I was about to move out of my apartment because I was so broke. I’d sort of made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t take a job unless it was interesting to me, and I became broke very fast. Michael Pitt
Michael Pitt has played so many wasted, blown-out, emotionally unhinged young men in his day that it’s easy to forget that one of his first big breaks came in the form of a 15-episode arc as a high school football player-a quarterback, no less-on the late-’90s hit TV series Dawson’s Creek. It’s ironic, then, that since then, Pitt has largely devoted himself to inhabiting a motley crew of characters that are the spiritual antitheses of the Big Man on Campus-a rebellious teen in Larry Clark’s ode to adolescent sex, drug abuse, and amorality Bully (2001); a naïve American in Paris on the eve of the revolution of ’68 in Bernardo Bertolucci’s sexually charged The Dreamers (2003); a lonely, isolated Kurt Cobain-esque rock star in Gus Van Sant’s quietly powerful Last Days (2005); a psychopath who takes an entire family hostage in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (2007)-working with a list of directors who’ve got their share of Palme d’Ors and Independent Spirit Awards amongst them. Indeed, there’s something eternally fallen about the way Pitt looks, still slightly baby-faced at the age of 29, but with the optimism of that youthfulness betrayed by his perpetually stubbled cheeks and a set of eyes that seem to easily radiate a psychic sadness.
Pitt, though, cleans up nicely-very nicely, in fact-as the world will see this month with the debut of the new HBO series Boardwalk Empire. Inspired by Nelson Johnson’s book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City, the show chronicles the rise of the New Jersey underworld in the 1920s at the dawn of Prohibition, as the speakeasy, gambling, and nightclub culture of the town begins to develop and grow around a group of newly arrived immigrants and first-generation Americans looking to make lives for themselves. The action largely centers around the relationship between Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), a local political fixer-cum-gangster, and his former driver, Jimmy Darmody (Pitt), who has returned from fighting in World War I with eyes on assuming his rightful place in Nucky’s organization. But when Nucky isn’t quick to hand Jimmy the keys to his fledgling kingdom, they end up on opposite sides of a battle for money, power, and other gangsterly accoutrements that plays out in dramatic fashion.
The role in Boardwalk Empire is a new one for Pitt, requiring him to not only shave regularly and wear suits (neither of which he does very often in real life), but also to sculpt a character very different from any other he’s ever played, over an entire television season-which, as an actor, he relished. It came with another added bonus: the chance to work with Martin Scorsese, who is a producer on the series and directed the pilot, which debuts on September 19. Scorsese, who was in London shooting his next film, Hugo Cabret, recently reconnected with Pitt, who was at home in Brooklyn.
MARTIN SCORSESE: Hey, kid. Where are you?
MICHAEL PITT: I’m in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. You’re shooting in London?
SCORSESE: Yeah, yeah. We’re shooting in 3-D, which is interesting. I mean, it’s Arriflex cameras, but I don’t think anybody has used the kind of rig we’re using before. We have the advantage here of working in a studio-although it’s hot in London right now and there’s no air conditioning, so it’s a little trying. But I think what’s happening with 3-D is interesting. The medium close-ups or the close-ups of the actors-there’s something that’s quite unique about them that has more to do with sculpture than with paint. You get more of the presence of the actor. I mean, depending on the type of genre or film, the possibilities of 3-D are very exciting. We’re sort of inventing our way-or stumbling our way-through the movie, shot by shot. [laughs] Maybe 3-D is being used too much right now for special-effects pictures, but the potential for drama and narrative is quite strong. Let’s talk a little bit about Boardwalk Empire though. Why don’t you tell people a little bit about how you first met me at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York that night to talk about Boardwalk?
PITT: Well, I was about to move out of my apartment because I was so broke. I’d sort of made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t take a job unless it was interesting to me, and I became broke very fast. When I found out I had the meeting with you I realized that I needed something to wear, so I called Armani and begged them to lend me a suit that I would give back to them right afterward. I felt like it was very important for me to be in a suit when I met you. So I put on this really nice suit and got on the subway to go meet you. I had this feeling of, Okay, I look presentable. But I was very nervous. And then when I walked into the Waldorf and was waiting to meet you down in the lobby, maybe five people asked me where the bathroom was because they thought I worked there. [both laugh]
SCORSESE: I remember that I saw you do a reading on DVD. I ultimately said, “I have to meet him,” because I thought what I saw was really interesting and special. I happened to be living at the Waldorf at the time. We were moving from house to house, so my family was living there, and we got this gigantic suite-I think it was one of the presidential suites.
PITT: I remember. It was fucking huge.
SCORSESE: Yeah. [laughs] I wasn’t living in the one you saw. But I remember that you came in and did the first scene, and there was something about the way that you did it that made me think, Let’s just pursue this and see what happens. Then we started talking about New Jersey and your family and I think that was what clinched it. But I have to tell you, the suit helped because, quite honestly, if you’re casting a project about 1920s politicians and the underworld and people in Atlantic City, they all wore suits.
PITT: Well, it might sound silly, but one of the reasons I felt like I had to have a suit on when I met you was that I know my grandfather would have rolled over in his grave if I didn’t do that.
SCORSESE: It was nice that you made that leap right away. Sometimes a person comes in to meet with you about a picture and their hair is very long and they’ve got a beard, and you make the leap yourself and say, “Okay, the hair is cut and the beard is off . . . Gee, if they could have just helped us out a little by coming in looking a little bit like what the tone of the picture is.” They don’t have to look like the character, but like they fit into the period.
PITT: I think it’s also good for you as an actor. Anything that you can change about yourself for a part is helpful. How did you come to Boardwalk?
SCORSESE: Well, over the years, a lot of people have talked about doing a series coming out of Goodfellas  or Casino  and some of the pictures I made 20, 25 years ago. I think it was [talent agents] Ari Emanuel and Rick Yorn and [HBO’s president of programming] Mike Lombardo-I met with them and they talked about doing a series that was more of a history of the development of the underworld. Literally it was right then that I met [series creator and executive producer] Terry Winter, and he talked about dealing with the beginnings of that on the East Coast in Atlantic City, and revisiting what we now call the Roaring Twenties. When I was growing up in the mid-’50s, the Roaring Twenties were a huge part of the culture. There were a number of films and a bunch of television shows that dealt with the mythology of the underworld from that period. But a lot of the stuff dealt with what was going on in Chicago and Las Vegas-I mean, in the ’50s Vegas was the playground for adults so to speak, which I guess ended when Howard Hughes bought everything there. But Sinatra and the Rat Pack and the performers there . . .
PITT: Yeah, it’s amazing.
SCORSESE: But Atlantic City was sort of forgotten. During Prohibition, Atlantic City created the idea of the speakeasy, which turned into nightclubs and that extraordinary political complexity and corruption coming out of New Jersey at the time. The long hand that they had-and maybe still do-even had to do with presidential elections. It’s a remarkable story, so I’m glad I was presented with this opportunity to tell it.
PITT: Boardwalk begins literally on the first day of Prohibition, which I think was a wonderful way to start-to have the story kind of come out of this massive historical phenomenon. And the more I researched the ’20s, the more I discovered just how interesting it was. You had Prohibition. And then you had the fact that working-class immigrants could supply something that no one thought was illegal-or at least no one took the laws very seriously. So these people were making a lot of money. And with that came the birth of the FBI and the women’s movement. In a weird way, when you look back on the history of this stuff you say, “Okay, it all happened in the ’60s.” But the more I look into the ’20s, it was pretty radical.
SCORSESE: It was very radical. It was also a reaction again the Victorian period and morality. Women were bobbing their hair, carrying flasks with them, drinking, doing the Charleston. The dances were more risqué. And then there was jazz, Dixieland music, blues, and all of this American music mixing at the time. The ’20s was a period of enormous change. Then you hit the ’30s and there are the effects of the Depression-it’s like what happened in 2008 where people consume to the point where there’s an explosion and everything falls apart. But I wanted to ask you: How do you think the process of making a series like this, where you’re playing a character that keeps changing and developing over a long period of time, differs from doing a movie, which is probably more what you’re used to, where you play the part for a shorter period and then you’re on to something else? You know, when we were shooting the pilot, I didn’t know where your character, Jimmy, was going to be later on. It’s a different kind of exercise.
PITT: It’s definitely difficult. I think I approached it as though I was making a film-for better or for worse.
SCORSESE: Yeah, a 14-hour film . . . [laughs]
PITT: Yeah, but the hardest part is that your performance is spread out over a long period of time, so you’re working with this character in a different way. And then the flux in the directors can be difficult.
SCORSESE: That’s something interesting that I didn’t think of-how different directors who have different styles and different energies can affect the actors.
I remember when I was a kid looking at different types of film and really examining the grains of them. I remember even looking at the ink streaks.Michael Pitt
PITT: Terry has been really helpful and understanding. Tim Van Patten [a series director and executive producer] as well. It’s definitely an interesting medium. The challenge that I face is that there are things about the character that you want to keep open, that you don’t want to address immediately, and how do you do that without making the character too vague? And then you want to make choices, but you don’t want to box yourself into a corner.
SCORSESE: I’ve got to tell you, I’ve seen rough cuts of all of the episodes, and I haven’t found it in any way jarring so far. It’s mysterious and interesting. It’s almost like you’re spending time with these characters and getting to know them in a way that as long as you make your choices as an actor and play them out, you’re given enough screen time for the audience to understand where you’re going with it and for them to want to go with you. I think that’s the nature of the form.
PITT: How did you find it when we were shooting the pilot?
SCORSESE: For me it was a major challenge because I haven’t shot a picture so quickly in years. I haven’t shot on such a short schedule.
PITT: I’m curious if the restraints in terms of how much money we had to spend and the number of days we had to shoot helped at all.
SCORSESE: It definitely helped. It also made me feel suddenly freed by the energy and the nature of the situation. We had to move quickly, so, bang, I had to make quick decisions. And that really was freeing in a way. It was a good experience. The hours were long, but it was exciting. I really liked planning out the whole picture and then deciding on the spot what was really important and what wasn’t. It’s different in a TV show than in a movie because with TV, sometimes plot, the actual narrative itself, is more important than character development, and you’re just dancing around, trying to stay on your feet. The creative energy of that-I hope it’s reflected in the pilot.
PITT: Yeah. I’ve noticed that sometimes when you keep things a little smaller, it’s easier to focus on the creative aspects of what you’re doing.
SCORSESE: Because there are less distractions-and, quite honestly, because there are less choices. And that’s the process. It has its own life, you know?
PITT: The common question I’m asked is “What was it like to work with Martin Scorsese?” And at first I was kind of speechless. But then I saw Ben Kingsley give an interview when Shutter Island came out, and he said something that I think sums it up. I’m probably misquoting him but, to paraphrase, he said, “Marty is undoubtedly the smartest person in the room, but he makes you feel like you’re as smart as he is.” And I think that sums up my experience of working with you as well.
SCORSESE: So much depends on the actor-on you or Ben. It’s all there with you guys, and all I’m trying to do is guide things. With you guys, the intelligence is there, and all I’m trying to do is focus. But you can’t do that if it’s not there to begin with. I know that in addition to acting you also do music. How did you start with all this? Was it acting first or music first or what?
PITT: Well, the first thing I wanted to be was a carpenter. Then I wanted to be a painter and then a singer. It was when I first saw Lawrence of Arabia  that I wanted to be an actor.
SCORSESE: Let me ask you about the music thing for a second. There’s so much going on now in music and how it’s being distributed that I’m so out of touch-I’m an ancient person. But I know you’re working on this concept album that sort of mixes film and music.
PITT: I’m doing a record that has a story that runs through all of the songs, and then there is also a film that goes along with it. I thought it would be interesting to have the guy who recorded the music do the mix for the film so it’s not just a normal mix. So I’ve been finishing that project. I didn’t sleep for, like, five nights straight in order to get it done. But, you know, I think that kind of thing is the future because of technology becoming more affordable. A kid now can practically record a song or edit a short film on his way to school. I think that will produce, perhaps, more less-interesting things-or you’ll have to search more to find the interesting things. But I also think it’s exciting.
SCORSESE: But, you know, Michael, it’s interesting because I’m working with these 12-year-old actors right now, and even though it sounds like a cliché, I do think that kids today perceive reality in a completely different way than I did when I was growing up. There is all this potential for storytelling and creative expansion, but it’s light years away from what I grew up in or even you grew up in. It’s light years away from narrative painting or even abstract painting or certainly the tradition of narrative filmmaking, which is a kind of classical style. They see pieces of the world now coming at them visually, aurally, in every way-perhaps too many. And I wonder how these young people perceive their psychological and emotional impulses, and if that’s going to translate itself to pixels or digitized images or pieces of images.
PITT: There is a lot of information coming at you-and because of that the world feels smaller. I mean, I remember when I was a kid looking at different types of film and really examining the grains of them-like, “Look how even they are . . .” I remember even looking at the ink streaks.
SCORSESE: Oh, god, yeah.
PITT: But I think when I’m older, people are going to say, “Look at the pixilation!” I’m sure at some point the different grains of different kinds of film weren’t viewed as happy accidents. There have been times, certainly, when I’ve shot things on a film camera where I’ve been like, “Ugh . . .” It’s kind of like the distortion that you’d get with an electric guitar. Jimi Hendrix was playing his guitar and just pushing the amp past the point that it was supposed to go, which produced distortion-which at one point was viewed as a limitation of the medium, but with him became something that people loved.
SCORSESE: You’re absolutely right. I think in some cases we had to learn to love the grain of the time because we didn’t have any other choice. Yet we all admired the lavish black-and-white photography coming out of France in the ’30s and ’40s. Hollywood had that fine-line grain where there was so much light thrown on there that the image was like satin. But we couldn’t achieve that so we just embraced faster film and the whole New Wave style of [Jean-Luc] Godard’s Breathless  and [Claude] Chabrol and [François] Truffaut-and how grainy their films were because they embraced the new technology with the high-speed film that made it faster and easier to shoot. You’re right about the guitar too. I’ve just been reading more about [musician] Django Reinhardt. I grew up listening to his music-of course, he played a certain kind of guitar and he died fairly young, in 1953. But I read that before his death he was starting to come to terms with the electric guitar and was beginning to learn how to use it.
PITT: I think Muddy Waters was doing that too.
SCORSESE: Yup. That’s why I think what you’re talking about, where you’re able to do your own music, is almost a more satisfying creative situation for you in a way. It’s almost purer, you know? We were talking about the battery of images and sounds of the world we live in, and I may be wrong, but it seems like when you’re able to pull a piece of music into a song, it stops time in a way, doesn’t it? I mean, you’re really able to pull back . . . It’s almost like a moment of stillness in a world where everybody is running at hyperspeed.
PITT: Okay. Now you’ve got to get back to directing.
Martin Scorsese is an Academy Award–winning director.