Michael Pitt and Mike Cahill on 'I Origins'

The actor and filmmaker discuss replicas of themselves, belief and science with RedEye's Matt Pais.

Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt co-starred as brilliant, disturbed teenagers in 2002’s “Murder by Numbers.” While Gosling went on to become, well, Gosling, Pitt’s career has been spent more frequently lurking in the shadows of unsettling smaller projects--like playing a Kurt Cobain-esque musician in Gus Van Sant’s underrated “Last Days” or a sociopathic killer in Michael Haneke’s American remake of his “Funny Games.”
 
Opening Friday, “I Origins” is another odd one. Pitt (“Boardwalk Empire”) stars as Dr. Ian Gray, a molecular biologist set on proving that an eye can evolve in a lab and, thus, that the uniqueness of iris patterns is not a logical argument for the existence of a higher power. It’s the latest attempt by writer/director Mike Cahill (“Another Earth”) to explore big questions through sci-fi hypotheticals.

At the James Hotel, Pitt, 33, and Cahill, 35, got scientific.
 
Mike, you’re very interested in the notion of people not wanting to feel alone in the world. Which would make you feel less alone: Knowing there was a duplicate you on another planet (like in “Another Earth”) or knowing your soul belonged to someone else and would again after you die (considered in "I Origins")?
Mike Cahill: They’re both existential questions, but they’re [each] getting at something different. One’s eradicating the fear of loneliness, the fact that we are singular in our POV on the world and that can be slightly terrifying. In this film, it’s not about loneliness as much as it is about the fear of death and regret and grieving and loss.
 
I think there are still notions of your identity being more than just you right now, though. What do you think, Michael?
Michael Pitt: [Laughs] If there was another me on another earth, I’d want to meet him. I would probably put him to work and be like, “Listen, in this relationship, I am the alpha!”
MC: [Laughs]
MP: “Don’t mess around! I am the king of us.” I would definitely want to have that conversation as soon as possible.
 
What would you have him do?
MC: He’s doing it right now! [Laughs]
MP: Actually, you’re talking to him.
 
You’re not the number one?
MC: Holy [bleep]! That just blew my mind.
MP: I’m not the number one, but I’m in the process of taking over. …  I’d probably have him do stuff I didn’t want to do, like my laundry. I’d make him cook for me.
 
This is just like “Multiplicity.” Did you ever see that?
MP: Which movie is that?
 
That’s the Michael Keaton one where he gets cloned.
MP: Oh, yeah, I love that one! That’s a good movie. I like Michael Keaton. What the [bleep] happened to him, man?
MC: He’s back! He’s Birdman.
MP: Oh yeah, he’s back.
MC: “Birdman” looks amazing.
MP:  What’s the other thing? Oh, oh, this movie!
MC: [Laughs]
MP: Yeah, I’d be into that too, man.
 
Is this something scientists are actually looking into--people having identical iris patterns and what that would imply?
MC: Yes, that is something that is actually going on in reality. There’s no conclusions yet; it’s all very preliminary. It just happened recently, so there is a database of eyes. Iris scanning, a lot of people don’t realize, it started in the late-‘80s, 1987, and has been spreading around the world as a great, effective way to ID a person. It’s better than a fingerprint. It’s an internal organ visible from the outside; it stays the same from birth to death. And to get an iris scan all you need is a photograph or a hi-res image. The duplicate thing is new. People can Google that and look that up.
 
Michael, do you think it’s harder to play someone who believes and has a crisis where he starts not believing, or the other way around--in this case, where your character doesn’t believe but starts to think maybe he should?
MP: That’s an interesting question. I don’t think either one is easier or harder. It was very interesting to me to play this guy, this scientist whose whole life is based on data, proof, who is essentially an atheist, I think. It was very fun and difficult and easy and interesting to play a character where that was being shaken. Do you know who Richard Dawkins is?
 
I read you talking about him in a different interview, but I didn’t before.
MP: I would totally encourage anyone to YouTube Richard Dawkins, check out some of his lectures and stuff. It’s a scientist that Mike turned me onto. We took some things. I wanted to take some things from him actually, who he is, and put it in Ian. The idea was to set up this really strong foundation of someone who was so against the other side, with the idea that the bigger the hurdle, was the more the release would be at the end of the film when we actually shook up his world.
 
When you were growing up, were you as interested in science as Mike is?
MP: I was kind of like a closet—I was very interested in science. But I think that especially in America, I think that for some reason, there’s a stigma about science, and one of the reasons I was interested in making this film was to say, “This is cool. What these guys are doing is amazing. You should be interested in this. Scientists are not people in white coats with no sense of humor who can’t talk about music. They’re some of the most creative, passionate people that you’ll meet.”
 
Plus:
What Pitt wants to do in Chicago: “There’s a steak joint/strip bar thing, I’d love to check that out. And some museums maybe.”

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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