You wouldn't think it while looking at his delicate, cherubic face, but 22-year-old Michael Pitt knows how to portray troubled, rebellious misfits. Whether playing thieving rock star Tommy Gnosis in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a murderous teen in Bully and Murder by Numbers, or the vulnerable American tourist caught up in an incestuous love triangle in The Dreamers, Pitt relishes playing provocative, uncompromising, and unconventional roles that challenge audiences' expectations.
His infatuation with taking on roles began when he made up stories on a therapist's couch at age 9; a year later, at summer camp, a part in a play initiated an addiction to acting. "I got high when I was on the stage, just from doing it," Pitt recalls. "I just wanted to go back. I was hooked ever since then. Up until my teenage years, I was only thinking about that and only trying to do that."
After being kicked out of three high schools and leaving home at 16, the New Jersey native brought his dreams of acting to New York City. A job as a bike messenger helped him pay for the one-bedroom apartment in Chinatown that he shared with nine other young men. Today he humbly tosses the hard-luck story aside when considering the millions still reaching for fame. "I'm kind of tired of talking about struggling," he says. "I [struggled] for two years, and it was harsh because I was young and I didn't know [how it would turn out]. But in retrospect, there are people who are probably more talented and refined than me and [who] have been doing it a lot longer and are still doing it now. It's a lot of hard work and a lot of luck, you know?"
As he was too young to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts full time, Pitt took weekend classes there for two years, meeting his mentor, professor Bill Bartlett. "I think he ended up paying for me to go there," says Pitt. "He basically taught me to get out there and start working as fast as possible." Pitt says he doesn't use an acting coach, but if he needs to go over a script, he will call Bartlett.
After landing bit parts in the films 54 and Hi-Life, the actor was discovered by a casting agent for the WB TV network while performing in The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek at the New York Theater Workshop. Pitt was offered a plum role on the TV series Dawson's Creek—as a jock love interest—but he wrestled with the prospect. "I thought I was going to be a theatre actor the rest of my life," he says. "I was very happy to get my little check and to be doing something that I loved and would do for free, so when I got [the play], I had made it, in my mind. Then, Dawson's Creek was interested, and I was broke. Hopefully, I used it in the right way." After only one season, Pitt rejected a lucrative offer to become a series regular, focusing instead on stretching his craft and on doing consistently good work, whatever the budget.
Pitt quickly found out that good work is often hard to get. When he wanted to be in Larry Clark's controversial film Bully, the producers, who already had a list of actors they wanted to see, wouldn't even allow Pitt to audition for the role of Donny. So he got Clark's phone number directly from director Gus Van Sant, with whom he'd worked on Finding Forrester. "I basically showed up at Larry's house," he says. "He read me and gave me the role there. I mean, you can take what's given to you, but most of the stuff that's just handed to me is really bad. A lot of the stuff that's on my resumé, I had to really work for. So as far as breaking through [is concerned]—I mean, you really have to break through; it's not just a clever name."
Pitt manages to balance work on low-budget films with work on the occasional big-budget studio film. He will appear in M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, with Adrien Brody and Joaquin Phoenix; in The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things with its writer, director, and star, Asia Argento; and in two small films with first-time directors, titled Rhinoceros Eyes and Jailbait. Pitt is never a stranger to issues of sexuality and to on-screen nudity, and his latest endeavor, The Dreamers (opening Feb. 6) directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, has already received an NC-17 rating due to the intense and graphic nature of love scenes between Pitt and the French siblings with whom he moves in. "It's really easy to get an R rating if you're, like, sticking a gun in someone's head and blowing off their face," says Pitt. "But If you show the human anatomy or anything to do with sex, they won't have it. I mean, in Rome, you have to be 14 to see this film. I think Bernardo said it best: 'An orgasm is better than a bomb.'"