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Mark Ruffalo goes wading in the Charles River

photos by Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

What did you do on your day off? Actor Mark Ruffalo used his time away from filming “Spotlight,” the movie about the Pulitzer-winning Globe team that uncovered the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, to play a role in another film.

Mark Ruffalo (top and above, with Water Defense chief scientist Scott Smith) in the Charles River.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/Globe staff

It’s a documentary that tells the heretofore untold story of what really happens after a major oil spill, and of Scott Smith, the clean-water warrior (and Harvard Business School grad) fighting to make things right.

It’s pretty much obligatory for an actor to have a cause these days. But Ruffalo, the founder of the nonprofit Water Defense, lives his. That’s lives, as in donning chest-high waders, remembering only at the last minute to remove his iPhone 6 from his pocket, slipping quite cheerfully off a launch into the Charles River near a discharge pipe from the former CSX Transportation rail yard in Allston, and collecting water samples that had been placed a week earlier.

“You can smell the oil, the petroleum,” the actor called out from somewhere under the brush along the banks of the river. In addition to the waders, Ruffalo and Smith — the chief scientist at Water Defense — were wearing latex gloves as they spread out a line of synthetic eelgrass, a product that both filters and monitors water.


If you’re rowing on the Charles, or walking or biking its paths, and you see something that looks like a giant green hula skirt, think of Ruffalo and Smith.

If you happened to be walking along the river, on the Boston side, on Monday, around 2 p.m. and you noticed a lanky young man emerging from the thick brush, carefully holding a camera, that was Skye Wallin, Smith’s videographer and director. A man who gets his shots.

Ruffalo got the water bug as a child growing up near the polluted Lake Michigan in the late 1960s and 1970s, and wondering “why do the fish have tumors?” He and a few equally concerned playmates started a club called the Foresters and dreamed of saving the world.


On Monday, sitting in the back of a launch, the eel grass he laid just waiting to detect pollutants, the world’s most pleasant man grinned. “This is like the fun part of making a movie,” he said, “when it gets a little daring, and naughty and subversive.”

Ruffalo sees his acting as a type of reportage. “I had an acting teacher” – the acclaimed Stella Adler —“who said you’re not fully realized as an artist until you’re ready to take on social or political issues.”

Soon — too soon — the launch was back on the dock outside the Riverside Boat Club, and Ruffalo peeled off his waders. “I must have a cup in here,” he said cheerfully, shaking his foot as the videographer captured the sloshing.

With that, the star changed back into his jeans and New Balance sneakers, said nothing about his soaking wet shirt, got into a black Ford Expedition with tinted rear windows, and headed to the Revere Hotel. “I need to take a shower,” he said.

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