michael pitt talks 'ghost in the shell' and challenging the norm
Michael Pitt feels like a contemporary reimagining of Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix. From rock star to actor, he’s excelled at playing lost boys. His new role in 'Ghost in the Shell' — the big screen adaptation of the hugely popular Japanese manga...
Michael wears coat and blazer (worn throughout) Giorgio Armani. T-shirt and jewelry (worn throughout) model's own. Sunglasses (worn throughout) vintage from General Eyewear.
Michael Pitt's CV reads like the hippest-looking watch list on Netflix. Throughout his close to 20-year career, the 35-year-old actor has worked with the very best in independent cinema from Bernardo Bertolucci, to Gus Van Sant and Michael Haneke. He has starred in transgender rock star musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and taken the lead in heavyweight boxset drama, Boardwalk Empire. And, to fill the gap in our dream streaming scenario, you can also catch him in 90s talky teen drama Dawson's Creek.
Michael made his debut on the small screen in 1999, as a recurring character in Dawson's Creek. He played Henry Parker, a freshman football player with a crush on Jen Lindley, played by Michelle Williams. With his deep blue eyes and baby face, it was easy for Michael to morph into a regular heartthrob, but his real-life style was always more My So Called Life than Dawson's Creek. He spent his late teens living in New York, immersed in downtown culture. His bad-boy good looks, unkempt blond hair, and grungy aesthetic let him easily slip from the grasp of teen magazines and into the fashion pages post Dawson's. He's been shot by Hedi Slimane, and has modeled for Yves Saint Laurent and Prada. During this time, he also began a long-term relationship with alt supermodel Jamie Bochert, who exquisitely channels the hobo charms of Patti Smith. The two looked like they'd be very comfortable setting up home in the Chelsea Hotel together.
Michael's own late-90s alt-pin-up status was bolstered by his on-screen choices. He's played a self destructing Kurt Cobain in Last Days, a film that led him to start his own band at the behest of the movie's music adviser, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. The post-grunge band, called Pagoda, went on to sign to Moore's record label. Between rock star and actor, Michael felt like a contemporary reimagining of Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix, and he excelled at playing lost boys. He preferred to go into off-grid teen mode in Larry Clark's Bully or to embrace the weird pomp and goth rock star in Hedwig to signing on for more big-time, big-budget movies. But to ask Michael Pitt to pick a favorite of his films leaves the actor stumped. "That's such a difficult question because I've been different characters at different stages of my life," he says. "I try as much as I can to navigate a career, to pick things that are most interesting to me and hopefully that my fans would like to see me do. To also pick roles that challenge the norm."
Michael's latest role, and the reason he's talking to i-D on the phone from Paris where he's on a break from his home base of New York, represents both step change and consistency for the actor. Ghost in the Shell, the big screen live action adaptation of the hugely popular Japanese manga and anime series, is a film with a heftier budget than Michael is used to in the art-house realm. But that isn't a motivation for him. "There were a few factors," he says, that drew him to the film. "It wasn't just to make a big live-action movie. I've been asked to make those movies before but I wasn't interested in the content."
Ghost in the Shell stars Scarlett Johansson as The Major, a cyborg charged with taking on the criminal elements in the digital underworld. Michael is at pains to keep the details of his character under wraps, but he is likely to be key to unlocking the Major's mysterious past as child-turned-cyborg. The film weaves real world concerns of cyber crime, security, and hacking with philosophical questions. "Ghost in the Shell is essentially the question of what is the soul? What makes us different from computers? Can they really be our masters?" Michael explains.
In Michael's career, art has always been master. Born in New Jersey in 1981, he moved to New York when he was 15 with the intention of making it as an actor. School, he says, didn't work out for him. "I wasn't very good in school. I wasn't surrounded by a lot of culture in my life. I went to big public schools in America; I wasn't a well-off kid. Unfortunately, in America, a lot of those children fall through the cracks and I was definitely one of those."
Instead, Michael's education took place in downtown New York, where he shared a Chinatown squat with poets and artists. His break came when he landed a role in an off-Broadway show, watched by chance by a casting agent from California, that led to his 15-episode stint on Dawson's Creek. But the kind of outsider way of life Michael had experienced as an adolescent himself outshone the bright lights of prime-time television and Michael's work immediately saw him playing different types of rebel. He shed his clothes in The Dreamers, his sanity as Cobain in Last Days, and any vestige of cutey-pie with superbly unhinged turns in Bully and the American remake of Funny Games.
Michael still has the looks of an alt pin-up, most recently modeling with Winona Ryder — who seems equally as comfortable as an outsider — for Rag & Bone. But he has been successful at turning the attention to his often controversial, always compelling characterizations. It makes him, he says, bad at business but good at the work in hand. "I am an artist," he explains. "That doesn't mean if you make a lot of money that you are not an artist. It means you're lucky. But it shouldn't be the thing. To just chase money or strategically make moves that are based on your paycheck growing, I haven't conducted my career that way. That's why I'm a terrible businessman. But I am an artist."
Text Colin Crummy
Photography Juergen Teller
Styling Max Clark
Grooming Jon Chapman at Carol Hayes Management