Jeremy Piven crunches his lips. He wrinkles his brow. He juts out his chin. Finally, just when it seems like he’s run out of facial contortions, he squeezes his eyes shut and releases a stream of utterly authentic-looking tears, right on cue.
The 45-year-old actor is on a soundstage in Culver City, Calif., on a cool June afternoon, enjoying his last few weeks of portraying talent agent Ari Gold on HBO’s Hollywood satire Entourage before the show wraps up shooting its eighth and final season. Normally, Piven’s Ari is more of a screamer than a weeper. But after all those years of shouting into cell phones and hurling obscenities at assistants, Piven is getting a chance to show Ari’s softer side. Mrs. Ari (Perrey Reeves) left him at the end of last season, taking the dog and the kids with her, and at the start of this season (premiering July 24 at 10:30 p.m.) his most important client, superstar Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier), returns from rehab after developing a bad drug habit helped along by his porn-star girlfriend (played by real-life porn star Sasha Grey). In the scene Piven is filming today, Ari sits alone in his sleek, glass-walled office and has a breakdown.
”I love the duality of the character,” Piven says later, describing how he’s played the role over the past 88 episodes. ”At first glance you think he’s a pig. But then you come to realize he’s doing it all for his family.” He continues, ”And the way this final season has unfolded, I get to pull back the layers and reveal what really matters to this guy. I get to show his humanity. I get to cry. How great is that for an actor?”
Pretty great. Especially because Piven totally nails the scene, sobbing like John Boehner at a Céline Dion concert. Turns out this may well be an actor with a far wider dramatic range and greater emotional depth than anyone who watches Entourage might have guessed.
Either that, or he had some really bad sushi for lunch.
Jeremy Piven Is Not a Jerk.
He just plays one on TV. But he plays one so well, with such sharky gusto and oily charm, that people can’t help thinking he’s a grade-A a-hole. ”I once had a guy come up to me and offer me cocaine,” Piven recalls. ”I said, ‘Oh, no thanks, I don’t do it.’ He goes, ‘Yes, you do.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t.’ We had this whole conversation, with him digging in. But you know, at a certain point, you just have to take it as a compliment.”
The truth — at least according to Piven — is that he couldn’t be more different from Ari. Yes, there has been one unfortunate public episode (we’ll get to the ”sushigate” scandal a little later), but for the most part, he insists, he’s just an ordinary, boring Hollywood celebrity. In his spare time, he does yoga. He hangs out on the beach with his 6-year-old niece (he keeps her picture in his smartphone). He takes spiritual journeys throughout India (and even brings along a camera crew, turning his 2006 trip into a Travel Channel docuseries, Jeremy Piven’s Journey of a Lifetime). Piven literally grew up on stage, performing as a child actor in the Chicago theater that his mother still helps run. As a teenager he attended the Harand theater camp in Wisconsin, where he is no doubt remembered for his turn as Bernardo in a production of West Side Story. By the time he had reached his mid-30s, Piven had acted in more than 30 films (playing John Cusack’s neurotic friend in a number of them, including Grosse Pointe Blank and Serendipity, but also costarring in Cusack-free movies like Kiss the Girls, Black Hawk Down, and Old School) and had appeared in about a dozen TV series — most notably as head writer Jerry on The Larry Sanders Show.
But then, in 2004, Piven struck Gold, and people have been assuming the worst about him ever since. ”What is so funny,” he says, ”is that my character on Larry Sanders was a very schlubby guy. And then I play this character who is a shark and takes up all the oxygen in a room, and suddenly I’m typecast as that guy. But I really have to whip myself up to play Ari. It requires a very specific type of frenzy. That’s not who I am. That sort of frenetic, abrasive, reactive energy is not my natural resting state.”
It’s well-known that the series is loosely based on the life of movie star and exec producer Mark Wahlberg. Sometimes not so loosely. Vinnie Chase may not be a ringer for Marky Mark, but the Ari Gold character was initially scripted as a carbon copy of Wahlberg’s famously explosive real-life agent, Ari Emanuel. ”Jeremy even looks a little like the real Ari,” notes the show’s creator, Doug Ellin. Not as well-known is the fact that Piven’s character was originally considered the most expendable. While all the other actors in Vince’s posse (Kevin Dillon as his brother, Drama, Kevin Connolly as his best friend, E, and Jerry Ferrara as his driver and lackey, Turtle) were signed to six-year deals, Piven negotiated a two-year contract. ”Since he was just the agent, the thinking was he could be written off the show,” Ellin explains. Of course, it didn’t exactly work out that way. By the end of the first season, it was obvious Piven had found a signature role. By the end of the fifth, he’d taken home three Emmys and a Golden Globe. By the end of the seventh, Piven was pretty much the only reason some viewers were continuing to tune in.
His success on the show opened up other opportunities — but also put a target on his back. Snarky gossip items about trips to the Playboy Mansion and dates with supermodels began popping up in the tabloids. (Piven, who has never been married, declines to discuss who he’s dating now.) Then, in 2008, during downtime from Entourage, the actor signed on to costar in a new Broadway production of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow. A few months into its run, he ticked off its producers by pulling out early because of health problems due to mercury poisoning that Piven blamed on a diet of too much sushi. As improbable as it sounds, the fish tale was true — an arbitrator ultimately ruled in Piven’s favor — but the public relations damage had been done. The New York papers were merciless, and even Mamet took a jab. ”My understanding is that he is leaving show business to pursue a career as a thermometer,” the playwright cracked.
”The mercury-poisoning thing was a tough time for Jeremy,” says Connolly. ”But you know, there were a million other excuses that he could have made up that nobody could have said a word about. He could have just said, ‘I have mono and I can’t get out of bed.’ Why would he make that story up about mercury poisoning?”
”I thought I had narcolepsy,” Piven says of the episode. ”I literally could not keep my eyes open. I was staying home at night and getting plenty of rest, but I kept fading. It got to the point where one night I did an entire performance while sitting down. I’m not a hypochondriac, but I was scared.”
Eventually, after cutting back on seafood and taking some time off, Piven recuperated — at least from the mercury poisoning. ”Sure, when I left the play I suffered slings and arrows,” he goes on, ”but the reality is [leaving the play] was a gift. If it hadn’t gone down like that, who knows what would have happened to me?” Still, Piven continues to suffer from the aftereffects of excessive exposure to bad press. At lunch in Malibu a few weeks after crying on the set, Piven is everything Ari isn’t — calm, cordial, genial. But he’s also extremely cautious. You can see the wheels turning as he considers the ramifications of his every syllable. At times, interviewing Piven can feel like a scene out of Frost/Nixon. ”That’s a really loaded question,” he says when he’s tossed a softball about whether he can tell when he’s nailed a scene. ”Either way I answer, I might come across as an a–hole.”
Now that Entourage is ending, Piven has a chance to shake off his Ari image problem. He’ll be playing five different characters — none of them alpha agents — in Robert Rodriguez’s latest preteen adventure, Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D (out Aug. 19). He also has serious roles in two indie films: a dark midlife-crisis drama opening Dec. 9 called I Melt With You (which features a big crying scene) and Angels Crest, in which he plays a tortured district attorney prosecuting a case involving a young boy’s death (it features a crying bit too). Perhaps now Piven will be pigeonholed as a big softy? If so, he’s fine with it. ”I look forward to being typecast again,” says the actor, ever hopeful. ”It’ll be interesting to see as what.”