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“I’m sorry for the visuals,” says Jeremy Piven, squinting blearily into the lens of his camera phone. “I know this [interview] is for print so I didn’t do the hair and make up…” No worries, I say, as the 56-year old actor-turned-comedian shambles groggily down a dimly-lit corridor somewhere in New York.
Print journalists expect to meet celebs in their civvies. But Piven has the demeanour of a man who’s just staggered off a 5AM budget airline flight after a stag weekend in Eastern Europe. He closes his eyes, sighs, gropes for words and takes long, deep slugs from a plastic bottle of water. For most of our video call I’m treated to a wobbling view of a ceiling light and the peak of his baseball cap. It’s a far cry from the polished comeback attitude you’d expect from a man striving to rehabilitate his reputation after allegations of sexual misconduct – which he vehemently denies – saw him “blackballed” by Hollywood in 2016.
Piven is meant to be promoting this week's stand up shows at the Leicester Square Theatre, but I have a hard time getting any details of the content out of him. “Forgive me,” he fumbles, “I can’t necessarily reveal the entire act…” Obviously not. But to sell the show he should probably share some teasers? “Some teasers?” he struggles, before slipping into the evasive showbiz gush of: “Teasers! I love it, I love it. You're very… I love it… give me half a second.” He pauses. It’s 9:35am, his time. “You have to understand it’s the morning here for us,” he explains, “and I’m having a little bit of a moment.”
I’m not sure that’s how I’d describe what’s happening. After a long run of bit parts in sitcoms like The Larry Sanders Show, Piven really did have “a moment” from 2004-2011, playing the jaw-droppingly abrasive Hollywood agent Ari Gold in HBO comedy Entourage. He fired that character with such compelling ferocity that nobody was surprised when he bagged a Golden Globe and three Emmys. He followed the role by starring as flashy’n’philandering department store owner Harry in ITV’s Mr Selfridge, his shark teeth gleaming above the vintage tweeds and mahogany counters.
It’s hard to square the compelling storm energy he brought to those characters with the vague and sluggish way he talks today. Predicting he’d be defensive about recent events, I try to take him back to the safety of childhood memories. I’m curious about his unconventional upbringing. In an online interview he railed against accusations of white privilege saying he was “raised in extreme poverty in a retirement home. I am a Jewish stage actor. There is no white privilege. There has never been any white privilege.”
Born in Manhattan and raised in Evanston, Illinois, Piven is the child of actors and drama teachers Byrne and Joyce Hillier Piven. The couple ran the Piven Theatre Workshop, whose graduates include John and Joan Cusack, Aidan Quinn and Aimee Garcia. He tells me that his parents encouraged their students to treat the stage as a place to play. “We did theatre games, a lot of improv […] My mother tells me that I was looking for laughs from an early age.”
He first appeared on stage, aged eight, playing the little boy in a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull directed by his mother. “Being in front of an audience felt very natural,” he says. But he says it wasn’t until he played Mark Anthony in a university production of Julius Caesar that his parents thought he might have a career in showbiz.
But as a guy whose appearance didn’t quite square with leading man or oddball sidekick he struggled to make his way. I admire the way he describes his ability to make the best of a frustrating situation in his new Apple podcast, How U Livin’ J Piven. Offered a series of one-line roles in films including Cameron Crowe’s Singles and Jackie Chan’s Rush Hour 2, Piven freestyled his way into more screentime.
“You can get used to being subservient,” he said. “But at a certain point you have to think bigger.” His only line in Rush Hour was “May I help you?” He ended up spinning out his one-note sales assistant into a whole sketch: “Let’s put a dead animal on you. Croc skin. Butter cream, butter cream, croc skin…” Laughing in recollection of the camp gibberish which bewildered Chan, he advised podcast listeners: “That is how you get a career. Go do one line. If they don’t say 'Cut!' then f------ contribute. You gotta make something out of nothing.”
Loosely based on the Hollywood life of Piven’s friend Mark Wahlberg, Entourage took the one-line guy into the mainstream. He’s said that, from the beginning, his mother had concerns that the public would confuse him with the character. He tells me that he thinks American audiences are more likely than Brits to conflate “the guy who comes into people’s living rooms” each week with the actor portraying him.
In conversation with the comedian Andrew Schulz in 2019, Piven appeared to argue that the allegations of sexual assault women began to make about him in 2017 had gained traction because people had confused him with the fictional Ari Gold. He said: “Not only who wouldn't believe it, but who wouldn't rally behind taking that guy down?”
Ariane Bellamar (Suicide Squad, The Hangover Part III) claims that Piven groped her on the set of Entourage and at the Playboy mansion. Although Piven immediately took and passed a lie detector test in which he was challenged over the accounts of Bellman and two other women, CBS cancelled his show, Wisdom of the Crowd, after just one season.
Piven told Schulz he was “collateral damage” in the MeToo movement. He blamed a struggling media’s hunger for clicks for his fate, arguing “The problem was it was a feeding frenzy, and the editors basically said, 'Go out there. Get me more. Get me those Hollywood actors. Let's round them up.’"
When I try to ask Piven about the experience his publicist cuts crisply into out conversation with an “I don’t think we’re going to answer that.” But he does tell me that his stand-up routine deals with “misconceptions” about him and that he’s found “fertile ground” in exploring the ways in which he’s been confused with the fictional Ari Gold.
Piven says that when he started his stand up career at “a dive bar […] like an open mic night” in LA a few years back he was immediately “shocked by how small the space was. Any smart person would have a fear of that space.” He began by telling the restless crowd: “You guys are probably wondering what I’m doing here,” only for “some guy at the back to shout ‘What the f--- are you doing here?’” And how did Piven reply? He laughs, inhales and wafts into more weird gushing – “You’re amazing. You’re incredible. You keep digging. I love it. It’s beautiful…” – before admitting that the moment was “very confronting, like being thrown into the fire. I remember not doing well at all.”
But he is eager to keep learning. He expects London audiences to keep him on his toes. “You Brits take your comedy very seriously. I grew up on British comedy. I love it… Monty Python, The Office… Ricky Gervais is my spirit animal. I met him in Belsize Park when I was shooting Mr Selfridge and he was such a sweet person. He’s done it on his own terms, he doesn’t seem to have a lot of fear.”
Based on Piven’s slow responses to my questions, I wonder if he has it in him to handle the hecklers in a London crowd. But he seems almost recklessly eager. “Anytime you're on the stage,” he says, “you’re winning.”
Jeremy Piven is at the Leicester Square Theatre tonight: leicestersquaretheatre.com