Michael Pitt is the rare actor who, after 15 years in the business (including a stint on Dawson’s Creek), remains idiosyncratic and whole. Clocking most of his time with independent filmmakers and esteemed names like Gus Van Sant, Michael Haneke, and Bernardo Bertolucci, Pitt remains a stranger to the throes of studio movies — Murder by Numbers and The Village being rare exceptions. He has never been forced to fit a star mold. His collaborators wouldn’t have it any other way. One hundred percent undistilled Pitt ranges from brooding intensity to lunacy of every color. He does what he does, and he does it well. The maturation of television worked in his favor; Boardwalk Empire and NBC’s Hannibal have Hollywood sheen and artistic souls. One might describe Pitt the same way.
In I Origins, Pitt skews closer to “leading man” territory than ever before. His character, Ian Gray, is a dapper molecular biologist hoping to dispel Intelligent Design by pinpointing the milestones of optical evolution. As he and his lab partner (Brit Marling) make waves in eye science, Ian finds equal success in his love life, striking up a steamy romance with Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). His new girlfriend turns out to be the key to his research — or the complete undoing. Ian is obsessed with answers. Pitt can relate. He told Vulture about his research-heavy approach, remaining on the outskirts of Hollywood, and his own interests that keep him until five in the morning.
Your I Origins character, Ian, is a brilliant scientist, hungry for the truth, but he’s grounded in a way that separates him from your more eccentric roles. What’s your in to a character like that?
Character work, for me, is the same … but it’s different? [Laughs.] I get really into research. I know people say that, but I’m really into research.
Like pore-over-books-at-the-library research or falling-down-a-Wikipedia-rabbit-hole research?
I don’t believe Wikipedia about anything. I don’t go there for anything but keywords. But how did I research for this film? I watched every Richard Dawkins lecture that I could. I’ve read a little bit of his books. And I spent a little bit of time in a lab with Brit [Marling] and Mike [Cahill, the film’s director] at John Hopkins Medical Research Lab in Baltimore. There, I was able to hang with scientists.
Are real scientists anything like movie scientists?
Scientists have this stigma of being guys or women in white lab coats with no sense of humor, no passion, devoid of all emotion, and that has been the complete opposite of the scientists I’ve met. They’re usually very brilliant, very enthusiastic, very creative people. I met with one scientists who was 24. They’re grooming him for the Nobel Prize. He’s trying to cure this particular cancer of the eye …
It was perfect. He’s super close to it. But he was like, “Do you want to see some of my photos? I’m a photographer.” So he showed me a collection of his photos. He takes pictures of cells — super, super close. Microscopic. They were amazing, abstract pop-art.
Do you have similar hobbies that act as tangents to your professional life?
I don’t really have hobbies. I paint. I write. I direct videos. I take photos. I’m a creative person. A normal day for me is doing all of those things. Sometimes I stay up until 5 a.m. writing a song, because I make music. It’s the same with writing. I don’t have necessarily have the inspiration on tap. So when it comes, it’s like a gift and the best thing you can do at that moment is drop everything you’re doing and see it through to the end.
I Origins concretely founds itself in science, but it isn’t afraid of using faith and spirituality to poke holes in the logic. Not that starring in a movie is an endorsement, but could you have made this film if you didn’t align with it on some level?
I certainly endorse this movie, I’m contractually bound to say that [laughs]. No, I’m kidding. What’s interesting about this movie is that when you get into that conversation, that debate about science over spirituality, if you do some research, things get tense. It can get very taboo. It’s almost a war. What I like about this film is that when you watch this film, I think you’d say, “This is a spiritual film.” And I think when you watch this film you say, “It’s a very scientific film.” But it doesn’t seem like they’re at war.
After diving into your research, do you feel like you — or anyone — can bridge the two sides of that debate?
I don’t see myself on either side. I think they do different things. I think science should be encouraged, way more than we encourage it right now. I want it to move forward, always. But I think it’s important that there’s a moral code that’s followed. While pushing science forward, I think it’s important that there are things that are unexplainable and there’s no data that would insinuate that we’re close to explaining those things. One is love. These are things that are very difficult. I value both highly.
I’m amazed by your ability to remain on the fringes of Hollywood, starring in and championing offbeat films without taking the occasional blockbuster.
It hasn’t been easy.
With Hollywood’s penchant for plucking indie stars for their tentpoles, I assume that at some point an executive asked you to put on spandex and fight crime?
Oh, absolutely. Many times. That’s kind of kissing and telling, but certainly I’ve been offered something like that many times in my career. Maybe it wasn’t the right project. I think actors have a lot more power than maybe they let on to. I think it’s okay to say no to things. The way you explained it, it sounds like the actors are being plucked out and they don’t have a decision. The truth is they do have a decision. At the end of the day, I don’t judge people for doing that or not, to be real. I’m just trying to do things that interest me. I get off on doing things that haven’t been done. I like going to my job every day and feeling like I’m doing something important.
How did playing Mason Verger on Hannibal fit into that philosophy?
I got call and they were like, ‘Do you want to do a thing on Hannibal?’ And I wasn’t familiar with the show. I researched the show a little bit. I saw the main character [played by] Mads Mikkelsen, and he’s amazing. Hannibal had that going for it. The other thing was Bryan Fuller. He was like, ‘Do what you want. We’re so happy if you say yes. Stay for awhile or come in and leave.’ Then they told me it was a character who cuts his own face off and feeds it to the dogs. And I was like, ‘Sign me up.’
With all the film work you’ve done, do you still have fond memories of Dawson’s Creek?
To be honest, it was bittersweet. I had come off a play. It was my first job. After I made that, I was able to start choosing my roles. And every role that I chose after that they told me was career suicide. After [Dawson’s], I did Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
And now everyone loves Hedwig.
Yeah, man. The movies I make will hold up for 100 years. They’re studied in film school now. They’re not financial successes. They were never intended to be. They’re not even independent films. They’re films kids write papers on. I’m more comfortable with that.
I noticed on your list of credits that you arranged Mahler’s “Piano Quartet in A Minor” for Shutter Island. What’s the story there?
That was a collaboration with a composer friend of mine, Christopher Hoffman. Martin Scorsese invited me to a rough cut of Shutter Island, which is something common he does with his friends when he’s cutting a movie. He’ll ask you some questions and stuff. So when I saw that early cut, I saw him doing that with Mahler. The piece becomes a theme in the movie [for Leonardo DiCaprio’s character]. What Marty was doing was taking it and overlaying other tracks on top of it. So I mentioned to Chris that it would be interesting to do Mahler and decompose, get strange and off notes. I said, “Would you make that with me?” So we did four or five recordings and I gave him a little direction with each one. Then I sent them to Marty and he says, “I’m in the mix on Shutter Island!” And I said, “I have a present for you” — it was an inspiration for his mix — and then I never heard from him. After awhile, I got in touch with him and he said, “Hey, kid, how’s it going?” I told him, “I sent you that track a while ago …” And he says, “Oh, yeah, we made it the credits of the movie — it’s amazing!”