'I Origins' Star Michael Pitt Talks About the Latest Sundance Favorite from the Director of 'Another Earth'
By Jason Guerrasio
Following an incredible stint playing Jimmy Darmody on Boardwalk Empire, Michael Pitt has been flying under the radar. Thankfully for us he hasn’t been taking a break. In fact, he’s been working hard with four films in the can. The first we’ll see him in is I Origins, Mike Cahill’s follow-up to the indie fave Another Earth.
In the film Pitt plays Ian, a scientist whose specialty is studying the eye. Along with his lab partner (played by Brit Marling), the two try to create functioning eyes for species that can’t see.
Okay, we may have lost you. Michael Pitt playing a white lab coat-wearing med student? Trust us, it gets good.
I Origins explores not only our need to push the boundaries of science but is a deep story of love found, lost, and then recaptured once more in an unthinkable way. It test our beliefs of our existence and in the case of Pitt, is a performance from him we’ve never seen before and only solidifies why he’s one of our best and most fearless young actors working today.
We chatted with Pitt at the Sundance Film Festival, where the film premiered this week, to talk about creating this character, if he keeps up on Boardwalk Empire and the master plan behind his choice of roles.
Movies.com: Had you seen any footage before the premiere?
Michael Pitt: Yeah.
Movies.com: What did you think?
Pitt: I saw a number of assemblies, Mike would always be like, “Come over and see this!” So I saw a lot of different versions and run times, but it really solidified seeing the final version.
Movies.com: But the earlier versions you saw you enjoyed?
Pitt: Well, I always try not to be too confident. I’m constantly trying to up the game, so often times I’m looking for the imperfections because I want to figure out how to get better. Sometimes I’m least interested in the stuff that works. If it’s good I’m like, great, now let me see the bad stuff.
Movies.com: What drew you to the Ian character?
Pitt: It’s a character that I never played before. I’d always been interested in science, I wasn’t able to spend a lot of time at school, for many reasons, but as a kid I was always fascinated by this and it was kind of an excuse to really take some time and research and explore that.
Movies.com: Your portrayal of a scientist was so convincing—
Pitt: That’s my job. [Laughs]
Movies.com: Yes, but did you do a lot of research? Did you understand the stuff you were saying?
Pitt: Most of the time I did. I’m a big researcher. I think the best actors, when they do stuff they make it look easy and often times, like in my other films, people aren’t aware by how much research I do.
Movies.com: This one is more evident.
Pitt: I guess because this character is so different you get to see some of that work.
Movies.com: What were the conversations you had with Mike about the character?
Pitt: There were constant talks about the character. Mike has a brother who is a molecular biologist, so we spent a lot of time at the John Hopkins center in Baltimore. Me and his brother got to stay there and work and he turned me on to a guy named Richard Dawkins who’s an educator atheist and the direction I really wanted to go in and Mike was all for it, was trying to set up a character that was so persistent about facts, because you have to be. Their livelihood is based on their facts. So this was certainly a collaborative development of the character. And Mike is a genius of making it happen. Most directors would kill that before they even know what it is, but the good ones that I work with don’t. The best ones direct you when you need direction.
Movies.com: How have things been after Boardwalk Empire? This is the first big thing we’ve seen you in since you left the show, but it looks like you’ve been shooting a lot.
Pitt: After Boardwalk, pretty much right after, I said I want to work. I did this movie, I did a black comedy called Rob the Mob, did something with Larry Clark, there’s a novel that I adapted. So I’ve made four films in that time. They work you so hard on Boardwalk that it gave me a lot of endurance.
Movies.com: Are you still a fan of the show, do you watch it?
Pitt: You know what, I don’t have time to watch it. But all my friends are still on the show. I try to grab it when I can.
Movies.com: Were you surprised by Richard Harrow’s death?
Pitt: Oh no. Pretty much to me it’s not a mystery, anyone who’s not Nucky is going to die.
Movies.com: Did you like playing the Jimmy Darmody character?
Pitt: I loved playing that character. I loved every day working on that. That character in particular meant a lot to me based on my ancestry, I really felt the soul of that character. I’m a New Yorker, it’s filmed in New York, has a New York crew, there’s a sense of pride to that. I had an amazing time.
Movies.com: Have you changed the way you choose characters at all compared to earlier in your career?
Pitt: Up to this point I’ve made a lot of difficult choices. There’s always been a balance of the director, the creativity of the project, the character, something you’ve never seen before, and to me those films are going to last for a very, very long time. I’m just growing as an artist. I never had ambitions for fame that would override my ambition for the creative fulfillment, and I don’t mind taking my time but there is a big plan. There’s a big plan.
NEW NEW YORK: MICHAEL PITT
The rain beat down, the reverberating thuds sounded like bullets on the subway window. I saw multicolored pains of glass and graffiti telling me to “do more” when I suddenly realized I was in Brooklyn. I exited on the northwest corner of the street and hoped my way would reveal itself. A man in a faded purple sweater looked at me with a disconcerting glare. He slowly approached and offered his help. I thanked him and then headed to my destination.
He exited his house smoking a cigarette. I followed him next door to his studio. Once inside, I sat down on the couch and he at the computer. He searched for a song from his forthcoming album. Having already recorded demos with musicians Christopher Hoffman, Matt Kilmer, and Von Merrick, he hopes to put out the EP soon. This endeavor is a departure from Pagoda, a band with whom he’s played for several years. Trying to avoid the inevitability of being a solo artist, he reached the conclusion that it is not only difficult but also extremely expensive for musicians in New York City to keep a group together. Although he says he will continue to record with his former band members as long as they are willing, he realizes it’s time to go his own way.
A train passed on the nearby subway tracks and my eyes darted to the window to watch it go. I noticed his artwork, which was placed against the wall like an alter. Junk art, as he referred to it, is something he started as a child. He rose from his seat and said that his father, a former mechanic, would bring him to work and place him in the junkyard. Unaware of what he was doing, he would take car parts and put them together. Later on, he realized that he was creating art. Now, he uses a variety of materials including wood, photographs, and found objects, to construct his pieces.
Returning to his computer, he played one of his ‘video sketch pads’. Recorded on his iPhone, he taped himself creating artwork. Narrated by the sound of his guitar, these recordings show his process at an accelerated speed. Intended to illustrate his frustrations with how long things take and his interest in imperfections, he has created a collection of videos using his own music as their soundtracks.
Curious where his artistic priority levels lie, he says that creating, regardless of the medium, is what’s most important to him. With a fascination in renaissance people, he is interested in the artist that explores different means of expression. Living in Brooklyn for 16 years now, he finds that New York’s diverse culture has facilitated the development of his work. Although he does not consider himself a part of the varied communities that have overtaken parts of his neighborhood, he does, with some reservations, identify as an artist…