In writer and director Mike Cahill’s “I Origins” Michael Pitt, perhaps best known for his role as Jimmy Darmody on ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ portrays Ian, a brilliant young medical researcher who is fascinated with the eye — long known as the “window to the soul.” However, this doctor is more interested in finding hard proof that the human eye evolved and was not the result of a “higher power’s” creation. Yet, in the course of his research he stumbles on something that challenges his long-held atheism and belief that science trumps faith.
Recently Pitt was in Chicago to talk about the film and his feelings about making scientists “sexy” on screen.
Q: This is such an unusual film, where did Mike Cahill come up with it?
A: He had a dream. He dreamt that the eyes of dead people come back from the dead. It was as simple as that. He then wrote it down, but didn’t come back to it for a long time. Years later, we were in a meeting about other things — just to get to know each other and consider working together. Suddenly, he remembered this idea and was inspired to set about writing the screenplay.
Q: In this world, we constantly see statistics showing Americans lagging behind the world in science and math education. While this is an entertainment project, don’t you think it’s good to show scientists as sexy, for lack of a better word?
A: That’s one of the things that interested me about this project. It didn’t make Ian a nerd. He was cool. He had sex. He was attractive to beautiful women. Plus he was brilliant and a great scientist. I think it’s fascinating in that way.
Also, when it comes to science and things like that in films — I think it’s often presented to people in the wrong way. One of the many reasons why I wanted to play this role. Certainly a part of me went, ‘Science is cool,’ after I read the screenplay.
Q: Was it interesting to you that your character, Ian, was attracted to two very different women in this film?
A: The two women — Brit [Marling] and Astrid [Berges-Frisbey] — are so different but so perfect for this film. I feel a little responsible for Astrid because I had met her in London. It was really hard to find the girl who would play this part, and Mike was freaking out a little bit, because that role is so important. Plus, she has — for real — those amazing eyes that you see in the film, with all those incredible colors in her iris.
I had met her through Stephen Graham, who plays Al Capone on ‘Boardwalk Empire.’ I was visiting him in London, and just happened to meet her. I put it out there to Mike, but I didn’t want to push on it too much, because there’s no way to know 100 percent, but I had a sense about her and I had a sense Mike would respond to her as the director — and they did, which was cool.
Q: Talk about that little girl who plays the role of Salomina, the orphan child in India — who I understand actually did come from an orphanage, right?
A: Yes, her name is Kashish. She turned out to be amazing. The only time I ever saw Mike Cahill nervous on set was the day before we filmed her for the first time. He did not sleep that night. We shot India last. I told Mike — as we were flying to India — ‘You’re a bold filmmaker, putting the entire climax of the movie on the shoulders of a 6-year-old kid who has never acted before!’
It could fall apart in that moment. But she had an unselfconsciousness about the camera. So everything turned out fine.
As we filmed, you started seeing her become even more comfortable in the process. She started doing things that a natural actor will just do. It was remarkable to watch.
Q: Is it true that you came up with a way to make Kashish breathless and able to cry on cue?
A: Yes. I told Mike [Cahill] about it. He had her run up and down the hallway at full speed a number of times. That made her breathe hard. Then they put eyedrops in her eyes to create the tears. It worked perfectly. I learned it from Stanley Kubrick. I watched a film about the making of “The Shining,” and he did that with young kid running through the maze.