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Michael Pitt on His Boardwalk Empire Run, the Emmys, and Steve Buscemi’s Mom

Boardwalk Empire fans were shocked when [VERY OLD SPOILER ALERT] Jimmy Darmody was killed by his onetime father figure and mentor, Nucky Thompson —  and not just because of what it meant for the characters. Michael Pitt was an integral part of the show, and it's hard to imagine what Boardwalk would be like without him (luckily, that task falls to showrunner Terence Winter, not us). And now that members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences are considering who to nominate (ballots are due June 28!), HBO hopes Pitt gets a nod for best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series — it'll be his last shot for the show. Vulture caught up with the actor while he was on set for his new film, You Can't Win — not a  prescient title, we hope — about his Boardwalk run, awards season, and Steve Buscemi's mom.

How's it going on set? You're not just starring in You Can't Win, you're also the co-writer and producer.
It's harder than I thought it would be! My role as a producer is just to fix problems, when problems arise. So I helped out a lot with casting and scheduling and stuff like that. It's a lot of un-exciting work. [Laughs.] And my role as a writer, I originally met with [director] Robinson [Devor], and I said, "Let me put some stuff together for you," and I wrote about 60 pages of stuff and sent it over. And he and [writer] Charles [Mudede] were like, "Yeah! We love it! Come on board."

What was in your 60 pages of stuff?
You know, it's a really tricky thing, adapting a memoir, so most of the suggestions and the writing that I contributed were mostly about trying to get the book inside the project more, because it's a really difficult thing to cut down a memoir into a feature film. And certainly, some of the skills I learned on Boardwalk Empire helped, because it's a period show around the same time period. But the biggest thing was, I was really adamant about there being more time spent on the younger Jack Black, when he was 5 to 13 years old, because that really informed who he became as a man, the moments when he reached some crossroads in his life, and the choices he made that gave you a clear understanding of who he was. Because you need to show where he's been and how he is the master of his own fate and the victim of his own circumstances — because we are our experiences. All of us are. All we are is the environment we're born into and the experiences we have, so you need to try and explain that.

That could very well apply to Jimmy Darmody, although we didn't fully learn about his experiences until towards the end of season two. There was some foreshadowing for the incestuous relationship with his mother, but did you know it was coming?
Terry was talking a lot about it in our meetings, and he was fascinated with it — I don't know why. I don't think it was something he had planned from the beginning, but when he decided to do it later, he decided that was the direction we would be going.

Jimmy says before he dies that he died in the trenches a long time ago. But it seems that part of him also died in that Princeton dorm room.
It's an awkward tightrope act, to try to explain the process, because I feel like in a lot of ways, I'm still figuring out who I was playing from the beginning of the pilot to the end. But something that Scorsese and I worked through on the pilot is that I'm not the same kid who left, and that to me was the key to the entire character.

I approached it as a film actor, because I was playing one character for such a long stretch of time, and I could only assume that's what they wanted — they wanted to approach it like a film — because they mostly hired actors who make films. So for me, a lot of the experience was just to stay in character. And anytime I wasn't shooting, I was still working, working on the character, even when I wasn't on camera, because I wanted to be able to stay there, to be able to have it on tap for them. So there were lots of things that we talked about — and I have pages and pages of notes and research and ideas — but they were mostly about the war, the experiences Jimmy had in the war. You never hear about it as the viewer, but hopefully by my being that thorough, you were able to look into his eyes and see what he was haunted by.

Did Steve Buscemi ever tease you about finally getting to shoot you? Considering when the two of you were in Delirious together, his character tried to shoot you and then couldn't.
Yeah. [Chuckles.] Although it wasn't so much about the shooting as the stories he's been telling me about his mother. She keeps asking, "Did you see Jimmy at work?" because they're working on the third season, and he keeps going, "No, mom. He's dead. I killed him." And she's like, "He'll be back." "No, mom, he's not coming back." [Laughs.] I thought that was funny.

And there was this thing when we were doing the pilot, because one of our first scenes together was when we're coming out of the Women’s Temperance League, and Jimmy opens the car door for Nucky, and he goes, "The first rule of politics, kiddo: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story." And in Delirious, we had all these rules: He kept saying, "Rule number one is this ..." And he almost slipped and said one of those rules instead. [Laughs] What was great was doing that movie, we had already established that kind of mentor-protégé relationship, so it was almost unfair. We were so comfortable and we already knew what to do. We were already tight.

When we talked at the season two Boardwalk Empire premiere, you joked that if the show didn't win the Emmy for best drama, you were going to take the entire Emmys hostage.
I couldn't get the funding. [Laughs.]

So, do you have a game plan for what happens if you don't get a nomination or win this time around?
To be honest, I would just feel grateful if we got nominated, if I got nominated. I feel like to get a nomination is amazing, and I would be happy if Scorsese and the show and the writers and all the actors got something. The show is a great moment in time, and we have an amazing cast, amazing directors, and I just feel blessed to have been a part of it.

Do you still box every day? And aren't you worried you might smash up your face — every actor's nightmare?
I'm not going to pull a Mickey Rourke on you. [Laughs.] It's just a habit. It's part of my workout routine. And it's a good discipline. A lot of actors are drawn to that sport, because a lot of it has to do with having a poker face. For me, it's just something I can do, and I'm more into the discipline of it. The sweet science of it. That's what draws me to it, more than the ability to vent aggression or whatnot.

Before you go, have you heard about the show Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23? Michelle Williams said she'd be up for revisiting her Dawson's Creek days, do a little meta reunion with James Van Der Beek. Would you be up for one as well?
Yeah, yeah. Sure. I would be up for it. I didn't spend as much time on Dawson's as she did, so I don't know if they would ask me, but we could figure it out. That could be really funny. Tell them to call me.

Photo: ANDREAS BRANCH/Patrick McMullan