If you are one of the approximately 5 million viewers who tuned in to see the season premiere of HBO’s new Sunday night sensation, Boardwalk Empire, it’s possible that you had a “where have I seen that dude” moment when the camera zoomed in on the face of Jimmy Darmody. The actor in question is 29-year-old Michael Pitt, who has been hiding in plain sight for a solid decade, dominating the indie film scene with an intrepid acting style and a unique look that is just as threatening as it is boyish. It makes him perfect for the role of Darmody, who happens to be both. Even though HBO may be more mainstream than Pitt is used to, we can already see that his talent and intelligence translate in any medium.

This is not the first time Pitt has appeared on the small screen. After the Jersey boy moved to New York City in 1997 at the age of 16 to pursue acting in the theater, a TV casting director spotted him in an off Broadway show and thought he’d be perfect for the guest role of Henry Parker in the 1999-2000 season of Dawson’s Creek.

Things might have gone differently for the green, distinctly un-Hollywood Pitt if John Cameron Mitchell hadn’t later cast him in the role of Tommy Gnosis, a precocious rock star who was too young and inexperienced to understand that loyalty is the price of fame, in the 2001 movie version of Mitchell’s celebrated Hedwig and the Angry Inch. To say that Pitt got lucky by securing such an iconic role so early in his career misses an important point. Tommy Gnosis didn’t just make Pitt’s career and set him on the trajectory that eventually led him to Boardwalk Empire’s front door; it epitomized the kind of role he was born to play and foreshadowed his next ten years in the film industry. It also presented a gamble for a young actor—many would have shied away from portraying the teenage lover of an East German transsexual musician, but Pitt threw himself into the role and received rampant praise. After Hedwig, he become ubiquitous, popping up all over the place, if you were paying attention.

That same year he starred with Brad Renfro and Bijou Phillips in Larry Clark’s Bully, an offbeat drama by the director of Kids in which a group of teens decide to murder their sadistic, psychologically abusive best friend. While the movie opened to mixed reviews, people seemed to take notice of Pitt.

He then played small roles in the mainstream motion pictures Murder by Numbers and The Village, and gave a riveting performance on Law and Order: SVU, before accepting the lead role as Matthew in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, an audacious, colorful take on the 1968 student riots in Paris. The strong sexual content of Dreamers (also starring Eva Green and Louis Garrel) got it slapped with an NC-17 rating, limiting its distribution in the US. The movie doesn’t shy away from tackling complex and divisive sexual issues, including multiple partners and incest. It also portrays extended scenes in which all three actors exhibit full-frontal nudity. It’s not particularly surprising that the intrepid Pitt took to the challenge, but even he acknowledged to BBC at the time that “it’s a serious risk to take in your career . . . with the studios and with the American public,” and that it “can be looked upon very badly.” But Pitt, guided by his principles, didn’t flinch. “I don’t agree with those values at all,” he declared. “It’s totally fine showing someone getting their head blown off in America and you can’t show the human body. I think that shows something about the culture.”

He later got in touch with his creepy side in Rhinoceros Eyes, when he played the painfully shy, psychotic Chep, a worker in a props store who goes to extreme lengths to provide one of his fairer female clients with the “authentic” props she requires. The depths of Pitt’s acting ability and the extent of his range really started to emerge in this film. He played Chep with such exquisite delicacy, compassion and thought that the viewer actually starts to understand this seemingly unreachable character. He diverged from this sensitive portrayal a few years later, sending shivers down audiences’ spines in Francois Girard’s psychological thriller, Funny Games, where Pitt plays a young, preppy psychopath who terrorizes an entire family in their own home.

Amid a flurry of activity and a fierce work ethic, Pitt has managed to start a band in his free time. He is the frontman for Pagoda, a neo-grunge, indie-rock band that has already released an album by the same name. Pitt has always been interested in playing music, but his relationship with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore is really what set him on the path. Moore met Pitt on the set of Gus Van Sant’s 2005 film, Last Days, on which the former was signed as a musical advisor. The two struck up a friendship and Moore later got Pitt’s band signed with a label. Pitt still devotes
a good deal of time to Pagoda, and their second album, Rebirth, is rumored to be upcoming in 2011. Pitt may have his hands full, but this indie film and rock star seems well-equipped to blow mainstream audiences away. He will certainly bring a different kind of talent to the fan base.

While it’s still somewhat disorienting to see Pitt appearing weekly on an HBO hit television series, it’s satisfying to know that larger audiences will be exposed to his intricate talents and conscientious acting style. Before too long, just about everyone will know who he is, and those of us who have been long-standing fans will no longer have to comb through articles and reviews in The Village Voice to learn about his endeavors. I do find it a bit ironic that the role that’s likely to make Pitt famous—that of wannabe gangster Jimmy Darmody—epitomizes all that Pitt disdained after the release of The Dreamers: an American effort in which “it’s totally fine showing someone getting their head blown off.” Darmody literally blew off someone’s head in the pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire, but somehow I find it far less likely that he will ever expose himself frontally in the show. It’s okay—Pitt still chooses his roles intelligently, based on real substance, whether they are British, Italian, American, low budget or high stakes.

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