Michael Pitt came out of a difficult background that included leaving home at 16 and living homeless in New York for a while before his acting career took off. His big breakthrough came via a featured role on Dawson’s Creek, and from there, he’s had a steady stream of intense, arresting roles, including starring in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (as a Kurt Cobain-esque rocker), and Michael Haneke’s English-language Funny Games remake. Most recently, he completed a multi-year run in a major role on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, and went on to a key role on NBC’s Hannibal.
In Mike Cahill’s new feature film I Origins, Pitt plays molecular biologist Ian Gray, a determined atheist trying to manipulate animal biology to disprove a popular theory that the human eye is so complicated, it proves the existence of an intelligent designer. Ian and lab student Karen (Cahill’s friend and collaborator Brit Marling) are on the verge of a breakthrough when he begins a relationship with Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), a spiritually minded model who challenges his beliefs, and eventually sends his research in a new direction. The Dissolve sat down with Pitt and Cahill in separate interviews in Chicago to discuss their work together on the film, which Pitt executive-produced.
The Dissolve: I’ve read that you loosely based your character in I Origins on Richard Dawkins. What specifically did you use from him?
Michael Pitt: I wasn’t aware of Richard Dawkins before I made this film. I started watching some early lectures as basic research. There are sometimes things that you do that become part of your character. For instance, I was on Boardwalk Empire, and that character was a war vet with a limp, so I had a brace made where I couldn’t move my right knee. And a lot of that was out of fear—I didn’t want to think, “What leg am I supposed to be limping on?” But that became sort of a ritual, and it eventually got to the point where once I put the brace on and began walking like that, I instantly became the character. With this film, listening to Dawkins’ lectures helped me get into his mind. I would play them every morning, and I’d get into bed listening to them. And they’re fascinating! As we started to workshop the script, I suggested we should base the character on him. He’s so aggressive with his views. I definitely think he’s trying to provoke people. He’s so harsh about being an atheist. The idea was that if you can make a character like that and make him think in a different way, the bigger the payoff at the end.
The Dissolve: Is there more satisfaction in playing a role like Jimmy in Boardwalk Empire, where you’re evolving slowly over a long period, or something like this feature, where you’re playing big changes over a compressed period?
Pitt: It’s harder to do it in a compressed time period. There’s no warm-up, no cool-down. On a TV show, if you get 15 minutes of not-your-greatest-work, or the story loses itself for 15 minutes… [Shrugs.] It happens. On a film, you don’t have time for that. As an actor, it can be a different medium. It’s a different way of working. Your first day on a film, you’ve got to be on your game.
The Dissolve: But to compensate—you’ve said you were worried about boxing yourself in with your acting choices on Boardwalk Empire, because you didn’t know where the character would end up. Is it comparatively easier working on a film, where you have a character’s entire arc in front of you from the start?
Pitt: When you read the script, you want to be behind that script. Not knowing where the character is gonna go, what message they’re going to put across—knowing that is important to me. Not knowing, then, isn’t exactly comfortable.
The Dissolve: The message here is pretty complicated. The film’s battle between science and logic vs. spirituality and intuition—where does that fall with your personal beliefs?
Pitt: You’re right, it is complicated. It’s the sort of thing where two people can walk away and one person can say, “It was a very spiritual film,” and the other person can say, “It was a very scientific film.”
The Dissolve: But what’s your take?
Pitt: I think it’s both! Spirituality vs. science can be a taboo topic. It’s looked upon as a war, but I think this is a very positive film. The film gives permission to talk about this topic, and think about it. I think the film puts forth that these things can coexist—they don’t cancel each other out.
The Dissolve: You’re credited as an executive producer. What was your involvement behind the scenes?
Pitt: I started workshopping the project before there was even a script. Basically, I could no longer say, “Oh, I’m an actor, that’s not my job.” If there’s a problem, a producer is just as involved with solving it. It changes. On this film, it had to do with not asking for a fee, setting up meetings with other actors, working on the script, putting in a lot more hours.
The Dissolve: What about the idea of the project made you want to have that level of commitment?
Pitt: Cahill. I was really taken with him. I trusted him. I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of great directors who’ve made a lot of films, but I’m also trying to be more active with new directors. Getting them the opportunity, being part of that. I really stand behind him as a filmmaker. His learning curve is getting better and better.
The Dissolve: I Origins doesn’t offer a lot of Ian’s background. There are no details about how he became this driven, humorless atheist scientist. Did you and Mike Cahill discuss his history much in workshopping?
Pitt: Yeah, we talked about it. That’s part of why we decided to use Dawkins as a stencil. Throughout history, spiritual leaders and organized religion have done a lot to hold science back. Dawkins is so passionate about education, and about science, that he’s offended by that. The eye has been used in arguments because scientists assume it evolved from a point. But because there are holes in the evolutionary record, things that haven’t been proven, it throws a rock in that debate. Proving something about those things, ending that debate—science and the world get closer to having the blessing to move technology and science forward.
The Dissolve: You’ve played a lot of roles with this level of drive, obsession, and seriousness. Do you personally seek out those types?
Pitt: My first real job in the public eye was on Dawson’s Creek. That was what got me in the door. Every decision I made after that, I was active in picking the role. My agents don’t tell me what to do. These are projects I picked. I’ve been blessed that filmmakers have responded to me and given me that chance, but I take an active role in what I do.
The Dissolve: You recently did a comedy, Rob The Mob. How’d the contrast work for you?
Pitt: I loved it! I’m interested in making films that haven’t been done before. I’m working in a world where other people aren’t doing the things I’m doing, so I might come off as overly serious or controversial. But I do what I’m interested in most. As an artist, I want to do things that are different. I think it’s more creative—I have more fun doing them. I’m totally interested in comedy, children’s movies. But it’s not what kind of movie, it’s about the work. If it’s not about shock value, it’s about putting an example of something next to something else for people to contemplate and compare.
The Dissolve: A lot has been said about your background—
Pitt: Yeah, I hate that.
The Dissolve: Why?
Pitt: Wait, no, what were you going to say?
The Dissolve: There’s a sort of narrative out there that because you come from relatively grim circumstances, you’re better equipped to play darker, more driven roles. Do you disagree with that idea? Do you just not like discussing it?
Pitt: I think I was born with a good drive. There are actors that are going on instinct, and actors that use technique. The kind of actor I want to be, and the actors that I think are the best, are the ones that do both, instead of relying on one or the other. I think if you’re only relying on personal experience, you will hit a wall at a certain point. Has personal experience helped with certain roles? Absolutely. Has it put things in perspective? Absolutely, it can. There was a moment, certainly when I was starting that I thought, “I have nothing to lose. I have only to gain here.” Which is a blessing. It’s not grim. Life is complicated—it’s never only one way. The things that have equipped me to play these roles have been some great teachers in my life. Not actual professional teachers, necessarily, but people I’ve learned from—friends, family—who instilled, or let me witness, a certain kind of work ethic. Having an understanding of technique and being disciplined, I think that’s what really, really makes someone equipped to play a role.
Mike Cahill made his feature writing-directing debut in 2011 with the micro-budgeted indie film Another Earth, a heady piece of subtle science fiction about a woman (co-writer Brit Marling) filtering the incredible discovery of a parallel earth through her own trauma over causing a fatal car accident. A former National Geographic photographer and documentarian who considered filmmaking an implausible but enjoyable hobby before Another Earth found distribution, Cahill is back with his second feature, which uses a similar soft-edged, abstracted tone and a similar science-fiction device to explore similar themes.
The Dissolve: How did the process of making this differ from Another Earth for you?
Mike Cahill: The budget was still small, but a little bit bigger. I mean, actually, it’s massive, considering Another Earth cost like $5. So when this cost $20, we were like, “Four times the budget!” What was different is, I wrote this one by myself. This was a story I was yearning to tell. But I also really wanted to work with Brit again, so I wrote that role for Brit. I worked with a lot of the same people, and then I found Michael, who I had a wild actor-director romance with. But I Origins does ask—when I watch the two movies, I feel a connection, a common theme. The question of identity—you know, what makes up ourselves? Are we our experiences? Are we our memories? Are we our fears? Our desires? Are we our bodies? Are we our molecules, or atoms? Or are we our narratives? I don’t have the answers to that.
The Dissolve: The two films also share a theme of second chances.
Cahill: Definitely. You know, I like to make things bad, then see if I can figure out how the characters can create a peaceful narrative in the ashes of that bad event. To cope.
The Dissolve: And both movies also share a strong clash between the idea of the scientific, logical mind and the intuitive, spiritual mind.
Cahill: Exactly. That’s been going on since religion has existed, and since the Scientific Revolution. Galileo points his telescope at the sky in 1700—he comes back to report what he saw, and is threatened with burning at the stake. Science and religion have not gotten along throughout the ages. Still, to this day, the fight about what gets taught in schools rages on. And in some ways, this movie says, “Calm down, everybody!” Like, “Put down your fists and your guns!” And it says, “Science, or the scientific method, is a way to understand the natural world, things that are testable, like tables and chairs, and gamma rays and infrared and molecules and atoms. And the spiritual is metaphysical. It’s beyond the physical world.” There articulation in that in the movie, in a nutshell, occurs when Sofi’s in the laboratory. She says, “You are modifying these worms that have two senses, smell and touch, and you are giving them vision. So up to this moment, there’s an entire world they didn’t have access to—they didn’t know about sight, they didn’t know about sound. That’s a whole realm we are very aware of, no big deal, it’s right here—that they don’t know about. So, Mr. Scientist, it follows that five senses by no means are the limit of one’s potential senses, and they are no limit to the dimensions in which we experience the world. So science and spirituality can happily be bedmates, and stop fighting.
The Dissolve: The science-vs.-religion conflict is a particular flashpoint in politics and culture right now. Was making this film now in any way linked to current events?
Cahill: I mean, it’s been with me for a long time. In the movie, we don’t talk about a particular religion at all, because if you look at the global population, some-billion people, and we look at the top five religions, there are hundreds of millions of adherents to each one, and they are vastly different in their narratives of creation, and the spirit and the soul, and what happens after you die. The thing that connects all the religions across the world is the idea that there is more to life than just this. Than just the physics, just the testable things. And I believe that’s true. Abso-hundred-million-bazillion-percent true. I don’t know what the narrative—we can just call that spiritual, we can just call that metaphysical. And if everybody politically can get on that wavelength, I think we would be a bit more peaceful.
The Dissolve: You’ve said you’re working on a sequel to I Origins. Would it have this same sort of questing, melancholy tone? Or is it more about actively unpacking the ramifications of what happens in this film?
Cahill: I think that the sequel, or the idea of picking up a story where this leaves off, that engages me intellectually and emotionally is in the idea of using past lives as a metaphor for our suppressed pasts, in our own lives. There are things that happen in our lives that we put into the subconscious, and we do not have access to, and those things are influential over our behaviors. The emotional triggers embedded in our subconscious—we don’t even know why they are there, what they’re there for. But they cause us to be angry, or to freeze, or whatever it is, in certain moments. I would try to explore that very human thing through a science-fiction metaphor. So that’s really engaging, especially if you have characters who find out that in the past, they were someone bad, and they have a disassociation with that: “That’s not me, I have nothing to do with that.” That’s what a lot of us do in dealing with our own demons, and coming to terms with that denial is important.
The Dissolve: This film takes an opposite tack—Ian’s past at the beginning of the film is unclear, but he seems unashamedly driven by something in his background. And then in the second half of the film, he’s entirely driven by the events we saw unfold.
Cahill: Right. We don’t shed light on his backstory, about why he is so driven about debunking religion. You see ashes, and you realize that there was fire there—ashes are the echoes of fire. Michael used Richard Dawkins as a model. I turned Michael onto Dawkins’ work as an evolutionary biologist who thinks religion is dangerous. And he’s got this fun, mischievous way of talking about religion that’s a bit cynical, and sometimes a little aggressive, but also feels really important today. Michael used that in creating his character, and the audience—even me as an audience member, even though I’m the director—I don’t necessarily know the character’s backstory. That’s sort of a thing the actors bring to the table. So I don’t know what makes him so passionate about his scientific work, but you can see that he is.
The Dissolve: Is that an important part of storytelling as you see it, driving forward with the emotion rather than spelling out the story?
Cahill: I think backstory is so vital, but I’m not a very dictatorial director. I want to think of myself as more encouraging. I may have my version of the backstory, but what’s presented as an actor is a hundred-page script. Beyond that, the character is theirs to create. We can have discussions about it, but… When I cast Archie [Panjabi] as Priya, she wrote a lengthy, beautiful backstory for her character, about where she grew up, where she went to college. She was in a relationship, it didn’t go so well, she broke up with him, then ended up working at this NGO, helping with the kids. And then we meet her on page whatever in the script, and none of that is said. She said, “This is what I’m thinking, what do you think?” And it was so inspiring. That kind of background gives texture and mannerism to all of the micro-moments, so it makes the audience believe those characters are real people. Three-dimensional people. That’s what actors do. It just blows my mind—I don’t know how they do it. I just witness it.
The Dissolve: You said that as far as you’re concerned, science is a romantic pursuit, that scientists have to be romantics. Can you expand on that?
Cahill: Well, science being romantic means not being numb. Think about the moment that you are engaged in love and romance. Your atoms are vibrating at a faster level, you are excited. And scientists are not numb. They don’t want to just—they are not satisfied with the static sum-total of human knowledge. They want a sum-total of human knowledge that’s constantly expanding, just like the universe. I remember when I was talking to two older brothers—they are scientists—and they helped inform a lot of the characterization of Ian. I remember asking my brother Hugh, “I know we’ve been talking about all of the jargon, and the lingo, and the experiments, and trying to get that all accurate. But tell me just emotionally, what’s the best part, the best, most visceral, beautiful part about being a scientist?” And he said the line Karen now says in the film: “When you make a discovery, even the most mundane discovery, when you are lying in bed thinking about it that night, you know you are the only person in the entire world that knows it’s true. You are on the cutting edge of human knowledge.” When I heard him say that, I felt like, “This, this should be our culture’s ideal, not the pursuit of money, the pursuit of materialism.” If we could flip it somehow, to where the most seductive pursuit across the culture were discovery, breaking new frontiers, the world would be amazing.
The Dissolve: Both your films end on a pregnant moment, where the audience isn’t entirely sure what’s just been discovered—
Cahill: Of course! I don’t like when movies are didactic first of all, I don’t like when things are spoon-fed. It wasn’t until I was in college that I watched three films Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Red, Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, And Videotape, that I discovered what cinema was in the first place. Before that, I was watching these movies that ultimately… If you boil down most blockbusters, Hollywood movies, there is a character that will either win or lose. They try, and then they win. You know, if it’s a happy ending they almost lose, but then they win. And that’s it—it’s almost like a sporting event, where there is nothing obtained, nothing found. You forget about those movies after you see them. They don’t start burrowing under your skin two weeks, or a month later. But these films did! Where Sex, Lies, And Videotape ends, you don’t know if the guy’s impotent, or he now has his potency back. You don’t know the answer. And that comfortable with the complexity is more true to being what a human is. I love that.
For a spoiler-filled exchange we cut from this interview, visit the Reveal section of its review.