writing << celebrity features

[originally published in Smoke magazine]

michael pitt: old school cool

Michael Pitt, Boardwalk EmpireYou might not know actor Michael Pitt by name, but if you’ve ever seen HBO’s outstanding prohibition-by-the-sea drama Boardwalk Empire, you were probably blown away by his portrayal of Jimmy Darmody, the “Great War” veteran turned hired thug. So, how does a modern day actor in his early 30s go about breathing life into a character who was born more than a century ago? It’s all about context. “I just did was a lot of research into the 1920s,” Pitt (no relation to that other Pitt you may have heard of) explained to Smoke as he wrapped up what appears to be his character’s final season. “It’s insanely fascinating, because there were all these movements just starting out—there was a feminist movement and an early civil rights movement. The country was just coming out of World War I and someone had the idea to make alcohol illegal for seven years, so that caused the rise of all these gangsters that could compete on a government level. It was the birth of serious organized crime in America, which also just bought about the birth of the FBI. It just started a big family tree of excitement.”

Despite the 100 years of separation between the two, Michael brought an undeniable authenticity to Jimmy, largely by capturing regional nuances. In particular, Jimmy’s voice is uniquely Jersey—era be damned. Early in Pitt’s acting career, the West Orange native worked to mitigate his Jersey twang in order to cast a wider employment net. But as he developed his character for Boardwalk, he discovered that the working class dialect he grew up with was a perfect fit for a turn-of-the-century Atlantic City mobster. “I’m from North Jersey originally—I’ve done a lot to get rid of the accent because apparently it was really thick,” he explains in only somewhat Jerseyish intonations. “But for Jimmy’s voice, I kind of just mixed a little bit of North Jersey with a little bit of New York and a little bit of South Jersey.”

While these regional sub-cultures may appear indecipherable to outsiders, they are imperative for any actor who dares tread into the Garden State end of the character pool. For his part, Pitt leaned on personal experience. At age 15, he left his parents’ suburban home and headed to New York City by himself. He doesn’t elaborate too much on this time in his life except to say, “I think it was hard for [my parents] and it was hard for me, but I got through it. I think it was difficult for both of us.“

Once he made his way to NYC, Michael bounced between various odd jobs and sleeping on friends’ couches. He didn’t have the means to pay for formal acting training, but found that if you want to go to the college of your dreams, sometimes all you have to do is show up. “I crashed a class at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I didn’t really have the money to go, but I sort of knew someone who was going, so I just went with them and hung around,” he explains his on-the-cheap approach to a dramatic education. “Finally the teacher confronted me about not being in the class. I told him my situation and he understood and ended up becoming a sort of a mentor after that.”

Pitt went on to hone his skills off-Broadway. On a whim, he sent his tape into the producers of the teen drama Dawson’s Creek and despite having never seen the show was able to get his foot in the door. “That was my first gig. I just sent them a tape and they called me. It was kind of a trip,” he explains of the stroke of luck that would lead to his first big role as “Henry” in a 15-episode story arc. “I didn’t even have a TV when I had that job, so I’d never even seen the show. I’d only heard of it because I had rented a room from a woman who was obsessed with it, which was the only reason I sent in the tape in the first place.”

To its credit, Creek wasn’t completely devoid of meaty material for an ambitious young actor. However, Pitt was able to parlay his teen idol experience into more substantial work in festival hits like The Dreamers and Funny Games. This notoriety eventually led to roles in the studio films Murder by Numbers with Sandra Bullock and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village.

In addition to a skyrocketing acting career, Pitt is pursing a sidetrack as a musician, specifically, as the lead force behind Pagoda, a musical project that marries grunge buzz with jam band structure, all seasoned with various flavors of world music. Michael was able to showcase some his rock star chops in his starring role in the Gus Van Sant indie hit Last Days, a semi-fictional recreation of the days leading up to the suicidal demise of a Kurt Cobain-esque rock star. Van Sant employed a unique production model for Last Days where Pitt was left alone in character as the solitary, solipsistic rock star in a Hudson Valley mansion and the crew would pop in to film him. “There was one morning where I was messing with the amps and delays and I played it for Gus. I said, ‘I’ve got this cool thing, maybe we could use it somewhere,’ and he loved it.” The film, which also features a small role for Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, led to a meeting between Pitt and Gordon’s then-husband/bandmate Thurston Moore who eventually signed Pagoda to a record deal. The band released their debut album in 2007 on Moore’s Ecstatic Peace label, which was followed by their sophomore effort Rebirth.

Aside from the record contracts and movie appearances, Pitt’s fame has led him to various new opportunities. Most of the time, he  is a heroically dedicated cigarette smoker, but through his film work, he has been introduced to the subtle pleasures of cigars. “The first cigar I ever enjoyed was at Cannes,” he recalls about his cigar origins. “I was staying at this fancy hotel with my ripped jeans and Converses and I remember this butler came out and put on these white gloves, opened a box, and gave me a cigar. I don’t remember what it was exactly, but know it was a Cuban cigar. I sat there and smoked the cigar and I finally understood the appeal—I really took my time with it.”

As Boardwalk steamed in and out of its amazing second season, it looks like his character may have hit the end of his road, but Pitt is still moving along with various movie and music projects in the near future. Not bad for a kid from a small town in Jersey with some big dreams.