With “Dark Waters,” Mark Ruffalo decided to make something more than an awards-season “issue” movie.
“It was a very straightforward whodunnit, whistleblower film,” he said in a recent phone conversation with The Examiner, “but I was craving something more.”
So the three-time Oscar nominee signed on as producer of the film, opening Friday, which is based on a 2016 New York Times Magazine article by Nathaniel Rich about Cincinnati lawyer Rob Bilott.
Ruffalo plays Bilott, who works for a firm that defends chemical companies, then changes allegiances after being approached by Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer who tells him something is killing his cattle.
Bilott decides to investigate, little knowing he’s opening a can of worms that would result in years of legal wrangling.
It comes down to a dangerous, unregulated chemical used by the DuPont company known to cause cancer and other illnesses; the “forever chemical” can’t be broken down by the human body, and, even worse, 99% of humans now have it in their systems.
Ruffalo hired director Todd Haynes, best known for colorful, dark soap operas “Far from Heaven” and “Carol,” but also the maker of 1995’s “Safe,” one of the all-time great movies about sickness.
“The more I imagined the movie and what I wanted to see from it, I started drifting toward his films [about] these marginalized people living in these oppressive systems, an uneasy feeling lurking on the edges, and the madness of it.” says Ruffalo, adding, “I wanted it to be as honest as possible because it’s such an important story and these people’s lives are so important to me.”
A big challenge was Bilott’s character. Far from a typical movie hero, he’s modest, guarded and even dispassionate in his approach. Ruffalo, who spent a great deal of time with Bilott, found it difficult to get the lawyer to say much about himself.
“That’s not typical to these kinds of characters in these kinds of movies, and it was a little scary at times to play it that way, but it works in a different way than if we had done it big,” says Ruffalo, who consulted Bilott on how to approach a a deposition scene with a DuPont CEO.
Ruffalo says the attorney wasn’t trying to shame the executive, but simply trying to get him to see the facts and perhaps do the right thing.
“Even after 20 years, and even after his career tanked and his health and his family suffered, [Bilott] never stopped believing in people’s ability to do the right thing. He had every chance to step off, but he never gave up. I just found that to be so moving,” says Ruffalo.
Ruffalo has nothing but praise for his costars, including scene-stealing Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber and Camp.
“The cast is amazing. It’s a class A!,” he laughs.
The cast also features Bucky Bailey, who was born with facial deformities after his mother, a DuPont employee, was exposed to the chemical. A photo of young Bailey is shown during the deposition scene; then Haynes shows the real, grown-up Bailey in another scene. It’s a great moment, and a game-changer.
The scene was shot the last day of shooting. It was brutally cold, and everyone was exhausted, but when Bailey finished, the crew was sobbing.
“It was so beautiful,” says Ruffalo. “We realized what this whole thing we were making really meant.”
IF YOU GO
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Mario Correa
Directed by: Todd Haynes
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes