Shortly after moving to Callicoon, New York, in the late aughts, Mark Ruffalo received an invitation to make the brief journey to Dimock, Pennsylvania, to meet with folks whose lives had been upended by drilling for natural gas. Nearly two dozen people brought with them binders of health records, letters they had written to environmental agencies and photos of their tap water on fire in hopes that Ruffalo, who had made no secret of his ire over the Iraq War, would extend his outspokenness to shedding light on their troubles.
Overwhelmed, he ran right out.
But that night, Ruffalo recalls on a late November evening, he lay awake in bed, his mind racing: "Who are you, Mark Ruffalo? Are you really who you say you are? Are you someone who cares about your neighbors? If someone in need who has less than you reaches out to you, are you willing to use this platform to do something righteous and good?"
It's akin to a superhero origin story, the way he tells it - if that character were a three-time Oscar nominee who over the past decade has become one of the most prominent activists among the Hollywood crowd. Between his stints as an actual superhero (the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Hulk), Ruffalo, 52, has also starred in films he hopes contribute to "a greater conversation." The latest is Todd Haynes' legal thriller "Dark Waters," concerning the pervasiveness of "forever chemicals," or toxic polyfluorinated chemicals (aka PFAS) that are non-degradable and accumulate in living creatures over time.
Seated in a room off the Ritz-Carlton lobby, Ruffalo has just returned from a day spent on Capitol Hill with lawyer Rob Bilott, the real-life inspiration behind the "Dark Waters" protagonist. In the film, which is based on a 2016 New York Times Magazine article, Rob pivots from defending chemical corporations to taking on the behemoth DuPont after discovering runoff from a nearby DuPont site has been poisoning a farmer's cows. Rob realizes there are human lives at stake, too, when he uncovers decades' worth of concealed documents linking the synthetic chemical used to make Teflon nonstick coating (as well as other household items) to serious health issues such as cancer.
On the Hill, Ruffalo and Bilott met with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader, to demand stronger action against the military's use of forever chemicals, which have been found in water supplies across the country. They also testified in a hearing alongside activists.
"I sort of believe that when the time is right, the culture calls a film like this forward," Ruffalo says. "Sometimes those movies land and they'll have impact, like 'Spotlight' or even 'The Kids Are All Right.' I don't know what's going to happen with this. I hope that we can have that greater conversation about it, but it's pretty remarkable that this movie is coming out the very week they're finally talking about doing something to regulate PFAS.
"I mean, that? That's cosmic, you know?"
Before the blockbusters, the auteur thrillers or even the romantic comedies, Ruffalo acted primarily onstage; he trained with Stella Adler, who came out of the Group Theatre. Those guys were "agitators," he says, contributing to a tradition that taught him it was important to engage politically as an actor, as an activist, as a human being in the world.
So when someone as beloved as Ellen DeGeneres preaches unconditional kindness as a defense of her controversial friendship with former president George W. Bush, as she did last month, Ruffalo isn't compelled to stick with the celebrity flock that praises her. He says what he feels, in this case tweeting that until "Bush is brought to justice for the crimes of the Iraq War . . . we can't even begin to talk about kindness."
"Listen, I think it's important that we don't forget things," he says of the tweet. "A lot of division we see in the United States right now, it's a justice issue. And if we can't hold the powerful accountable, then there's no justice in our country. And if there's no justice, then there's no way for us to agree upon anything. . . . So I do feel compelled to speak up.
"We tortured so many people. We disrupted the balance of the Middle East, right? We demonized a whole group of people based on their religion, you know? Like, really ugly things happened. I would say even more ugly things happened during that administration than what we're seeing now, that affected people in the most negative ways.
"I was outraged that we would have maybe forgotten that."
There isn't much standing in the way of Ruffalo continuing to speak his mind. He doubts any major companies are going to "pay me to be their spokesman or drive their cars" because "I might be too radical for that, which is fine." What he doesn't say explicitly is that he's also an A-lister of a more privileged demographic who has maintained his ability to draw in audiences. Those Oscar nominations arrived well after he became "anti-fracking's first famous face," as New York magazine once described him.
As for Marvel executives, Ruffalo says they don't seem to care if he ruffles feathers every once in a while as much as they hope he will never again accidentally live-stream a film at its world premiere. (The incident occurred two years ago with "Thor: Ragnarok.")
Clear of those suits, Ruffalo is challenged by another sort. During the PFAS hearing, skeptical lawmakers questioned his authority to speak on the subject at hand.
"They took some issue with me being an actor, and how dare I?" Ruffalo says, nodding with exasperation when asked whether he often receives that treatment.
"But my response is, I make these stories. I'm a storyteller, and these are real stories and real people, people that we may never hear from unless someone did tell a story about them. I'm also an American, and I have every right to be there.
"I don't work for them, they work for us, you know?"
Before approaching him outside the Taft law offices in Cincinnati, Ruffalo followed Bilott around, closely studying his gait. The two had met before, when the actor swung by the Bilott household after reaching out about the 2016 article. With this subsequent visit, he hoped to soak up as much about the lawyer's overall demeanor as he could.
It can be challenging for films like "Dark Waters" to keep the audience engaged, given that the most dramatic elements often involve characters sifting through papers. Animated protagonists can make up for that; recall Ruffalo's outburst as Boston Globe reporter Mike Rezendes in "Spotlight," a film about the visually dreary trade of print journalism.
Bilott, on the other hand, posed "an interesting acting problem to work out."
"To be true to Rob, he's not demonstrative," Ruffalo continues. "He approaches the law with this kind of equanimity of emotions and dispassionate sort of rigor. That's not what we're used to in our heroes, you know?"
The trick to centering a film on a more subdued character, per Ruffalo, is to invest enough interest in his interiority, his motivations for fighting an uphill battle. Asked what convinced him that Ruffalo could play him on-screen, Bilott doesn't mention Ruffalo's acting prowess but rather his understanding of the gravity of what had transpired. Bilott has been working for nearly 20 years to get the federal government to pass regulations restricting the emissions of forever chemicals - and still, no dice.
"Mark called, expressing interest in believing that this was a story that needed to be brought out to a wider audience," Bilott recalls over the phone. "He came out and met with me and the boys, he spent time with us. It was clear he understood the story."
Despite some past missteps, Ruffalo has remained committed to the fight for clean water, which he describes as "the thing that connects us." He joined the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in protesting the Dakota Access pipeline, for example, and hopes that the more he uses his platform in such a manner, the more others in Hollywood are encouraged to as well.
"I have seen people really drop their fear in my community, for the right reasons, and really start to speak up in profound ways that they would never have done 10 years ago," he says. "I'm not saying that I led that, but I hope that people saw, well, Ruffalo isn't getting crucified for this stuff, so maybe [if I speak out about] the things that I actually care about in the world, it'll be OK."