Actor Mark Ruffalo Blends Film and Faith-Fueled Activism in ‘Dark Waters’

Bill Camp, left, as Wilbur Tennant and Mark Ruffalo, right, as Robert Bilott in “Dark Waters,” a Focus Features release. Photo by Mary Cybulski/Focus Features

Actor Mark Ruffalo said he’s had a hard time melding his activism with storytelling.

Then Ruffalo encountered the story of the people of Parkersburg, West Virginia, who were exposed for decades to “forever chemicals” produced by DuPont, one of the world’s largest corporations.

And he was moved by attorney Robert Bilott’s 15-year battle to bring DuPont to justice, putting his family, his career and his health at risk for others.

“In a moment in time where the stories that we are being told are so cynical and the stories we hear all the time are like ‘people are just horrible people’ and ‘just be as selfish as possible’ and ‘no one’s doing anything for the greater good, really; it’s all personal gain,’ I believe in a different reality than that,” Ruffalo said.

“I believe our heroes, real heroes in the world, are the ones who are like Rob Bilott. And so I just thought it was a story that we needed to see and hear at this particular moment in time, and it really suited where I was in my career to be able to bring something like this to life.”

That’s the real-life story behind the film “Dark Waters,” which opened in wide release over the weekend.

Ruffalo produced the film and stars as Bilott. The story follows the attorney from defending chemical companies to taking them on after he is approached in the late 1990s by a farmer from his hometown who believes waste produced by the local DuPont plant is killing his cattle.

The movie also gets faith-fueled environmental activism right, according to Cassandra Carmichael, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.

Throughout the film, Bilott and farmer Wilbur Tennant’s Christian faith is portrayed matter-of-factly as a part of their lives.

Their depictions rang true for Carmichael, who works on environmental activism with Catholics, evangelical Christians, mainline Protestant Christians, Jews, members of the black church and Orthodox communities.

“From a faith perspective, we often try to carry the water for others, to help them when they need help, whether that’s building the stage for their voice or being an advocate when their voice can’t be heard or getting into the trenches with them and fighting injustice,” she said.

“I think we also work really hard to shine a light on stories that need to be told from communities and individuals that are often not heard.”

Ruffalo said during a call with faith leaders last week those depictions were intentional.

The actor recalled being approached by a man at a summer camp who questioned why Hollywood makes so many films that are hard on Christians. And he wanted to honor what is a serious part of “the reality of these people,” he said.

In one scene in “Dark Waters,” Bilott (as played by Ruffalo) frets over the cost of Catholic school for his sons as the ongoing lawsuit against DuPont takes a toll on his career, resulting in several pay cuts.

In another, his wife, Sarah Barlage Bilott (played by Academy Award winner Anne Hathaway), assures him, “You saw a man hurting and you did the Christian thing — you helped him.”

Both Bilott and Tennant are depicted attending church — not at climactic moments in which a sermon ties together the movie’s message in a neat bow, but sitting with their families, singing hymns like “You Are Near,” with its quiet assurance: “Lord, you have searched my heart, / and you know when I sit and when I stand. / Your hand is upon me protecting me from death, / keeping me from harm.”

In the call with faith leaders, Bilott, who is Catholic, pointed to the late Tennant as his motivation for taking on the lawsuit against DuPont.

Tennant, the lawyer said, was “convinced that if people just see the facts and just see what’s actually happening, the truth will come out, and people will do the right thing.”

“Despite all of the legal wrangling over the years, I really do believe when people see the information, when people are given access to the facts, that people will do the right thing at the end. It may take a while. But I still believe that,” he said.

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Source: Religion News Service