Don’t mistake me for a comedian, Piven says
“The jump from an actor to stand-up is as difficult as any in the business”
Won’t beat around the bush here. Entourage is the best – still breathing – comedy on the tube. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: watching this series is about as much fun as one can have without booze or pharmaceuticals or pleasures of the carnal variety.
For the uninitiated, Entourage is Hollywood at its sleaziest, which is to say that it could easily pass for a documentary or a reality show. Produced by Mark Wahlberg – the very same star of screen – for HBO (it pops up here on The Movie Network), this is the tale of a young-stud actor called Vince (Adrian Grenier) from the mean streets of Queens, N.Y., who seeks to make the grade on the even meaner streets of Hollywood.
To help him make the adjustment to life in Hollywood, Vince brings his three-man posse – entourage – along for the ride: his half-bro John (the hysterical Kevin Dillon), better known as Drama, for reasons that have as much to do with his failed acting career as with his failed personal life; the grounded Eric (Kevin Connolly), better known as E, Vince’s best buddy since they were toddlers and now his manager; and Turtle (Jerry Ferrara), the video-game whiz who serves essentially as group procurer, ordering out for pizza and knishes from New York – while in Hollywood.
But the pivot of the series is Ari, Vince’s volatile, morally bankrupt agent, who will stop at nothing to cut a deal for a client – or himself. Ari – largely based on the famed Ari Emmanuel (Wahlberg’s agent, in fact) – just may be the most despicable Hollywood insider ever captured on the small or large screen, which is really saying something.
And the man who brings Ari to such vivid, worm-like life on screen is Jeremy Piven, the veteran actor who has won two richly deserved Emmy Awards and has been universally praised by critics for this portrayal.
Piven probably will be taking many bows here on Friday night, when he hosts a Just for Laughs gala at Théâtre St. Denis. But Piven hopes patrons understand that while he loves stand-up, he should not be mistaken for a comedian himself.
“I’m not coming up there to take a victory lap – I really want to get into something on stage,” says Piven, 42, over the phone from the set of Entourage in Hollywood. “But I have no experience whatsoever as a stand-up comic. This is a complete stretch. Such a stretch that it’s almost a different arena. The jump from an actor to stand-up is as difficult as any in the business.”
We know. We’ve seen such name actors as William Shatner and Rob Schneider, among many others, stumble around on stage trying to make the adjustment at comedy galas. On the other hand, Tina Fey and Rick Mercer, not known as stand-ups, made the transition seamlessly.
“The stand-ups I know, like Chris Rock, work their asses off,” Piven notes. “They spend years touring and fine-tuning acts to get that 60 minutes down. I have enormous respect for them. I have logged no hours as a stand-up. I am a complete charlatan who is being brought to the festival, and I feel guilty about it.”
Perhaps Piven’s alter ego Ari can relate. To the charlatan, certainly not the guilt part.
Piven has had almost 50 film credits and almost as many TV credits, yet nothing he had previously done has resonated like his role on Entourage. It’s a dream role. Piven doesn’t disagree.
“An actor can go his whole life and never find a role like that. I am unbelievably grateful.
“With any role you take, you can never really judge the character. Ari was initially fleshed out completely in terms of his abrasiveness. But as an actor, your job is to find some other colours in there. And that was my honour to do so.”
Piven would like to assure people that his agents in no way resemble Ari or, for that matter, does he.
“I think people assume that when they meet me, my energy is like Ari’s and that’s who I am,” he says. “But my energy as a human being is very different. I’m a guy from the Midwest who grew up on the stage with my family. Regardless, I feel completely misunderstood. It’s a credit to the show and the role that I am so misunderstood, that people think I carry that energy around with me. But the fact is that I have to whip myself up into a frenzy to inhabit a character that lives in such extremes.”
Piven credits his performance to his immersion in Commedia dell’Arte, a form of improvisational theatre that dates back to 16th-century Italy. He also credits actor and friend Tim Robbins for teaching him the rudiments of this form of acting.
“With this method, you are always in one of four states – happiness, sadness, anger or fear. You just don’t think about it – you just dive right into one of these emotions. Had I not done the Commedia method, I don’t know if I could have ever been able to play Ari.”
Piven was raised in Evanston, in the Chicago ’burbs, where his parents founded the Piven Theatre – set to move to Chicago in the near future. His late father, Byrne, taught the Cusack kids, John and Joan, Roseanna Arquette and Aidan Quinn. Since his dad’s passing, his mother has kept the theatre going.
Though many know Piven only for his part on Entourage, he has done extensive screen and stage work over the last 20 years. He was a regular on The Larry Sanders Show – the best comedy on the tube in its day – as well as Ellen. His diverse film credits include The Player, Runaway Jury, Old School, Serendipity, Black Hawk Down and The Kingdom.
He stars, with rapper Ludacris, aka Christopher Bridges, in (Mr. Madonna – for now) Guy Ritchie’s Rocknrolla, a gangster comedy coming out in October. Next February, he will be seen in the comedic romp The Goods.
“That’s my shot. That’s my lead in a studio film. I get to carry it.”
In September, Piven heads to Broadway to star in David Mamet’s Speed the Plow.
“His writing is so brilliant and so layered,” Piven says. “It’s got that authentic American voice.” So when does Piven sleep? “I don’t know. The new season of Entourage premieres Sept. 7. I start rehearsals on Speed the Plow on Sept. 8. So I guess I’ll have about 11 hours off,” cracks Piven, who was previously in Montreal 13 years ago to make the flick Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde. “It seems like I’m working all the time. I’m not complaining, but that’s why I’m still single.”