My Interview with Mark Ruffalo on his Film Dark Waters, Activism, and Fatherhood

In the film, Dark Waters, Mark Ruffalo plays Rob Bilott, a corporate attorney who switches sides to take on a major corporation on behalf of the citizens of a small West Virginia town. I got the opportunity to interview Mr. Ruffalo about the film, his activism, and fatherhood.

Q: How has being a dad influenced your decisions?

MR: I got way more active. What happened was I moved my family to Upstate New York because I wanted my kids to live in a clean and safe environment with clean air and clean water and we landed in the middle of the fracking lens and during this giant fracking boom. And you know, people were like, “help us.” And we were like, uh, uh, I don’t know. And then I started thinking about my kids and our water getting poisoned, and my neighbors water getting poisoned, and my kids swimming in the poisoned rivers; I really started to say, ok, you GOT TO DO something for them. You know? You can’t leave this world like this. And that started to become the lens that all my activism has been working from. Either from climate change or fracking, or communities where they’re doing fossil fuel extraction or even immigration. What they’re doing to those kids! It’s all now about kids. Not just my kids; it’s about the kids of the world. And what we’re leaving them. So that’s kind of the lens I see through now, and it started from being a father.
Q: How do you balance work and life?
MR: That’s really hard and somebody’s taking some sacrifice somewhere. And it falls on the spouse who’s at home to do the unsung hero work. But life is all about finding balances in completely unbalanced situations. My kids ask, “Are you going away to work or are you going to fight fracking.” If I’m going away to work, they’re like, “Ahhhh!”
Q: Here you get to do both.
MR: Yeah. That’s the whole impetus. I want to tell stories, because stories transcend politics. And they remind us of our common humanity and there’s only so far you can go with activism. And it sometimes can be alienating to the very people that need to hear it. I really wanted to find a way to take this story and meld them.

Q: As a producer on the film, did you sense an urgency to get this film out now?
MR: Yeah, a movie takes 5 to 7 years to get made. We did this in less than 3 years. And thank god for Participant and Killer Films and Todd (director Todd Haynes), because everyone sensed the urgency in this. We weren’t done with this until 2 weeks ago. Todd didn’t have a finish film. It usually takes him a year. He did this in less than 6 months. And so, it has been on the fast track because everybody sensed it was topical. And it’s going to be a big conversation in 2020 and leading up.
Q: What was it about the PFOA scandal that made you want to make a film about that?
MR: The enormity of it blew my mind that a corporate defense attorney is brought into it because of a beautiful childhood memory where he milked a cow on a farm. Like he belonged. His connection to his grandmother. The fact that he worked in the biggest, hardest, most conservative law firm in the nation that was so pro-corporation. So pro self-regulation and in a community that doesn’t have a single liberal, fighting the good fight because it was right. I was like, this is a story for the ages. This is a story that has to be told today. And it’s a thriller. It’s a horror story. It’s a whistleblower. So many cinematic elements. It can be popular and an issue movie. To me, it’s PFOA, but also a system of us being betrayed on behalf of someone else making a few more dollars or a lot more dollars, but it’s all upside down. We give all our power away. Or freedom away to a government that we expect to take care of us. We give our money to them and they are absolutely letting us down.
Q: I saw you tweeted out the New York Times article from the 11th about the E.P.A limiting science used to write public health rules.
MR: It’s disgusting.
Q: It is terrible. And a previous NY Times article back in September stated there were 85 EPA rollbacks during the Trump Administration. And, this takes place in West Virginia which is largely a pro- Trump state. Why do you think in places like West Virginia, where people are being poisoned, still continue to support him despite these rollbacks?
MR: Because they have jobs. And it’s gotten to the point in America where they even polled them and after knowing all this, asked, “What do you think about PFOA and Dupont,” and they’re like, “honestly, I don’t care. I may die 20 years before I’m supposed to die or 10 years, 15 years; but I have a job.” And that’s the cynical and sad place we’ve come to as a nation where whole industries are choosing money over health and the people need a job. And there’s no one there to protect them. The unions are being wiped out or coopted. The EPA is captured and become a political entity, but still is just pro-corporate. The whole democracy now is in service of capitalism instead of capitalism being a service to our democracy. And that’s where the perversion happens and that’s why we’re in the place we are. At least how I see it in my humble opinion.
Q: How has making the film changed your day-to-day life and habits?
MR: Well, because of fracking, I already felt water was suspect. So, I use really good water filters. Obviously, no Teflon. You can use stainless steel or cast iron. If you do it right, it won’t stick. So, getting rid of that. And water. Water proofing in our clothes. Firemen are getting sick because of the fireproofing that are sprayed into their fire gear and it’s in contact with their skin all day long. Getting rid of Gor-Tex. Buying from companies that don’t use PFOA in their clothing. Lot of this is marketing. The more people that stay away, the less they’ll want to use this class of chemicals. But they keep changing the name. Our favorite progressive clothing companies still use this stuff. So, you know, almost anything that’s rain proof. Unless it’s waxed. (Laughing.)
Q: I’m going to leave this interview feeling terrible.
MR. I actually have a lot of hope. What I do see is people talking. They weren’t talking about this stuff, but we are now like we never have. And we’re organizing and listening. I would beg people to help out with these issues and ask celebrities, and they’re like no dude, I don’t want to get involved with that. That’s too political. Now I have people calling and asking, “WHAT CAN I DO?” I DON’T KNOW WHAT I WAS DOING!” And that’s across the board. And these issues are coming and everyone’s talking to each other. It used to be all siloed and environmental people and the civil rights people were over here and now it’s all one big conversation about system change. And that’s what we need right now.
Q: What would you say to a parent that watched the film and is outraged.
MR: is our advocacy campaign and what we’re setting up. And it will be from what products have PFOA in them and what not to buy. What to buy and where to buy it. That will be where people will immediately be able to take some control over. Go to legislators. Support front line communities throughout the United States by donating money directly to those communities instead of to one of the big greens that suck off 80 percent of it and some might trickle down to front line communities. But really send to front lines and help their experience and put them in the limelight and press conferences and get their stories told. Any support you can give those communities on social media and your networks. Peer to peer. I mean, peer-to-peer is really the most powerful thing. Go see this movie and let’s talk about it. This is what I know. Who are you in a relationship with and how can you influence those relationships? Probably the most powerful thing we can do right now is work within our own communities. But they’ll be good communication coming through this ad campaign, which I personally have been working hard on. We’ve been working hard on this and wanted to have something that has legs and can last long past the movie. 

Read my review of Dark Waters here.


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