On HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Michael Pitt is the consummate damaged soul—but it’s his own wide-eyed drive that fuels the persona by ROBIN SAYERS / photographs by HEDI SLIMANE / styling by CLARE RICHARDSON /produced by KIM POLLOCK
A few Sundays back, smack-dab in the middle of Columbus Day weekend, Michael Pitt was enjoying a gelato in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Two streams of noise—the clamor from hordes of both out-of-town and local art lovers and boisterousness from a parade marching up a bordering avenue—ping-ponged between the museum’s marble walls to cacophonous effect. I joked that in terms of hearing each other, perhaps we would have been better off going to the location Pitt initially proposed for this interview: the top of the Empire State Building.
The irony is that Pitt’s management, in deference to the recording quality needed for our interview, vetoed the ESB. Besides, why would he want to dive headlong into the belly of the tourism beast—and on a holiday weekend, no less? Is he a die-hard fan of, say, King Kong, Love Affair or their respective remakes? Or is a cynical guess more accurate: that the ESB is the most in-your-face symbol of New York City virility? Um, no...and no again. His simple, and obviously sincere, reasoning? “I’ve never been.”
The answer catches me off guard, not only because Pitt has lived within a 20-mile radius of the architectural gem his entire 29 years but because it’s a reminder that just because a résumé might suggest someone has seen it all, they might not have seen it all at all. The way he delivers his explanation is imbued with a naïveté that surely appealed to the creators of HBO’s new hit Boardwalk Empire. His character, Jimmy Darmody, is a player in the chaotic organized-crime game of 1920s Atlantic City, but compared with his cohorts, he’s undeniably wide-eyed.
Today, skies are crystalline, and the observation deck of 350 Fifth Avenue would afford views of both Pitt’s hometown of Orange, New Jersey, and Brooklyn, where he now lives and shoots Boardwalk. I suggest that Central Park will offer us a hushed haven.
First, nicotine is needed. Pitt ducks into a cigar shop, but it seems they’re purists and don’t sell cigarettes. Still, the stop offers another type of mood alterer: The guy behind the counter says, “I loved you in that movie.”
Which movie? Take your pick. Standout roles include the title character’s onetime love in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a forensics-obsessed psychopath in Murder by Numbers, an exchange student in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (much ballyhooed owing to Pitt’s full-frontal nudity), a Kurt Cobain–esque musician in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (a role that showcased Pitt’s musical talent—he headlines the alt-rock group PaGODa), a worm trader in Silk and a sadist in the American remake of the Austrian horror-thriller Funny Games. Starring in such diverse projects, shot globally with some of the Industry’s most revered talents, yet never having been to the top of the Empire State Building is a charming wrong Pitt promises he’ll right, just not on this particular holiday weekend.
A pack of Marlboros is acquired at a newsstand, and a few minutes later, a pond-side bench proves a scenic spot for Pitt to reflect on his life and career...
A MADE MAN
“I had done little things here and there, but if someone asks when I made it, that was the moment I got a role in the play The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek
. Whatever technique—or method—I’ve developed has pretty much come from that. Dawson’s Creek
was my first [major] job, and it taught me a lot about the business. It wasn’t my dream, but it put me in the game—before that, I was unable to audition for the things I really felt passionate about.”
FUNCTION OVER FORM
“I don’t have a television, mostly because I work a lot, and it can be a distraction. I have a DVD player. I like that I’m not bombarded with things I’m not interested in. When we started talking about Boardwalk
, I wasn’t looking for a television show. I was never opposed to it, but I wasn’t seeking it. I don’t judge good work based on what the form is. If anyone said, ‘Oh, [Boardwalk Empire
] is just a TV show,’ I’d tell them to f--k off.”
“The Sopranos’ writing was so right. I grew up in Jersey. My grandfather was Italian-American, and I was pretty certain someone had been involved in that world and was now in a witness-protection program. The majority of America could relate to the family. One of the greatest things about The Godfather
movies was Coppola said, ‘This is a movie about family.’ I think that’s why The Sopranos
worked. Their occupation was almost a backdrop to what they were really trying to address.”
THE X FACTOR
“After I received the [Boardwalk
] script, I thought, They’re not going to go with me
...often they’ll go with another actor, because they crunch the numbers, and that other actor sells X amount of units in America. When I started the audition process, I really, really enjoyed the writing, and obviously I respect Marty [Scorsese], so my goal was not to get the job. It was only to do well and show what I’m capable of. When the material is good enough for you to approach it in that way, you really can’t lose.”
“My first audition was a cattle call. A month later, I happened to be in California, and I met Terry [Winter, Boardwalk
’s creator] for lunch. It was very easy. I mean, I was nervous, but we started talking about The Sopranos
. It was said [Scorsese] was going to be a producer on the show and was also going to direct the first episode. To be quite honest, I didn’t believe it. Finally, they said they wanted me to audition for Marty.”
“I always expect the worst. It helps me focus on what’s important. As an actor, you’re insanely important to the project. You can make it or break it, but you are at the mercy of the work coming to you. And I don’t care who you are—9 out of 10 things, you’re going to be rejected. I think it’s important to be aware of that, because you can really f--k up your radar. You’re constantly faced with self-doubt, because this business is very competitive. I decided that no matter what, nothing good is going to happen unless I’m happy where I am. That’s when things clicked for me, and I started to get positive feedback.”
“After a project ends, it’s a flooding of emotions. You feel like you achieved something. It’s a little sad—there’s melancholy. I find it’s best to take myself to a new environment to shake off [the character]. Normally I hop on a plane and travel for a week or two. I’m adamant about never trying to hide the fact that I’m an American. I take [traveling abroad] as an opportunity to show people maybe something they haven’t seen. I didn’t finish high school. I never went to college. Basically, my education came from reading. It gave me an interesting perspective on the world. I’ve worked in countries that, at the time, I couldn’t tell you where those places were on the map. It sounds horrible, but I feel like maybe I was able to see those places in a more pure way, because I had no preconceived ideas.”
THE GOOD LIFE
“The first time I went to Los Angeles was to meet people for Dawson’s Creek
when I was about 18 or 19. Going to California then was the first time I remember being on a plane, which was pretty amazing. I just looked out the window the entire ride. I remember looking around at all the other people and thinking, Why aren’t they looking out the window
? I was really excited, because it was business or first class. They asked if I wanted a drink, but I thought I had to pay for it. They told me, ‘No, you don’t have to pay for it.’ I was like, ‘Then yeah! I want whatever is coming to me.’ I think I ended up getting a little drunk—they didn’t card me.”
“My initial impression of L.A. was that it reminded me of Jersey because of all the shopping malls and highways. I started to get really into California when I did Murder by Numbers
. I ended up taking a not so nice house in West Hollywood. They asked if I wanted furniture, but I said I didn’t. I slept on the floor. I walked from the house to the burrito joint, and that was it. The director said I was one of the last bohemian actors. I asked what bohemian
meant, because I didn’t know if that was a compliment or not. When I went out there again, I stayed with friends in Silver Lake, and I really dug that area. I think if I solely made music, I’d be in L.A. It’s an easier life for a musician. The rent can be cheaper, and people seem to be into live shows without being snobs. New York City can sometimes be snobby. I kind of like that I haven’t explored California yet, because it leaves something open for me.”