You have to take your hat off to Michael Pitt. With stunning blonde good looks and astounding pouty lips, he could have been the next Brad Pitt. Yet the New Jersey-born actor and musician chose to shun Hollywood, appearing in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Paris-set The Dreamers and in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days playing a character closely resembling Kurt Cobain. A keen musician and a fan of grunge music, Pitt personally performed the songs in the film.
He probably had never worn a formal suit until it was required of him in the prohibition-era series Boardwalk Empire, and he likewise relieved himself of the stubble that he determined would disguise his boyish looks. Even the Martin Scorsese production would not sway his glance towards Hollywood, and the talented 33-year-old now appears as the lead in I Origins for Mike Cahill, a visionary independent writer-director whose latest offering was one of the hits at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
In his second directing effort after Another Earth, Cahill literally focuses on eyes and reincarnation. I Origins follow’s Pitt’s molecular biologist, Ian Gray, who is determined to prove that eyes have evolved in order to discredit creationists. His views make him completely at odds with Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), a wide-eyed beauty with whom he falls in love. Sofi’s unexpected death in a lift leads to further revelations about her possible reincarnation in the future where the rest of the movie takes place. Gray has gone on to marry his lab assistant, Karen (Brit Marling), and they have a child whose eyes resemble those of a man who died two years earlier. As Steven Yeun (‘Glenn’ from The Walking Dead), who plays their lab colleague Kenny, says, “It’s best not to know anymore before seeing the film.”
I’ve always been obsessed with the human eye. Every single person on the planet has their own unique pair of eyes and that alone for me creates a great sense of wonder. I hope after people see the film they’ll look at their friends and loved ones more closely to see this beautiful universe. I’m drawn to things that are both poetic and scientific and I think the eye is a wonderful source of that. So I wrote this story that begins little and becomes pretty epic by the time it gets to the end.
You’re working for the first time with Michael Pitt.
When I first met Michael it was just to have a chat, to get to know each other. It wasn’t about a particular project. We met in Brooklyn where we both live. I was taken by his emotional intelligence, his humour, his energy. I’ve always been a fan of his movies because he’s made fearless, bold choices.
You’re also re-teaming with Brit Marling.
We went to college together and have been friends forever. We admire each other creatively in a very deep and profound way. She plays the role of Karen, who makes the pursuit of knowledge seductive and she makes someone you could perceive as nerdy or brainy really accessible. Her role is difficult, but because I’ve worked with her and know her range and ability, I knew she was the only person who could pull it off.
How did you fit so much story into less than two hours?
The first cut was four hours. This is like the thin version; the movie is working on a lot of layers. I find it difficult to describe. It’s romantic, it’s scientific and it’s about loss and existential questions regarding what happens after we die. These are the kind of things I’m fascinated by and I’m trying to tell something epic but in an intimate environment. I’m drawn towards the hope inside the darkness. I like to look where things are painful and then find the most beautiful thing.
Ian Gray is a molecular biologist. His research takes him on a crazy journey in this film and makes him ask questions about faith and religion versus science, love versus death and all this stuff.
How did you get your head around playing a brilliant scientist?
(Chuckles) I’ve always wanted to play a scientist. It’s my dirty little secret! I tried to read a lot and I watched a lot of lectures especially by Richard Dawkins, who I know Mike based the character on and we spent some time in a research lab at John Hopkins University in Baltimore.
You’ve worked with so many great directors including Bernardo Bertolucci.
I’ve learnt a lot from directors who are very experienced and you’re always taking a risk when you’re working with someone who hasn’t made 10 films you can look at. But with Mike I knew instantly that I could trust him and his talent. He’s the writer, director and editor, and many times he would just grab the camera and start shooting spontaneously with the actors. It was very organic. Although it was chaotic at times, no one really lost their cool. That’s pretty rare.
I was so upset when you died in Boardwalk Empire. Were you upset when you died?
Yeah. You know it was strange.
The series has given you a grounding back in acting. I sense you went away and did music [with his band Pagoda] and have come back to acting a bit like Jared Leto?
I never left acting, but Boardwalk Empire was certainly a more mainstream project. I said to myself that I didn’t want to act unless I was extremely passionate about the project and everyone involved and when Martin Scorsese asked me to do it, I did it. You know what I mean? So I was waiting for that.
After co-writing Another Earth with Mike, you didn’t write I Origins.
Mike came to me with this screenplay. It’s a really amazing thing walking in someone else’s imagined landscape. I think that’s one of the great pleasures of acting. But I also feel very passionate about writing because we live in such a strange and complex time. How can you not want to write about it as a way of making sense of what is going on? So I like both but they’re different.
What was one of the biggest challenges?
We were thinking about a husband and wife relationship and how to do that in a unique way. We wanted to have Karen and Ian really be partners in what they’re doing because you often see the wife character taking the back seat. So it was interesting to try to find that together and then in rehearsals with the three of us.
Sure, absolutely. I think things aren’t where they could be yet. I’m very fortunate to be able to play the roles that I do that are devoid of accents or stereotypes. I’m hopefully riding that first wave of people to hurry up and change things. I’m just trying to put my head down and do the best work I can and hope people will notice.
Were you surprised by the success of The Walking Dead?
I didn’t have time to be surprised. It was such a whirlwind and I was just thrilled.
I Origins is a change of pace.
It was good to do something more dramatic and grounded in human nature. We go for that in our show but the world is so extreme. The world in I Origins is beautiful. I weave in and out of his Ian Gray’s life as all these things start to unravel.
Michael Pitt has been re-energised through doing a television series. It’s interesting the effect long-form television is having.
Absolutely. Television’s the new frontier. I’m glad that we get to tell a narrative over time because it’s not truncated into an hour and thirty minutes.
The Walking Dead is not really about zombies.
That’s what I love about it. On the surface, you can say that it’s about zombies or about killing but it’s really about the human condition and what happens when it’s stripped away. How do you react? Do you lose all your humanity, all your hope, or do you see that out? It’s a character study more than anything else.
The series boasts a wonderful collection or actors.
I’m just lucky to be the newbie, to be surrounded by such veteran actors who previously didn’t achieve the recognition that they should have. I’ve got to learn some great things from them.
Sunday 8 March, 8:30PM on SBS VICELAND
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi
Director: Mike Cahill
Starring: Brit Marling, Steven Yeun, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Archie Panjabi, Michael Pitt
What's it about?
A molecular biologist, Ian Gray (Pitt), meets a beautiful woman (Bergès-Frisbey) at a party and falls deeply in love. Meanwhile, Gray and his lab partners (Marling, Yeun) uncover shocking evidence while researching human eyes that could change how we see the world and cause society to question everything they thought they knew about both science and spirituality.