Mark Ruffalo talks about playing not a superhero but a real one, in ‘Dark Waters’

Mark Ruffalo in "Dark Waters."
Mark Ruffalo in "Dark Waters."Mary Cybulski/Associated Press

For Mark Ruffalo, “Dark Waters” is more than just another film. The conspiracy thriller from director Todd Haynes (“Carol,” 2015) stars Ruffalo as Rob Bilott, the former corporate defense attorney who unveiled the vast wrongdoings of chemical giant DuPont over an investigation spanning nearly 20 years. Anne Hathaway and Tim Robbins costar.

Ruffalo sought to produce the film after reading a 2016 New York Times Magazine feature about Bilott, who took the legal case of West Virginia farmer Wilbur Tennant, whose cows kept dying of a mysterious illness.

The release of “Dark Waters” on Wednesday comes at the tail-end of Ruffalo’s own decade-long journey into clean water activism, which began in 2008 when gas companies started poking around his Catskills town for potential drilling. While the “Avengers” actor remains a vocal anti-fracking activist, he visited Capitol Hill this week to testify on the dangers of PFOA and PFAS, the so-called “forever chemicals” at the heart of the scandal in “Dark Waters.”

Reached by phone on Wednesday, the 51-year-old actor discussed taking on Washington, working with Haynes, making the Academy Award-winning “Spotlight” (2015), and more.


Q. This is a story you specifically set out to tell after reading the Times piece on Rob Bilott. What made you think: I need to adapt this?

A. Well, it was one of the biggest corporate crimes in American history. And it’s been decades of cover-up, and not even I knew about it — and I like to think of myself as environmentally savvy. But I also saw it as [the story of] a working-class community pushing for justice. Wilbur Tennant was one of these classic characters, an American icon. And I recognized his fight against [DuPont] as the same fight with fracking, with climate change, with Exxon. I recognized in it a much bigger story about who we are as America, and what our economic values are.


Q. Coming from The Boston Globe, I have to ask about “Spotlight.” Was your role as [investigative reporter] Michael Rezendes top of mind when approaching the role of Rob Billot?

A. Those two characters are very similar to each other — they both believe in people. They both believe that when people hear the truth they will do the right thing at the end of the day. Both men are different from me in that way — I’m probably a little more cynical, but they’ve seen way more than I have, and they’ve maintained their beliefs. But I loved “Spotlight,” and I felt the healing and corrective power of that film. I’m interested in those kinds of experiences as a filmmaker.

Q. You’ve worked with so many visionary directors in the past — Lisa Cholodenko, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher — that it comes as no surprise you’d want to work with Todd Haynes. Yet Haynes has never made anything like “Dark Waters” before.

A. It was 100 percent him as a filmmaker and the way he handles his characters and the world of his stories. One of my managers floated Todd to me early on, and I stopped on his name and said, “That’s really interesting.” Certainly there were other directors that were better suited at first blush . . . but he tells stories about marginalized people who are living in these oppressive systems, with creeping paranoia, and that was the story I wanted to tell. And I couldn’t be happier with what he did. It’s masterful. He’s a goddamn masterful filmmaker.


Q. So what was it like finally working with Haynes?

A. I love him; we had such an amazing collaboration on this. He is so gentle and kind, and creates the safest space to work in. There’s no one that works harder or is more prepared than he is. And his aesthetic is everywhere in the movie — [even in] what kind of food processor is in the kitchen as time goes on in the Bilott house. This story could be dry, but he balances everything without ever losing the attention of the audience, even while [focusing on] a character that’s modest and reserved.

Q. “Dark Waters” consistently uses motherhood and images of new life to emphasize how damaging PFOA is to future generations. Were you thinking of your own three children [now ages 12, 14, and 18] when approaching the film?

A. Absolutely. Part of my whole journey into activism was about my children. We were living in upstate New York, and there was going to be fracking everywhere. And when I came to find out what it did to water, I said, “I don’t want my kids growing up around that. I don’t want that in my neighborhood.” And that’s what we have to center on right now — all of us. What is the next generation going to have to deal with? How do we listen to them, take their concerns to mind, and make the world a better place for them? So that was really important to me, and that was true to Rob’s story as well.


Q. Are you hopeful the film and your activism surrounding it will make a difference in EPA regulations?

A. Actually, after yesterday [on Capitol Hill], I’m hopeful. I don’t think there are many issues you could talk about in Washington, D.C., right now that don’t divide immediately into bitter partisanship. But I do feel like this is one place where there is real bipartisan work going on. And in the [current legislation] that everyone is negotiating right at this moment, there is a very strong chance that there is going to be some regulation passed on PFOA. And that will be the first time in 50 years. I really do think testifying on the Hill helped that. The visibility this movie has brought to PFOA has given politicians the cover to be able to fight for what’s right in their constituencies against such a powerful force as DuPont.

Q. You’ve described Rob Billot as a real-life hero, and you’ve noted how composed he is. Did you find it challenging to present that anger and frustration under the surface of an incredibly reserved, understated person? Or did it come naturally from your work as the Hulk?

From left: Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk, and Benedict Wong in "Avengers: Infinity War."
From left: Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk, and Benedict Wong in "Avengers: Infinity War." Marvel Studios

A. It was scary, actually. It’s not what audiences are trained for in a hero. As an actor, you want to go for the Hulk moment, you want to go for the big, dramatic takedown of the big-time CEO. But that’s not how Rob approached [those scenes]. I asked Rob, “Is this where you just got to tear him a new one?” And he was like “No, I felt like [the CEO] didn’t know, and that if I just showed him what they were doing, and who the victims were, that he would do the right thing.” And that’s how we played it. And [the deposition scene] is probably one of my favorite scenes in the movie as a result. If I was left to my own devices, or my instincts as an actor, I would have played it much differently.


Q. What’s next?

A. I produced a limited series for HBO called “I Know This Much Is True,” with Derek Cianfrance directing. It’s really, really good. So we’re in post-production right now, and that’s where the lion’s share of my time is going. And I’m excited to get back to my family, who I’ve been away from for a long time — I need to reconnect to them.

Cassidy Olsen can be reached at me@cassidyolsen.com. Twitter is also @olsencassidy.