It’s been nearly six months since Michael Pitt was shot off “Boardwalk Empire,” when Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson put the final bullet in his protege-turned-rival Jimmy Darmody, but those caught up in the HBO drama’s second season still haven’t forgotten.
For many, the execution was a shock — but not for Pitt, one of several viable Emmy acting contenders from “Boardwalk.”
“Basically, from the first script of the second season, to be perfectly honest, I knew,” said Pitt, who is now in the process of shooting “You Can’t Win,” a film that he has a hand in writing, producing and starring in. “The reason I sensed that was because I knew my character was really well-liked by the audience, and that made it very dangerous for me, because of the nature of the show and the nature of HBO being willing to take risks.”
“I was actually surprised that it surprised other people. To me, it just seems like it makes sense. As soon as they wrote him trying to put a hit on the main character, well, they’re not going to kill the main character. (But) they know their audience, that’s why they’re good writers.”
Despite that deductive reasoning, Pitt said he was constantly seeking more information about Darmody during his “Boardwalk” walk. He recalled spending countless hours with showrunner Terence Winter and the show’s scribes in an effort to get as much info as he could about Jimmy’s past, present and future.
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“I was really adamant about talking to the writers,” Pitt said. “I would go see them on my days off. I tried to have a meeting at least every script just to talk things through, because yeah, one doesn’t want it to be vague. … Your whole job as an actor is to make choices about the character, and because you don’t know what’s in store, then it makes things really difficult to make those choices.
“I was really adamant about knowing what they did know, or about knowing possibilities … the more information, the better. And I was really adamant about putting in that work even though that work schedule was already insane. From the first season, I worked seven days a week for like a year and a half. I just worked on it probably harder than anything to date.”
Generally, Pitt said he got what he needed from the conversations, but when the guidance he got didn’t satiate him, he would turn to World War I research, or additionally, take his own stab at filling in the blanks.
“They sort of set up (Jimmy) like a puzzle, so one way I would try to decode it is I would just write scenes, the scenes that weren’t there,” Pitt said. “They showed me Point A to Point B, I would make up stories between (those two points) that would help with my character, almost like backstory. And eventually I was showing Terence a lot of those notes.”
The experience helped Pitt, who has spent most of his career in such films as “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “The Dreamers,” develop skills as a performer that he hadn’t tapped before.
“Absolutely, having to throw together a character very quickly, and for the most part not being able to change things in the script, has taught me a lot about just my prep time,” Pitt said. “There’s a lot of situations where it’s not ideal, but you do it because you have to do it. There’s no time — very often you’re getting the script or scene, and you’re gonna shoot it in two days and you might have feelings about it, and it needs to be done. … I’m certainly applying it right now.”
Pitt is knee-deep in “You Can’t Win,” based on an early 1900s memoir about a Missouri-based thief and hobo who spent 30 years living on railroads and traveling through the western United States and Canada.
“I’m wearing many different hats,” Pitt said. “It’s been such hard work, but a dream. I know we’re making really, really important work. There’s nothing more satisfying to me than that. It’s not money, it’s not fame. When I feel like I’m working on something that’s good hard work and is important, I can look at myself in the mirror, and that makes me feel really rich.”