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."
The real Piven even took some of his London costars by surprise. "He was definitely not what people expected," says actress Katherine Kelly, who costarred with him in three of the series' four seasons. "Everyone expected Ari Gold to walk on to the set, but Jeremy is more centered, thoughtful and mindful. He was someone who had the weight of a leading man, who was able to turn on the charisma for the part and hold the screen. Jeremy is someone with integrity who was doing this for the art, coming over to our little island to make a TV show."
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."
A Nicaraguan smoke that draws regular accolades from this magazine caught, and held, his attention. "One of the first significant cigars I remember was a 1964 Padrón Aniversario," he says, using the colloquialism for the Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series brand. "Initially, it had almost a chocolate flavor. It was one of the most layered flavors I've experienced, smooth yet robust. It's become my go-to cigar."
He has a couple of reliable sources for both his favorite cigars and an adventurous selection of emerging brands: "I like the V Cut Cigar Lounge, this great little shop on Melrose in L.A. In America, we're not a pub culture, so it's nice to have a place to go to have a smoke and kick it around with guys you know, or guys you don't. And I like the Malibu Cigar Lounge; those guys have great taste in cigars. I go out there and I'm like a kid in a candy store. There's so much great stuff to choose from."
Piven is so into his cigars, he has given serious consideration to coming up with his own brand: "I'd love to do my own cigars," he says. "It would be fun, if for no other reason than to experience that process. I know what I like. I think I could put something together that I'd connect with. Consumers are very savvy. They respond to things aesthetically. And I think if I put out my own, people would say, OK, this makes sense to me. This guy smokes cigars himself.
"One thing I'd stay away from is the idea that a cigar has to draw hard. I like an easy draw. I gravitate toward the flavor of the darker wrapper. I don't like them too strong—but a Hoyo de Monterrey is good to have after a full meal. Generally, I gravitate to something you could smoke on a full or an empty stomach, without it bringing you to your knees gasping."
Along with the cigars, Piven took to the Edwardian-era fashions that were designed for the character in the first season, which was set in 1909. Though subsequent seasons were set in 1914, 1918 and 1928, Selfridge is rarely seen in anything other than the most formal of business attire; aside from period suits with tailcoats and vests, Piven regularly donned serious-looking top hats for the role.
"Yeah, those are heavy," he says with a smile. "But the British are sticklers for rules. At that time, if a man was on the street, he had to wear a hat. The moment you stepped outside, you put your hat on.
"I am a hat guy by nature, because I come from a long line of follically challenged men," Piven says. "My father was always rocking some kind of hat. He'd pull up at school in a convertible with the top down and a leather fisherman's hat. I figured, well, we had to compromise on the hair but at least I've got a face that looks OK with a hat."
Piven's parents were actors Byrne Piven and Joyce Hiller Piven, Chicago theater pioneers who were instrumental in the founding of both Second City and its forerunner, the Playwrights Theater Club. Starting in Chicago, the Pivens moved to New York to study and work. When Piven was a tot, his parents moved the family back to the Chicago area, starting a well-known acting school in Evanston, Illinois. He studied with them as a kid, alongside childhood friend John Cusack and Cusack's acting siblings. After high school, he went to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where he realized that acting was what he wanted to do.
"When I got to college, I suddenly had to earn the right to be onstage," he recalls. "When you're taking acting classes and you're not quite allowed to be in productions at the university, not having that outlet to perform—I really missed it. It hit home how much I loved acting. It was not until it was absent and taken away that I thought, ‘I miss and need this.' "
Piven's parents didn't push him to act; if anything, he says, they let him find his own path.
"They knew how hard it was," Piven says. "Instead of discouraging me, they were very active in teaching me. They never encouraged me to be a professional, until I left the nest. I studied with them from ages eight to 18. Then I went to Drake and they saw me play Marc Antony in Julius Caesar and told me, ‘You should do this.' That was something they'd never thrown around before. For them to have that faith in me really meant a lot."
He transferred to New York University and quickly began getting work as an actor, so much so that he dropped out during his final year before finishing his degree: "To me, the idea of turning down work was insanity. And I've never walked into a single room since then where someone asked to see my diploma."
He began to get movie roles almost immediately, cast in small but increasingly larger parts in films by Robert Altman (The Player), Cameron Crowe (Singles) and Michael Mann (Heat). He could play anything, from cluelessly funny shmucks (Grosse Pointe Blank, Very Bad Things) to a quip-ready leading man (PCU), even as he built a résumé that included featured roles on sitcoms such as "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Ellen."
"Working on ‘The Larry Sanders Show' was like going to grad school," says Piven. "I was studying with Garry Shandling and Rip Torn and Jeffrey Tambor. It was like being one of the bench players for the Chicago Bulls during the Jordan years; you weren't playing a lot but you got to be part of that team and it rubs off."
He also studied with Tim Robbins' Actors Gang and, with Cusack, started his own troupe in Chicago, the New Criminals Theater Company.
"Without the training I had with Tim about commedia dell'arte, I don't think I'd have been able to play Ari Gold," Piven says. "Things like that are key to certain performances."
"The kind of work we do takes a certain abandon—not being afraid to look the audience in the eye as you deliver a line," Robbins says. "Jeremy just kind of jumped on it. He makes bold choices and isn't afraid of extremes."
Before "Entourage" changed his life, he was offered another potentially make-or-break role that he passed on. "They came to me initially for the American version of ‘The Office,' " he says. "I was such a huge Ricky Gervais fan from the British version. I thought, ‘How could anyone possibly play that character better than he did?' It was this perfect blend of nerdy cockiness in the way he navigated the space. So I turned it down."
As he navigates the space in his own life, Piven has managed to hang on to a certain midwestern openness: "I truly treat people with the credo of ‘Innocent until proven guilty,' " he says. "Maybe that's foolish; I probably should have more of a wall up. I just don't live that way. Many people mistake my kindness for weakness. I think that's too bad."
He's still stung by memories of the brickbats he endured from the press and elsewhere after starring in the first Broadway revival of David Mamet's Hollywood comedy, Speed-the-Plow in 2008. Piven withdrew from the show two months before the end of its limited Broadway run for health reasons, and was later diagnosed with mercury poisoning, the result of a longstanding sushi diet. Though some doubted Piven's story, he had a confirmed case that continues to require treatment: "I've been chelating my blood for the past eight years," he says. "I haven't been 100 percent since then.
"When all you are is an actor and then they say you're not—I took those shots. It toughens you up. I just love what I do and all I do is work. All I care about is being happy and present. When that was going on, I was unable to function and it was scary as shit. But nobody cares because you play a bad guy on TV. Well, if you want to hate me, I can't stop you. I love what I do and I work hard."
Which may explain why, at the age of 50, he's still unmarried.
"I love kids—I love my nieces," he says. "I want to have a family, and it's time. But I've been married to my job. The proof is there on my IMDB page."
The reasoning is understandable, given Piven's ascent to stardom in his late 30s. When you're on a hot streak, you've got to ride it.
"Part of being an actor and being able to do what I love is about staying in a childlike state," he says. "Actors operate in a state of play. And that keeps you young. That's why, when you see seasoned actors like Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, they have this childlike presence because they are still creating and still vital.
"I still can't believe I'm 50. When I was younger, certain numbers had certain references. The idea of turning 40? You had to call it a day, pack it in. Then you hit it and think, ‘I still feel vital and present.' I think numbers are a convenient excuse to give up. And I don't think that's the way to go."
With four seasons of "Mr. Selfridge" behind him, Piven's next steps are still gestating. Piven would like to direct, is working on a project with his sister (director Shira Piven) and is developing new material for himself for film and television. He chuckles at the thought of himself as an elder statesman but admits that younger actors approach him for advice on how to have a meaningful career.
"You never know what will get noticed," Piven says. "So you can't tie yourself to results. Do everything you can. Expect nothinf—and receive everything.
"That's hard for people to hear, when they see someone blowing up overnight because of a YouTube video. It's a cliché, but we're exactly where we're supposed to be. Technically, you could say on paper that I was a late bloomer to success. But that was probably the best thing for me. I have no idea if I'd have been able to handle success when I was younger. As it was, I was 40 movies into my career before it happened.
"Now, it's not the fault of a younger generation if they want everything tomorrow. What I tell them, though, is take any job you can get, log the hours, be around people who inspire you and embrace the grind. To be honest? It was that much sweeter, when you had to grind it out."
Back in Hollywood, Piven is finishing his tea. On his head is one of his many hats, this particular one adorned with words: "Do Something Impossible." It was a gift, but the message is something he believes in.
"People can make you believe that so many things are impossible," he says. "I have sometimes allowed myself to be swayed by giving weight to other people's opinions. I remember writing this script, which was something that was very close to me. I showed it to someone I knew, who said, ‘I don't know if there's a market for this.' And I put so much weight in that opinion that I never did anything with the script.
"But I love to tell people now, ‘Don't let that happen to you.' This country is filled with success stories of people who didn't let opinions sway them. It's rare that people will track you down and shower you with opportunities and gifts. You have to make your own way. If you work hard your whole life, you will be given your shot—but will you be ready?"
Contributing editor Marshall Fine writes frequently for Cigar Aficionado. Follow his movie reviews at https://www.facebook.com/hollywoodandfine.