'Dark Waters': 7 of the Film's Stars and Their Real-Life Inspirations

3:24 PM 11/30/2019

by Christy Piña

Find out the true story behind the characters played by Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway and other stars in the legal thriller.

'Dark Waters'
'Dark Waters'
Courtesy of: Focus Features

Dark Waters follows Robert Bilott's (Mark Ruffalo) real-life legal battle against DuPont over the release of a toxic chemical into Parkersburg, West Virginia's water supply, affecting 70,000 townspeople and hundreds of livestock.

As a corporate defense attorney on the environmental team at Taft Stettinius & Hollister in Cincinnati, Bilott spent most of his time defending companies like DuPont. But when a farmer from his grandmother's hometown approached Bilott about his dead cattle, Bilott decided to look into it as a favor to his grandmother. "It just felt like the right thing to do," Bilott said in the 2016 New York Times Magazine article that served as a basis for the film. "I felt a connection to those folks."

Wilbur Tennant, played by Bill Camp in the film, showed Bilott videos and pictures he had taken of his cows foaming at the mouth and staggering in ways they hadn't before, with lesions covering their hides. Bilott immediately took on the case. Soon after, he found evidence that DuPont had been dumping toxic chemical waste into the town's water supply, near a creek where Tennant raised his cows, which resulted in a legal fight against the company that lasted more than a decade.

Focus Features' Dark Waters, directed by Todd Haynes, also stars Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham and Bill Pullman.

Read on to find out more about the real-life inspirations behind the characters these actors portray.

  • Robert Bilott, portrayed by Mark Ruffalo

    Mary Cybulski/Focus Features; ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

    Longtime activist Mark Ruffalo read the article in the New York Times Magazine and went after the film rights, eventually partnering up with Participant to produce it.

    "I felt like there was something missing from the original story at Taft," Ruffalo said at the Produced By: New York conference Nov. 9. "Some sort of conflict that was happening that really wasn't in the article." When Ruffalo asked Bilott about it, his wife told the actor and producer of the film to get the rights, and they would tell him everything. Bilott became a part of the entire filmmaking process after that.

    "What's remarkable about Rob [Bilott] is he's not your typical hero," Ruffalo said later in the conference. "He's a very modest guy, and we really went for that. He's not a hero because we want to be him, he's a hero because we don't."

  • Sarah Bilott, portrayed by Anne Hathaway

    Mary Cybulski/Focus Features

    Anne Hathaway plays Bilott's wife, Sarah, whom he met through a co-worker at Taft. Focus Features' synopsis of Dark Waters states that taking on DuPont tested Bilott and Sarah's relationship.

    "It was stressful," Sarah, who was a lawyer before she stopped working to be a stay-at-home mom, told the New York Times Magazine about the case. "He was exasperated that it was lasting a long time. But his heels were so dug in. He's extremely stubborn. Every day that went by with no movement gave him more drive to see it through. But in the back of our minds, we knew that there are cases that go on forever."

    Hathaway hasn't shared much about playing her character, but on Sept. 18, she posted the trailer to her Instagram and shared how happy she was to be a part of Dark Waters. On Nov. 15, Hathaway said she was sad she wasn't able to join her fellow castmembers at the premiere, but she was "so proud of their work on this special and necessary film," she wrote in her caption of two cast photos on Instagram.

  • Thomas Terp, portrayed by Tim Robbins

    Mary Cybulski/Focus Features

    When the trailer was released on Sept. 18, Tim Robbins tweeted: "Proud to be part of this compelling and important story about a real American hero."

    Robbins takes on the role of Thomas Terp, Bilott's supervisor on the environmental team at Taft. Though hesitant at first, Terp became one of Bilott's strongest allies in the cases against DuPont.

    The actor spoke to Terp via Skype about the case. He "showed incredible courage in taking on DuPont," Robbins told NBC Boston. "The reason why I wanted to play this guy is because there are people out there who may not be ideologically aligned but still see the difference between right and wrong."

    Taking on a huge corporation like that "did cause us pause," Terp told the New York Times Magazine. "But it was not a terribly difficult decision for us. I'm a firm believer that our work on the plaintiff's side makes us better defense lawyers."

  • Wilbur Tennant, portrayed by Bill Camp

    Mary Cybulski/Focus Features

    Wilbur Tennant approached West Virginia lawyers, journalists and politicians about his concerns regarding his cows before bringing the case to Bilott. However, nobody wanted to take on a corporation as big as DuPont, primarily because it employed a big chunk of people in the small town.

    Bill Camp, known for his supporting roles in movies like Lincoln and 12 Years a Slave and limited series such as The Night Of and The Looming Tower, plays Tennant.

    Camp learned some of Tennant's real-life traits from his brother and sister-in-law, since the farmer died in the midst of the cases against DuPont. "There were sides of him that I was really grateful to find out about — personal sort of traits of his that were really useful," Camp told Free Pix Mail at the premiere Nov. 13.

  • Phil Donnelly, portrayed by Victor Garber

    Mary Cybulski/Focus Features

    Phil Donnelly was an executive at DuPont as Bilott took on the company, and Victor Garber was more than happy to play the part.

    "It was the best screenplay I've read since Argo, so yeah I thought it was brilliant and also the people involved. It was like a gift for me! I loved it," he told Closer Weekly. "The subject matter is so important and so timely and so disturbing, and I did see a screening of it, so I can talk very supportively about it. It's an incredible movie."

  • Darlene Kiger, portrayed by Mare Winningham

    Mike Coppola/Getty Images; Ernesto Distefano/Getty Images

    Mare Winningham takes on the role of Darlene Kiger, a Parkersburg resident whose first husband was a chemist for DuPont and worked in its PFOA (the toxic chemical found in the town's water) lab. "When you worked at DuPont in this town, you could have everything you wanted," Kiger told the New York Times Magazine. The company paid for her husband's education, their mortgage and gave him a hefty salary.

    Six years after her first husband told her he couldn't bring his work clothes home because PFOA caused health problems for women and birth defects in children, Kiger had to have an emergency hysterectomy.

    Years later, Kiger and her second husband received a letter from their local water district explaining that PFOA had been found in drinking water but insisting that they weren't at risk. "I kept thinking back to his clothing, to my hysterectomy," she told the magazine. "I asked myself, what does DuPont have to do with our drinking water?"

  • Harry Deitzler, portrayed by Bill Pullman

    ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

    Harry Deitzler was a personal injury lawyer who worked with Bilott in his class-action suit against DuPont. According to The News Journal of Wilmington, Delaware, after the chemical company settled the suit, Deitzler used the money to test everyone who had been in contact with the toxins in the water. Medical examinations found that exposure to the chemical was linked to multiple diseases like testicular and kidney cancer, ulcerative colitis and thyroid disease.

    Bill Pullman plays Deitzler and spoke highly of his character at the Dark Waters premiere. He said that because Bilott was a big-time corporate lawyer, Deiztler was the local, small-town guy they brought in to show the human side of the case. Deitzler had seen the movie before Pullman and said that he really liked it. "He was so glad that he was part of the story," Pullman told Free Pix Mail.

    "I'm proud that this movie got made, and I feel lucky that I was part of it — something to educate and motivate people to do the right thing," the actor added.