It’s been six years since Entourage went off the air, but Jeremy Piven still can’t quite shake off the association of uber-agent Ari Gold.
That series – despite its somewhat ill-conceived, feature-film follow-up in 2015 – became a pop-culture phenomenon, charting the travails of a movie star – Adrian Grenier’s Vincent Chase – and his flawed, fractious yet ultimately redeeming relationship with his hotshot agent, Gold. Piven was transcendent as the profligate, debauched agent with the penchant for the “F” word.
“It was so fun to play him,” Gold says at an event at the CBS Studios lot in Burbank, California. “I played a beautiful character who beautifully lived at a lower level and was very reactive and didn’t think before he spoke. Yet he was so fun to play because he was so emotional, and I did it like a commedia dell’arte (15th-century Italian stage comedy), and it was just a ball of madness.”
Today, while not necessarily wanting to distance himself from his Entourage days, Piven would rather talk about what he did after that – Mr Selfridge – which ended its four–season run last year. Or his recently premiered show, Wisdom of the Crowd, in which he plays a billionaire tech genius reeling from the death of his daughter.
Piven is seated on the sound stage where Wisdom was shot, where TV magic had turned the cavernous space into a meticulous modern office, its Silicon Valley setting implied by a backdrop of San Francisco in the windows behind him. He seems at ease and confident, happy to be working on a new show that has pedigree talent behind it – show runner Ted Humphrey served as a producer on The Good Wife – and on camera; Monica Potter of Parenthood plays his ex-wife and Richard T Jones from Judging Amy has a co-starring role.
“We’re lucky to have work,” he says. “And I don’t think of this as a procedural. I would rather give everything I have and fail miserably than do something mediocre that I know will stay on the air, thinking, ‘I have a job, so I’ll stick around.’”
Nonetheless, Piven has indeed had reason to stick around. The New York-born son of actors and drama teachers went to Piven Theatre, the theatre school in Chicago founded by his family – which also counts among its alumni the Cusack siblings, John, Joan and Ann. Initially a stage actor, he started landing small parts in Hollywood until, in 1992, he became a regular cast member on The Larry Sanders Show on HBO. Other high-profile parts followed – Seinfeld, Ellen – until his star-making Entourage turn.
In Wisdom of the Crowd he plays tech guru and billionaire inventor Jeffrey Tanner, who steps away from his empire to focus on finding out who murdered his daughter. To help him, he creates Sophe, an inexplicably complex digital platform that receives input from the public to help narrow down suspects. It’s crowd sourcing – but for catching criminals.
“This show is not a no-brainer, by any means,” he said. “But that’s what I like about it. The idea that there’s someone who is heartbroken and driven by grief and loss and doesn’t know how to deal with it, and this is how it manifests itself.
“It’s a very interesting premise. Jeffrey Tanner wants to focus first and foremost on finding his daughter’s killer. He’s not a cookie-cutter character. He’s real and he’s unique and flawed, and that’s one of the many reasons I was drawn to him.”
Of course, he has to be asked, will he miss Ari Gold – or at least the freewheeling profanity?
“I’m playing a character now that is navigating in a different space, with all these amazing challenges I didn’t get a chance to explore with Ari. So that in itself is incredibly gratifying. There are times when they let me do a free take, and I may slip in an homage – not to Ari, but to some of the great editors who understand the weight of a well-placed ‘F’ word.”
When Mr Selfridge was on, Piven wholeheartedly got behind it; it was indeed a labour of love for him to play the American entrepreneur Harry Selfridge, who revolutionised the British shopping landscape. It was a PBS production – high quality, beautifully made – but despite running for four years, failed to captivate audiences the way that, say, Downton Abbey did. But Piven appreciated the fact that the series looked as good as it did, when British budgets are nowhere near American ones.
“If you think about how small the UK is compared to the US, it’s amazing the kind of talent that comes out of there. Because they have less money to do their series, necessity is the mother of invention, and these guys are incredibly creative, the directors figuring out a way to make it look huge even when there isn’t
a big budget.
“As a stage actor, one of our main goals was to try and get an audience in. We’d perform in these 99-seat theatres and have to fill them. I’m a theatre actor who knows I’ve been given a huge audience, and with that comes a great responsibility and I’m thrilled
to have that. It’s our job not to
screw that up.”
Next up, Piven will be seen in All-Star Weekend, a film with Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr, written and directed by Foxx, whom Piven describes as “so ridiculously talented it should be illegal”. In it, he plays a truck driver from Indiana who is desperately trying to get to the all-star basketball game and, says Piven, “madness ensues”.
For now, however, it’s not lost on Piven that the high-tech focus of his new show is at odds with what he describes as his earthier and more “caveman” sensibilities.
“It’s ironic I’m playing a tech genius,” he says. ‘There I am on Instagram or Twitter … I have no idea what I’m doing. I need to pick up my skills and up my game, that’s for sure. I have an iPhone and the camera is on portrait mode, and that’s the most tech savvy I get. But if I’m honest about it, we’re all tied to our devices, and there are so many other interesting ways to document things.”
The actor does, after all, take a somewhat more holistic approach to the worlds of entertainment
and technology than a number of his fellow film colleagues.
“Artificial intelligence scares the shit out of me,” he says. “Why are we spending so much time and energy and money on it when we should be working on our own intelligence a little bit – and I’m speaking about myself here, believe me. We have homeless people and cancer research that can use the money – but to figure out a robot that knows who it is … I think maybe we should figure out who we are first.”