Almost three years ago on the set of The Larry Sanders Show, Jeremy Piven told an EW reporter, ”Someday you’ll be back to do a story on me!” No matter that he was, at best, fourth banana on the cable sitcom.
Flash forward to autumn 1995. ”I was a cocky undergraduate then,” recalls Piven, 30, dining with another EW reporter. ”Well, it happened. I’m living the dream, aren’t I? Here we are at the Four Seasons. I’ve had my snapper, my artichoke salad, and you’re asking me about my life. Suddenly, people care.”
Well, we’re curious, anyway, now that Piven plays caustic cousin Spence on Ellen and has a small part in Heat with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Hearing Piven talk (and talk), it’s easy to understand why he often plays brash, self-absorbed, abrasive characters. ”Somebody’s gotta do it,” he says in his hipster-dude, slept-in voice. Piven not only has edge, he’s double-edged. Asked about his goatee (now shorn), he deadpans, ”If you have a problem with it, just tell me.” Then he even provides the reporter’s reaction: ” ‘I liked Piven until he turned. He was like a Doberman. I thought he was going to take a swing at me. Apparently has a lot of hate in his heart.’ ”
This kind of crackle was exactly what Ellen was seeking when he was cast last summer. ”We thought he had a terrific energy,” says executive producer Eileen Heisler. ”It’s a city energy.”
That city is Chicago, where Piven’s parents founded (and still run) the Piven Theatre Workshop (alums include John and Joan Cusack, Rosanna Arquette, and Aidan Quinn). Jeremy took to the family stage at age 8 and never stepped off. Along the way he played a writer on Sanders (”You get one episode a season, but other than that you’re holding everybody else’s jock”), a party animal in the film flop PCU, and a young dad in last year’s NBC sitcom bomb Pride & Joy (”We had, like, nine kids on the set, and everyone’s crying and I’m desperately trying to get through this speech. I mean my head was, like, imploding”).
Though he clearly relishes the chance to hold forth on his talents (”I was offered my own network show; I had some great ideas.”), Piven does admit to one failing: There’s no romance in his life. ”It would be nice to cultivate a relationship with a fern or something. I have the social skills of a 9-year-old geisha boy. Does that make any sense?”
No, but please don’t explain. Even after an hour, Piven won’t stop. ”I could talk about myself for another year,” he says. ”No, I’m kidding. I feel okay talking about myself because this is your job, correct? You are indeed getting paid to listen?”
Yeah, but not that much. —Bret Watson