Celebrity Skinned


Chain-smoking through his interviews, Michael Pitt—the antistar of Gus Van Sant’s latest meditation—pushes russet-dyed bangs from his eyes in a manner befitting his fame-drained character, the Kurt Cobain clone Blake. The actor seems legitimately burned out on questions about Cobain, Courtney Love, his own Nirvana-esque band, his bygone engagement to Asia Argento, and the meaning behind Blake’s meandering junkie mumbles.

Van Sant insists his film’s not about Cobain, and its mid-distance shots do seem to rather document a syndrome—a detached druggy panic that a French review translated sketchily by the Internet happens to capture perfectly, rendering Blake not as “he” but as “it” (“It attempts to avoid others,” “It seeks a hearth”). Pitt agrees: “I didn’t realize until after I saw the film that in making it not about Kurt, Gus allows the audience to see a human in that situation, as opposed to this guy that we all love.” This Nirvana fan says he always felt Van Sant was best to tackle the Cobain myth. “I thought he would understand how to do it. To think about what the person would want.”

It was difficult, though, to play Cobain without really playing him. “I was confused, thinking, What can I do? And what can’t I do?” One thing he does a lot in Days is mutter. He explains, “I myself, I will talk to myself sometimes, have a conversation in my head and then just answer it. I thought if I was vague enough, it could apply to a lot of things.” In Days, Blake’s incoherence heightens tensions between him and skittish pals loafing in the doomed star’s dilapidated mansion. It’s like the dark side of HBO’s Entourage. But, says Pitt, “I don’t really judge these people. You take someone from the working class. They’re not superstars. If anything they’re freaks. Then suddenly in a few months, you have all this interest. For someone like that, the initial reaction is keep people around that you knew before. But those people don’t know how to deal with it either.” Pitt continues, “I have a lot of friends who—I mean, someone can have people around that they consider equals but there’s not that same attention.”

To work up Blake, Pitt talked to Thurston Moore, whom he’d met once when, at 16, he saw his musical idol on a Manhattan street and shook his hand. “I based a lot of the character on things Thurston and Kim [Gordon] said about that time.” In Days, Pitt plays two songs, one an impromptu jam, the other his own Cobain-esque “Death to Birth.” About the latter, he had reservations. “I thought it should be improvised. I did six or seven takes, about things like macaroni and cheese. Then Gus said, ‘Play your song.’ I was reluctant.” He still seems ambivalent, sighing, “I mean, it’s Gus Van Sant and Thurston Moore, so—you know?”

photo: HBO Films/Picturehouse

Pitt’s avoided the teen dream trajectory his Dawson’s Creek debut portended. And at his band’s recent show at Piano’s, the frontman was even too modest to bug the sound guys when his mic cut out. After the music, Pitt says he’d like to direct, noting lessons learned. From John Cameron Mitchell: “Just bleed it, you’ll get it done”; Larry Clark: “Film is like taking a picture”; Bertolucci: “Treat each shot like it’s the shot you might use.” And how about working with Asia Argento on The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things? Says Pitt, “After shooting The Village, it was great to do this little film where I really felt needed.” As for Argento’s directorial style, Pitt likens it to “a train going 90 miles an hour toward a massive black void.” Of longtime friend Van Sant, Pitt says, “Directors will tell you, ‘Pick up this glass! Hop across the room!’ With Gus, you just get the feeling that no matter what you do, you’re not going to get in the way of his vision. It’s like, ‘Do what you want because my story will be told.’ “