The Gentleman Prefers Cigars
From the manic agent of "Entourage" to the more genteel mogul Mr. Selfridge, Jeremy Piven always finds time for a great cigar
Jeremy Piven grabs a seat at an outdoor table at the Larchmont Bungalow, a casual restaurant/coffee shop on a homey little street just a few blocks south of downtown Hollywood.
"This is my neighborhood place," he says. As he clears a table so he can sit down, he laughs. "I practically work here."
Sipping tea, he smiles behind horn-rimmed glasses and relaxes in his chair on this warm January afternoon. He's leanly muscular, taller than you'd expect, with a serene quality that could be either about tranquility or simply self-control. He's dressed in black that seems to emphasize how fit he is: jeans, Henley-collared shirt, buckskin jacket, all the shade of coal except for a navy-blue baseball cap.
In conversation, he is thoughtful and humble, quietly confident, witty and inquisitive. The irony is not lost on him that his real persona has little in common with his most famous character: super-agent Ari Gold on "Entourage," as alpha a male as ever to light up a pay-cable TV screen (and, last year, big screens with an Entourage movie).
"People are disappointed when they meet me," the 50-year-old says with a smile. "People would be shocked to know who I really am."
The question of who Piven really is begins with who he is not, specifically Ari, the high-functioning show-business predator he played so beautifully, earning him three Emmys and a Golden Globe during "Entourage's" 2004-2011 run on HBO. Ari was always on the hunt, always on the prowl, looking for the best deal for his star client, Vincent Chase (played by Adrian Grenier). Victory for Ari meant something more than simply pushing his opponents to lose. They had to be humiliated in the process.
"I'd never played a character like him," Piven says. "Until then, I had always played low-status characters, the bumbling plus-one. I was very lucky with that role."
Ari was a shark in business who was a pussycat at home. At work, he was an unfettered ego in a well-tailored suit. He said what he thought—and if what he said was funny in a cutting way (his most notorious ad lib: "Let's hug it out, bitch"), so much the better. But while his head seemed to be in a constant swivel checking out females in his vicinity, the character eventually was revealed as not only faithful to his wife but under the thumb of the daunting Mrs. Ari (Perrey Reeves).
"He was a bad guy with a heart," says actor-director Tim Robbins of Ari. "But he was a person who could live in his own skin and was honest about who he was. There was a lot of primal id in Ari. Plus it's ridiculous when agents have this rabid side and make threats as if the world depends on it. Isn't that what's funny about him?"
Oscar-nominated director Adam McKay (The Big Short), a former "Saturday Night Live" writer who's been married to Piven's sister for 18 years, knows the vast difference between Piven's on and offscreen personas.
"He's kind of the opposite of Ari Gold. He's into health and spirituality. He trains a lot and meditates. When I think of Jeremy, he's about to go do yoga on a beach somewhere," says McKay. "Ari was an asshole—but not a malevolent force...It was the collision of the perfect role and the perfect actor. I don't think anyone else could have played it that well."
To Piven, the character's appeal was simple: "In a day and age when people feel they have to be on their best behavior, here was a guy who said what he thought and was an equal-opportunity offender," Piven says. He felt comfortable taking Ari to extremes, as long as the character had that grounding in the relationship with Mrs. Ari.
"I knew that if I made the character seemingly a pig who couldn't complete a sentence without looking at a woman passing by, it wouldn't work," he says. "But if I made him someone who was monogamous who just appeared to be a pig, that duality would go a long way."
Piven—and those who know him—insist he is miles apart from Ari. Someday, a secret Santa will present him with the perfect gift, a T-shirt that says, "I'm not an asshole—but I played one on TV."
Despite the character's many flaws, people loved Ari. The accolades took Piven by surprise. "I had no idea playing this abrasive, brash agent would draw so much attention. I mean, because of Ari Gold, I won the Fresh Face of the Year award." He chuckles at the thought. "I was 37," he says. "There was nothing fresh about my face."
Success on "Entourage" led to new projects for Piven, who leaped at the opportunity to take the title role in the British television series, "Mr. Selfridge," whose fourth season began airing on PBS in January. The character—a polite, cigar-smoking magnate with a personality quite unlike that of Ari Gold—was one attraction that drew Piven to spend seven months a year since 2012 working in London. The fact that the show's creators had its entire four-year run mapped out before they started was another.
"It was always the intention to do four seasons—when we met the first time, they pitched it to me that way, as a four-series run," Piven says. "That's very different than here. When you do American TV, you read the pilot and commit to the great unknown. When I met with them, it was a great pilot—and it had a four-year arc. They knew where they were going because it was based on a true story.
"I pretended to think about it for about five minutes and then said ‘yes.' I was eager to go from playing such a brash, reactive character to playing his antithesis: someone who leads through love and light, instead of intimidation."
The move? "Genius," says his brother-in-law McKay. "Here he's coming off this iconic character—and now he goes and immerses himself in a totally different environment and experience. He was in heaven, working with these great English actors."
Raised in a theatrical household in Evanston, Illinois, Piven felt as though he'd entered a charmed circle when he went from "Entourage"—with its emphasis on bling and living large in Hollywood, set to a hip-hop/hard-rock soundtrack—to "Mr. Selfridge," and the British acting tradition. The difference between working in American and British TV was only the start of the transition for Piven, in playing the real-life American mogul who invented the modern department store in pre-World War I London.
"I felt like I was representing our country—I felt so honored to be doing a British production," he says. "I got a rare glimpse into a beautiful culture. Creatively, we're kindred spirits. I feel incredibly lucky, because I was lucky enough to grow up in a theatrical family. So I have a real respect for those traditions and that literature, and for the rites of passage that those actors go through.
"They're fueled by tough love. Here, we're fueled by the American dream, that you can do anything you dream of. Over here, the opportunities are more plentiful. You can be discovered in a mall, if you've got some charisma and you're attractive and want to work for Ryan Seacrest. There, it's the opposite; they kind of dare you to be great."
There were adjustments for Piven, but he proved more than game. Kelly says, "He's used to shooting in a Hollywood studio—and we were set up in a car park, working in a studio that had been a carpet warehouse. It was almost like camping. He was someone who was definitely doing it for the role and the script, because it certainly wasn't the money."
Kelly admits she'd never seen "Entourage" before working with Piven, but realized just what a phenomenon it was when the two of them were tapped to present an award at the BAFTAs, England's version of the Oscars. Backstage, Piven was mobbed—not by adoring fans, but by the biggest male actors in British film and television, every one an Ari Gold acolyte.
"They were all swanning around Jeremy backstage and I'd never seen that sort of man-to-man attraction," says Kelly. "I've seen women gravitate to a man in that situation, but never that kind of thing with just men."
Piven found another big difference between being on a hot series on HBO and being the star of a series on "Masterpiece" on PBS. HBO spent millions to call attention to each season of "Entourage." But "Mr. Selfridge" airs on a publicly funded network, where the budget goes into the programming rather than marketing.
"It's a show that's been sold to 165 countries, more than any show I've ever done," Piven says. "But here, it's on PBS and they don't have the funds to advertise it. And it's hard to get an audience without advertising. That's the irony: Harry Selfridge built his empire on advertising. He was the first person ever to take out full-page ads for his store. He created that. And here we are on a network with no money to advertise.
"But it's not my job to get down about things like that. I just want everyone to see it. It's the best stuff I've done."
After using a hiatus from "Mr. Selfridge" to return to Ari Gold for the Entourage movie, Piven found it easy to slide back into the more mellow skin of Harry Selfridge. Part of it came with the little accessories, which put him in touch with the real-life Harry.
"We went to great lengths to be authentic," Piven says. "Wearing something like a top hat gets you into the space you need to be in." Taking on another Selfridge trait came far more naturally to Piven. "The character also loved to smoke cigars," he says, "so I smoke them quite a lot in the show."
A long-time reader of Cigar Aficionado, Piven has three humidors at home and likes nothing better than enjoying a special moment with a fine cigar.
"I'm not a guy who wakes up and smokes cigars—I like to make it an event," he says. "Then my taste buds can really enjoy it. Usually it's in the evening after a workday. But while we were shooting ‘Mr. Selfridge,' I would have one at lunch, usually a Cuban. It was a treat to have a cup of Bulletproof Coffee and a cigar," he says, referring to the butter-infused coffee that fitness buffs have embraced in recent years.
"I felt very cheeky, as the Brits say," says Piven "It was a nice break."
Piven came to cigars in his 20s ("I was a late bloomer," he jokes) and has visited Havana several times: "I started at the top, smoking hand-rolled cigars in Cuba," he explains. "They had such an easy draw, such flavor—they were really accessible. In a way, I've been chasing that experience ever since. I've been there five times and I've witnessed amazing things."