Jeremy Piven knows agents, as anyone who has seen his ferocious, take-no-prisoners, Emmy-nominated performance on HBO's Entourage can attest. Piven embodies the fast-talking, Viagra-swilling überagent Ari Gold with an accuracy that is frequently frightening and consistently entertaining. It's also a persona most actors are probably all too familiar with, including Piven. "I once had an agent when I was executive-producing [ABC series] Cupid," he recalls. "There was a writer I wanted, and my agent was also his agent. So I told my agent, 'I want him. If it's about money, please call me.' I didn't hear for a long time, and finally another producer told me the writer was priced way out of our market. I asked my agent what happened, and he said, 'It's about money, baby, it's always about money.' I said, 'But you promised me if it was about money, you'd call me.' He said, 'Baby, baby, baby, it's about money with you, it's about money with him, it's about money with me.' I finally said, 'Stop. You don't know me. It's not about money with me, so don't speak to me like that. And one more thing. You're fired.'"
Though this was more than five years ago, Piven still seems to be in a state of disbelief over his rep's behavior. "I don't know if anyone's ever fired him to his face, but I knew exactly what I wanted," he says simply. "One thing I've heard about people from Chicago [Piven grew up in nearby Evanston] is that they look you in the eye. And I was looking him in the eye and saying his methods were wrong." At this point in his career, he was already a bankable actor, with dozens of movies to his credit, fresh off hit TV show Ellen. But even in the beginning of his career, he didn't tolerate fools gladly. At age 23, as a theatre actor in Chicago, he approached his then-agent about getting him in on a film audition coming to town. "She said to me, 'Look, Jeremy, you're probably not going to work until you're in your 40s.' My heart just sank," he recalls. "And I fired her right there. I didn't have, as my father would say, a pot to piss in, but I knew at the time I was not going to wait 17 years to work." In one of those beautiful paradoxes that make up show business, Piven now finds himself enjoying some of the best reviews of his career, portraying a kindred spirit of his past naysayers. "So my livelihood is based on the energy that comes from them," he says. He takes a moment to ponder this before saying with a sigh, "God."
One can be forgiven for assuming there's sweet revenge behind Piven's gleeful performance as Ari. As the slick Hollywood player, Ari is all raging id, spouting off one-liners that spare no one. "Call me Helen Keller, because I'm a f***ing miracle worker!" he crows when he scores a deal for his client, the affable rising star Vincent Chase (played with the perfect blend of street smarts and naiveté by Adrian Grenier). Things are boiled down to the essentials with Ari-isms, such as when convincing Vincent to take on a role he doesn't feel right for: "Hilary Swank has a vagina, but she won an Oscar pretending she has a dick. That's what actors do. They pretend." Then there was the Hong Kong director he encouraged Vincent to shoot a commercial for, bragging: "Tarantino has already decided he's the next guy he's going to steal from." But Piven insists there's no malice behind the performance; it's all in good fun. It makes sense: One of the reasons Ari is so exhilarating is, you can feel the pure joy in Piven's performance. Simply put, it looks like he's having a great time. "I am," Piven confirms. "Everyone on the show, from the writers to the actors, are collaborators." It also helps that the actor is allowed to improvise freely, which frequently results in some classic quips, such as Ari's now-famous mantra: "Let's hug it out, bitch!" "That was a case where I didn't hear cut," he says of the catch phrase. "And if I don't hear cut, I will continue talking. I would still be talking now if somebody didn't yell cut on the set. I never met an open take I didn't like."
As for the disadvantages to cracking wise about people who take the business of show very seriously, Piven says the response has been mostly positive. He recently ran into Gia Carides, wife of Anthony LaPaglia, both of whom were victims of Ari's barbs. "She said she and Anthony laughed so hard and loved it when we went off on them," he says. "Those are secure artists. If you're in the game, you are fair game. They know we're equal-opportunity offenders and it's all in good fun." One hopes Endeavor Agency bigwig Ari Emmanuel, on whom Piven's character is reportedly based, is in on the joke. "I've met Ari," Piven says of his real-life doppelgänger. "He's such a specific character. There are some people that can kind of mask their ambition and drive. He's not one of those people. You could get episodes out of just observing him rolling calls in a cabana in Vegas; he takes multitasking to a new level."
A Life in the Theatre
Piven is the son of respected actors and teachers Byrne and Joyce Piven, who founded the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston, Ill., and trained such future stars as John and Joan Cusack. At age 8 Piven made his stage debut with his mother and John Cusack in an adaptation of Chekhov's The Darling. Recalls Joyce Piven, "He and Johnny both were in it, and they both hated to be in it. They were just accommodating us as best they could." While it was clear young Jeremy was gifted, no one—himself included—expected him to pursue a career as an actor. Joyce recalls, "When he wasn't quite in his teens, he asked his father, 'Do I have to be an actor?' And my husband said, 'Oh, God, no. Please. You can do anything you want.' "
Still, Piven continued to study with his parents. He struck a deal with his mother that he would play football in the fall and participate in the Young People's Company the rest of the year. He went to Drake University to play football but enrolled in a theatre class. Only then did he realize how unusual his upbringing was. "I had just assumed that every kid had a really fun theatre," he recalls. "I looked around at my acting class in college and, at that moment, realized how unbelievably lucky I was to have had the kind of training I had. I was a freshman, getting lead roles in plays, just from auditioning. I loved it and just wanted to keep doing it."
The turning point occurred when Piven landed the role of Marc Antony in a college production of Julius Caesar and invited his parents to see him perform. "I was very nervous," his mother recalls. "I didn't know that he was that well along in the scheme of things to play Antony. He was a fabulous improviser and very funny, but doing Shakespeare? I was wondering how he was going to memorize all the lines." When the show began, Piven made his entrance from the back of the theatre and jumped onstage, "just like he would enter a football game," she recalls. As he began Antony's oration, "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him," Joyce remembers realizing her son was destined to be an actor. "He was so present. It wasn't just somebody giving an imitation of somebody," she says. "We were open-mouthed. My husband and I looked at each other and said, 'Well, we've got another one in the family, God help us.' " Afterward, his parents took him to dinner and told him to pursue acting. "That had never happened before, getting their blessing," he says. "It was my parents who said, 'We think you should do this.'"
Most Valuable Player
Piven began doing films almost immediately, spending his summer vacations on film sets. He made his movie debut in 1986's Lucas as, of all things, a football player. That was followed by One Crazy Summer and Say Anything, both made while he was still a student. "I paid for college with teen movies from the '80s," he notes, adding that he was "shockingly comfortable" the first time he stepped in front of the camera. When he graduated, he moved back to Chicago with the intention of starting a theatre company. "That's what you did; it wasn't even in my thoughts to go out to L.A.," he says. "The brass ring for me was Steppenwolf, Goodman, acting on bigger stages. That was the ultimate. I knew I would get lost in L.A.; I didn't want to come out here and pound the pavement when I could be working. So I figured I would act in Chicago and audition on tape and go back and forth until I got pulled out here—which is eventually what I did."
In 1990, Piven landed a regular role on the Carol Burnett sketch series Carol & Company, which he followed with The Larry Sanders Show and Ellen. "I've always been on a series that kept me here," he says of making the move to L.A. permanent. "People always say to me, 'Wow, you've done 40 movies.' The truth is, I probably would have done more had I not been a series regular on those shows. Those 40 movies are in three months a year." He thought he was finished with series television following the cancellation of the acclaimed but low-rated Cupid in 1998. "My experience working with network TV was, no matter what level you're working at, if you get the wrong time slot, you're f***ed," he says. "So it wasn't right for me. And I considered myself a film actor, and, back then, you didn't do TV if you wanted to do film."
Piven soon became the go-to guy for reliable supporting characters and witty sidekicks. He stole scenes opposite pal Cusack in Grosse Pointe Blank and Serendipity, held his own against Dustin Hoffman in Runaway Jury, and made a worthy villain in the raucous Old School. To the casual observer, Piven had an ideal career: He was a recognizable presence in hit films and always working. But he admits it wasn't completely satisfying. "I think we are exactly where we're supposed to be, but it's hard to see it at the time," he says. "But, you know, my phone didn't ring after Serendipity. My phone didn't ring after Old School. It didn't, and you can't really look for it to ring." He remembers auditioning for the role of Nicolas Cage's best friend in The Family Man four times. "After two or three times, knowing it's been documented on tape, you have to fight to get these thoughts out of your head—like, 'Don't they get it by now?' You have two choices: You can either succumb to your ego, or you can push it aside and wait for the proper moment to use that energy to fuel you. And then you go in there and you get the job, and that's what I did."
Piven began to excel at making smaller roles pop, something he credits his improv background for. "The sidekick roles, if you were to look at what's on the page and how it ends up, it's two different things," he says. "You have to be able to kind of flesh things out and be able to make suggestions either three months before, three weeks before, in rehearsal, or between 'action' and 'cut.' No one's going to hand you anything. You have to almost, kind of, invent your roles. None of these roles are flashy. It's not as if things change once you are in a successful romantic comedy playing the sidekick; it just doesn't happen." So Piven made an active choice to try something new. He buffed up, looked for different types of roles, and focused on not repeating himself. "I think it would be boring for people to watch me do the same thing, and I think it's time for me to explore other things," he says. "If I'm over 600 pounds and howling to the universe about, 'Why can't I play the guy who gets the girl?' it doesn't make sense. So to be on top of your game, both creatively and physically, may be the answer. So that's why I've pursued the journey I'm on right now."
Piven observes, "The Ari Golds of the world don't have the patience to nurture a career like mine, nor do they want to. One of the lines I spit out the first season was, 'I don't represent talent; I represent temperature, and you're not hot.' That was me; I never had fire, I just had desire. I was never on these lists of people who could walk in the room and be allowed to audition for a movie."
Swimming With Sharks
Ari Gold appeared in just one scene in the Entourage pilot, and Piven is quick to point out that despite his 40-plus film career, he wasn't the selling point for the first season of the show. "I wasn't the guy on the poster for the first season," he says with a shrug. "And I had a shorter contract than the rest of the boys." It's important to remember this now, as HBO is constantly running commercials that tout Piven's Emmy nomination and position him as the breakout star of the water-cooler program. The actor had been staying away from TV but was intrigued by the concept of a show about Hollywood hangers-on. "The idea was so fertile, and I knew HBO would give it a chance," he says. "It was a great case where it was kind of indicative of my career thus far. Initially, there was nothing glamorous about it. I wasn't carrying the show; there were no sexy trappings to it. It was more about: 'Okay, can I get in there and turn this thing out and make something of it?' So I took the chance."
Piven was soon earning kudos for his work on Entourage, including from his most important critic. "When I teach, I tell people to study the show, to watch Jeremy," his mother says. "He illustrates so many of the things I teach, such as interrupted destinations. If you're constantly interrupted, even with your own thoughts, it can make you switch gears. And he does that intuitively. He has such a special talent; he's very creative and present in the work. Of course, I'm his mother, but I'm also a teacher."
The actor is heavily favored to score Emmy gold this year [see related feature, p. 6] for playing a character he says couldn't be further from himself. "My upbringing was the antithesis of their reality," he says of agents. "I come from an artistic household where you respect and love and nurture talent. So these heatseeking missiles in Dolce & Gabbana never appealed to me; it's like talking to another species." In fact, he says he's probably most similar to the nice-guy suitor he played onstage in Neil LaBute's Fat Pig two years ago. According to LaBute, Piven was an early favorite for the role. "It's so rare to find an actor who can juggle both comedy and drama," observes LaBute. "We were lucky to get him." Fat Pig also starred Andrew McCarthy as Piven's slick best friend—a role that could have been played by Piven. "The truth is, Jeremy could have done that part in his sleep, and he would have been great," LaBute says. "But it was so exciting and wonderful to watch him as the romantic lead character, in all his vulnerability." Critics agreed, praising Piven's performance as a likeable Everyman. "I got some of the best notices of my career for playing that character, and yet it was the closest to my center," he says. "When you stretch, they think you're playing yourself. And when you play something close to you, they think you're a magician."
The Emmy nomination for Entourage came as a surprise to the actor, and he still doesn't seem sure what to make of it. "My father was an artist in a family where they looked at him like an alien," he says. "He was a real pioneer as an artist, and he didn't necessarily have the family support, so he was always doing his own thing. He started a theatre with my mom, hung the lights, put shows up on his back, directed himself in the Scottish tragedy with my mom playing the lady. I mean, who does that? He was a real artist, an actor's actor. And he never was recognized on a national level, and I've been lucky enough to be recognized. And I'm not a better actor than my father, by any means. Or my mother. They just happen to have paved the way for me. So, in a way, it's kind of unbelievable. I just assumed my family would go on doing their thing under the radar, and I was completely happy with that." BSW