When I meet with Tim Robbins, both of our minds couldn’t be further from work obligations that day. It was the first day of the impeachment hearings, after all, and when I meet him in the press suite of a hotel alongside Central Park we both do one last check on our phones before we begin to talk about his latest role. The film is “Dark Waters,” directed by Todd Haynes, which follows the real-life story of lawyer Robert Bilott (played by Mark Ruffalo) and his tireless fight against a chemical company and their negligent practices that lead to introducing cancer-causing synthetic compounds (PFOA) into our water with the production of Teflon products. As unintentional as it seemed, given our minds were both consumed by politics at that moment, it was a pretty good way to transition into talking about the film.
Robbins’ character, Tom Terp, of the Cincinnati law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, oversaw Bilott’s case against DuPont. Even though this case took time and resources from the firm, Terp was able to see the case’s importance and meaning. It was Terp’s immense bravery that drew Robbins to the role in the first place.
“I wanted to do the movie because I support this story and Todd Haynes, Mark Ruffalo and most importantly, Rob Bilott. I want to believe, well I know people like this exist. I met the guy, Tom Terp. I hope that maybe this film will inspire people like Tom Terp to put their foot down and make a moral stand. And understand that profit is not always what should be driving us. That there are other important things to humanity than how wealthy we are. That one man can change things,” says Robbins.
“Tom Terp,” he adds, “by allowing the resources of that powerful law firm to this effort probably saved a lot of lives. I wish there were more people like that. I really do. I want to believe there are. It’s tough though. How many people are willing to stand up for what they believe and risk their livelihood? Their safety, perhaps their life? It takes courage. Part of that courage is the courage to not be working in a job that’s morally reprehensible. You’ve got to pay the bills, the rent, schools, [etc.] … there’s a lot of pressure on people to make a living. How much power given the constraints of the cost of living and what you need to survive, how many people have the luxury of living a moral life? That should never be a luxury, right? It should be a bedrock principle of who we are as human beings. We have an economic system that doesn’t allow that.”
One thing that becomes abundantly clear while watching “Dark Waters” is how the EPA had never accounted for the kinds of industrial waste that companies like DuPont had been dumping for years and the willingness of these corporations to pay large amounts in order to keep the agency from looking into their practices to deeply. The inability of our regulatory agencies to keep our people safe has been something that has saddened and angered Robbins throughout his life. And after seeing that a recently leaked memo from the EPA, published in the New York Times, shows the agency’s plans to limit the amount of scientific and medical research that can be used in their future restrictions on business, well, he was absolutely furious.
“Can you f–cking believe that?” Robbins asked in disbelief. “A government agency that was set up to protect the citizens of the United States is now working on the side of industry to get rid of any science that has been conducted that was protecting people from pollutants. Including Rob’s study that was in the film, that bloodwork study that took 10 years to do, they want to throw it out. Why do they want to throw it out? Because DuPont is going to have to pay a lot of money. And DuPont is telling the EPA they want this done.”
In a sense, getting the word out against these seemingly unbeatable corporations that have more than enough money to tie up the courts should be our civic duty. Robbins feels that this movie is doing its part to hold them accountable and hopes that more are made in the future. Because once it is on the screen, the conversation leaves the theater and hits the streets.
“I’m hopeful for movies like ‘Dark Waters,’” he says. ”I’m hopeful for stories that are told that tell the truth and spread more information across ideological lines. I think we’re so tribalized right now and I don’t think people are listening to each other. It’s a dangerous place to be. I don’t think the media helps very much. There’s a lot of important information that’s not being reported on because they’re so obsessively on one topic.”
Robbins and I spent a great deal of time working each other up into a frenzy. At one moment, we laughed in disbelief. In another, we were confused by our optimism. Could anything actually change for the better? Then we both said goodbye and opened our phones to dial back in with what was happening in the world outside.