Jeremy Piven gets a bad rap. He’s been called “the biggest jerk in showbiz” and been dragged into tabloid gossip.
But in reality, he’s remarkably laid back — “kumbaya,” even; a self-proclaimed thespian deeply dedicated to his craft. In fact, it seems that the main reason for his tough reputation is that he’s such a good actor.
Case in point: From 2004-2011 (and again in the 2015 movie), Piven so convincingly portrayed the egomaniacal, irreverent Ari Gold in the HBO hit “Entourage,” that the public and press ceased to separate the actor from the character.
And when an actor that good says that his most recent project is his best work, you listen. For Piven, that project is “Mr. Selfridge” — a Masterpiece on PBS drama about the American retail maven Harry Selfridge, who founded his eponymous British department store in the early 20th century — the final season of which begins March 27. “The brilliant actors around me raised my game, and I couldn’t be more proud of this series; each year it gets better,” Piven says. “This final season is definitely the best season of TV I’ve ever done in my life. And I didn’t have to look too far for inspiration. Here I am, an American actor trying to make my way over in England, like Harry was in 1908.”
Piven lived part-time in London while filming the show’s five seasons, but his acting training ground was right here in Chicago. (Interestingly, Selfridge’s training ground was also here in Chicago: He learned the art of retail under the wing of Marshall Field before striking out on his own.) Though Piven was born in Manhattan, his family moved to Evanston when he was young. There, his parents — Joyce and the late Byrne Piven — founded the Piven Theatre Workshop, a theater and actor training center with alums like Joan Cusack, Kate Walsh and others.
“My parents didn’t start the theater as a way of producing actors,” Piven says, dispelling any notion that he comes from a showbiz family, though his sister Shira is a film director and his brother-in-law, Adam McKay, is an Oscar-winning writer. “It was just a love they had, of being artistic, of exploring what it is to be human.”
Piven is still involved with the theater — he was in town last month meeting with potential donors for a new theater building — and he even still runs lines with his mother. “I’ve worked with my parents from the time I was 8,” he says. “And I still call my mother or sit down with her and talk through things.”
Much like his parents, Piven isn’t in this current project for the fame. In fact, it’s quite the opposite — he’s working to bring attention to it. “It’s such an honor to be at PBS,” the actor, 50, says. “Here’s a place that is funded by the people; they rely on people writing checks, that’s just the reality. ‘Mr. Selfridge’ is sold to 165 countries, and yet, the United States is the only place where it’s public broadcasting. The irony of that is that Harry Selfridge made his empire based on advertising, and here we are in our own backyard with no advertising. … [Doing] ‘Entourage,’ we had this machine; HBO was so incredible at getting the word out. This is a whole new frontier.”
For Piven, promoting his art takes precedence over proving he’s a “good guy” or negating rumors. “If someone meets me and they have a preconceived notion of who I might be, it’s totally understandable,” the actor says. “I’ve played some characters with a very loud bark, but [in reality], that’s not interesting to me. Like Shakespeare says, sound and fury signify nothing. I want to know who you are, not who you’re not.”
Catch “Mr. Selfridge” on Masterpiece on PBS Sundays at 9 p.m.
Evolution of an actor
You know Harry Selfridge and Ari Gold. But Piven is one of the rare actors these days who truly earned his place in Hollywood, working his way up through dozens of small roles you may or may not remember. Here are a few we love:
“Say Anything” (1989):The cult-classic romantic comedy — acclaimed director Cameron Crowe’s debut film — is most known for the famous scene in which John Cusack serenades Ione Skye. But it’s also one of a series of films in which Piven plays the sidekick/best friend to Cusack, his longtime real-life bestie.
“Ellen” (1995-1998): Piven’s longest-running role before “Entourage” was that of Spence Kovak, the quirky cousin of Ellen DeGeneres.
“Serendipity” (2001): Piven teamed up again with Cusack — a fellow Chicagoan and Piven Theatre Workshop alum — again for this heartwarming romance.
“Old School” (2003): Piven plays Dean Pritchard, the picked-on-as-a-kid head of college trying to exact his revenge on a group of grown-up frat boys. He co-stars in the film with Will Ferrell, brother-in-law Adam McKay’s sometimes writing partner.
At the shoot
For our Men’s Issue cover shoot, we brought Chicago to Beverly Hills, shooting actor Jeremy Piven — an Evanston native — at the brand-new West Coast outpost of Chicago-born coffee shop Bow Truss. Founded by Philip Tadros in Lakeview East just three years ago, the hip hangout now has eight locations and 12 more in the works.
Photographer: Simon Perry
Stylist: Bruno Lima at Celestine Agency
Grooming: Helen Robertson at
Celestine Agency using MAC/Surface
Producer: Katerina Bizios
Shot on location at: Bow Truss Coffee Roasters, 340 N. Camden, Beverly Hills, California; Bowtruss.com
Pictured at top:
Jacket: DSQUARED2, $1,555, Nordstrom, 55 E. Grand; Shop.nordstrom.com
T-shirt: G-STAR RAW, $48, 1525 N. Milwaukee; G-star.com
Pants: Topman, $100, Topman, 830 N. Michigan; us. Topman.com
Watch: Uniform Wares, $1,350, Nordstrom, 55 E. Grand; Shop.nordstrom.com
Glasses: Piven’s own