Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: For anyone interested in pursuing a career in acting, it doesn’t exactly hurt the chances of gaining insight into the trade if your parents run a theater workshop. Such was the case for Jeremy Piven, who—as the son of Byrne Piven and Joyce Hiller Piven—took his training from the Piven Theatre Workshop and quickly began to forge a career in TV and film. Piven started his career by making the most out of small movie roles, including memorable moments in Say Anything…, The Player, and Singles, and serving in the ensemble of series sitcoms, including The Larry Sanders Show, while working his way up the Hollywood ranks. After wrapping eight seasons of Entourage, Piven shifted gears in a big way and jumped into a period drama, playing the title character in PBS’ British period drama Mr. Selfridge, which returns Sunday, March 30, but even as the series’ second season unfolds, Piven’s keeping busy by stepping back into Ari Gold’s shoes for an Entourage movie, currently scheduled for a June 2015 release.
Mr. Selfridge (2013-present)—“Harry Gordon Selfridge”
Jeremy Piven: They reached out to me, and… [with] American projects, in terms of TV, usually you get a pilot script, and it’s the great unknown. In this particular case, they had a real idea where the story would go. He actually was a real person, of course, and was from the Midwest, from Wisconsin, and made his bones working in Marshall Fields. I grew up there [Chicago], and so did my mother, so I had a real reference for his work that carried on to this day, obviously. I was kind of blown away by his life, and his department store in London is one of the biggest—if not the biggest—and most successful, and no one knew that it was an American who owned it. He was a guy who led by example and through his passion, and he loved to work and inspire people. He had his demons that he would exorcise at night, and he grappled with them. So it’s a character wrapped in beautiful duality that I really loved playing, and… I think it’s the best work I’ve ever done. And the best cast I’ve ever worked with.
The A.V. Club: The series is kind of an adaptation of Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge, Lindy Woodhead’s biography of Selfridge. Did you read that in advance, or did you prefer to just stick to the script?
JP: I read Lindy’s work, and she was tireless with her research of the guy. It was amazing. I mean, she knows him as well as anybody. He transformed the culture of shopping and basically helped invent the department store as we know it. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg with the show, because the show is about all the characters that inhabit the world. It’s truly an ensemble show, and, man, the British actors are so good at what they do, so well prepared. It’s just an honor to be a part of it.
AVC: Was there any intrinsic difference as far as working on a British series versus an American one?
JP: Well, in a way, necessity is the mother of invention for them, because they have a finite amount of time to shoot. There, you have to shoot in 12 hours, whereas in America you shoot ’til you’re done. There, you have to be incredibly inventive and pace it up and get everything you want and more, but within that time frame. And they do it. Everyone’s on their game and prepared. They have a saying: “Just get on with it.” And they really do. They don’t make a fuss, they don’t take victory laps for their work, and they just do it. It’s so refreshing. I love it.
AVC: Have there been any particular challenges because of the period-piece aspects?
JP: Well, it’s great as an actor when you’re putting on the clothes of the time, putting on the suspenders—they call them “braces”—and a “waistcoat,” which [is what] they call a vest. Getting into the authentic clothes of the day, it helps you get into that space. Of course, in England you have the history all around you, so we can really use the buildings and the locations, and you get a sense of the where. The writers are great, so the language feels very much of time. I’m just really proud of it. Going into season two, it’s the best season of TV I’ve ever done. It’s why I’m doing everything I can to get the word out.
AVC: As far as the second season goes, where is Selfridge headed?
JP: Well, the backdrop is the First World War, the “Great War,” and Harry has achieved all his dreams, professionally. It’s five years on, and the store’s been celebrated. But the reality is, he drove his wife and his family away because he’s somewhat of a cad, and his wife can’t take it anymore, so she heads back to Chicago. By the way, this is around the time the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series. [Laughs.] So you’ve got to go back a few years! But we pick up with him where he’s being celebrated for five years of staying on top, and it’s a hollow victory, because he doesn’t have his family with him. It’s really about him and his family and everyone affected by the war, and it’s working on a lot of different levels. We’re not afraid to have it be, as they call it, “cheeky” and utilize physical comedy, but it’s paced up and the drama’s high. Hey, listen, the Brits have pretty much invented the period drama, and it’s working like gangbusters over there.
AVC: You’ve got to be psyched knowing that you’re premiering season two here in the States with season three already having been green-lit.
JP: Yeah, I mean, they know what they’re doing. They want to do four seasons of this thing. If it was incredibly successful over here, they would try and grind out 100 episodes. Over there, they want to do it in four seasons, 10 episodes a season, and they feel that that’s the best way to do it. For them, the variable is the quality, not making that buck. So as you can imagine, I’m thrilled about that.
What’s interesting, though, is that in the U.K., Mr. Selfridge is the No. 1 show in its timeslot. Whether they put the BAFTAs up against us or they’re throwing their money into The Three Musketeers, which is their big, flashy BBC show, we win the timeslot every time. It’s this big hit, they love it, the numbers are growing, and we’re getting such warm, intelligent feedback, but here in the States… It’s like it’s the great unknown in my own backyard. Coming off eight years of Entourage, if you’d told me, “Your next show is going to be a period drama, and it’s going to be very well received in England and [around] the world. You’re going to sell it to 155 countries!” There’s only, like, 200 countries, man! [Laughs.] This is the best-selling show I’ve ever had in my life. It outsold Downton Abbey! People all over the world love it! But in my backyard, we’re still catching up. So that’s a little… interesting. It’s an interesting moment. I think it’s going to happen, and I couldn’t be more proud of it, but it hasn’t happened yet.
AVC: Your first and your second movie came out in 1986, but which actually came first: Lucas or One Crazy Summer?
JP: Lucas was the first one, and it was very apropos, because I was coming off of being a high school football player in the ’80s for Evanston Township High School. It was after what I would say was an uneventful football career, where our team made the semi-finals and State. Evanston always has a really great team, but let’s just say I didn’t achieve my dreams as a football player. [Laughs.] Which is very healthy, to be honest with you, for anyone to not peak too early. I think it fueled the fire with me as an actor, because I’d always been acting.
So I was lucky enough to put the pads back on—after thinking I would never wear them again—and in my first movie, at 19 years old, I got to play a football player. It was just thrilling. Most of it was improvisational, and a lot of people [still known] today were in the movie. It was one of Charlie Sheen’s first movies, and it also starred Kerri Green and Courtney Thorne-Smith and, of course, the late Corey Haim. I’ll never forget it. Not only because it was my first movie, but just because it was a really great experience and something I’m proud of. The slow clap at the end was one of the most clichéd things in… basically anything that’s ever been documented in human history. [Laughs.] We all had to commit to the slow clap. I highly suggest to anyone who watches to embrace the cheese, if you will.
AVC: You’ve obviously got acting in your DNA, given both your parents were actors, but did you always know that you wanted to follow in their footsteps, or was it something that just kind of happened?
JP: Well, I crawled up onstage with them [at] 8 years old when they were doing Three Sisters, the Chekhov play, at the Piven Theatre, and I was lucky enough just to act with them and to be directed by them. They were my teachers. Besides being my parents, they’re just great people. Hardworking people who love teaching. Their theater is around to this day, and a lot of people who studied with them learned a lot about themselves. I don’t think my parents’ goal was necessarily to turn anybody into an actor but to give them the opportunity to act and to learn more about themselves. That’s what it was all about. My parents got really turned on by anyone who was progressing in that way. I was very lucky to grow up in the household that I did.
Carol & Company (1990)—skit characters
JP: Oh, yeah! It was as intimidating as you’d think, working with Carol Burnett, because I’d grown up watching her, and she was such a hero of mine. It was just so surreal to be a part of that. But at the same time, it was also very sobering to watch a woman who had so much power but, at the same time, wasn’t necessarily utilizing it. I mean, she was kind of the victim of an idea gone astray. I think they wanted to do essentially a pilot of a TV show every week, which is one of the most ambitious ideas in television. I think that it didn’t quite work or utilize her in the best way. I remember thinking, “My God, you’re Carol Burnett! You can call the shots here!” I kept wanting her to step in and finesse the show… and it never happened. But just to be around someone’s energy like that, such a genius, was a blessing. I’ve been very lucky in that way. I’ve gotten to be around a lot of very inspiring people and just work with them and watch the way they work. So I feel like this whole journey for me has just been graduate school, in a way… and I’m still in it. I’m very old. I’m like the old guy in the corner at grad school who’s awkward and makes you wonder why he’s still there.
Black Hawk Down (2001)—“Wolcott”
JP: That was… [Starts to laugh.] That was an experience where I was in Rabat, Morocco… which is certainly not Marrakesh! That’s another example where I did it just to be around the great Ridley Scott and watch him work. He’s such an absolute genius. Oh, God, how can I put it? I didn’t get into the casting process until much later, so by the time I met with him, all the roles were taken. And that was unfortunate, because I would’ve loved more to do. But it was all part of my journey of being a part of something and being a cog in a machine and to be happy to be there.
The Player (1992)—“Steve Reeves”
JP: Well, that was a part of film history. The opening shot of The Player, which lasts, what, over seven minutes, I believe? Robert Altman was one of these guys who, God rest his soul, was a master, but I’ve also never heard someone say, “Hell, I don’t know, what do you think?” more in my life. It’s just an interesting lesson: You get to work with the best, but they’re the most humble, and they don’t claim to know all the answers. The fact that he trusted some kid to walk in the middle of his shot and improvise was very empowering to me. And amazing and humbling. I will never forget that.
Also, I went in to audition, and they said, “Oh, no, he’s not here, come back another day.” And I looked inside, and I was like, “Wait, he’s right there! Hey! Bob!” I just kind of waved to him and walked in, and he was sleeping! [Laughs.] I woke him up, and he was like, “Hey, how are you?” He didn’t know me from anyone, but he’s like, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I’m here to audition!” He said, “All right,” and we just started kicking around ideas. The role was not really written, so he had me do some improv based on giving me a setting, a character, a situation, and we just kind of played. And he could see that I had some background as an improvisational actor, and it worked out. So I was very, very lucky.
Rush Hour 2 (2001)—“Versace Salesman”
JP: You know, that might seem random, but it’s not so random. You know how Picasso had his Blue Period? Well, that was my favorite period, where I would just do favors for various people. [Laughs.] Cameron Crowe would call, and you’d go do Singles and knock it out over a lunch break, or you’d go and do “Versace Salesman” for Brett Ratner, and you’d mix it up with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. It was a blast. You couldn’t ask for two more totally different people than Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. But I played a gay Versace salesman and took a streaking-tips bottle and sprayed my hair blonde and carved out a really bad boy-band beard and wore a horrible shirt with a sweater painted over it, and I just jumped in.
AVC: Would you say your Rush Hour 2 beard was a prototype for Selfridge’s beard?
JP: Uh, no, I would not. [Laughs.] Selfridge’s beard was mostly just a celebration of not having to shave every day as Ari Gold, not to have to make that transition.
Entourage (2004-2011)—“Ari Gold”
JP: You know, it’s so funny: To play Harry Selfridge is such a joy, and it, like, feeds me… whereas playing Ari Gold would just tap and drain me. Mostly because you’re playing a guy who’s fun to watch, but to play him, to play a character that reactive, who’s kind of a rageaholic, is just so draining for one spirit that, when you’re done, you kind of crawl home. And people are like, “Ah, shut up, you little bitch.” [Laughs.] But it takes it out of you! When I’m trying to work out after a 12- or 14-hour day, my body’s like, “You’re done!”
AVC: How did you end up in Entourage in the first place?
JP: They wanted me to audition. At the time, Old School was in theaters, I was about 40 movies into my career, I’d done about seven series… and they wanted me to audition for the sixth lead—behind a character named Turtle!—that had one scene in the pilot. I said to my agent, “Well, I know I can do this role. I think this role could be really interesting.” We know these guys. There are sharks out there. There are sharks everywhere, and they’re incredibly abrasive and think they’re incredibly funny. [Laughs.] And even if they’re not funny, it’s funny that they think they’re funny.
So I was like, “Man, there’s a lot to play here, and HBO’s the place to be—they’ve got The Sopranos and Sex And The City—so it’s a company you want to be in. Why don’t we see if I can get a meeting? Because it’s such a small role.” I mean, everything else I had going on was to be the lead in a show, to produce it and to be a part of the mix, so I was like, “Well, if I’m going to be the smallest character in an ensemble piece, maybe instead of auditioning I could just go meet them.” Finally my agent said, “Okay, they’ll meet you!”
So I went in and met them, and I had fun. I went in with, like, a power suit on—I dressed the role—and talked about who I thought the guy was. We did eight seasons, and now we’re shooting a movie. [Laughs.] Who would’ve ever thought, man? It’s incredible. I mean, you hear people say, “Ah, I didn’t see it coming,” but I mean it, man: I didn’t see this coming at all.
AVC: In regards to the movie, you’ve got to be glad it’s finally being made, if only so you have an answer when people ask you, “So when’s the Entourage movie coming?”
JP: Yeah! I mean, it’s fun. You kind of jump into this character and pick up where you left off. Like everything else in life, you hope that you’ve evolved, and that you’re a product of all your experiences and you can contribute on hopefully a higher level. That’s the goal. And that’s where we’re at right now.
WWF Raw (2009)—himself
JP: [Laughs.] They’re so professional. I mean, these wrestlers, man… You’d think it would be some sort of carny atmosphere, but it’s not. It’s just a bunch of really driven athletes or ex-athletes, and they do their thing, man. They’re on it. And it was really fun! I got to jump off the top rope. I was with Dr. Ken. We had a blast. Everyone was so cool. You know, it’s like a traveling theater company that they have. I just remember jumping through the air and landing on John Cena and having him use me as a battering ram! It was just a fantastic experience! Also, it’s, like, that’s what we do as actors: We work hard, and then we go out and promote our movies and TV shows.
Seinfeld (1993)—“Michael Barth a.k.a. George”
JP: I’m going to give you some information that nobody knows, and it’s going to be very embarrassing, but I had never seen Seinfeld when I auditioned. Before this moment, no one knew that—it’s an exclusive!—and I’d like to apologize right now to Larry David. [Laughs.] But I was doing The Larry Sanders Show at the time, and I was on the lot there, and I kept running into Jason Alexander. And, of course, I knew of the show. I mean, Seinfeld was the biggest show in the world! But I met Jason, he was a really good guy, a New York guy, who’s just fun to be around.
One day, the casting director for their show came up to me and said, “Would you come in and audition for Seinfeld?” And I was like, “Yeah, that sounds great… but I’m shooting my show! I could come in on my lunch break!” That’s the Chicago actor in me: “Yeah, whatever you got, man!” So I go in there, and I do my Jason Alexander impersonation, and they go, “Oh, my God! You must be a huge fan of the show!” And I go, “Uh… yes, I am!” even as I’m thinking, “I have never seen this show!” [Laughs.] But somehow I got the role and did it, playing George in the show within a show, even though I had never seen the show! You know what the moral of this story is? I am a complete charlatan.
AVC: At last, the truth can be told.
JP: The truth can be told! It’s an exclusive! [Laughs.]
The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998)—“Jerry Capen”
JP: I was living in a pool house while I was a series regular on The Larry Sanders Show, and I remember Paul Simms, who was a writer on the show, came to my house and goes, “Oh, man, your house is amazing!” And I said, “Oh, no, I don’t live here. I live behind this house.” And he goes, “What do you mean?” “This is where I live,” showing him the pool house. He’s like, “Why do you live in the pool house?” I’m like, “I don’t know, I just like this. It’s a cool little spot. And the guy who lives in the main house, he’s a really good guy, we’re friends.” He’s like, “No, no, no. You’re on a series! You make money! You can’t live in the pool house anymore!” [Laughs.] “All right, okay, man. Uh… do you have any suggestions?”
AVC: How was the experience of being a part of that ensemble?
JP: It was like being Craig Hodges and playing for the world champion Chicago Bulls. I was, like, ninth man off the bench, you know? [Laughs.] But I was getting to watch the best! I was watching [Garry] Shandling figure out a way to construct a brilliant take on the backstage life of a talk-show host. It was just genius. I’m sure if you ask any of the guys who created Arrested Development, “What are your inspirations?” I guarantee you it would be The Larry Sanders Show and Shandling’s work on that. Or the great Rip Torn, or Jeffrey Tambor, or any of those guys. I was just hanging on for the ride, basically.
Larger Than Life (1996)—“Walter”
AVC: In the midst of Larry Sanders’ run, both you and Janeane Garofalo turned up in the film Larger Than Life. Do you have any Bill Murray stories? We’re obliged to ask.
JP: You know, I think that was probably a strange time in Bill’s life. I don’t really have much to say about that, other than I’m just a huge Bill Murray fan and wanted to do anything to be around the guy. He’s magic. He’s just pure magic. From watching him on Saturday Night Live to everything that he’s done since, he’s just a very unique, brilliant person who’s completely authentic and true to himself. And he’s an inspiration.
Say Anything… (1989)—“Mark”
Singles (1992)—“Doug Hughley”
AVC: You mentioned working with Cameron Crowe on Singles earlier, but you actually did two films with him. How did you fall into Say Anything…? Was it the connection with John Cusack, or was it incidental?
JP: I definitely got the audition because of… [Hesitates.] Well, wait, I don’t know. I know we were both represented by the same agency. But I got the audition, and we’re auditioning to be a bunch of friends of John’s—and we were friends of John’s—so we put together an audition tape of all the scenes and improvised. We did some very strange, naughty things. [Laughs.] We would just, like, do crazy shit like light things on fire, improvise songs that were, uh, apparently offensive… It was just a disaster. But I think it was all in the spirit of who these guys were. And, obviously, Cameron took to it. He’s another one of these guys who’s totally inspiring to me, another really authentic artist who’s true to him. So that was a really great experience. Also, the D.P. on that was László Kovács, one of the greatest D.P.s of all time. Working with him was amazing.
AVC: And Cameron just called you up and asked if you’d do that bit in Singles?
JP: Yeah, from there we built a relationship, and I think he needed a little moment of something in Singles, so I headed up to Seattle and improvised that speech, and, you know, you work for scale, so you work for a couple hundred bucks. But because I said, “Oh, man, you’re my favorite DJ, you’re the only one who can mix Public Enemy and Elvis Costello,” and then started going, “What’s so funny ’bout / Peace! Peace! Peace! / Death row, what does a brother know / What’s so funny ’bout / Peace! Peace! Peace!” I cost them thousands of dollars, ’cause they had to get the rights to both of those songs. [Laughs.] They thought, “Oh, we’re gonna get Piven for $216, we’ll shoot him on a lunch break,” but they ended up hating me because they had to spend a ton of money to pay off Elvis Costello and Public Enemy!
P.C.U. (1994)—“James ‘Droz’ Andrews”
Old School (2003)—“Dean Gordon ‘Cheese’ Pritchard”
AVC: P.C.U. wasn’t a huge box office hit, but it’s gone on to have a substantial cult following, thanks to home video and cable.
JP: P.C.U. is one of those films where it was just such an homage to Animal House. Animal House, obviously, is sheer anarchy, and a celebration of the great John Belushi, and this was our homage to it. I knew at the time it was really special and unique, but it took years for it to catch on. There’s so many variables that go into why something blows up and why it doesn’t… and I think I’ve witnessed them all now. [Laughs.] It’s the kind of thing where you just have to do your job and let it go, and it’s up to the universe after that. And P.C.U. is one of those things where, if you see it, it’s funny and it’s unique and it’s madness. I’m glad that you tell me that it still has a life of its own. That makes me happy. ’Cause it was a blast doing it.
AVC: So when they reached out to you about Old School, did they do so specifically because you’d been in P.C.U., or was that incidental?
JP: It’s funny: Old School was a case where I had read the script and just knew it would be huge. That’s one of those cases where I can tell you 1,000 percent that I knew that thing would be huge. I read it and laughed my ass off, and I just said, “Where’s Todd Phillips? How do I meet this guy?” So I met him, and I was like, “Brother, what have you got? Is there anything left?” And he’s like, “No, there’s nothing left,” and I’m like, “Damn!” Then he goes, “Well, there’s one thing: the nerdy dean.” “Oh, okay. Yeah! Why not?” And he goes, “No, you can’t play the dean.” I go, “Why not?” He goes, “You look like Vince Vaughn’s brother! You look like one of the crew! You’re not a nerd!” I’m like, “Bro, I’m an actor! Gimme a second, man! Lemme come back in and audition!”
So I went to a thrift store, I found some really bad glasses and a sweater vest, and I did a comb-over with my hair, and I went back in and I was just, like, really fidgety and nervous and awkward as I did the audition. I just remember he went, “Wow! I like that! Do it again!” And I did it again, and he’s like, “Yeah! Let’s do it!” So I got to be the nerdy guy. [Laughs.] I would’ve loved any of those roles, but all of those guys crushed their roles. It was amazing to mix it up with the great Will Ferrell and all of ’em! I love all those guys. Todd is a genius. That guy just… he’s another one of those guys. He just gets it. He knows what’s funny and what works, and he’s one of those guys that you just really look forward to working with.