each other long enough to see the real trick that’s going on while we’re at each other’s throats, that there’s some really big powerful money interests that are making a killing off killing us.
Strangely, this is the second film you’ve done in five years after Foxcatcher that has to do with the DuPont family or the DuPont empire.
Yeah. That’s not personal, by the way. I don’t have anything against them per se.
Right. But it makes you wonder, what is it with these sort of oligarchical families that have been behind the scenes in America for generations, that they’re either just kind of weird or they do things like this that act against everybody else’s interests?
I think it’s because of their privilege and the bubble they live in, and because of this idea that what we tell people in America is that the dollar is everything. If you’re rich, you’re the shit. You’re amazing. You’re the best person in the world. That’s what our ads tell us. That’s a lot of our movies tell us. That’s what a lot of the American world tells us.
But when you live in that kind of world, you become less human. You become more isolated. You become less part of the community. Once that happens, then people don’t really matter that much anymore. As long as you’re on top, and being on top is the number one thing, then how you get there doesn’t matter. The people you have to hurt to get there, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you keep that power and you keep it in the family.
You see where we are now, this concentration of wealth into the top echelon of the United States. These legacy families who keep that wealth and use nepotism to keep that wealth in the family system. That’s the whole oligarchic system. I mean that’s the manifestation of that kind of belief in the world.
This film is also about whistleblowers, and that couldn’t come at a better time right now, when the whole idea of a whistleblower is under threat.
Exactly. Yeah. As if being a whistleblower is somehow political or somehow evil or somehow not worthy of our protection. It’s a good time for it. I mean, sometimes these movies come out right in the moment where we’re having this kind of discussion. I think it’s definitely about PFOA and dealing with that, but this is also about a much bigger systematic problem, which is the slavishness to capitalism, where all of our democracy is in service of this economic system instead of the other way around, where capitalism should be in service of our democracy. This is the problem that you’re going to have when that happens.
Did you spend a lot of time with Rob Bilott, and what kind of insight did you glean from him?
Yes. He’s been so generous with me in his time and his knowledge and his experience, what he’s been through. I really saw this as reportage, kind of like journalism–just tell the truth. If you tell the truth, everything’s going to be okay and the story will carry itself. Getting to the truth, that takes some work and a lot of time.
Rob was willing to go down that road with me so I could get the quality of his physicality and could get the quality of his voice, I could get a quality of his internal motivations and understand the family dynamics and understand his dispassionate approach. Those are all very different than me. I couldn’t have done any of that without him and his help and his generosity.
I’m sure you’re aware of the whole debate lately with Martin Scorsese and Marvel. But you’re a guy who moves pretty comfortably from the indie world to the big Marvel blockbusters. Does being in Avengers movies and playing a character like Bruce Banner help you in any way to get some sort of leverage to push movies like Dark Waters across?
This is the issue. Everyone in the film business is playing this game. We all know that your movie’s got to do well in the market for you to have cache and value. It’s something you’re always butting up against as a young filmmaker or young actor. It’s frustrating and it does not feel fair. It feels like a system that is not always rewarding the best and the most beautiful, or the most artistic.
But yeah, it does change things. It does make you more bankable. It does open doors for you that wouldn’t normally be open. The sad truth is if the things that we’re making didn’t do well, chances are getting something else made is going to be a lot harder the next time around. Marty’s had to deal with that. I’ve had to deal with that. Everyone in the Marvel Universe, every director, we’ve all had to deal with that. It’s part of the reality we’re living in.
It’s also a little bit part of the same thing that we’re talking about. It’s like if everything is measured by how much money it makes, then you’re going to have less diversity. You’re going to have more monopolizing. If you want to really have a discussion and get real deep about it, let’s talk about the whole system.
We used to have an Endowment of the Arts that lifted up some unknown voices, that gave us diversity in our art world. We don’t have anything like that anymore. There’s a way to do this, but it’s going to take some work and people like Marty, and myself, and the studios that are raking it in. There could be a film fund that’s created that does subsidize people of color, Native Americans, women filmmakers. Let’s open it up to everybody. Let’s really have this discussion in a real earnest way; and not pin it on one person, pin it on the whole system.
Speaking of Marvel, do you have any inkling of the future for Bruce Banner and what would you like to see happen with him?
I think there’s more storytelling still left with that character, especially with (Professor Hulk) now. I kind of was assuming that it was going to come to an end, but possibly not. I’m going to go and have another meeting with Kevin Feige and see if there’s anything left to do or say for those two characters in the future. I’d be into it.
Are there characters you’d like to see Hulk team up with individually, as he did in Thor: Ragnarok?
Some of the newer people. I’d love to see him find his way into the Guardians of the Galaxy, that feels like a good place for him too. Even Black Panther. Maybe the She-Hulk. Yeah, I think there’s a lot of cool places for him to go as like the wise one, as the guru. I think there’s room for it, and we’ll see. We’ll see what happens.
Dark Waters opened in limited release two weeks ago and expands into more theaters nationwide on Friday, Dec. 6.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye