In Todd Haynes’ whistleblower drama (now playing in select theaters, expanding nationwide Friday), the Oscar winner plays the real-life Sarah Bilott, whose husband, lawyer Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), helped expose decades of environmental contamination by chemical company DuPont.
“It’s heartbreaking and infuriating on a human level,” Hathaway says. “There wasn’t really any acting required, in terms of playing someone who was learning of (corruption) and was equal parts aghast and terrified and angry and emotional.”
Based on a 2016 New York Times Magazine article by Nathaniel Rich, “Dark Waters” begins with Rob taking on a new client: a West Virginia farmer (Bill Camp) who believes his cows’ mysterious deaths are caused by a toxic runoff from a DuPont landfill, which contaminated a creek on his land.
Rob’s work eventually leads to a study that finds roughly 70,000 people were drinking tainted water with traces of PFOA, a toxic chemical used in the production of Teflon products such as non-stick pans until 2013. DuPont was allegedly aware for years that PFOA exposure is linked to illnesses such as kidney cancer and thyroid disease, and the company was forced to pay out $671 million in personal injury lawsuits in 2017.
The story hit close to home for Hathaway, 37, already a mom to son Jonathan, 3, with husband Adam Shulman, and now “a thousand months pregnant” with a second child, she says good-naturedly by phone.
After reading the script, “I opened the drawer where I keep my pans and pots, and there was a non-stick pan,” Hathaway says. “And despite reading an article when I was pregnant with my first child that said ‘don’t use non-stick,’ there was one that had somehow slipped through the cracks and I’d been feeding my family with it for years.
“I try not to blame myself too hard in those circumstances, because I believe that we as human beings and as Americans should never be put in that position where we’re just trying to do our best, and we’re inadvertently poisoning ourselves and the people we love.”
Hathaway has always had an activist spirit, which is part of the reason why Haynes thought of her to play Sarah.
“Anne has this incredible vitality and intelligence and compassion, and you see that in her work,” says the director, best known for the Oscar-nominated “Carol” and “Far from Heaven.” “Sarah is an essential part of the story of Rob and how he was able to do what he did, but also how hard it is on a domestic relationship when somebody takes on the system.”
A vocal member of the Time’s Up movement against sexual harassment and workplace discrimination, Hathaway credits her activism to her parents, who instilled the importance of equality and inclusivity from an early age.
“I was born in the early ’80s, and there were still things I was told I couldn’t do because I was a girl,” Hathaway says. “I was really lucky I was raised in a household where that sentence was never uttered. It seems strange to me that anybody would try to put me in a box based on the way I was born, when it’s so much easier to just accept other people for how they are. So I guess that was my first awareness that the world wasn’t a fair place for everyone.”
The actress says she is grateful for her “Dark Waters” co-star Ruffalo, who has long spoken out about climate change and fracking. She also feels encouraged by the work of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg and other young environmental activists.
“I’m so inspired by them – their priorities are exactly right,” Hathaway says. “They are focused and doing all the things we tell young people to do. So I don’t understand people’s negative reaction to this generation, except to say they must be very comfortable with the greed innate in the status quo.”