In order to promote his latest role as Blake in Last Days, directed by Gus Van Sant (read his interview here), Michael Pitt sat down for a roundtable go-around in New York City. The following is a transcript from the interview session, where the 24-year-old actor and musician discussed his career and the man who serves as the inspiration for his role in Last Days, Kurt Cobain.
Question: When did you become involved in Last Days? Director Gus Van Sant was saying you have been involved for years.
Michael Pitt: Maybe three years ago. Originally, he [Van Sant] had a couple of other people in mind. He was in between projects. He always has like five or six ideas he’s always talking about, and then he just mentioned this one day. I got really animated and was like, “You have to make this film,” and he was like, “I was actually thinking about you as the main character.” I really didn’t believe him at the time. I thought he was cool, but I thought he was a little misguided, because I was a big fan and I had lot of respect for him
Q: Do you remember where you were when Kurt Cobain killed himself?
MP: I do, but I wasn’t a fan then. When I was younger, I really didn’t see the change, or impact, that he had. All I saw was that everyone was a fan by that point, and I naturally gravitated away from that.
Q: When you did start listening to Nirvana, what albums or songs attracted you to them?
MP: It was Bleach and Incesticide. I’m actually not that good with song names, but for me, the most impressive album is Incesticide and all the B sides. That album is amazing. For me, that album is what’s going to keep it alive, as opposed to Nevermind. Nevermind was a big success, but those other albums were when their success wasn’t as big. For me, [Incesticide] is what’s going to keep it going.
Q: Did you study a lot of footage of Kurt Cobain for the role?
MP: I had.
Q: Did you connect to the experience of being in a band while creating the character of Blake?
MP: I think musicians are all different. We weren’t doing remakes of concerts and [explaining] how they came up with certain riffs, which is all just fucking hearsay. It was more about the last three days of his life. Definitely, his success and profession was a factor, but I was thinking more about his life, his wife, and his child.
Q: Do you have mixed feelings about success?
MP: I think success is subjective. Certainly in America, success is based on money. It sounds cliché, but success is your friends, your family, what you do, and if you’re happy when you wake up.
Q: What kind of strategy, if any, do you have for choosing each role?
MP: There’s a bit of strategy that goes from one character to the next. It’s about changing perception, but I really just do things that interest me.
Q: Being a musician, did you have any input as far as the music for Last Days?
MP: I didn’t really write the music for the film. Well, the last song “From Death to Birth” was a song I wrote a long time ago. Any reservation I had about doing this film was based on me being a fan [of Cobain] and dealing with that. Another big factor was my own music, and I didn’t want it to appear that I was trying to benefit [from] a song that I wrote. So, basically, the concept I came up with was that if I make music on the film, it will be improvised and it will be what happens that day. That is what I did, like in the first song. In the last scene we did about seven or eight takes, and each take I made up a song. It was something that said: This is a musician, he’s playing a song but there’s no confusion. And then Gus, in the last take, said, “Play that song,” and then I think Thurston [Moore (the film’s music coordinator)] suggested that we put that song in. I trust Gus and I trust Thurston.
Q: Was Van Sant very rigid with the script or did he give you freedom?
MP: The whole film was improvised. The shoot was seventeen days. There was a map, no dialogue, and there are a lot of the scenes that are in the movie that weren’t written. I like working like that. Even when there is a script, I try and do that, but you can’t always do that. [For me], it’s the first time where it has been the whole thing. If you’re going to do a film like that, as a director, it can be so fucking great. You have to seriously trust the people you’re working with and make sure you can still make your vision with everyone’s input, which is amazing because he [Van Sant] just does it. Sometimes its eerie, because it doesn’t even matter what you do. Some directors have very strong egos and they say, “No, don’t put the cup there, put it here.” And Gus is like, “Put the cup wherever you want. You can put it across the room.”
Q: How did you meet Aaron Woodley and get to do Rhinoceros Eyes?
MP: That film came to me. To be honest, it was the only original thing that I got. I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but I don’t care. I have issues with that film, because, at one point, they didn’t hand over total control to Aaron. You decide to do a film with someone, and that’s who you want to do a film with. It was the first feature for him, so it probably upsets him less because he got to make his movie.
Q: What was it like working with Bernarndo Bertolucci in The Dreamers?
MP: It was intense. It was a lot of things. Here was this director that is revered, and I’m starring in it. I was in Europe, alone for three months, and I was the only American. I feel like the relationship between actor and director is maybe different in Europe, but that’s probably not true. There was this thing where it was like: You’re the actor and I’m the director. At first, me and Bertolucci were very much going head to head. Part of it was because he wasn’t used to me trying to be so involved, and part of it was me not knowing how to present things. But once we got that figured that out, it was amazing. I would get an idea and I would scream it in the middle of the shoot. I remember thinking this was a good idea, and then Bertolucci would stand up and look around and say, “Does anyone care to have this movie directed by Michael Pitt?” It was completely humiliating and I realized that… you talk in private and you explain what you don’t like. I think when actors give their input, it can be very ego-driven and directors are scared of that. He saw it wasn’t about my ego, and more about the film and about making him look good and doing a good job for him.
Q: Would you have done this film if it was a strict biographical account of Kurt Cobain?
MP: I don’t know, to tell you the truth. The hard thing is that I really respect Gus. It’s just my opinion, but I think he’s the most important American director we have. He takes the most risks. He’s just pure to me. So it’s this weird thing where maybe I would have done it. But I also respect him enough that, if I didn’t feel like I could do it, I wouldn’t say, “Yea I can do it” and just reap the benefits.
Q: What are you planning on doing next? I hear that you are going to work with Steve Buscemi?
MP: That’s not a go yet. Right now I’m just working on my music mostly. We recorded last summer, and right now we’re trying to figure out how to release it. I think we’re going to go an independent route, so it’s going to be a longer process. I play guitar and sing, and there’s a drummer, Ryan Donowho, a bassist Jamie, and a cello player.
Q: Do you have a preference between music and acting?
MP: The day someone put money in my hand for a job, I bought a guitar and figured it out. I was like 18 or 19, which is pretty late. I was always a fan of music. The acting, I don’t know really how it happened. It was the only thing I thought I could do well, and I was fascinated as a kid. I would just watch movies all day long, and then I moved to New York and just went for it.
Q: You started out in the theater. Are you ever going to go back to it?
MP: I think I should. First job was The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek.
Q: Do you have good memories working with director Larry Clark in Bully?
MP: That was the first time I think I felt at home. I didn’t have to pretend. No one was going to judge, and no one’s going to think I’m a freak. I can just work. ForBully, they wouldn’t really see me, because I wasn’t on the list. So I went to Larry’s house, and I was like, “Read me, Read me.” That was the part that I could get, and I was lucky to get that. The part was actually smaller on the page, but he just let me riff.
Q: Do you want to direct?
MP: Yes, I want to direct. I have like three projects in mind, but I think I’ve been out of it too long to direct a theater piece.