Keeping his distance from highly profitable mainstream roles, versatile actor Michael Pitt has managed to construct a career out of those characters that speak to him regardless of how challenging they could be. His careful choices have taken him to work with some of the most important filmmakers working today. Legendary figures like Martin Scorsese, Bernardo Bertolucci, Michael Haneke, and Gus Van Sant have cast him throughout his young but prominent career. In his latest adventure “I Origins” by Mike Cahill, Pitt plays Ian Gray, a man whose lost love will push him to seek closure through science. The complex blend of ethereal imagery and provocative science fiction gives the actor a chance to explore the character’s nuances. Always looking for something beyond the ordinary, Pitt seems like the perfect choice for the job.
The often hilarious and always insightful performer talked to us recently about the future of film, what interests him about each new character, and even the importance of spiritual conviction.
Carlos Aguilar: What drew you to a film like “I Origins”?
Michael Pitt: A couple things drew me to this film. One was that it was a character that I hadn’t played before. The other thing that was really interesting to me was working with Mike Cahill. I’ve worked with a lot great directors who have huge resumes, but I’m really trying to be active in my career in supporting the new generation of cinema. I like taking some time to try to support and be a part of that. Mike Cahill is one of the directors that I picked and he picked me, it was a mutual thing.
Aguilar: Where you a fan of Mike Cahill’s first feature “Another Earth”?
Michael Pitt: I was a fan of “Another Earth.” The things that I’m more interested in is making films that are unique, things that are being done that I don’t see anyone else doing. What I could see in “Another Earth” was that the director had a very distinct voice. He was making a science fiction film that is not like other science fiction films. This genre has become about how many bells and whistles can you blow, how many special effects can you get, but the writing of Sci-Fi, at its root, is for the thinking man. What I liked about “Another Earth” is that you have to think in order to watch that film. You can’t just sit there. He is asking you to be active and think. He is also trying to do very difficult things in this new film.
Aguilar: You have worked with some of the best directors from around the world, what makes Mike Cahill special or different from your previous experiences?
Michael Pitt: I think what makes him special is that he has a good understanding of the technical aspects of film, which I noticed right off the bat. He spent time as a cameraman and he spent time as an editor. I believe he understands what it is to be a filmmaker right now. Right now is a very interesting time because of the digital cameras, and the fact that you can edit anywhere. It’s a great time to be a filmmaker, is a great time to be starting off. I believe he understands the future of cinema.
The other thing I like about him is that he has a very clear vision of what he wants, very clear, but he is not like “You have to do this!” He knows how to let his actors do their job, whether he is aware of it or not. He always directs you towards his vision, but you can still move around. Many directors don’t know how to do this. Usually they are so tied to their script and they don’t see anything that is going on. On the other hand, some are so free that they have no vision. He has both, which I think is very special to have that early in your career.
Aguilar: How difficult was it to play a scientist that is confronted with this incredibly spiritual dilemma? It seems like he is very conflicted.
Michael Pitt: Is not difficult [Laughs]. No, it was an extremely challenging character because there were a lot of things that you needed to feel, but there were also a lot of things that you just needed to do. It was a full character. I needed to change the way I talk, my accent, the way I walk, all of that. On top of it I needed to show the things underneath, what he feels underneath, which is not as technical. It is difficult to explain how to do that. It is more like magic.
Michael Pitt: It was amazing to work with Astrid and Brit. They are two completely different actresses. They are both very beautiful, lovely people and very talented. Working with Astrid was more primal and instinctual. English is not her first language, so it was better if we ran with it and rehearsed. With Brit, we sat down and talked for hours about what we wanted to do. Then we would go home and think about it. Once on set we would just try it. They were two different ways of working, but it was really amazing.
Aguilar: Are eyes the “windows to the soul”? Why do you think they are so important in Mike’s film?
Michael Pitt : No I don’t thin so. [Laughs]. Yes they are. I think they are important in life. Everyone looks into someone’s eyes and they feel things. In this film, Mike is trying to explain something that is like “magic”, but he does it through a scientist studying the eyes. It’s such an interesting way to play with that.
Aguilar: Did going to such spiritual place like India help your process as an actor?
Michael Pitt: No, we shot that in Brooklyn [Laughs]. No, we did go to India. It is an amazing country, so beautiful, corrupt, devastating, touching, spiritual, and scientific. I was going to make a film right after, if I hadn’t had to do that, I probably would have stayed for a while.
Aguilar: With science being at the center of “I Origins”, at least on the surface, do you think some people could find the film inaccessible?
Michael Pitt: Another interesting thing is that a lot of the films that I’ve made I wouldn’t say they are accessible. A lot of them are inaccessible. Mike has taken this very difficult subject and made it very accessible. His films are just going to get better and better, he is still very young.
Aguilar: How much was input did you have on your character? Where you able to be involved in creating him?
Michael Pitt: Nothing. He said, “I’m the puppet master and you are the puppet”[Laughs]. I had a lot of input. We developed this character together, which is amazing. Martin Scorsese never gave me my blocking, Gus Van Sant never gave me my blocking, but Michael Haneke gave me my blocking. What’s great about Michael Heneke - I know I’m straying right now - is that if you ask him “Why should I do it like that?” The answer is never “Because I told you so” or “Because I’m the director” That’s never the answer. He sits you down and he tells you exactly why, and he is happy to tell you. He’s thought about it, it’s never just bullshit. When a director does that you just say “OK, you are smarter than me man”
Going back to Mike, what is cool about him is that we developed this character together every step of the way through. It was fun to be that involved.
Aguilar: It seems to me that both of Mike’s films are about a second chance. In “Another Earth” a woman sees a chance for redemption in a place far away, in “I Origins” the second chance comes in the form of reincarnation. It is very profound. What is you take on spirituality?
Michael Pitt : That’s interesting, I never though of that. That’s an interesting point. Without getting too personal about my beliefs, what I love about this film is that people can walk away from it saying, “It’s a very scientific film”, but I also love that they could walk away and say, “It’s a very spiritual film.” That’s kind of where I’m at. I think these two things can live next to each other. When people go at war they cheapen things. If a religious person says “No, no, no” and they won’t listen to science, it makes me think that they don’t have faith in their own religion.
I read this book by the Dalai Lama, who loves science, he so interested in it. The topic of this book is science over religion, but he was never threatened by the science. Because he was never threatened, it made me think, “This guy really believes in what he is saying”, it’s a very powerful thing when someone is confident in relation to this. In the same right, when I saw a debate between Richard Dawkins and a spiritual leader who was saying, “How could you say this? This is what I believe,” he became very insecure to me. He didn’t want to hear anything about science or data, or “There is evolution, we came from apes”. He didn’t want someone to prove him wrong.
Aguilar: Whose eyes would you say are unforgettable?
Michael Pitt: Eyes are so powerful. Astrid’s eye is on the poster for the film. Maybe the person whose eyes I will never forget is Astrid for certain. I’ve seen so many pictures of them [Laughs].
"I Origins" is now playing in L.A and NYC. It opens in more cities around the country on Friday July 25th.