Tom Roston

Stage Rage: Jeremy Piven
By Tom Roston
Manhattan Magazine, December 2008
 

Jeremy PivenNarcissistic. Self-aggrandizing. Irritable. Prone to outbursts.

These are the traits we’ve come to love in Ari Gold, the slick talent agent Jeremy Piven has played on HBO’s Entourage since 2004. Now, the actor has put on a new Hollywood suit, this time on Broadway, to play studio executive Bobby Gould in the production of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, a scathing depiction of movie industry backstabbers and brown-nosers. It’s a natural step for the actor, who comes from theater stock—his parents helped pioneer the Chicago acting scene alongside Mamet. And while Piven did take the stage here in 2004 in a downtown production of Fat Pig, his Broadway debut is particularly apropos.

For starters, Piven’s career success mirrors that of his Entourage character’s, giving the actor unique insight into how to authenticate the role of upstart Hollywood shark Gould. Then there’s the current economic crisis and the examination and damnation of greed on Wall Street. Of course, unlike New York businessmen, movie moguls on the West Coast must keep up the pretense that they care about creativity and self-identity. And that hypocrisy is what gives this Mamet polemic a familiar retro-timeliness.

Timely for Piven, too. Having recently won his third consecutive Emmy for playing Ari, the 43-year-old is clearly in his prime. But for an actor who’s become famous for his work on cable television, the need for reaffi rmation in theater remains. “My reference for acting is the stage,” Piven says. “Mamet wrote this play for the stage and for the audience to get involved, so the progression is incredible.” One of his co-stars, Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men, is likewise going through her own rite of passage with the venerable Speed-the-Plow. In her role as the temp-secretary, Karen, Moss follows Madonna’s Broadway debut when the play was fi rst produced in 1988.

How often Piven plans to return to his stage-acting roots remains to be seen. During our interview with him, he was being driven all over Manhattan to look for an apartment. When asked if he planned to buy or rent, Piven gave a notably Arilike, sardonic response. Or maybe he’s just channeling Mamet. Either way, he was defi nitely in character.

This is the perfect New York setting—you’re in a car, searching for an apartment. You planning on buying or renting?

Ah, you know what? You mind if I tell you the address? I want it printed on the cover.

Okay, where are you looking?

Listen, I wish I could tell you all the intricacies of my life right now, but this is not the right time or the place. I am looking for a home at the moment. And I’m doing a play here. It’s not my obligation to tell you about my personal life.

How about this one: How have rehearsals been going?

Fantastic.

Would you say the characters Bob Gould and Ari Gold are similar?

Oh, no. Gould is all about being diplomatic. Ari is incredibly reactive and volatile and Bobby can’t be. Bobby is a Hollywood player so he’s ultimately another kind of beast.

Which character are you more like—the diplomatic, reserved kind of person or the more reactive one?

Well, I have to say, the reality is if you were driving with me and you saw moments of road rage, you’d say, “Man, that’s a fairly reactive guy.” But you have to pick and choose your moments. I gravitate toward music like Rage Against the Machine. I love volatile characters. That said, you have to find that peace. You have to balance things out.

Like with a relaxing David Mamet play?

He has this raw truthfulness and he would never admit this but it’s like a symphony. As an actor you can climb into his language and inhabit it.

So how do you feel about being onstage every night and performing?

In my family we never called what we do working, we called it playing. So I love it. And this play deals with everything from the question of who you are to art vs. commerce—all these deep things are addressed. In the end, there was no way for me to walk away from it. I wish I could have. My body was saying that I needed to read a book and wrap myself in a sarong and get away from it all.

So you don’t regret the decision?

It’s draining and sustaining at the same time, if you know what I mean. That may sound like “military intelligence” or “jumbo shrimp,” but I really mean it.

Do you and Raúl Esparza, who plays your adversary in Speed-the-Plow, have similar methods of acting?

Actually, I don’t think we do. We all come from diff erent places. I remember on Entourage, I’d be warming my voice up. I’d be doing tongue twisters and going, “baddabadda- badda-badda.” Th at’s what you do when you have to wrap your mouth around a lot of dialogue. I’d be drinking my herbal teas and they were all like, “Check out this guy.” Th ey would point and laugh. Well, by season three, they were all warming their voices up and drinking herbal tea.

They learned from the man, did they?

No, I wouldn’t say that that was learning from the man. The reality about Entourage is that, if you look at the pilot, I had one scene. I signed on as the fifth lead in the series, based on this one scene. I thought, Listen, you have to throw your ego aside. The reality is that I was lucky enough to be doing movies and if I wanted to do a TV show, I could’ve produced one and starred in one. But to take the fifth lead? What a great lesson learned, though, huh? Put the ego aside, roll up your sleeves and see what happens.

Your other co-star, Elisabeth Moss, is hitting her stride with this play and her role in Mad Men—what’s it like working with her?

Elisabeth is a really sweet, really cool girl.We were laughing about something we saw in a tabloid: Apparently, Jon Hamm, one of her co-stars in Mad Men, was acting up and being a diva on the set. And she was like, “Th is guy is the sweetest guy in the world.” And I said, “That’s when you know you’ve made it. When they start tearing you down, then you know you are on to something.”

Your character Bobby is similar to Ari. Are you concerned about being pigeonholed?

I welcome anyone to pigeonhole me. Bring it. The reality is that, with Bobby, he is so much more a free man. Th e things he walks through, Ari would never be open to. I can honestly say there was no premeditation as to how this role will fi t into the scheme of my career. Everyone’s journey is diff erent. I wouldn’t recommend mine to anyone.

What do you think of being here in New York City, as opposed to Los Angeles?

It’s a completely different vibe here. Everyone is in it together, in everyone else’s funk. I feel like a freak in a freak kingdom. I love it.I’m just happy to be doing a play here. We’re breathing the same air in that old beautiful theater where Marlon Brando was stomping around. If you can’t get the chills from that, then you don’t have a pulse.

While you’re in New York, are you having fun? Going out?

Here’s the deal. At this moment, I am late for rehearsal. I’m trying to find a place to live…I am trying to fi nd a place to lay my head. It’s not a good look for anyone, you know what I mean? Does that make any sense at all?

Somewhat.

Good.