Doing It His Way – Michael Pitt

An interview with Michael Pitt is a reporter’s dream. Or nightmare. Depending on where you’re coming from. Most questions will remain unanswered. What you will get instead are moments of raw sincerity, something extraordinary among people who live in the public eye. The 25-year-old Pitt is at the point where he could or could not become a major star. So far he has been working against it. His past projects have been deliberately off-kilter. He exposed both body and soul playing a student who tests his sexual boundaries in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” and played a sultry glam rock performer obsessed with an East German transsexual “Hedwig and The Angry Inch”. But his best-known (and most acclaimed) role to date is his portrayal of the self-destructing rock star in Gus van Sant’s “Last Days”, a challenging cinematic meditation on fame and death loosely based on Kurt Cobain. But he also stars in the upcoming “Silk” by director Francois Girard, a romantic period piece about a young French silk merchant in love with a Chinese concubine that could be a potential blockbuster. It’s easy to imagine him as the next teen idol. As much as he probably dislikes it, Pitt is the perfect incarnation of the actor as a young rebel. Brooding, sensitive, conflicted, unpredictable and angel-faced. Talented from the gut, suspicious of fame. And stubbornly refusing to participate in any bullshit. Our interview starts with my tentative question about Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games”, the film he’s currently shooting. There’s a long silence on the other line, then an exhalation of smoke and the throaty statement: “I think this country is fucked up”. After the first fearful pang of losing control, I decide to go with the politics. So why does Michael Pitt think that America is fucked up?  “Media fucks with me because there is no real information available. I have to get on a plane to know what’s going on. I should just leave.” When I suggest that he should stay and try do fight against it, I get the weary answer: “Yeah but the problem is that when you want to do things you have to go undercover. All politicians say that they are going to change things when they get in a position to do it. And then when they get there they have become like everyone else. The whole game is rigged.” He speaks with the perspective of the underdog, the person who’s never had the luxury of losing innocence, because he has always known that life was unfair. “I’m part of the problem, not part of the solution, I’m uneducated and uninvolved, he states.  ” But he still can’t help but feeling betrayed. “I don’t think Americans are stupid, I think they’re just not given the information. You have to do so much work to get it.”  Pitt grew up in a working class environment in West Orange, New Jersey “Exotic, huh?” He landed his first acting gig at age 16 in an off-Broadway play. He had dropped out of school and says it was “the first time no one told me I was stupid.” His performance garnered great reviews and he was cast in a recurring role in the popular teen soap “Dawsons Creek”. It seems to be something he’d rather forget.  He doesn’t specifically mention the TV series, but stresses that he’s never been interested in fame and fortune. ”I was doing this play and was able to get a little apartment and buy groceries and I thought that was what I was gonna do. Then it gets more complicated, people say, well, here’s a shit-load of money, here’s what we want you to do, and, at a certain level, especially if you haven’t had money, you feel like you have no right to turn this down.” With experience, he has learned to only choose projects that he enjoys. “That’s really the only way I can do it. Because my brain gets bad if I don’t. I never come off good and personally it’s not healthy for me. I didn’t get in to this to feel like I was selling a product.” Pitt also plays guitar and writes the music for a four-member band called “Pagoda.” He performed his song “Death to Life” in Last Days, generally considered one of the film’s most touching moments. He says he has only seen the movie once, but likes the fact that Van Sant decided to steer away from literal references, such as using Nirvana for the soundtrack. “The fans were disappointed because they wanted to see their rock god, they wanted “The Doors,” but he forces you to look at the person instead. And I get the sense that a lot of people didn’t treat him [Cobain] like a human being.” Like Cobain, Pitt is currently feeling ambivalent about his craft. “Acting is weird. It kind of creeps me out. To do it right you have to really fuck with your emotions. I’m not sure it’s healthy for you.”  He feels less conflicted about his music. “Maybe that’s because I haven’t done it for that long”. But he also seems to enjoy the sense of creative control. “As an actor you’re just the vessel. It’s not your vision, it’s the director’s vision. Your job is to help the director. At the end of the day a good director can make a good film with so-so actors. You do your job and then they make it what they want.” However, Pitt concedes that the actor/musician cliché has its own baggage. “You don’t get respect. People are judgmental. So am I. I try not to be, but I am. But then again, I believe you should just do what you’re doing and do it pure. “