With director Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters opening in limited release this weekend, I recently spoke with Mark Ruffalo about the fantastic and important film. As you’ve seen in the trailers, the film is based on the true story of a corporate defense attorney (Ruffalo) who discovered that a company he was working with was poisoning the residents of a small town in West Virginia for about forty years. As he attempts to figure out what happened and get justice for the people exposed to cancer causing chemicals, he risks everything to expose the truth. Dark Waters also stars Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, and Bill Pullman.
During the interview, Ruffalo talked about how the project came together, how corporations always put profits before people, how they compacted the story into a movie, if anyone has ever asked him to tone it down on social media, if he got in any real trouble for spoiling Thor: Ragnarok, if he will guest star on the MCU series She-Hulk, when is he making another Marvel movie, if he’s part of What If…, what it was like working on the HBO series I Know This Much is True with director Derek Cianfrance, and a lot more.
Check out what he had to say below.
Collider: I really respect and love how outspoken you are on Twitter, and that you’re willing to take a stand on issues that really matter. Have you ever had anyone in your sphere, agents or managers, being like, “You know, if you calmed it down a little bit it might be better”?
RUFFALO: No, actually I haven’t. Not yet, anyway. You know, I don’t know if they all agree with me, but no one’s really expressed that kind of thing. They might say something like, I’m trying to think of … No, they really have never been like that. I did have a manager back in the day who, he sort of bristled a little bit when I was just starting to get into all this. But since then, nobody’s really taking me to task about it. I get more in trouble about talking about Universal and Disney than I do about talking about this stuff.
Yeah, I was going to say, I think you have more of a case for a spoiling Marvel movies. That probably gets you in more-
RUFFALO: Yes, I’ve gotten more in trouble for that. I got more in trouble for my 10 minutes of, you know, broadcasting the first 10 minutes of Ragnarok then I have for the other things I’m doing.
Being serious, but did you actually get in trouble for that? Because I viewed that as like the greatest publicity ever.
RUFFALO: Well, it started as me in trouble, and then a day went by and I got the call like, “What are you doing? This is going too far.” And I was like, “I know, I’m sorry. That was a total accident with this one. I promise it was a total accident.”
And then 24 hours went by, and I showed up to do press and Feige was there, and Lou D’Esposito. And I walked over, and as I was saying, “I apologize,” they were telling me, “That was genius. We got more press from that than from the premiere, and it couldn’t have gone better. We couldn’t have thought of a better stunt. So kudos on you this time.” Yeah. So it turned out to be, it was what my friends call a “Ruffalo”. It’s what starts to look like bad luck, but then you realize it was good luck dressed as bad luck.
Right. I predict that in the future you will not be allowed to bring phones into your premiers.
RUFFALO: I wouldn’t be surprised by that.
Jumping into why I get to talk to you, Dark Waters is fantastic.
RUFFALO: Yeah, man. Thank you.
It’s another one of these movies that’s just really important. And so, when you were presented with this, I’m assuming for you, this was like, “Yeah. I’m doing this.”
RUFFALO: Well, I read the article in the New York Times, and at that point I wanted to develop things and start producing more. And so I read that, and immediately, it was funny. My agents, I read it that morning, my agents reached out to me that afternoon and were like, “Hey, did you read this article?” I said, “Yes.” They said, “Would you be interested in optioning it? We think it’s something that’s right in your wheelhouse.” I’m like, “It’s funny, I read that and I was just thinking the same thing myself.” And they were like, “Well, let’s put together a meeting.”
And we started getting into a bidding process for it. And in the middle of that, I got a call from, I think it was Robert Castle, I think it was Robert Castle, at Participants saying, “Hey we’re both interested in this, why don’t we join forces?” And I said, “Okay.” And at that point, I’d already talked with Rob Bilott, and had asked him and kind of told him my vision for it, and wanted to know what kind of conflict he was experiencing at Taft, because the article really didn’t get into that. But I felt that was essential to make a movie of it. And his wife was on conference call, she’s like, “If you option it, we’ll tell you everything.” Yeah. And that became it.
And I just thought, “Man, what an amazing story. This has to be told.” It’s so different. It’s a corporate defense attorney, the guy who normally works for these people, takes on a case from a farmer with a 12th grade education that he knew when he was a kid, and he fights against his own system within his own law firm as well as this bigger system and he prevailed? Jesus Christ. And it’s the biggest corporate crime committed, and we don’t know anything about it with a 50 year cover up? Oh my God, this is great storytelling.
One of the things that I firmly believe is that unfortunately, and I think you probably agree with me, very few companies put people first. You know, it’s always about the profits. It’s always about making money.
And I think a lot of people are just ignorant to the fact. They think that in the end, corporations are going to be good. In actuality, that’s never the case.
RUFFALO: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Nope. You’re absolutely right. And I really, yes, this is about PFOA, but I also saw it’s about a much bigger conversation that we’re in the midst of having right now. And is this government, is it responsive to us that people have given up our power, given up our freedom, give up our tax money, in an agreement that you will look out for us, you will keep us safe? Is it responsive as to us, or is it responsive to a corporate hegemony?
And we see time and time again, whether we’re talking about fracking and poisoning of water, to lies about oxycodone not being addictive, to the tobacco industry, to the fossil fuel industry, and Exxon hiding the climate science for 30 years away from us. And then all of the regulatory systems that have been, have fudged it or looked the other way to allow all these things to happen; that’s the moment we’re living in. And that’s the question we should be asking. And I hope this movie helps spur that discussion because we need to have it.
Absolutely. One of the things about this is you’re playing a real person, you’re telling a real story, but you’re also making a movie. So sort of talk about toeing that line of trying to be as honest as you can, while also making a two hour movie.
RUFFALO: Yeah. So from a venture, like compressing, some things you’ve got to leave out, because the whole story about the DOJ and this becoming a criminal case, and then just being dropped out of the blue is a movie by itself, of corruption and corporate cronyism with politics and even the DOJ. So we couldn’t get into that kind of stuff. That’s one of the things you lose when you’re doing a two… if we were to make this into a mini-series, which at one point I was talking to Todd [Haynes], like maybe we should, there’s so much here we can’t get into everything that really should be aired. You know, we decided to make it into a movie. But what you end up doing is truncating things and losing things and compressing time.
But as far as the story of Wilbur Tennant, what Rob went through with his family, and at work, and his health, all of the facts of the PFOA, how he came to find that, all of that is 100% true. Everything’s been run through the participant law office to make sure that everything we were saying could be backed up by our own documents and Rob’s documents.
One amazing thing about a story like this is, Rob was so meticulous that it’s unassailable. There’s no angle anyone could possibly take, because the guy, first of all, does not embellish anything. You can see how dispassionate he is. He does not come from emotions. You know, he is by the books. And so that, that gives us a lot of freedom, and a lot of safety to be able to tell the story the way it happened, because it’s so well documented.
I recently spoke to Matt Damon and Christian Bale for Ford v Ferrari, and I asked them a question that I want to also ask you.
I really enjoy your work.
RUFFALO: Thank you, man. Thank you.
I’m curious, do you still ever get nervous before filming? Or do you feel like, and I asked them the same question because I love their work as well, are you at the point now where you’re like, “I got it.”
RUFFALO: No, I’ll tell you, Anne and I had a rehearsal with Todd as we were approaching like maybe a week out from shooting. And I was really having a, I was in a crisis of confidence. And we walked out of there, and we were headed to the elevator, and I was like… (exhales). And she said, “What’s the matter?” And I was like, “I don’t know that I can do this. I don’t know.” I mean, I was freaking out. I was having like a little panic attack, and she, much like Sarah probably, was like, “What are you talking about? You’ve been doing this for years. You’ve been working on this for years, and you know this so well, and you know Rob so well and you developed it.” And she gave me a pep talk, but yes, I’m always freaking out about it.
Once you’re in it and you don’t have time to think anymore, then some of the nerves start to dissipate a little bit. But leading up to it, I’m always freaking out. I always feel like, “This is the one they’re going see I’m just a phony. I don’t know what I’m doing.”
It’s funny. It’s really funny to hear, and I think it will reassure actors who are going to read this interview, that even the great ones are still nervous.
RUFFALO: What did they say? Did they say the same thing?
You know it’s funny, I posted the interview this morning. If you go to Collider, you could watch what they say.
RUFFALO: Okay, I’ll check it out. I’d love to see that. I’d love to see that movie. That looks good.
Yeah, they’re real good in it. And they also sing a little bit of “Take On Me” by a-ha on camera, which I couldn’t believe they did.
RUFFALO: Oh my God. That’s great.
Yeah, but Matt said something to the effect of he hadn’t worked for two years, and he was actually very nervous before filming because he said, “When I’m working all the time, you go into it, you got it.” But after taking a break, you know, he was nervous about it. And Bale said something to the effect of he thinks, when are people going to figure out he’s a phony, or something like that.
RUFFALO: Wow. Yeah. I know that feeling very well. That’s actually reassuring to hear that those two guys feel the same way. I love that.
I’ve heard this from a lot of people. It’s very interesting. But I think that a lot of people I’ve spoken to also say that after a few days they feel a lot better, once they’re in it.
RUFFALO: Yes. Yes, that’s true.
So listen, before I run out of time, and I have a million other questions: I put on Twitter I was going to talk to you and a lot of people wanted to know if there’s any chance that you’re going to be in the She-Hulk MCU show.
RUFFALO: I don’t know. I would not rule it out at this point. And I’m supposed to have a talk with Kevin Feige in the next couple of months. So you know, who knows. That’s how it all started. So that might turn into something.
Do you know, actually, when you’re doing another MCU thing, or is it up in the air right now?
RUFFALO: No, no, it’s all up in the air. I started asking as End Game was winding down and my contracts were up, I was like, “So, you know, is there a place for me here?” And the response was, “Well, we’re going to let this sort of come to an end and then see where we are somewhere in the future.” So I just took that as a really nice way of saying probably not.
RUFFALO: Yeah. I know. I know. How could we stop?
There’s no way that fans would be cool with you not playing Hulk anymore.
RUFFALO: Well, that’s great to hear.
There’s a 0% chance. You know what I mean? Like fans-
RUFFALO: Well, that’s amazing to hear, yeah.
People love you in the role.
RUFFALO: That’s great.
But I think you did record, or are you recording, for that What If…? cartoon?
RUFFALO: I don’t know. That’s still, I think so, but I haven’t really heard. I don’t know what’s happening with that. It sort of seems off again, on again, so I don’t know. I haven’t really heard back from them.
Oh, that’s interesting. I just spoke to Chadwick and he said he recorded something for the What If…? show.
RUFFALO: Oh, he did?
RUFFALO: All right. So then I’m sure I’m somewhere in the docket. I’ve been pretty busy, so I know they tried to get me in maybe a month or so ago, but I couldn’t do it because I was shooting, and then they said, “Okay, we’ll come back.” But then I didn’t hear if other people were doing it or not. So yeah, it’s good that Chadwick’s doing it.
I think the show doesn’t premiere until like 2021, and I would wager they’re probably animating, you know what I mean?
RUFFALO: Yes. I would probably say that’s true too.
Didn’t you just film this HBO thing? I Know This Much is True. Are you still filming that?
RUFFALO: Yeah, yes. No, I literally just wrapped like a couple of days before I started doing press for this.
That sounds like a wild ride.
RUFFALO: That was seven months.
RUFFALO: Oh my God, it’s amazing. It’s really, it’s going to be interesting. And Derek Cianfrance, man, that guy is a genius. And we had an amazing, I mean it was brutally tough shoot. But man, I think we did some good work there.
Well, that’s actually what I wanted to ask you about. I’m a huge fan of Derek’s, and one of the things that I love about his work is that it just feels borderline documentary. Like you’re there, you know?
RUFFALO: Yes, yes. Yes.
So could you sort of talk-
RUFFALO: Yes, that immediacy.
Yes. And also, I don’t know if he’s going to do it on the show, but he does a lot of long takes, and the way he films things, the cinematography is always so good. Could you sort of share what it was like?
RUFFALO: It was so beautiful. Yeah, Jody Lee Lipes shot it. He’s amazing. My first day of work was a 23 page scene.
RUFFALO: We had 25 minutes of filming, and we had a thousand foot of 2-perf that we were shooting. So we basically got about 25 minutes worth of film. We spent the whole day shooting that scene over and over again from beginning to end. He would give us a note, maybe on one section of it, but we’d start at the beginning and shoot the whole thing. And it was a 25 minute scene. And that was our first day shooting. That’s how we broke everybody in. And we do long takes. It’s very free emotionally. He creates a space where he wants you to fuck up. He wants you to push the boundaries. You always feel like you’re just kind of tripping over yourself. You’re never quite on your feet. You’re not flat on your feet, you’re always just a little bit out of control, which gives it that immediacy.
And I play two characters. One of the identical brothers, one of them’s schizophrenic. We stopped shooting for six weeks so I could put on 30 pounds and totally change my look and character for the schizophrenic brother. And he’s doing some really bold stuff on this thing. And I don’t want to get ahead of it too much, but I’m really proud of what we were able to do while we were shooting it.
First of all, I didn’t realize you put on all that weight and took that break in filming. That’s amazing.
RUFFALO: Yeah, that was exciting.
I will ask you, now that you’ve wrapped, something that I’m really excited about is Newsflash. Is that thing happening?
RUFFALO: I don’t know. It was sort of on again and off again. I don’t know. And they changed directors. So I want to see what they’re … you know they’re doing a new draft, so I want to see what it is and when it is, because I’m a little wiped out right now. And I’m going to take, my family misses me, I’m going to take a long break. So depending when, where, and how that’s happening, will be if I’m in that or not anymore.
Sure. Hey listen man, I really mean it. Congrats on this film and I’m really happy that this got made.
RUFFALO: Thank you, Steve. Thank you.
Because a light needed to be shined on this.
RUFFALO: Thank you, man. I appreciate that so much, dude. You have such good taste. I really appreciate it.