Actor Michael Pitt found ‘I Origins’ a learning experience

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Actor Michael Pitt loves two things, in particular, about “I Origins.” 

He has stuck around for screenings and stayed after for discussions and noticed there is a point in the movie where a good portion of the audience begins to cry. “And that’s really interesting and also, it’s not tragic, it’s kind of positive, which I think is a really difficult thing to do, to make people emotional, but in a positive way.

“And the other thing I love is it just sparks that conversation, that debate between spirituality and science, which can be a very taboo subject. It can be a heated subject. But in this movie, I feel like those things are portrayed very truthfully and very positively.”

Mr. Pitt, talking by phone from a Philadelphia publicity stop, plays Ian Gray, a molecular biologist studying the evolution of the eye. He stars alongside Brit Marling, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Steven Yeun and Archie Panjabi in the Mike Cahill movie exploring love, science and spiritual belief and opening today at AMC-Loews at the Waterfront.

The 33-year-actor has been acting for half of his life, in movies such as “Murder by Numbers,” “The Dreamers,” “The Village” and “Seven Psychopaths,” and TV or cable series such as “Boardwalk Empire” and “Hannibal.” That didn’t leave a lot of time for classroom studies of science. 

“I was chasing a dream, and so anything that didn’t serve that dream kind of fell by the wayside. A lot of things that I would have loved to just take some time and research and really investigate and study, I didn’t get to do in school when I was a teenager.

“What’s amazing about my job now is that I love research, and when you pick these roles, you can sort of pick things that interest you and you can research them and you can really devote some time to it,” he said, of the opportunity to explore spirituality and science.

“We went into the John Hopkins lab in Baltimore. We spent a lot of time there. It was amazing, meeting these scientists — brilliant, brilliant people who are curing cancer. They’re rock stars, super passionate and really creative scientists who probably could make 10 times what they’re making if they went to work at a pharmaceutical company or cosmetics company.”

“I Origins” also took him to the even more exotic location of India for the first time.

“I didn’t spend enough time there. It was an amazing experience. We were working like crazy, but certainly, it is a different experience when you get to go to a country and work there, than to be a tourist.

“We would spend the day shooting in, a lot of times, these very hard conditions, villages where there were, literally, children playing in mounds of garbage, with no plumbing and stuff. That was certainly very hard to see, but I’m also very grateful that I had the opportunity to experience it,” he said.

“We got to meet some amazing people there, some amazing spiritual people, some amazing scientific people. And we saw the very upscale side of India, too, which is equally as interesting. It was a privilege to be able to experience that for all its beauty, all its tragedy.” 

Casting director Dilip Shankar, who worked on “Life of Pi,” looked at 500 girls before choosing a child named Kashish (no last name) to play the role of a stranger who factors into the story in India. She does not know her birth year but is likely 7 years old, lives in a group home in New Delhi and asked producers to include friends in the background of scenes with her character, Salomina.  

“Kashish was just, from the beginning, a really, really special person, and meeting her was a pleasure. And working with her and seeing her kind of become an actress by the end of the experience was just really rewarding for me.”

Ian Gray is very loosely based on Richard Dawkins, a noted evolutionary biologist and atheist, and others. “His philosophy was Dawkins-esque. One of the reasons was Dawkins can be so provocative and so set in his ways and so cut and dried and he’s super, super smart that he’s a really difficult person to win a debate with when you’re having a conversation about spirituality vs. science.

“The idea was if we model Ian’s philosophy around his, that if you can turn Dawkins, what would that do to an audience? If you could shake his tree, that was sort of the idea, but the mannerisms and the way of speech were pulled from many different things. I pulled some things from Mike Cahill’s brother, who is a molecular biologist.”

Like other actors such as Daniel Day-Lewis, Mr. Pitt stayed in character during filming, which meant the crew addressed him as Ian Gray. “The nature of the project, because we were moving very fast and because there was this energy of an almost documentary-style way of filming, it was easier not to leave character.”

He thinks that lends itself to a stronger performance. “Mike was really down with it. I find that a lot of crews, if you take the time to explain to them, ‘This would really help me and don’t think that this is crazy but it is super helpful to me,’ I find most crews are really responsive to that.” 

So, did “I Origins” alter his views on such topics as science or spirituality?

“It didn’t change it, it reinforced beliefs I already had,” he said. “I watched every lecture I could about evolution, I was constantly researching, that never stopped. It reinforced my beliefs in science and also, contemplating the idea of faith and spirituality, and reinforcing certain beliefs that I have in that.”

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog:

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