I spent a week with Michael Pitt in a hotel room. I was one of the writers on a project in which he was to play the lead role. His room, in the Sorrento Hotel, had the kind of size and splendor that terrified every card in your wallet. One night in this place would plunge any honest-to-God checking account deep into the red. Pitt smoked a lot, paced around the room when he was thinking, survived on steak and raw vegetables, and drank black coffee constantly, and when he looked at you, it was always directly into your eyes. He did not like to waste his words on someone who was not paying attention. He wanted to make sure you were always there with him, that you were listening, that you understood. His eyes only freed you when he was certain that you got every single word. I feared daydreaming in his presence.
The director of the project, Robinson Devor, and I would meet Pitt each morning at 6 a.m. and work until 10 p.m. or so. We would go over each scene slowly and methodically and make changes that the star deemed necessary for a strong performance on a limited budget. "Three things you should never have in a script," he said to us one morning, "children, animals, and water." We got rid of a dog. Pitt often worked with nothing more on than a towel around his waist. And there were moments when, while sitting in a chair between two long windows—one facing downtown, the other Madison Street—his bare skin, which was soft in tone and on the healthy side of pale, glowed in the natural light like a ping-pong ball held against the light of a lamp.
One morning, he urgently called for me from inside the bathroom. I entered and found him brushing his teeth in front of a huge mirror. He spat the waste of the paste into the sink and, once he was certain that my eyes had connected with his, began explaining a new idea he had for a scene that involved his character smoking opium in a whorehouse. By this time in our week of writing and rewriting, I had found ways to mentally slip out of the lock of his intense but beautiful eyes and daydream without detection. And so, as he explained his thoughts on how we might use the whorehouse to do something unexpected but related to a corpse that appears in an alley later in the script, I secretly recalled a scene in the first movie I ever saw him in, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers.
The film, which is set in 1968 and concerns a strange love triangle formed by a young American, Matthew (Pitt's character), a young half-French man, Théo (Louis Garrel), and his younger sister, Isabelle (Eva Green), has several interesting bathroom scenes, but none more than the one when the incestuous and naked siblings attempt, while on their knees, to shave the American's pubic hair. Théo has the foam, Isabelle the razor. Matthew explodes—he has had enough of their weird (sex?) games. He wants to have a normal thing with Isabelle. Matthew is not your standard American prude—he has, after all, a deep interest in French culture, and, like the siblings, an almost unhealthy obsession with cinema. But Théo and Isabelle's Edenic indifference to nudity, their lack of clear boundaries, and their bizarre closeness goes far beyond his moral and sexual limits.
Isabelle stands up from the bathroom floor and looks at Matthew with eyes that are huge and filled with confusion. Why is he making such a fuss? What's wrong with her and her brother shaving his pubic hair? It sounds like perfect fun... I wanted to recall more of this scene's details (some of which involves Green's body, covered in soap bubbles), but I had to slip back into the lock of Pitt's gaze before he caught the absence of my attention. After a quick scan of my brain's recording of what I had just missed, I reached the real time of the words flowing out of his beautiful mouth.
On the penultimate day of the rewrite, I finally brought up Eva Green. Pitt was sitting on the chair, the sun was setting in one of the windows, and Madison Street, which was three stories below us, was clogged with cars. The Dreamers was Green's first movie, and the first of the many sex scenes in her career—the most outrageous of which is in 300: Rise of an Empire. In a sense—at least a cinematic sense—Pitt deflowered her. ("You are my first love, my first great love," Green says to Pitt in The Dreamers, after fucking him on a couch.) "What is she like in person?" I asked him with a tone that I thought perfectly concealed my fascination with the actress. Pitt, who had heard me sing nonstop praises for his performance of the Kurt Cobain–like character in Gus Van Sant's Last Days, looked at me for a moment and, as if finally realizing that my devotion to him was lower than the one I had for his costar in The Dreamers, said with almost cool cruelty: "You and every other man wants to know that." I never brought the matter up again.
My fascination with Green is not, however, as sordid as Pitt's response implied. I admire her mostly on a cinematic plane. She has a face, and particularly eyes—big green eyes—that can communicate all the needed information about her character's soul or emotional state. One fact that separates film from theater: Acting is less important than visage. On a stage, which is always distant, a face means comparatively little; on a movie screen, a face is almost everything. Indeed, it is precisely this fact that enabled Green to deliver such a great performance in the new and excellent Danish western The Salvation without saying a single word through the entire film.
Some background: The Salvation, which was shot in South Africa but is set in an American frontier town in 1871, is about a Danish settler, Jon (Mads Mikkelsen), whose wife and son are brutally murdered by the brother of a gang leader and, as it turns out, regional banker, Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). After Jon kills Delarue's brother in cold revenge, the town, which receives protection from the banker's thugs, turns against him. A battle begins between the Danish settler and the banker. Caught in the middle of this is Madelaine (Green), widow of the banker's dead brother. She can't speak because Indians cut out her tongue when she was a little girl. Near the middle of the movie, Madelaine has a tense train scene that is all eyes. They tell us everything she feels inside—her fear, her desperation, and her disgust at the banker. Green's artistic perfection is such that, despite your full engagement with her performance, you completely forget that she is not speaking. You can hear her without words.