Actor Mark Ruffalo remembers the moment he knew his film Dark Waters was more of a horror than a classic political drama. Based on a New York Times article titled “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” which Ruffalo had optioned, the movie was to tell the heroic story of Rob Bilott, a corporate attorney who discovers that people in West Virginia are becoming ill from mysterious causes seemingly linked to a DuPont chemical plant in town.
The moment came during the research process. Ruffalo was sent the raw footage that originally convinced Bilott to take on his former employer, DuPont. In the shaky handheld video, embattled dairy farmer Wilbur Earl Tennant documents his sick and dying Hereford cows. Over the gruesome scenes of dead and decaying animals, Tennant deduces that the stream going through his land is polluted by runoff from the plant.
“I was going through the video, and it was incredibly upsetting,” says Ruffalo to Men’s Journal. Parts of that original footage were cut into the movie. “I felt like I was watching a full-blown horror and started to think of the movie in those terms. There were other moments that actually happened that were also terrifying. The fact is, when you are going up against a company that powerful, it is hard not to become a little paranoid.”
Partnering with director Todd Haynes, Ruffalo executed on that initial inkling masterfully in Dark Waters, delivering an eco-thriller almost too alarming to believe. And though the cameras have been turned off, the work is far from done for the activist actor.
What did you find compelling about this story?
Sometimes it feels like there is no one out there doing anything for anyone outside of selfish reasons. So I think that is why this story resonated so much with me. On top of that, I am an activist, and I have been an environmental activist for a long time. I am always looking for material that supports those efforts. But in the end, you still have to make a great movie. You can’t just create something for yourself. There are heroes that you idolize because you want to be them, and then there are the heroes that are even more admirable because you don’t want to be them. That is who Rob was during this time of his life. His hero journey was a long and difficult road. He turned his back on his own career, health, and in a small regard, his family, all in pursuit of his belief in justice.
How did you start the process of bringing it to the screen?
I started acquiring the rights to this story and trying to figure out the best way to share its message with the audience. I knew that Todd Haynes was the right person for the job. I reached out to him personally, and his response was that he usually only directs his own material, which is true. But I knew that he would be able to bring those elements of paranoia and horror in a impactful way. There is also this feeling of a malignant force at work. I wanted this to be a character study and I wanted there to be space in the frame. I wanted people to connect to the characters the way that they do in his films, like Safe and Poison. So I just convinced him.
How did you build your portrayal of Rob? Did you meet him in person before filming?
Yes, I did. The first time I met him in person was in the atrium of the Taft building in Cincinnati. I showed up a little bit early, and I spotted him in the distance sort of roaming around, talking to people and waiting for me. I took that opportunity to follow him around for maybe 10 minutes. I started to copy his walk a little bit and his posture. There were certain qualities that were immediately noticeable, how his body almost caved into itself after years of this struggle and loneliness. What is really interesting is how his physicality has changed over the course of this movie coming out, being put in the spotlight with this movie. He had these nervous ticks, where you couldn’t talk to him for more than five minutes without one of them being displayed. Not only that, but he sits up straighter now. But it really took me a long time to crack Rob. He doesn’t like to talk about himself, or really be effusive in that sort of way. His wife, Sarah, told me as much, that I wasn’t going to really mine him for much. But I wouldn’t let go. I had to know what made him tick. The process took a lot of time, but in the end I was happy where we got.
What did he tell you about that time in life?
Nobody could relate to him. Nobody could unpack a situation like this to their wife and children without traumatizing them. There was too much. I mean, Rob really had moments where he was putting his keys in the ignition and wondering if his car was going to blow up. He told me during the filmmaking process that during this time, his closest friend became Wilbur Tennant, the farmer that he helped, because of the trauma that they were sharing.
How did you guys land on Anne Hathaway to play Rob’s wife, Sarah?
Todd was like, “She is the one.” I didn’t know her all too well, which surprises people, that we hadn’t crossed paths before, but I trusted him completely. Once I met her, we started to build a real bond immediately. I remember one day in particular where she saved me. I had a rehearsal with her a few days before we were going to start shooting. I had a complete breakdown of confidence, and I was venting to her that I didn’t really know what I was doing with the character at all. I started yelling all the reasons that I didn’t think I was going to be able to do Rob justice. I mean, it was a meltdown. She looked at me, calming, and said, “What are you even talking about?” She brought me back, brushed me off, and built me back up. It was a truly great moment—not just between us, but for the characters, because it was like we were living that relationship on the script for real in a way.
There are long-spanning documentary-like scenes that seem to run on like small plays. How did you create an atmosphere where the cast could work together like that?
There were scenes that were eight to 10 pages, and it is unusual to do a scene that long. I also had a 10-page monologue, and I have to admit that it is hard to memorize 10 straight pages of dialogue. [It’s] tough at 52. But we really wanted have these long shots of people living in these moments. Nobody was yelling “cut.” And then we would go again. I was just thrilled at what was happening in front of me. Truly amazing performances by veteran actors like Bill Camp, who played Tennant, and Tim Robbins. But also we had a lot of wonderful regional actors who lived right there in Cincinnati. Some of them had been affected by the story in their own lives, and I think it was cathartic for them to be able to have that space. Todd created this really great space for us to explore.
Did you find it complicated playing someone in this kind of situation, who acted the way that Rob Bilott did?
There is the Charles Holliday disposition scene, where Rob deposed the CEO of DuPont. I read a transcript of that and felt that that was going to be a huge moment of confrontation. For me, I was excited to really tear some people open in that scene and take them to task. I had this image in my mind of Rob body-slamming people and making them hurt for what they had done. But when I spoke with Rob, he was like, “It was nothing like that.” For him, it was more of a plea for humanity, he just wanted to show them the damage that had been done and the lives affected. Rob truly believed that they could be convinced to see the error of their ways and they would do the right thing.
There is one scene at the end of the film that features one of those real people affected by the contamination, Bucky Bailey, who had to undergo facial surgery due to deformities he had as a child, allegedly connected to the fact that his mother was working with C8 at DuPont while she was pregnant.
It ended up that that scene with Bucky was the very last shot of the movie, which came at the end of 50 straight days of filming. Everyone had been working incredibly long hours, and it was kind of perfect that it worked out that way, to have someone so close to the situation there. It reminded us of why we were doing the project in the first place. I remember once we had finished one of the takes, I turned around and everyone on the crew was crying. It hit hard. There were others that we featured as well, like family members of Wilbur Tennant, and we run a little montage during the credits showing who they are.
What did Rob and his family think once the movie was done?
I remember one of the first days during the pre-production process when we met his family for the first time. They just looked at me, then back at their dad, and said, “Why is The Hulk in our living room?” [Laughs] And then when they actually saw the movie, they kept looking back at him, asking if that had really happened. That was just another indicator to how guarded he had been. Now his kids understand the incredible journey that their father went on, and he is like The Hulk to them.
I understand you also have an advocacy campaign attached to the release?
I believe in the power of seeing human beings going through struggles like this, and wondering what we would do in those shoes. That alone can have a true impact. This movie is particularly lucky that we have studio partners like Focus Features and Participant Media, who have helped us create real advocacy assets, like our website FightForeverChemicals.com, which has information on all the products that you can avoid to help combat these contaminants. I was just on a call the other day with a number of communities, represented by hundreds of people, and they were sharing their own personal stories and the losses that they have suffered from these kinds of contaminations. One story after the next. These companies have so much influence that it is hard to get any kind of traction on regulation, which is why awareness is so important.
What is Rob doing now?
I was really touched recently because Rob was at a screening they did where this all began and he sent me a picture over text of a memorial shrine that they put up for Wilbur Tennant and Sandy Tennant in Parkersburg, WV. Rob hasn’t stopped either, he goes all over the country bringing this data and information to populaces that are dealing with these contaminations. And he just launched the largest class action lawsuit in history, on behalf of every human being in the United States who has been affected by this disaster.
Dark Waters is in theaters now. See the trailer below.
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