Actor and musician Michael Pitt made one of his first feature-film appearances in Gus Van Sant's Finding Forrester; five years later, he stars in Gus Van Sant's Last Days. In between, Pitt has played high-profile roles in indie and Hollywood films: rock-star Tommy Gnosis in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Donny in Larry Clark's Bully, Justin Pendleton in Barbet Schroeder's Murder by Numbers, Matthew in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers, and M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, among others. Though he's notoriously reticent to submit to interviews, Pitt spoke to me by phone on July 13, 2005.
Groucho: Is this Michael?
Michael Pitt: Hey, Peter.
G: Hi, Michael.
MP: What's up, man?
G: Nothing much. I normally do these things face to face. So I'm trying to get a picture of where you're at and what's going on. I imagine that you sort of have a Clockwork Orange machine with the phone clamped to your ear. Would you like to paint the picture for my readers here: where are you at?
MP: I'm at the Regency Hotel. (Laughs.)
G: It's a little more comfy then—
MP: Yeah. I didn't stay at home for these interviews because they were probably sure I wouldn't get on the phone.
G: Well, let's go ahead and talk about Last Days here. This movie allows you to have a very pure experience as an actor: seemingly just to live on camera in the body of the character. Is that also a dangerous tightrope act for an actor?
MP: I think it can be because there's no real handbook, you know? I mean, to do it is to really try and not let like—to not manipulate the character where you think the character is going to go—to just be it. And so kind of just have to trust that something's gonna come out of it, but you don't know, necessarily, what will.
G: Are there certain things you always do to prepare a role, or does each character dictate a path for you?
MP: There's certain things that I do differently, and there's certain things that I do the same. One thing that I do the same is I just try and think as the character, you know, whenever I have a free chance. I just try and think about it. And then another thing is, very often, I try and find the character's walk.
G: Right. Actors sometimes talk about the outside-in process. Like figuring out how the character is physically or what they wear. And you lost weight, right? That was one of your starting points for this role?
MP: Yeah, because the character was a junkie so—.
G: Right. Do you feel you "got" this role right away, or was it very much a discovery process every day, or was there an "aha" moment when you said, "Yeah, I got it, I'm in tune with this character"?
MP: I felt comfortable by the time we got around to shooting it because we had been talking about it for years, but it took me, I think, a little bit, to warm up to how he was gonna be, you know?
G: Yeah. Well, it helps, I would imagine, to have a strong trust in your director.
MP: Yeah. It couldn't have been done if I didn't trust Gus.
G: What was it first about his work that captivated you from the outside as a viewer?
MP: I guess the fact that it was like a film that I had never seen before. You know, my first film that I saw of Gus's was Private Idaho, and I just remember—I just had never seen anything like that before on film, and I had watched a lot of films.
G: Yeah, I had the same experience with that film. And you and Gus became colleagues and friends. You did Finding Forrester, he helped you get in front of Larry Clark for Bully, you cut a song together. Why do you think you two have hit it off so well?
MP: I don't know.
(Phone connection lost.)
MP: I'm never talking to you again (Laughs.)
G: I won't take it personally.
MP: Gus is just—Gus has no ego, and it's really easy to be friends, and we're interested in a lot of the same things. I mean, I love being around him and learning—I mean, he knows so much, you know?
G: The character of Blake could be a lot of people. And there's some elemental human experience that I think we can see in that character. But you've also described the movie as being "for" Kurt Cobain in a sense, and that sounds to me almost prayerful. Did you feel you came to understand Cobain more by playing Blake?
MP: Oh, I don't know. I never knew him. I think that would be really arrogant for me to say. You know what I mean? I never knew him.
G: So for you, you probably had something of the same experience, perhaps, that an audience member would have in watching the film. What was your experience when you saw Gus's final cut of the movie?
MP: One of my biggest realizations is that, in not making it specifically about anyone or times or dates, he allowed people to look at a human being in that situation. And not like a rock icon. Someone that people already have, like, ideas about what they are in their heads, you know?
G: Mm-hm. Your song that's in the film, or one of the two songs in the film, "Death to Birth," suits the character very well, I think, and the experience of the film. Since you wrote that in a different context, years before, how did you feel about its resonance here? I hear you were reluctant to use it at first.
MP: Yeah, because it was mine. And it wasn't written for this film. And possibly because I thought that it fit really well, and I was worried about that—you know, because I make my own music. It wasn't in the film for a lot of the early cuts. I think it was a suggestion of Thurston's to put it in. So it was like—I had Gus Van Sant and Thurston Moore telling me they think it should be in, so I trusted them.
G: People always ask you about catching the acting bug. How did you get into singing and eventually playing music?
MP: I bought a guitar when I was eighteen.
G: And that did it for you—why is it that you bought it?
MP: I mean, literally I bought it and I haven't stopped playing it since.
G: And you take it with you everywhere, right?
G: Is Thurston Moore going to be producing an album for your band, Pagoda?
G: Going back to acting for a moment—you've wanted to act since you were a kid and you have acted since you were a kid. What was it then that grabbed you, and have your feelings about acting changed at all?
MP: I think it was more about performing that grabbed me. Just performing in general. When I was a kid I thought I didn't necessarily know what I wanted to do; I just knew. It was always like I wanted to be a painter, I want to be a writer, or I wanted to be an actor, I wanted to be a musician, at a fairly—at a pretty young age. So...I think I was just attracted to creativity I guess.
G: And expression, I guess.
G: Were there particular role models in various disciplines that really got you high on the idea of creativity or on self-expression?
MP: Well, at first, not really. I mean—in what vein do you mean?
G: Acting, for example. Who would you consider—?
MP: I was a big fan of like—when I was really young, you couldn't get me away from a TV set. I wasn't a good reader. I couldn't—I had a lot of trouble focusing; I had a lot of trouble at school. But I could watch Lawrence of Arabia three times in a row when I was like seven. Which is where—I don't know; it's kinda like where I lost myself.
G: Yeah. Well, that's a good choice to lose yourself in that movie. Do you do research for your films, or do you trust entirely in the script and your own instinct?
MP: I do both. I mean, I'm from—my first jobs were in theatre, so I'm high-research. But then I—I research, research, research, and then I forget it all.
G: Right. That's the only way to do it. Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon told you some useful tales about the 90's music scene, I expect?
G: What do you think was most valuable about their input for you in playing Blake?
MP: They just kind of like took me in and just let me like observe them and talk to them, and I kind of just—you know, I would listen to stories that Thurston would tell me about that scene, and really I think what I based on a lot from them—what I grabbed from them really: just being human, you know? I don't really know how to describe it: like not making Blake like some fucking rock star.
G: Now, that makes sense. I really think this movie is sort of unique in that it strips away all those other things that might distract from the core humanity. It just places Blake in this setting and in this background that he comes from, and you observe him moving through that.
G: You told a reporter once, "I don't know much about filmmaking," but I find that hard to believe. I know you plan to direct. Are you actively seeking projects?
MP: Well, most likely I'll write them. But you know, I feel that the music's a younger beast, you know? That's why I'm trying to tackle it now. 'Cause I can do it. I mean, I would have liked to have been directing already by now, but I really need—you really need to devote some serious time—I mean it can be done, but right now I want to give that time to my music. And then hopefully after I get that to where I want it, I'll move on to doing directing.
G: Great. How has fame affected you? Do you have an ambivalent relationship with it?
MP: What's "ambivalent" mean?
G: That you kind of have a love/hate relationship with it?
MP: There's times—if someone comes up to me on the street, and they're like, "Hey, thank you for doing what you're doing, please continue," that's nice to hear, of course. It's like someone says, "You know, I read that article and it meant a lot to me." But as far as like having people who are just sort of Hollywood-hungry for, like, stars and want you to be charming or good-looking or—you know, I hate that. I'm not like—I don't want to support that really.
G: Right. Well, it seems to me that would make you have to work on your free time—
G: To put forward that image. It's your job to put forward the image of a character, but not to have to—
MP: When I see people, and I meet people who do that, and it just—it makes me really sad...it's not a position I ever want to really be in. You know what I mean?
G: Yeah. I do. I sense that on truly independent films, which make up most of your career, as opposed to the bigger Hollywood productions, that you feel closer to the art or that you would—that the process is more harmonious with the result. Is that necessarily true or is that just a perception people have?
MP: Well, I don't know. I feel more needed, too, on the smaller, independent films. I feel more needed and more understood. On the bigger films, it's more about a product, you know, that's going to be sold, like soap or something. And there's always a lot of talk about how people are going to perceive it, and what we can do or what we can't do so that they'll go see it. And that just is cheesy. That's like—it's just not how I really want to work. I kinda feel like I'm punching in. Although I feel that there are things that you can do to make that challenging. I mean it is challenging. It's just that the challenges that I'm faced with when I'm doing that aren't really the ones that I want to strengthen or I care to. But that's not to say that I will never do that. I'm also, like, 24 and I don't have kids—.
G: If art is personal, the bigger the machine, I guess, the more difficult it is to get to the essence of the art—
G: That you want to express and that the filmmaker wants to express. That said, if Hollywood wanted to anoint you as the next big thing—you mentioned that you're 24 and there's time: would you seize on those opportunities to trade for the projects you really want to do or are there lines not to cross?
MP: If Hollywood what?
G: If they decided to make you the "It" boy, the star of a string of commercial films?
MP: Well, I mean I know that there's probably no way for you to know, but I've turned down things like that. I don't think it would be good for me to talk about which ones. I turn down a lot. Sometimes I'm frustrated. Sometimes I worry that I'm making the wrong decision. You know, I'm like a lower middle class kid from Jersey. And sometimes I feel like, "Well, where do you get off turning down shit like that?"
G: But it has to—for a project to appeal to you enough for you to say yes to it, what must it have?
MP: For me to really enjoy it and really get something out of it?
G: Or even to say yes to it?
MP: Primarily it's the script and then it's the director. And then it's like: do I think the script and the director are going to stay by the time its finished? A lot of times on those bigger movies, you agree to something and they change it all the time.
G: And have you been in a position where you've had to try to extricate yourself from something that wasn't what you agreed to?
MP: I don't want to be in that position. I mean, sometimes I don't always know what I'm getting into, but like, for the most part, what you agree to is what you agree to.
G: In your free time, do you check out a lot of other films, and do you have a wish list of collaborators?
MP: I'd like to work with Jarmusch. But I haven't been able to see a lot of films. I very rarely get to go to the movies.
G: Are you someone who needs to be working? If you find yourself with free time, do you go crazy?
MP: I'm always working. I'm always either writing or making music or working on a film set. There's never like—when people ask about your free time, I'm like, "Well, what's that?" There's always something.