Michael Pitt’s American Psyche
Photography by Jeff Bark
He might look like an angel, but Michael Pitt’s career has been built on a foundation of brutal violence, premeditated attacks, and heartless executions. So it’s surprising to hear that the actor, writer, model, musician, artist, and pugilist considers himself a pacifist—especially when he’s tearing into a slab of red meat.
MICHAEL PITT woke up this morning in the Brooklyn brownstone he shares with his fiancée, model Jamie Bochert, and their cat, Crackhead. He rode the subway into midtown Manhattan, where he sat in on a writers’ meeting for a new film he’s doing. After four or five hours of that, the 31-year-old actor went to Union Editorial to talk to the editors of another movie he’s working on. Then Pitt headed to Mendez Boxing for 12 rounds of sparring. From the gym, he made his way to the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he stopped by his recording studio and art workspace to add to an 8′x8′collage comprised of Native American prints. To top it all off, Pitt slugged through a three-hour work session with Mike Cahill, the director of Another Earth. Now he’s sitting across from me at a French restaurant in Williamsburg, unremarkable but earnest in its bourgeois-bohemian rusticity.
Pitt looks relaxed, his face free of the pugnacious, punked-up expression he wears in many of his films. Shrouded in layers of black, a loose tuque swallowing most of his head, the notoriously press-averse actor acknowledges that skeptics are sometimes cynical when it comes to his wide-ranging non-film projects. “It’s difficult,” he says, cutting into a medium-well steak. “It’s not that common right now, but it is the future. Patti Smith has talked about it—how people thought she couldn’t be a writer because she was in rock and roll. Well fucking read her book.”
Although he’s almost always writing, recording, editing, painting, and training, Pitt is best known for his film and television characters—most notably and recently Jimmy Darmody on HBO’s Martin Scorsese–produced prohibition blowout Boardwalk Empire. Darmody was a conflicted and ambitious bootlegger who murdered men and once bedded his own mother before dying at the hands of his former mentor, Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), during the rain-soaked finale of last year’s second season.It’s been a year since Pitt’s departure from the show, and he’s clearly moved on. Already in the works is an adaptation of adventurer Jack Black’s memoir You Can’t Win, a period piece set in the underground world of 1920s prostitution and vagrancy. Pitt stars in the film, which he also produced and co-wrote. He’ll soon start shooting a mafia drama called Rob the Mob, in which he’ll share the screen with Broadway breakout Nina Arianda. “It’s the true story of a Bonnie and Clyde–type couple, who, in the ’90s, decided to rip off Italian social clubs. It started a war within the mafia and the FBI used that commotion to get everyone to rat each other out. It fucking killed the whole thing—it was the mob’s last hurrah.”
In the course of his still-young career, Pitt has worked with some very provocative filmmakers: Larry Clark, Bernardo Bertolucci, Gus Van Sant (twice), Michael Haneke, and Martin McDonagh—the Oscar-winning playwright with whom he collaborated on the recently released film, Seven Psychopaths. (“Stanley Kubrick,” he deadpans when asked if there’s anyone he would die to work with.) But despite—and maybe because of—his many art-house triumphs, the name Michael Pitt hasn’t hit the Hollywood marquee, which is exactly how he wants it.
Pitt was 14 when he started taking the bus to New York from his home of West Orange, New Jersey. On one occasion, he hitched a ride with a friend who’d been studying acting at the American Academy for Dramatic Arts, where Pitt ended up crashing a Bill Bartlett lecture. “He was one of my angels,” Pitt says of the actor, director, and teacher. “Basically, Bill told me, ‘I can’t teach you how to act. I can show you what I know, but you should get the fuck out of acting class and just go do it.’ That’s oversimplifying it, but it was really valuable advice.”
Although West Orange is an upper-middle class suburban community, Pitt encountered his share of tribulations growing up. He hopped between high schools and juvenile detention centers before dropping out at 16. Pitt eventually moved to New York, where he became another struggling kid dabbling in crust-punk homelessness and cheap communal living, with the hope, like so many before him, of somehow subsisting on music, acting, or art. “I sort of bummed around Manhattan when I didn’t really have an address,” he says. “I moved to Brooklyn for financial reasons. Then I learned that there were a lot of people in the same financial situation that I was in.” He’s lived in Brooklyn ever since, physically and spiritually detached from Hollywood’s hollow industrial heart.
Paychecks from discerningly chosen acting parts in independent films aren’t exactly meaty, so Pitt occasionally subsidizes his income with high-end, high-paying fashion gigs, as he did last year when he became the face of Prada’s Spring/Summer 2012 ad campaign. “I’ve done stuff like that to support specific artistic endeavors,” he says. “It’s one of the big reasons I’ve been able to pay rent in New York. Fashion, for all its vanity and superficiality, actually raises a lot of money for organizations and supports many artists. I did the Prada campaign because, one, they asked me, and two, because they really know how to make a fucking suit.” Pitt has also worked with Yves Saint Laurent, another brand that somehow bolsters his already airtight artistic integrity.
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