Jeremy Piven is about to pull off a job transition that would give any other actor whiplash.
He's currently filming the "Entourage" movie, in which he reprises his Emmy-winning role as Hollywood agent Ari Gold. As soon as that wraps, he'll re-grow a beard and head back to England to film the third season of the much politer "Mr. Selfridge," in which he plays the carnival barker of a 1900s department store manager, Harry Gordon Selfridge.
The Evanston native, whose parents founded the Piven Theatre Workshop, smoothly moved from playing Harry for the show's second season (airing at 8 p.m. Sundays on PBS) to immersing himself in Ari's fast-paced world. Piven isn't sure the transition will be as easy the opposite direction.
"Once you put [Ari's] power suit back on and you shave and you're standing in front of Drama and E and Turtle it just kind of comes back to you. You just kind of enter into that and just start swinging for the fences as hard as you can," Piven said during a recent interview. "Now to downshift might be more difficult; we'll see. They may have to just use an elephant tranquilizer gun on me and shoot me in the neck just to calm [me] down into playing Harry."
Piven talked more about both characters, his time in Chicago and his mom.
Are you coming back to Chicago anytime soon?
No, I wish I wish I could. I'm going to go right from here back to England for Season 3 of "Mr. Selfridge."
You're shooting "Entourage" now. I imagine you had to get rid of your "Mr. Selfridge" mustache and beard?
I had to shave it for Ari. I am clean-shaven at the moment and then I will grow it at the speed of light. That's going to be an interesting transition but we're going to make it happen.
Does it take a while for you to get that beard going?
I can probably grow somewhat of a beard in about 10 days. Everyone's got a talent, so I guess that's mine. You've got to have something, right? So that'll happen. What I'm trying to do with him now is for the first month I think they'll probably construct a mustache for me to put over the beard so it looks like the mustache has overtaken the kind of lighter beard and we'll kind of work our way into it that way.
I've seen pictures of the real Harry and he had huge mutton chops. Are you ever going to do that?
I was thinking about doing it and then I couldn't pull it off the way he did. He's winning with muttonchops and I would be losing. I would look like a lost, wandering Hasidic Jew, probably, you know?
Is that going to be a hard transition going right from fast-talking Ari to Harry?
I'll let you know. I know that the transition from Harry to Ari was very smooth. ... Harry Selfridge is a guy who professionally embraces the light and inspires people and leads with passion and love, whereas Ari rules with an iron fist and is reactive and is so much more draining to play. I mean I'm just crawling home at the end of the day after playing Ari Gold. But Harry, it's almost like it revitalizes you to play him. It's the antithesis in a weird way. So to go from Harry Selfridge to Ari was a smooth transition. I just kind of revved myself up and figured out a way. Once you put that power suit back on and you shave and you're standing in front of Drama and E and Turtle it just kind of comes back to you. You just kind of enter into that and just start swinging for the fences as hard as you can.
Now to downshift might be more difficult; we'll see. They may have to just use an elephant tranquilizer gun on me and shoot me in the neck just to calm down into playing Harry. Harry was a proper, turn-of-the-century gentleman and I feel like the best work I've ever done in my life because it's more subtle. He lives in a very serious duality where he's incredibly evolved and passionate when he's at work, but but he has his demons and can do the wrong thing and embrace debauchery.
So in other words, when you get back to London, Harry's going to be going for a couple of days?
Well, I mean if I were a complete and utter hack and didn't care about what I do. [Laughs.] One of the great things that my family taught me was to respect the space you occupy when you act. And I learned that from working with them and watching them and they really lived that. And I try to live that. So as actors we are voluntarily schizophrenic in this life.
And you say, "How do you switch back and forth?" Well, that's my honor. That's what we do. The show will progress another five years, so we'll now go to 1919 and the wardrobe will be different because all the departments are so authentic and on their game. They're so on their game it's incredible.
And you put on what they call braces—what we call suspenders—and it lifts the pants way up and it hems you in and kind of gives you this kind of the lift, where you're almost more upright and your posture is straighter and the shoes make you feel like you walk differently. He's a guy who moves through space differently and it's a different time.
So it's my job to downshift into him. And I wish I could tell you what happens at the end of Season 2 but I can't. ... But I can tell you that what happens in Season 2 forever changes Harry's life. And then how he navigates through life is completely different. So that will be very fascinating.
The guy's life was—I mean you can't believe it happens. It's one of the reasons why I did this project. And the thing about the Brits, when they work in television especially, they want to figure out a way to get it right. And they just said, "Listen we're going to shoot this show in four years. It will take four years to tell this guy's story."
We were talking about the wardrobe. Which one do you prefer, Harry's or Ari's?
Well, Domenico Vacca does all of the suits for Ari Gold. The irony is he's more like Harry Selfridge. In fact Domenico watched "Mr. Selfridge" and it's almost like an homage to him. ... He's an Italian designer who loves to do it and loves to inspire his workers, and yet here he is making these modern clothes. So I love both for different reasons and they make me feel different.
The way the Italian suits fit snugly and they are power suits. It helps me to kind of have that Ari Gold swagger as soon as I put them on. They're so completely contemporary and yet they're made by this kind of brilliant Italian designer.
And James Keast, who does everyone's wardrobe on "Mr. Selfridge," does it brilliantly for a budget which you wouldn't believe. It is just completely different. The waistcoats as we call them, ... they're always three-piece and they're more difficult to put on.
One is turn-of-the-century fashion and one is updated current fashion and so I feel I'm very lucky in the way that I have the best of both worlds.
Being from Chicago and now doing this in London, have you felt a little like you were walking in Harry's shoes a bit, since he came from Chicago too?
Well, yes. Listen, my mother went to Marshall Fields as a child and she remembers what it was like to be there and feel like she was really treated special. And Harry's credo was, "Let's treat our customers like guests." And she said she absolutely felt that way. And so he was creating that atmosphere at Marshall Fields. He was the one that helped to create their signature look with the big windows and creating like basically a play, a scene in a play of still life that people could look at it. It was his contribution as an artist really. That's the way he saw himself and that's the way I played him.
He is a guy who loved PT Barnum and loved to, as he said, put on a show. He was a performer. And I grew up going to Marshall Fields, and what's so interesting is Selfridges, when they opened, had that same metalwork that Marshall Fields had. It was a total homage to the other store and then some. You could tell that he was also inspired by Roman, Greek and then French architecture, which were all inspired by each other.
I feel like being from the Midwest, being from Chicago—he was from Wisconsin but made his home in Chicago—that I do have a sense of where he came from. And so in studying him and knowing his history and me being an American from the Midwest going over there trying to make my way as an actor, I don't have to look too far for authentic inspiration, you know? You can do all the homework in the world but sometimes the answers are right in front of your face.
Does she like "Mr. Selfridge?"
She loves it. To quote my mom, this is more of her cup of tea. I think she was proud of me and what I was able to do with the character of Ari Gold, but I don't know. I mean my mom was always very diplomatic. I don't know if "Entourage" was her cup of tea. It's an older woman from Evanston seeing the trials and tribulations of Vinnie Chase; I don't know how she exactly relates to that. But at the same time she's always dealing with young people because she's teaching to this day. She has an intensive class that she teaches a few months in California and then goes back to the Piven Theater. But she does love "Mr. Selfridge" and is always curious to see what happens in the next episode. And my family does as well, which is really nice. This country hasn't quite caught on yet the way London has, but it's coming.
In the new season, it's 1914 and he's celebrating the store's fifth anniversary. But Rose is gone and he's a little sad about that. So what can we expect? What kind of trouble does Harry get into?
We pick up with Harry five years on and when you last saw him the wife had kind of had enough and she grabbed the kids and took off. He's in this big mansion alone and achieving what he set out to do professionally, but feeling like "What is it all about if you don't have your wife and kids to share it with?" So he's taken down a few notches, but the showman isn't beaten out of him. And that's one of the brilliant things about doing a series is you get to continue to explore a character. If this was a movie you only have a couple hours to try to figure this out. But that's what's great: We get to keep showing different layers of the world and his journey. And it's a true ensemble as well. And the other characters I'm just fascinated by. There isn't a weak link amongst them.
Knowing Harry's history, you're going to have the chance to do so many different things because he had so many ups and downs.
Yeah, he did. It's all laid out there. He was a guy who lived a full, beautiful, tragic life and we're going to explore all of it.
You said that playing Harry and Ari was a lot different. Do you find that they are similar in some ways?
Well, I feel that they're both leaders in their own ways—in completely different ways. And I think anyone who feels that they're really the same isn't taking a good look at them. You can tell. You're already into the second season. They're both American men. Harry, without a doubt, is a real pioneer. And I think Ari probably thinks of himself as one.
But to be honest with you. I really left Ari Gold behind, 1000 percent left him behind and moved on and embraced working in London and all that came along with it and this incredible new character and new life. So when the movie came around it was unexpected for me and you climb back into it, but to me it only accentuates the differences of them by playing them. Because I'm telling you, the feeling after playing Ari is so different that it's shocking to me.
They both make mistakes or have vices. Harry gambles, they both womanize a little bit. But it seems like Harry actually feels bad about it.
Well yeah, no one's a devil in their own story. He desperately wants to do the right thing and loves his wife and his kids more than anything. They mean everything to him, and yet he lives so much in the light during his professional life that his shadow comes out when he's not there. He's a risk junkie. That's why he went and created this department store and reinvented shopping in another country at the turn-of-the-century. No one did that. He's a total groundbreaking guy. Yeah, he's a deep-feeling man. He's not a sociopath. Neither one of these guys are sociopaths, they're just both tragically flawed.
About "Entourage," are you happy with it?
Well, I'm still filming it, so I am currently very happy with it, yeah. It's going really well. I mean we're all an accumulation of our experiences. And hopefully we're all getting better and evolving and that's all we can hope for. So I feel like I have a more to contribute to Ari Gold. I don't have a lot of rust on me right now because I don't take any downtime. So I guess it's maybe like an athlete that's continues to keep the muscles going.
Do you feel like you always sort of take your Chicago and Evanston experiences with you everywhere you go?
I think I do. I mean you are who you are and you're definitely a product of your environment. So no one can change that. I definitely think that I will always be a Chicago guy.
I wanted to tell you that one time in the '90s you were jogging near Navy Pier and we practically bumped into each other. And I said, "Jeremy Piven! How's it going?" And you were like, "Fine, hey."
That's one of the great things about Chicago. I think people are very comfortable socially because we're always running into each other and there's something very healthy about that, I think. There's such an appreciation of whenever the weather's even nice enough to go outside because everyone's dealt with the brutal winter for so long and then man, there's nothing better than a spring or a summer day in Chicago. I was lucky enough to live down on Ohio and Lake Shore, so that's why you saw me there. I used to just run along the lake or jump on my bike. Chicago is the most beautiful city. Now we just have to pray for Derrick Rose's rehab and we'll be set. That's all we need.
That might not be all we need. I think the Bears need help.
Yeah, the Bears—that's really a whole other story.
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