Michael Pitt was 19 and an actor still fresh off the streets of New York when he first met director Gus Van Sant. Not long after, they started talking about making a movie inspired by the death of Seattle grunge rocker Kurt Cobain. Six years later, their trance-like, time-shifting collaboration, "Last Days," is being released, with a stringy-haired Pitt -- himself a musician -- dramatizing the final, rambling hours of the fictional Blake as he wanders around his woodsy estate. At the Four Seasons recently, the lanky, cigarette-smoking, soft-voiced actor -- a "Dawson's Creek" alumnus whose films include "Murder by Numbers," "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Dreamers" -- touched on working with his friend Van Sant and the inevitable controversy in grazing on a legend.
You first worked with Gus Van Sant on "Finding Forrester," one of his mainstream films. Is he a different director when he's shooting his artier stuff?
No. He never really tells you what to do, and at first that can be really jarring, but soon I figured it out. "Oh, I can do anything and he'll go with it." As long as it's good. But he'll never stroke your ego.
Do you remember where you were when you heard Kurt Cobain died?
I wasn't really a fan then. Everyone was a fan when I was a kid, so I didn't gravitate toward that. At my middle school, everyone was pretty much a homeboy. Kids listened to rap. I remember
I walked into school one day and all the kids were in black. And this one kid, Carl, he was a rapper -- young, black, not very well-off, had a single mom -- and he was like, "Kurt Cobain died today." It struck me that he related to him. You wouldn't really expect him to be able to relate to this poor white hick from the woods.
What do you say to those Kurt fans or confidants who will inevitably criticize the film?
It's not about Kurt. He's a made-up character. I mean, I read all the books, and they all conflict. It's not factual, and I think that's based on respect. A good way to explain it is, it's more a film for Kurt Cobain, you know? An hommage, an ode.
We hardly see your face in this movie, whether it's because of your hair or the way Van Sant shoots. You must have a healthy ego.
It was less about hiding my face than about not doing movie magic. In every film, you'll be dying on the floor, and they'll be like "Cut" and move your hair out of your face so the camera can see it. But when you see someone completely forget about the camera, who doesn't cater to its eye, it can look like I was hiding it, but that wasn't my intention.
For the most part, though, Blake avoids trying to be found by anybody. Have you had those moments?
I think we all have. Sometimes I lock my door and don't answer my phone. Sometimes I go to Europe. [Laughs] But I see it on a smaller scale, and I've been wary of that in the way I've built my career. I've done smaller movies, things that just interest me. I've had time to grow. For Blake, though, I played it as though he never really got to warm up to it, never really got to figure out who to trust.
Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon plays a record executive who tries to draw Blake out of his existential spiral. What was that scene like to shoot?
A lot of it's cut, but that talk, I had this feeling that she had had that talk. For me as an actor, it was probably the most that I've felt on a set. I've been on both sides of that talk in my own life, and it just hit me. You know that person's gone, and you want to do something, but there's nothing you can do. It's really sad.
You're 24, and someone who escaped the teen TV mold, so what's your advice for those on the "Dawson's Creeks" today?
I was making $250 a week doing a play, and they called me and, from a tape, said, "We want to sign him for three years, he's gonna be a millionaire!" I said no, and I pretty much thought I'd [screwed] it up, and then 45 minutes later they called back and said, "What does he want?" So I did a deal for 15 episodes. I was like, "I want a little bit of money, I want to be able to get into the door of auditions, and then I want to get out." So I think it's about risk, and being able to deal with rejection. I was really just young and dumb. [Laughs]
-- Robert Abele