Where do science and spirituality intersect? That’s the question that fuels “I Origins,” Mike Cahill’s follow-up to metaphysical Sundance 2011 hit “Another Earth.” Cahill’s sophomore effort, which shares many genes with its predecessor, stars Michael Pitt as Ian Grey, a brooding molecular biologist interested in disproving intelligent design by tracing the evolution of the human eye. While knee-deep in the most important research experiment of his life, Grey meets Sofi, a stunning, free-spirited model, at a Halloween party. Despite—or because of—the fact that Sofi is his antithesis, the connection is instantaneous. Grey falls in love with her eyes. He loses track of her after the party, but through a series of preternatural coincidences they meet again and build a relationship. When tragedy strikes, though, Grey must reevaluate not only the course of his life but the core beliefs that predicate it.
Watch: Mike Cahill Talks About Sound and Poetic Realism in ‘I Origins’
Last week, Indiewire sat down with Pitt to discuss his role in what is an intermittently cerebral and fantastical project. The actor appears in every scene, effectively grounding the film. This is an important step in Pitt’s career—he’s built his reputation playing secondary (but bold) characters in such films as Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers,” Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games,” and, more recently, as Jimmy Darmody on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.” In “I Origins,” Pitt steals the show.
First things first: I hear you’re a fellow Brooklynite.
Brooklyn is definitely the only place to live in the New York area. I love Brooklyn. Go Brooklyn!
This is a particularly dense and ambitious script. What compelled you to take the leap of — excuse my choice in words — faith?
The script, the character, and Mike Cahill. We met very organically. We met as filmmakers. He wasn’t really trying to pitch me something and I wasn’t really trying to make something with him. He had about five or six ideas and we talked about them. One of them was “I Origins.” And I just kind of said, “That idea about the eyes… That’s very interesting. You should devote some time to that.” So then, two days later, he sent me the breakdown of the story. The whole thing. And then two and a half weeks later he sent a first draft. That was definitely a plus. I said, “This kid’s not fucking around.” I could just tell he really knew where cinema was at now. He wasn’t trying to make films the way that they were made 25 years ago, or even 10 years ago. He knew about gear, he knew how to run cameras, he knew how to edit. For me, it was definitely a key point. If you know the nuts and bolts of how to make a feature film, that’s half the battle. I’ve been really lucky to work with some amazing directors, but those projects have always been their passion projects. That’s where I developed as an actor. It’s super lucky. I feel really blessed by it. Right now, what I’m trying to do is to make films—”I Origins” is one of them—with the new generation of filmmakers. I want to support that.
What’s unique about filmmakers today?
I think it’s a great time to be a filmmaker. It’s an amazing time. Right now. You can set up your edit suite anywhere you want. Your cameras are relatively cheap, at great quality, too. Even a 5D is good. You have everything at your disposal. I think people can just make things now. It’s kind of what happened with the music industry. Before, a band couldn’t afford to go into a nice studio, or if they were going to go into a nice studio, they had to record twenty-five songs in two days. That’s not a healthy workflow for anyone. No one should have to rush their vision like that. That’s one good thing about where technology is right now. But also, it’s a little scary, because you have no excuses anymore. It’s just, “Make it.”
Does love at first sight exist as it does in the movie?
Yes. It exists. I’ve fallen in love at first sight. It’s pretty amazing. It’s not something that was hard for me to grab onto [for the character]. I think it happens to people. When you look into someone’s eyes, it may be like your connection to self. Two intuitive people, at the right moment, at the right time, could know they’re in love at that moment.
Your character carries around a restrained, latent grief. How did you cultivate that emotion?
To be honest, what you try to do is just put yourself in the character and kind of go on the ride. If you can do that and try to stay in… I usually make a small pocket script. In that script, even if I memorize the lines, it’s always good to go back. Make that your bible. All my notes go in there. I like to keep that on me at all times. I put a picture on the cover of the script. It was a macro-lens of Sofi’s eyes. Every time I looked at my script I looked at the eyes. It would always bring me back to her.
You’re very selective about the projects you take on. How do you maintain your integrity?
I try not to think about money when I take on projects like this. I don’t want it to sound like I’m standing on a high horse or something. I don’t judge people; some people do have to think about it. It’s a luxury not to have to. But to be honest, I’m a horrible businessman. I’d have to actively say to people, “I’m only going to work for this amount.” I don’t. I read everything.
What’s the best acting advice you’ve ever received?
A very good friend of mine who mentored me early on had said that acting is very silly and very, very brave. I think that a lot of actors today — especially with media, fame, all this shit… When you’re surrounded by the craft, you get all this junk food. It’s important to remember that it’s silly. Don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s important to remember that it’s a brave thing to want to do. To really do it well… most people can’t.