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How Mark Ruffalo found an outlet for his political passions in 'Dark Waters'

Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Mark Ruffalo has long been paranoid about his drinking water. His home, tucked in the Catskill Mountains along the Delaware River, is outfitted with an elaborate water filtration system even though his well water is some of the cleanest in the nation.

But he knows the risks, and he can't ignore them. A decade ago, energy companies threatened to begin natural gas drilling near his 47-acre former dairy farm in New York. He subsequently became an outspoken environmental activist, arguing that the process of extracting gas via hydraulic fracturing -- or hydrofracking -- contaminates water with dangerous chemicals.

But until this weekend -- with the nationwide release of his new film "Dark Waters" -- Ruffalo has kept his politics and his acting career largely separate. In his off time, he shows up at rallies to speak about his antifracking stance and campaigns for Bernie Sanders, whom he supports in part because of the candidate's belief in the Green New Deal. At work, most of his calendar has been dominated by Marvel. Since 2012, he's played the Hulk in four films in the comic book universe.

"I love those, and I fit in well there and I enjoy that, but I also -- I have more to say," said Ruffalo. "So finally I was like, 'Hey, wait a minute. How do I blend this activism that means so much to me into my storytelling?' It occurred to me: Why don't I just start producing stuff, so that I'm not waiting for someone to bring this kind of story to me but I'm actually moving it to happen?"

He told his agents that he wanted a project about the environment -- maybe a story about climate change, or perhaps one on the clean-water issue. The first thing they brought to him was the 2016 New York Times Magazine article "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare." The piece detailed how an Ohio-based corporate attorney named Robert Bilott singlehandedly uncovered how the chemical company had been putting its employees and U.S. communities at risk for decades by exposing them to dangerous pollutants.

As it turned out, Ruffalo had read the story when it was published, and instantly snapped up the rights. But he still had to secure the trust of the article's subject.

 

Ruffalo, 52, and Bilott, 67, have deeply contrasting dispositions. Last month, when the two men were scheduled to meet up in Los Angeles, Bilott arrived early with his wife, Sarah, in tow. After gently bidding her farewell, he took a seat in a hotel bar and ordered a Diet Coke. Not one for small talk, he politely began to answer questions about "Dark Waters" until Ruffalo rushed in 10 minutes later, his mouth full of pizza.

"Do you know how hard it is to get him to answer personal questions?" the actor said, immediately jumping into the conversation. "It took a while."

Ruffalo first connected with Bilott over the phone. It was an unusual situation for the attorney, who had been dutifully working at the venerable Taft Stettinius & Hollister law firm for two decades with little fanfare prior to the Times story. Suddenly, a Hollywood actor wanted to bring his story to life and was attempting to convince him that making a movie about his battle with DuPont could stoke broader public awareness.

"I could tell this wasn't just a business deal for him -- that it was something he really cared about," said Bilott, whose stern appearance belies a warm demeanor.

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