Nov. 22 (UPI) -- Avengers icon Mark Ruffalo said he wanted to produce and star in Dark Waters because the film gave him the chance to play an unconventional hero in a shocking true story of corporate greed at the expense of public health.
"I was just floored by something so big that spanned so many decades that was such a crime. So many people must've looked the other way to have allowed it to happen. There were so many players involved," the 51-year-old Wisconsin native told UPI in a recent phone interview.
Director Todd Haynes' critically acclaimed movie is due in theaters Friday.
Part legal thriller, part detective story, it follows Rob Bilott (Ruffalo), a Cincinnati attorney who usually defends chemical companies, but who gets roped into suing Dupont on behalf of the residents of the small town of Parkersburg in his native West Virginia.
"There is every element in this that could be a really popular genre type film, but that's totally true. I felt that's rare," Ruffalo said. "The setup is rare and this is a movie for our time because it's really talking about a whole system that's betrayed us. It's bigger than corporate greed. It's a system that is entrenched in American politics."
The company made products using PFOA and PFOS, fluorinated chemicals that, according to the film, sickened those who worked with them and used them dating to the 1950s.
Dupont also was accused of dumping waste in streams and rivers near farms that slowly killed livestock and people. The self-regulating company got away with it for so long because it set the standard for what was considered a safe level of the chemicals in water supplies.
"Even before they launched it, they knew how harmful it was. They knew that it caused cancer, diseases, birth defects, and they went ahead and brought it to the market, anyway. That's the part of it that we never heard about," Ruffalo said.
Dupont has settled many of the suits since Bilott started his crusade two decades ago. The company no longer makes the dangerous chemicals that were used for years on non-stick pans, carpets and furniture.
In addition to showing the painstaking work Bilott did to prove the chemicals were linked to health crises, the film depicts how difficult it was for people to accept that the region's biggest employer and benefactor could be hurting them.
"American workers have to make a choice between a job and their health," Ruffalo said.
"These communities will tell you today they don't care if they are not going to live out their lives naturally because they've got a good job and (the company) paid for their kids' football team jerseys and, sadly, that's where we are in this capitalist system," he said.
The actor joined Bilott and the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to call on Congress to protect Americans from toxic "forever chemicals" that contaminate drinking water, food and personal care products in communities across the country.
The Spotlight and Shutter Island star said he admires Bilott because the attorney followed his conscience and switched sides, "fighting his own culture to find the truth."
Ruffalo said he learned a lot from Bilott and now regards him as a close friend who has made him a better person. But it took some time for the actor to earn the other man's trust.
"Real Rob is not an emotionally demonstrative person. Through real life experience, I would say he is guarded. He is stoic, he's modest. So, to tell a story about him and focus on him, which is antithetical to his being, can be its own detective work," Ruffalo laughed.
Playing a real person who still is alive comes with tremendous responsibility.
"You make a journey with them," Ruffalo said. "You make an unspoken pact with them that you will do your best to be as honest as you possibly can about who they are."
Bilott is seen in the movie as consumed by his work, risking his job, family's happiness and even his health to help clients.
Ruffalo, on the other hand, tries not to let what he learns through work lead to obsession. He seeks to fix injustice or corruption through his activism and by making films that inspire change.
"I've seen movies nudge the needle culturally," he said.
"I know the power of that, if the movie is good and you tell the truth and you deliver it in a way that is accessible to people emotionally. That's my contribution. These things do scare the [expletive] out of me. ... I worry about my kids," Ruffalo said.
"As I do activism work, I tell myself, 'If you are losing hope, it's because you're not doing enough.' Taking an action is, in itself, a hopeful act. So, making a movie about these kinds of issues is a hopeful act. It's an act that reassures that people are basically decent."
Dark Waters co-stars Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman and Victor Garber.