We were supposed to be meeting clear across town at a faux-NYC pizza joint in Beverly Hills that’s especially popular among moms and tweens post-acting class, but Michael Pitt couldn’t get a ride, so here we are instead. It’s weirdly perfect: A seedy bakery that keeps curiously late hours for Los Angeles, mangled papier-mâché balloons strung up near the ceiling in various stages of decay, horchata and watermelon smoothie production playing sonic interference with Lady Gaga blasting through the stereo. This is a land foreign and confounding to born-and-bred New York types like Pitt.
“I haven’t visited California in a long time,” he says, concentrating on a miniature-thatched house mummified, for some reason, in blinking Christmas lights. “I have so much love for New York. It changed my life. I have to remind myself to come out here.”
He left his hometown of West Orange, New Jersey at age 16 to pursue acting in New York, sharing a one-bedroom in Chinatown with nine other guys, determined to make acting his life. One film role came after another, surely, and by his early 20s he’d landed a major role in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) as a cherubic American exchange student in France, playing out fantasies revolutionary and erotic with a fiery pair of brother and sister twins. As a young actor, this foray into full-frontal nudity and themes of incest immediately set him up for exceptional and risky roles.
Like it or not the crux of his craft is in Hollywood, where grime comes dressed in sunshine. As it turns out, our location of convergence—which is presently filling up for an AA meeting—is an old haunt Pitt used to visit around the time he was shooting Last Days (2005), Gus Van Sant’s mumblecore meditation on rock ‘n’ roll isolation. Pitt used to come here and write short stories, which he’s reluctant to discuss: “I’m not sure they’re any good.”
Pitt’s difficult to pin down in a lot of ways. He plays music in a project called Pagoda, produces film, and writes—not just private short stories—but also for the screen, notably in a forthcoming project adapting the story of Victorian-era hobo criminal Jack Black. “I feel I’ve had a pretty interesting life on the way here and I’m really grateful for that. It’s given me an interesting perspective, even in the hard times.” He pauses. “But maybe I don’t fit into a template, so it comes out all fucked up.”
Overall, Pitt is known as the guy who goes headlong into difficult terrain, who’s said that he prefers to hold out for the meaningful roles—and generally does. As a result he’s lived in some unsavory places, including a now-demolished loft above an abandoned palm reading shop in a menacing part of Brooklyn. And he’s accustomed to working under hyper-intense circumstances—shooting an entire feature film in 25 days, or shelving a high-concept production until more money comes in.
He continually snags the charismatic yet strange, disturbed yet magnetic characters with an affinity for bad decisions. But here comes the payoff: The backstabbing thieves, troubled bootleggers, misguided and misled idealists, aimlessly violent youths, addicts, sadists—when played well, these are the ones we remember.
In Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (2007), Pitt plays one-half of a sinisterly homogenized, “I’m Afraid of Americans”-type duo who, just for kicks, terrorize a family in their home. The film, a shot-by-shot, line-by-line remake of the original Austrian film (also directed by Haneke) came less than a decade after the original. Pitt’s persona in Funny Games is deeply American in its portrayal of violence and narcissism: “That’s why we’re playing cat in the bag,” explains Pitt’s character, Paul, forcefully holding a makeshift hood over a 10-year-old’s head. “To preserve moral decency.”
“Some of the best actors that I look up to,” he says, “they generally don’t play heroes.” Robert De Niro (whom he calls “Bob”), Gary Oldman, Daniel Day-Lewis, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman—actors who possess a type of superconductive sensitivity that can make an audience legitimately nervous. Even Tim Roth, Pitt’s co-star in Funny Games, found the film deeply assaulting.
Pitt admits people ask him quite often why he clearly relishes participating in onscreen degenerate behavior. Is it, perhaps, because he’s got some kind of inherent knowledge of it? After all, he mistook his first encounter with a Hollywood casting director as a run-in with an undercover cop, and has a history involving juvenile detention and crust-punk poverty.
But all that was a long time ago. As an adult with more than a decade in the business, he’s not automatically looking for that kind of defiant, corrupt behavior in a character. “Usually what I’m looking for is a challenge, to know what’s hard and what to bring to a role. I realized that most of the actors that I really respect, they end up making characters in a similar way. They’re characters that are psychopaths.”
He portrays another such type in forthcoming true-crime escapade Rob the Mob (2014) as Tommy, the kind of punk-faced kid you wouldn’t want to see walking toward you with a sense of purpose. Based on a preposterous yet actual account of a 1990’s twenty-something couple who colluded to rob mafia social clubs, it’s equal parts struggle and heightened sense of invincibility that comes from having no one but your lover on your side.
“I think that when certain people feel like outcasts,” says Pitt, “their bond can become stronger, and then even also [become] something really unhealthy.” And that’s when the story crosses that line, when Pitt and co-star Nina Arianda—who plays Tommy’s girlfriend, Rosie—are screaming at each other, piled in mobster’s jewelry, and flashing stolen money like Queens is a game show cash booth.
“What I was really drawn to was the absurdity of the whole thing,” Pitt notes. Initially, he and director Raymond De Felitta met in the Bowery for an informal discussion about the project, and although one might’ve expected Pitt to be interested in the criminal component of the story after his long run on Boardwalk Empire, he says he was more interested in the comedic aspect. “Rob the Mob was a film where I felt comfortable trying to do something a little different. A lot of my films are really heavy or very much for a certain group of viewers. So I felt like this could actually be a really fun dark comedy.”
It’s telling that for Pitt a lighthearted project involves theft and violence. He’s aware of what he exhibits; admittedly press-averse and wearing a uniform of all black. “A lot of the films I make are pretty radical and they’ve all been controversial,” he says. “So people might be surprised that I love having a good time. I love laughing, I have a great sense of humor—or at least I think I do. I find, oftentimes, in an actor who’s played the villain, it’s not that uncommon that when I meet them, they’re the most lovely person. And on the flipside, sometimes you meet people who play the really charismatic hero and they’re the biggest asshole you ever met in your life.”
As someone more selective about his career, Pitt isn’t even on this personality spectrum. In his world discipline becomes the variable, not the character on screen. “I take my time, work on my craft, worry about my work,” he proclaims, and through it all, he’s told himself: “Don’t focus on fame. Don’t focus on money, and just have a strong core. Do all the stuff that’s hard. Work on building that, and then when things come into play you’ll actually know how to deal with them. And in the long run, you’ll probably come off better.”
There’s the crack in Michael Pitt’s cool, disaffected veneer that audiences and interviewers have grown accustomed to, though maybe it’s been present all along, his unperturbed façade veiling an earnest levity. There’s a moment in Funny Games when a victim asks the sadist duo, “Why are you doing this?” Pitt’s accomplice answers, quietly, uncertainly, “Why not?” But Michael Pitt’s character ignores the question, abruptly countering with, “Okay, let’s play another game.”