Some actors get hired for the ability to do accents. Others get hired because of how they might look with their clothes off. But the thing that landed Michael Pitt, 26, the starring role in “Silk” — the sweeping film adaptation of Alessandro Baricco’s acclaimed book — was his ability to take up room on the screen without saying much at all.
“When I met Michael in Montreal and we sat down, I immediately knew that I had Hervé Joncour in front of me,” director François Girard told the press recently at the Toronto International Film Festival. “It’s a tough role because it is so nontalkative, but that is Michael’s nature. He was the only one I could ever see tackling such a difficult role.”
In “Silk,” Pitt portrays an unworldly former officer in 19th-century France who leaves behind his devoted young wife (Keira Knightley) to travel to Japan. His mission: to bring home a priceless cache of silkworm eggs for the greedy silk merchant (Alfred Molina) who now employs him. Once he reaches this new world, however, Joncour is seduced by the country and the ravishing beauty of the local baron’s young concubine. As in any classic tale of love and loss, this forbidden love affair puts the guilt-ridden adventurer on the road to ruin.
“It was very clear that Joncour wasn’t a man of a lot of words,” says Pitt as he sits in a Toronto hotel, puffing on a cigarette. “He’s internal. To play it any other way would have contradicted his intuitive character.”
His approach to the role was as naturalistic as his performance. “I just try to live it, you know? I do a lot of research, but then I just try to tell it as a human being,” says the actor, who spent almost five months working in Japan and Italy to bring Girard’s lavish film adaptation to life.
Despite the historical nature of the story, set in the 1860s, Pitt found the emotions explored to be completely current. “So many of us do screw up love, so in that sense the story is keeping things relevant,” says Pitt, who also shares on-screen love scenes with Knightley. (“It’s always awkward when you first meet people, but Keira was really open,” he says.)
This story first appeared in the September 25, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
So is Pitt, who has garnered acclaim in films like “Bully” and “The Dreamers,” movies that explored sexuality and violence in risky, un-Hollywood-like ways.
“Maybe it was naïve of me, but becoming an actor was the only road to take,” says Pitt, who grew up in West Orange, N.J.
At age 10, he told his parents that acting was his calling. They scraped together enough money to send their son to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and at 16, Pitt headed for New York, juggling auditions with classes and working as a bike messenger.
“If I look at my career now and think back to when I was 16 or 17, it blows me away. I was working in a drive-through,” muses Pitt. “But I was always kind of a dreamer. I guess being more naïve back then made nothing seem really impossible to me.”
While TV appearances on “Law & Order” and “Dawson’s Creek” paid the bills, Pitt’s hunt for artistic challenges drew him to Off-Broadway, and soon he landed small film roles. In 2001, he appeared in the film version of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” earning praise for his portrayal of a sexually confused boyfriend of a transsexual rock star.
So far, the actor’s real life has seemed a little less dramatic: He hasn’t exactly become a tabloid fixture as of yet.
“I still ride the subway every day in New York,” he says by way of explanation. “I’m still able to live in Brooklyn and have my own private world.”