“So he’s supposed to be some kind of a movie star?” a skinny girl with braids asked her friend as they watched Michael Pitt walk out the door of the Tilden Family Center in Highland Park, Brooklyn, on a recent Friday. The center, which provides community outreach programs for kids, was buzzing with the rumor of a celebrity visit. The other girl confirmed that, yes, he was the movie star. “She wants to know what movies you been in,” she called after Mr. Pitt.
“Excuse me?” said Mr. Pitt. Now 28, the baby-faced, blue-eyed New Jersey native could have passed for one of their high-school classmates. He was wearing a flannel shirt, dark jeans and sneakers. His hair was pulled back into a greasy ponytail; a black book bag dangled from his shoulders.
“What’s your name?” the girl asked.
“Michael,” he said with a smile, adding that, yes, he was an actor.
He didn’t list the 16 feature films he’s made since making his debut in 2000, in a small role as a snotty prep school kid in Gus Van Sant’s Finding Forrester, which remains his most mainstream film. Mr. Van Sant also tapped him for the lead role of Blake in the hypnotic Last Days, based on Kurt Cobain’s final descent. Telling the girls to Netflix The Dreamers, which some consider to be his best performance, might not be appropriate: It bears a NC-17 rating and, for director Bernardo Bertolucci, Mr. Pitt bared his weasel. But chances are they—and millions of other Americans—will catch Mr. Pitt’s co-starring role in the new Martin Scorsese–directed HBO drama series Boardwalk Empire, which starts filiming this week.
“She said she wants to have some private lessons with you!” the girl hollered. Mr. Pitt turned and smiled.
We walked to a navy Jeep Cherokee parked down the block. He took out a set of keys and asked if I wouldn’t mind driving: He’d never gotten around to getting a license, and he preferred to avoid breaking the law as much as possible. I took the wheel and listened to his story.
He was born in West Orange, N.J. By age 16, he’d been to three or four high schools, the last of which was “the kind of place you send a kid until you can be tried as an adult,” he said. “I wasn’t learning anything; there was just there was no point.” He dropped out.
It was gridlock on Flatbush Avenue, everyone was honking; Mr. Pitt leaned over and laid on ours. “Fuck it,” he said, a Marlboro Red dangling from his mouth.
As a kid, Mr. Pitt wasn’t exactly on the fast train to Rikers; he did do a brief stint at the Essex County Youth House. “You know, there was maybe a Spanish kid,” he said. “But I was definitely the lightest kid there, which was rough, it was really rough.”
“I was a troubled kid, I had a lot of trouble,” he continued. “I was really wanting to express myself in ways, which sounds really cheesy, but it’s the truth. It’s why you can be put in jail in New Jersey, and you can be writing plays for a workshop. I was just an artist and there was no—you know, that sounds really cheesy and I can’t believe that I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m saying that. But that’s really what it came down to.”
School let him down from the start. He was put in special classes, which pretty much meant you didn’t have to do any work. He was 13 when he realized that actually wasn’t so sweet. That was around the time he was assigned Catcher in the Rye.
“I loved it. I responded to it,” he said. “I failed the class because I didn’t want to read the final chapter. It wasn’t time.”
When he was 14, he began hitching rides with a girlfriend who was taking classes at the American Academy for the Dramatic Arts in Manhattan. Bill Bartlett was his first professor there. Mr. Bartlett has since funded a nonprofit that runs drama classes for preteens in rough areas, including the one that Mr. Pitt had visited that afternoon.
“He was the first person to tell me I was smart at anything,” Mr. Pitt said. “He was one of my angels; there have been a few.”
“Here he was, this poor kid from West Orange, he got on top of his chair and just started belting his heart out,” said Mr. Bartlett. “I just knew that I was looking at maybe one of the greatest actors in the world. I’m so happy that he’s alive. It was pretty close there for a while.”
Mr. Pitt said Mr. Bartlett overlooked the fact that he never had money to pay for the class, and by and by he stopped asking for it.
When Mr. Pitt finally dropped out of high school, he moved to New York, lived all over Brooklyn, on a couch in Chinatown. At 19, he was cast in a play by leftist playwright Naomi Wallace, The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek. Pay was $250 a week. He got his first apartment, a studio above a palm reader’s shop on the corner of Myrtle and Flatbush. He was robbed at gunpoint by a 12-year-old. “I felt bad for him,” he said. He gave him $10 but wouldn’t allow him to take his MetroCard because, he told the poor kid, he had to get around. He had to get to work!
“If you ask me when I made it, it was when I was doing that Off Broadway play,” he said. “Naomi Wallace is a poet-playwright, and it was like kind of a big deal, you know, for me. It was legit work and I was being really creative, and I was able to research and do things that I found interesting. And everything stemmed from me doing theater—like about critics, not worrying what they say. I had a handful of actors who kind of took me under their wing, ’cause they kinda knew that I was alone, and I certainly was really happy to be around.”
In the late ’90s, he was plunked onto prime time as Michelle Williams’ jock boyfriend on Dawson’s Creek. He declined to sign up for a second season and instead landed edgy big-screen roles: Tommy Gnosis in John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Donny in Larry Clark’s Bully.
“Could I be making millions right now—maybe,” he said. “But from my perspective, they might as well have been paying me millions.”
In 2007, he appeared in Michael Haneke’s art-house thriller Funny Games, in which he plays Paul, half of a sadistic preppie duo who abduct a well-to-do couple (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) in their Hamptons home and torture them. “I really made a decision, because I worked really, really hard on Funny Games, and I learned so much,” he said. “And right after I made that film, I said, ‘I’m not gonna work unless I can work in this way, at this level.’”
Plus, he wanted to dedicate a year to writing. He explained that if he’s not reading scripts, he’s writing them. (After Funny Games, he got a mountain of horror scripts.) He’s tinkering with three of his own screenplays and a novel. “I’m just trying to do everything I can just to stay sane,” he said.