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    Graham Caldwell, at seven years old and barely four feet tall, is wearing a bomber jacket and a pink watch as he nonchalantly dips apples into yogurt at a Starbucks and talks about doing crossword puzzles with Mark.

    That’d be Mark Ruffalo, the Oscar-nominated actor. 

    The Bloom Elementary first-grader has a major movie coming out, in which he plays the son of Ruffalo and actress Anne Hathaway, his pretend mom with whom he shares his big dark eyes, calling her “Annie.” They bonded while filming in Ohio earlier this year. 

    Dark Waters, directed by Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Carol), tells the true story of an attorney who uncovered DuPont’s leak of a toxic chemical used to make Teflon in a small West Virginia town, which contaminated the water supply and was linked to several diseases, including testicular and kidney cancers. It ultimately cost DuPont hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements. But for Graham and his mother, Louisville musician Brigid Kaelin, there’s a deeper story.

    It’s a story about Graham and his grandfather, Kenneth “Kenny” Kaelin. The two were tight. Kenny Kaelin, a retired chemist who worked in hazardous-waste disposal, would pick up Graham from school. “We would go to Homemade Ice Cream & Pie Kitchen and get a cookie and ice cream,” says Graham, who called his grandfather his “Grandude.”


    Graham Caldwell with his “Grandude” about a month before diagnosis in 2018.


    In January, doctors gave word that Kenny’s sinus cancer, which had been in remission since being diagnosed in 2018, when a five-centimeter tumor was discovered after years of nosebleeds, was back. That same day, as Brigid worried, her phone rang with news from Graham’s agent. He’d landed a part in a major Hollywood movie. “I didn’t think there was any chance he’d get it, and then he did. It was sort of life-changing,” Brigid says.

    The next month, she and Graham traveled to Ohio for nearly a week of shooting. A film company non-disclosure agreement meant they could not even tell people — including Graham’s grandude — what movie they were working on. Living with Brigid and her family at the time, Kenny was curious and did some internet detective work. He zeroed in on the filming locations and movie, and read a long 2016 New York Times Magazine story about the case, Brigid says, recalling the conversation.

    The hazmat mask Kaelin wore at the chemical
    waste site in West Virginia.

    “Where were you guys?” he asked.

    “We were in Cincinnati,” she told him.

    “Was this about West Virginia? Parkersburg, West Virginia?” he said. “I worked in that plant.”

    He told her he’d been a contractor for an environmental-services firm that worked in hazardous waste, and in the late 1990s worked at the plant for several years. He often spent nights in hotel rooms in Parkersburg, helping the company find ways to burn or bury certain kinds of waste safely. He said he wasn’t involved with the leak discovered by Cincinnati- based attorney Robert Bilott —the real-life lawyer played by Ruffalo. Although Bilott was an attorney defending corporations in such cases, a family connection led him in 1998 to take the case of West Virginia farmer Wilbur Tennant, who was convinced that the runoff from a nearby DuPont plant was killing his cows. That 1999 case and a larger class-action suit would lead to huge settlements, including in 2017 when DuPont and spin-off Chemours Co. agreed to pay $671 million in cash to settle thousands of lawsuits — but admitted no wrongdoing.
     
    DuPont had already stopped using the chemical, called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), to make Teflon. According to the New York Times, DuPont knew that tests on animals from years earlier had suggested health concerns about PFOA. Some results showed cancer in rats along with birth defects. According to the movie, Bilott discovered that PFOA was leaking into the surrounding community’s drinking water, killing the farmers’ cows and sickening others. Research found a probable link between ingesting PFOA and various illnesses. (DuPont executives said during an investor call that the film “isn’t an accurate portrayal of the facts,” the Delaware News Journal reported in November, and declined to say if they were considering legal action.)

     

    Kaelin in the ’90s when he worked for DuPont.

    For Kenny, doctors said his cancer could be related to his years of exposure working with hazardous waste, though they drew no direct connection to PFOA or DuPont. But Graham’s small role in telling the story connected to his grandfather was striking, Brigid says. “I’m not a spiritual person, but it felt like it gave some sort of order to all the madness,” she says. It wasn’t the only unexpected Louisville link. Because some smaller parts were cast regionally, another role went to Barry Bernson, a longtime retired TV anchor at various stations, including WDRB, who played an attorney in Bilott’s Cincinnati firm.

    Bernson had no connection to West Virginia but says his New Jersey hometown, Lake Pompton, faced its own issues with the legacy of DuPont. According to the North Jersey Record, workers at DuPont’s Pompton Lakes munitions plant, which closed in 1964, disposed of solvents by dumping them into unlined lagoons. That migrated into groundwater, carrying cancer-causing pollutants under an adjacent neighborhood where elevated rates of kidney cancer and lymphoma have been found. “This is kind of personal for me,” Bernson says. 

    During the filming, Graham appeared in several scenes, including riding in a car with his movie parents. He had his own trailer. Between takes, he played chess and colored and got tutoring for missing school. Graham wasn’t aware of Ruffalo playing the Incredible Hulk and appearing in other movies, Brigid says. “He had no idea. It was just: ‘My pretend dad, Mark. My pretend mom, Annie.’”

    The first-grader, who was born in Scotland, has also appeared in several regional commercials and played young Macduff in Walden Theatre’s production of Macbeth. On his blog, he reviews books such as Dragons Love Tacos. (“My daddy is from Texas, and he loves tacos even though he is not a dragon.”)

    Asked about his experience playing a child named Teddy, Graham is laid-back and not loquacious. Was he nervous around movie stars? “Not really.” His time on set? “Not really hard. It was kind of fun.” In one line he had to ask a question using a swear word, he says, but didn’t want to use it in front of his mother. On another day, “I had to get strapped in a car seat that was for a three-year-old,” he says.

    But it was an education once he began to learn about the story and its connection to his grandfather. “He had so many questions. He knew that it was about a company called DuPont that had been bad,” Brigid says. Graham asked her, “Why would they do that if they knew it was poisonous to everybody?”

    For Kenny Kaelin, who went on to bartend at the former American Legion Highland Post 201 on Bardstown Road after retirement, the cancer got worse. He died at 74 in June. “He was pissed when he realized he wasn’t going to live to see this movie,” Brigid says. “One of the things Dad said at the end was, ‘Make sure you tell my story too,’” she says, explaining his belief that, “This isn’t fair, and they knew.”

    This originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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