By Caryn James
With superhero blockbusters dominating the box office, films that are smaller, quieter and more character-driven have to work hard to stand out. Actor Mark Ruffalo has made a name in both genres.
Mr. Ruffalo, who plays the Hulk in the "Avengers" franchise, and earned an Oscar nomination as a reporter crusading against sexual abuse in the Catholic church in "Spotlight," stars in a whistleblower drama out Friday, "Dark Waters." The film, which Mr. Ruffalo also produced, tells the real-life story of Rob Bilott, a defense attorney for chemical companies. Mr. Bilott switched sides to represent a West Virginia farmer who believed his cattle were poisoned by runoff from a DuPont landfill. It turned out that a toxic "forever chemical," which doesn't break down in the body, had also gotten into the community's water supply. Nearly 20 years later, DuPont settled a class action lawsuit for $671 million.
"Dark Waters" is close to Mr. Ruffalo's passion for the environment, and the film's rollout includes an activist component. Tomorrow the actor is scheduled to testify about forever chemicals before a House subcommittee. That same day, Participant, an entertainment company that helped finance "Spotlight" and "Dark Waters," will launch a website with suggestions about how filmgoers can take action on the issue.
But can a socially conscious drama really move audiences and make a difference in a movie landscape filled with superheroes? Mr. Ruffalo, 51 years old, talked to the Journal about how film, activism and the Hulk blend in his career. An edited interview:
When you first heard about Rob Billot, what made you say: This should be a film?
It was after the 2016 election and I was feeling the limitations of activism for myself a little bit, and I wanted to take more control over what I was making. It was a great story about uncovering probably one of the biggest corporate crimes and cover-ups in history. I thought it had horror elements, thriller elements, elements of classic whistleblower films, and the internal conflict of becoming a plaintiff's lawyer in that corporate defense-attorney culture. But it was real and was telling us a cautionary story about where we are today.
How much of it appealed to you because of the drama and how much because it might raise awareness of environmental issues?
Listen, you can make a movie about the environment, but unless it's good, it's not going to have an impact. What you can do with storytelling that you can't do with activism, is you can transcend the politics and touch people's hearts. When they see a farmer in West Virginia with a 12th-grade education, they know who that is. That's not an elitist. People in that community in the film, they're not liberals, they're conservatives.
Why did you go to Todd Haynes to direct? His other films, like "Carol" and "Far From Heaven," are very stylized.
He does alienated people under oppressive systems really well, and he has a visual style. There could have been a version of this film that was straightforward, just-the-facts, but I knew you had to care about the people to hold the attention of an audience. I felt Todd would bring a humanity to it.
How do you reach that audience with so much competition, especially when there are new streaming services?
It's harder and harder, but there's a way to do it. It's what we did with "Spotlight." Critics respond, word of mouth grows and if it's resonating then it breaks through. But things have changed too. There are different platforms than there were before, so you're doing ads where those eyes might be. A lot of this is untested because it's happening in real time.
"Spotlight" won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Did it have real-life impact in dealing with sexual abuse?
A big part of what "Spotlight" did was embolden survivors to come forward. Then you saw things like the statute of limitations opened up in some states. The Vatican itself has started to come down on this. It's not a movie's job to actually do these things. What it does is put a focus on it that lets you know what's happening and then you can start making some choices. With "Dark Waters," people can use the film to organize around, or to say, "I saw this film, I'm going to vote this way. I didn't know about it before, but now I do."
Do you see your Avengers movies and your more serious, smaller films as two different tracks of your career?
The popularity of the Avengers gives me a kind of cachet at a particular moment, and a value in the market that works for the other things. And these other things give me longevity and some diversity in what I do, to protect me from being stuck in one world.
Has "the Hulk" money helped you do smaller films for less money?
Recently, after Martin Scorsese expressed his fear that superhero movies would squeeze out smaller films, you said there should be a national endowment to support them. How realistic is that?
I'd like to see the studios kick back some of that money into a national endowment. The government could say we'll match anybody who wants to do that, or we'll give you a tax break. There are ways to make something like that happen smoothly so that everyone can have a little piece of it.
What he does: Actor and producer
How he got there: From Kenosha, Wis., he studied at the Stella Adler Academy in Los Angeles, where "I did 30 plays in about 12 years," while working as a bartender, house painter and other odd jobs.
His big break: He got moviegoers' attention as Laura Linney's troubled brother in Kenneth Lonergan's 2000 film "You Can Count On Me," but says his industry breakthrough came four years earlier in Mr. Lonergan's Off-Broadway play "This Is Our Youth."
His obsession: "The future of the youth. What is the world we're leaving them -- the climate, the food, their water, their air, the simplest things that they're the heirs to but have had no say in. Supporting them in their demands to have the same kind of world we did, which almost doesn't seem possible at this moment in time, is a huge obsession."