Ever since Michael Pitt made his starring film debut in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” he’s only done movies and TV shows he’s been passionate about. Not all of Pitt’s movies have been hits – far from it - but he said he enjoys having a resume filled with projects he’s proud of.
“Sometimes it’s hard to be patient,” said the actor. “But my hope is that, as the years go on, all of my choices are going to come into context.”
Those choices include challenging, off-beat films like “Funny Games,” Michael Haneke’s insightful essay on screen violence starring Pitt as a home-invading psychopath; “Last Days,” Gus Van Sant’s fictionalized look at the last days of a Kurt Cobain-ish grunge rocker; and “Rob The Mob,” a true-crime comedy about a couple who knock over mafia social clubs for cheap thrills.
At one point after “Funny Games” and before he landed the career-boosting role of Jimmy Darmody on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” Pitt went nearly three years without an acting job.
“It was very scary,” said the actor who lives in Brooklyn with model Jamie Bochert and their cat Crackhead. “People say that you’re never going to work again. You have people around you who can make money off of you, saying you should take on the [commercial projects].
“They’re constantly saying that you aren’t being seen enough or you aren’t famous enough…It takes a toll on you. It can wear you down. I think it takes a lot of courage and discipline to stay on your own track.”
Ever since leaving “Boardwalk Empire” a few years ago, Pitt has tried to reach out to filmmakers he admires. Last year, he took a meeting with “Another Earth” writer/director Mike Cahill and was dazzled by some of the filmmakers’ ideas.
“One of the reasons I was interested in Mike Cahill was that I don’t see many people making science-fiction films the way he does,” said Pitt, 33. “Mike has the kind of voice that should be encouraged because he makes the kind of movies that, I think, will hold up over time.”
Cahill eventually pitched Pitt the story that became “I Origins,” which is now playing in Philadelphia and is expected to open nationwide on Aug. 1.
Pitt stars in the movie as Dr. Ian Gray, a molecular biologist studying the evolution of the eye. He finds his work bleeding into his private life after an encounter with an exotic young woman (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) with seemingly unique peepers.
But that’s only the beginning of a twist-filled story which, at its best, investigates the intersection between religion and science. “Another Earth” topliner Brit Marling co-stars as Ian’s lab partner and eventual wife.
“What I like about this movie is that I think it opens the door to a good conversation about spirituality and science – and how those things can and do live in the same world,” said Pitt. “[The co-existence of faith and science] shouldn’t be a taboo subject. It should be discussed and debated and celebrated.”
“I Origins” is a sci-fi movie but, much to Pitt’s delight, it rarely follows the conventions of the genre.
“You can’t put it into a neat little box,” said Pitt. “It’s a science fiction movie but also a movie about love and spirituality. And it also has aspects of a thriller and a mystery about it as well.”
Another big attraction of the film for Pitt was getting the chance to play a character unlike any he’s portrayed before.
“Ian is pretty straight-laced, whereas I usually play roles that lean toward off-beat,” said the actor.
Before production began, Pitt prepared by studying the work of Richard Dawkins, the famed evolutionary biologist and atheist. Pitt and Marling also visited Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore, where Cahill’s brother toils as a scientist.
“We talked to the researchers and they let us participate in some of the experiments,” said Pitt. “It was a really positive experience.”
The son of an auto mechanic father and a waitress mother, Pitt grew up in the upscale suburb of West Orange, New Jersey.
“It would be more accurate to say I was closer to Orange, actually,” he said of the adjacent working-class neighborhood.
Pitt can’t remember what specifically got him interested in acting, but at about the age of 16 he dropped out of high school and left New Jersey behind to go live on his own in Brooklyn.
“I loved Jersey when I was about 15, but then I moved to New York and I instantly felt more comfortable there,” he said. “Being an artist in suburbia or in a working-class neighborhood can be tough.”
After receiving good reviews for his off-Broadway debut in Naomi Wallace’s “The Trestle At Pope Lick Creek,” the 19-year-old Pitt landed the role of a freshman quarterback on “Dawson’s Creek.” While he enjoyed working with Michelle Williams, who played his girlfriend on the show, he opted not to return after a single season.
It turned out to be a good decision because not long afterwards Pitt was working for Italian master Bernardo Bertolucci on “The Dreamers,” a unique love story set against the backdrop of Paris in the 1960s.
For the next several years, Pitt continued testing his limits with roles in films by M. Night Shyamalan (“The Village”), Gus Van Sant (“Last Days”) and Asia Argento (“The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things.”)
The chance to work with Martin Scorsese on the pilot of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” was one of the hooks that brought Pitt back to TV. The acclaimed series chronicles the rise of the mafia in Atlantic City in the 1920s.
On the show Pitt played Jimmy Darmody, the protege of crooked politician Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi). During the second season, Jimmy turned against his mentor in hopes of bringing Nucky’s reign to an end. Instead, Nucky outwitted his enemies and wound up shooting Jimmy in a harrowing scene that still ranks as one of the series highlights.
“I’m proud of the work we did on that show,” said Pitt.”My grandfather was an Italian-American and he met my grandmother in Atlantic City. So Jimmy Darmody spoke to me; he felt very close to home.”
As for being killed off rather unexpectedly at the end of the second season, Pitt said he has no regrets.
“I just hope I didn’t let the fans down too much. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to do that.”