Interview: Jeremy Piven

Jeremy Piven is a fully converted anglophile, he loves the place, the people, the architecture, the sense of humour (especially Monty Python). It’s just as well, because he’s spent roughly half of each of the last three years in London, filming ITV’s lavish period drama Mr Selfridge. First, he lived in a house in Notting Hill that used to be owned by Idris Elba, a friend of his. The neighbours loved Elba and said very nice things about him but, Piven says, “I think they were thrilled that I wasn’t a DJ, like Idris is.”

In his most recent stay in the city, Piven has been living in Marylebone, just down the road from the hottest hangout in town. He was one of the first people to visit the Chiltern Firehouse, the Alpha and Omega of London’s high-end, high-gloss nightlife scene of late, but “simply because it was walking distance” from his digs, and because he’s fond of André Balazs’ other places, such as LA’s Château Marmont, and the Standard in Miami. “I remember walking around in there when he stopped to show me the place when it was just kind of opening. He did a brilliant job of it; the bar feels like a set, it’s lit beautifully, everything is chosen really well. Maybe it is burning too bright and soon won’t be as hot, but I go because I like it. Even when it’s no longer a hotspot, I’ll still go.”

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We speak over the phone, even though we are only a few miles apart. Piven is across town in the East End, finishing off the last scenes in the third series of Mr Selfridge. But he has already watched some of the completed episodes and is pleased with what he’s seen. So much so that he says it is “the best season of TV I’ve ever done in my life.” Quite a statement, particularly as the American department store entrepreneur in early 20th century London is a world away from Entourage – and his show-stealing portrayal of the fast-talking, self-regarding, ball-breaking Hollywood agent Ari Gold.

Piven has said in the past that he’s “the antithesis” of that character in real life. But for many of his fans, that’s hard to believe. “I do think people are a little disappointed when they run into me [in public]. They expect me to be this brash super-agent, and I’m just a stage actor from Chicago. It’s almost like they pull the curtain and meet the wizard and it’s not how they thought it would be. But the good news for me is that I’m not Ari Gold. Believe me, that’s great news.”

Instead, Piven credits the vast majority of what came out of Ari’s mouth in the eight seasons of the show to writer and director Doug Ellin. “It takes a lot of time and energy and passion to write the episodes and speeches so, as an actor, you owe it to the writer to get it right – every bit of it. It was constructed so well, it’s our job to be ready on the day to make it seem improvisational, but that doesn’t mean you’re improvising the words. That’s the trick of it. I had a deal with [Ellin] – when I said it word-perfect, I would have a take when I wouldn’t improvise the whole thing, but would add little touches that would either make it in, or they wouldn’t. But I do believe that the harder you work, the easier it looks.”

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This work ethic and earnest attitude towards his craft are likely a product of Piven’s upbringing, and having two parents who established their own highly regarded theatre school; the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston, Illinois. He studied there alongside John Cusack, one of his friends from high school, at Drake University in Iowa, NYU and the National Theatre in London. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that he feels a degree of enmity towards Ari Gold – and people like him in the industry. “He is a guy who is focused solely on making money. I think, as an actor, if you’re like that, you’re going to lose sight of what you’re doing and you’re not going to be happy. I would make the Ari Golds of the world furious: ‘Why am I off doing an English period drama when I could be off making a bunch of money somewhere, doing a sequel or repeating myself or whatever?!’”

A certain kind of lightweight, D-List celebrity gets his goat a little bit too. “[In the US] we have a lot of examples of reality stars taking victory laps. And it makes people think: ‘You know what? Count me in. I deserve that. I don’t really need to work hard or study. I look good, I take a nice selfie; why aren’t I a star? Where is my celebrity space shuttle? I’m entitled and it’s time to begin my victory lap!’” I assure him that, even if he might not have noticed so many of them, we have our fair share of these people on this side of the Atlantic.

Piven is more sympathetic to Harry Selfridge, and likens his character arc to the sort of thing that you would see in a Greek tragedy. “He was deeply in love with his wife, but was a slave to his urges and so blew it with her. When he finally realised what life was about, she died.” He adds: “I think we all have a need to please, and Harry has a deep need to do that.”

Piven will be back on British television screens when the third season of Mr Selfridge airs in the New Year, and there are already plans for a fourth, but we haven’t seen the last of him as Ari Gold. The movie version of Entourage is scheduled for release next summer and, since it was first mooted by Ellin in 2010, has been generating a steady stream of rumours and gossip – mostly concerning the cameo roles that the show is famous for. When I ask him to pick a favourite so far, Piven immediately mentions ex-Python John Cleese, and says that the two of them have become friends. “He was such an influence on me. Just to be around a legend like that and for him to be so accessible and cool – that was something that I’ll never forget.”

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But what about the new film? There are two rumoured cameos that, on behalf of the readers of The Gentleman’s Journal, I feel I need to ask about. The first is Rhonda Rousey, the 5’7’’ part-time model and full-time ass-kicker who is the most feared woman in the UFC. The second is Emily Ratajkowski, the outrageously proportioned British-born model-slash-actress who came to the world’s attention – and made Robin Thicke momentarily famous – by appearing in the video for Blurred Lines. The good news is that they will both appear in the film, but Piven doesn’t say much more than that. Rousey is “a force of nature” and “has worked so hard to achieve what she has” but when the conversation moves onto Ratajkowski, I hear him being called onto set. “I have to go back to work,” he says. But there’s a promise that we will catch up in the next few days to chat some more.

I take the opportunity to get in touch with one of his co-stars from the third season of Mr Selfridge. Kara Tointon, who made her name on EastEnders before winning Strictly Come Dancing in 2010, makes her debut in the new series, and tells me it’s easy to feel like “the new girl“ when joining an established cast. “But [Piven] was incredibly welcoming. He’s got this fantastic energy that is wonderful to be around. He wants you to be able to do your best, and wants the best for the show so he puts you at ease and always wants to make sure that you’re happy.” She says she hasn’t seen any rough cuts of the new episodes yet, but when I tell her about Piven’s comment that it’s the best TV that he’s done in his career, her voice lifts. “Really? If he’s saying that, that’s great news!”

When Piven and I do manage to resume our conversation it takes place on the phone again, but this time, our voices are beamed between continents. Mr Selfridge has wrapped, and he has made his way back to New York over the weekend. As well as a home in Malibu, he’s got a pad on the East Coast, and plans to stay there while he takes some time out. “My usual routine has been jump into the next job. But I’m really embracing balance and it sounds so clichéd, but I need to take a break. I really need to learn how to take it easy. I’m here in New York and I’m having a nice moment, taking care of my place and getting my home together and I’m letting that be enough for now.”

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This approach represents something of a change of pace. “What’s interesting is I’ve always just been a scrapper when it comes to my career. Because nothing is really ever handed to you in this life. And when you start living that way, it’s a slippery slope and it’s not healthy. I was lucky enough to grow up in the theatre and you had to make your own breaks. “Literally, I’m not making this up, if you were to look at the first 20 or 30 movies I did, you’ve got tiny little roles – on the page they’re little scraps. And everyone overlooks them, but you go in there and you wait it out, you deal with all the rejection and you get turned down and you finally get lucky. Then it’s your job to play those small roles like they’re the lead, with as much integrity as possible. Ultimately that will lead to something, I guarantee you. And that’s kind of what I did.”

It’s now 10 years since the first series of Entourage aired, Piven is 49 (and single, despite having been linked with a string of beautiful women) So, I wonder, how does he think he’s changed in that decade? “I don’t think I’ve changed professionally,” he says. “I’m as hungry as I’ve ever been.” But what about personally – is he older, wiser, different in any way?

“Well I know that I am older. On paper, indeed I am older, that is a fact.” I laugh, as there’s more than a hint of Ari Gold’s silver-tongued charm in his delivery. “Journalists… the entire racket, they’re obsessed with age. [Written] right next to your name, more so in the States, is your age. They like to list you and rank you so that they can compartmentalise you. ‘Oh, he’s this age, he has this much longer, he’s of this generation.’ And, you know, I think we can all become obsessed by that. There was a great baseball player who played longer than anyone and his philosophy was: ‘How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?’ And I think we should keep focusing on that. [Age] is a really great excuse not to take care of your body, to give up, to say it’s too late, to not follow your dream. But I think it’s important to kind of not be held down by that – those preconceived notions of where you should be at any given age.”

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Okay. So how about looking to the future? Presumably he has plans, and things he’d like to achieve. Where would he like to be another decade on from now? “Travel more, embrace balance, give more and continue to nurture my own projects… Be a citizen of the world and start a family” “There’s that old joke,” he says, speaking more slowly now. “How do you make God laugh? You tell him your plans. It’s a very interesting balance. You and I are strangers, we’re talking on the phone, we’ve never met and you want to know my plans for the next 10 years. It’s surreal. This moment is surreal – I’m not sure if that makes any sense to you? You know the movie Her? [In which Joaquin Phoenix’s character has conversations with an advanced version of Siri.] It’s kind of like that. We’re having a moment like that. I don’t even know if you’re real.”

I think this is probably a cue to end the conversation, so I start to round things off. But Piven does add that “you’ve got to take everything I say with a grain of salt” and again expresses exasperation at the fact that people seem to think that he is like Ari Gold in real life. “The irony is that I can sit here and tell you what my plans are. But it’s just me telling you. Do you know what I mean?”

I think I do. It goes without saying that there’s a limit to how well you can really get to know someone in any interview – particularly when circumstances dictate that it takes place over the phone. When Piven is back in town next year for another series of Mr Selfridge, perhaps we’ll have a chance to meet in person, and I’ll get to know him better. For now though it’s time for Piven to return to Tinseltown and get back to grappling with the Ari Gold’s of this world.

Photographs by Aline & Jacqueline Tappia Reynaud. Styling by Holly Macnaghten.

This article was published in our Winter Issue. For back issues, click here.

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