dark waters real people

In any other whistleblower drama, Tim Robbins‘ Tom Terp would be a villain. The supervising partner to Mark Ruffalo‘s corporate environmental defense attorney Rob Bilott in Todd Haynes legal drama Dark Waters (opening wide this weekend), Terp is initially skeptical about Bilott’s budding crusade against the big chemical corporation DuPont. Understandably so: One of the biggest clients for the firm where they both work, Taft Law, is DuPont. Both Terp and Bilott are close buds with DuPont’s in-house corporate counsel Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber).

But as the film heads into its eye-opening reveal of DuPont’s history of chemical cover-ups, Dark Waters pulls the rug from under our expectations of Ruffalo, Robbins, and even Garber’s characters.

The story plays out almost note-for-note to our expectations of a David and Goliath whistleblower drama: Mere days after he is promoted to partner, Ruffalo’s anxious Rob Bilott proposes legal action against DuPont to investigate the potential chemical contamination of a farmer’s land adjacent to one of the company’s West Virginia factories. Tom Terp reluctantly agrees on the condition that the case not take away from Bilott’s other work, but as the months stretch into years, Bilott grows slowly obsessed with the case and Terp gets increasingly frustrated with Bilott’s agitation of Taft Law’s valued relationship with DuPont. But in the powerful scene in which Bilott dumps all his findings in front of the Taft Law partners and reveals the decades of chemical cover-ups by DuPont, Terp does something unexpected: he throws his weight behind Bilott.

“It’s tough in a culture like that to step outside of that culture,” Robbins said in in an interview with /Film on taking on the character of Terp in Dark Waters. “How do we remember our moral compass when being guided by that compass will affect our income and our livelihood? What strength does that take? What kind of moral character does that take? …We’re living in a pretty ruthless economic system that forces us to make moral choice choices that might be compromising to us.”

The real-life Terp was one of Bilott’s biggest supporters in his 18-year legal battle against DuPont. As one of the senior partners, Terp has the closest working relationship with DuPont and its in-house legal counsel Phil Donnelly, while he and Bilott are — at first — barely friends. But when Bilott turns up irrefutable evidence against DuPont, Terp has a dramatic change of heart embodied in a passionate monologue as the lawyer rallies the other Taft partners to support Bilott’s case. It was that unexpected facet of Terp that drew Robbins to the role.

“I’m not going to do it as a stereotype character if it’s written that way,” Robbins said. “I think our job as actors is to find the complexities in human behavior, the dichotomies all good people have, the devil tugging on them. All bad people have an angel tugging at them, and everyone was a beautiful child at one point. And whatever has their lives take them on. It’s interesting stories that have interesting complexities in their characters.”

Terp may be an unusual character on the big screen, but he’s not an unusual character in real life. There are hundreds of “Tom Terps of the world,” Robbins noted, adding that he hopes that the film will encourage those people who think themselves indebted to corporate culture to “do the right thing. I feel like the story can be inspirational to people like that.”

But where Robbins is a character who audiences might expect to become the villain of the piece only to become Bilott’s greatest ally, Garber plays perhaps the most straightforward villain of Dark Waters. However, there’s a complexity to Garber’s Phil Donnelly — and a purposefulness to casting the affable Emmy-winning actor — that keeps the character from becoming too much of a cartoonish bad guy.

“Every so-called villain has a story,” Garber said. “He’s a company man, in thrall to his own conviction. He’s been there this whole time [so he sees no reason] for things to change.”

Unlike Rob Bilott and Tom Terp, Phil Ronnelly is a composite of several real people. However, Garber did go back to the source to build his performance, referring to videotaped depositions from DuPont counsels to immerse himself in the role. “I think he’s a composite of a couple people,” Garber said. “I saw a deposition [the real DuPont corporate counsel] did was able to piece together a voice and mannerisms and put it together in my subconscious. It’s an interesting villain because he’s just doing what he was told.”

Unlike Tom Terp, the real-life DuPont legal counsel retired without much fanfare — still ostensibly the company man that Garber plays. But Garber hopes that Dark Waters will be a “wake-up call” not only to the corporate lawyers of the world but to all audiences who see it.

“We can see how we’re affecting the environment every day,” Garber said. “This is true. It’s happening now. We have to be conscious of what chemicals are going into our environment. It’s a new world for all the horrors going on, but there’s much awareness and people trying to make a difference. I think it’s definitely happening.”

Robbins, who himself is well-known for his environmental activism outside of his acting career, agreed, adding, “I have hope that things will change. I know that there are very powerful, powerful people at work to try to discredit to ignore to walk away from environmental protection. I think it would be nice if this film inspired more people to stop giving money to corporations that are poisoning them. That would be a nice first step.”

Dark Waters is currently playing in select theaters. It expands to more theaters on December 6, 2019.

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