Slick 'n' sleazy, that's his style. Jeremy Piven has been swimming with sharks so long — he just wrapped his fifth season of "Entourage" — that by the time he finally got around to sticking his big toe in the Broadway waters, it didn't seem deep at all.
In fact, David Mamet's 20-year-old Speed-the-Plow should seem like home to him — a 90-minute sprint across the same charred turf Piven normally traverses in half-hour spurts on HBO: Hollywood's fast-lane rat race, where he's King of the Road — agent Ari Gold, a ferocious wheeler-dealer whose pit-bull bark always draws blood.
Now, in Mamet's satiric take on Tinseltown power-playing, he's Bobby Gould, who has landed in that room at the top toward which Gold is forever crawling — a Head of Production, with the God-like gift to green-light movies. Enter, pitching, Charlie Fox (Raúl Esparza) — a fellow fugitive from the mail room who has settled slightly lower on the studio food-chain as a producer, proposing to Gould a big-gunned action flick. The wedge in their long, tenuous friendship is driven by Gould's office temp, Karen (Elisabeth Moss), who has her own naïve, noncommercial notion about what makes a good movie — i.e., a socially conscious view of the apocalypse that might do mankind some good — and, since Gould's new altitude in the studio ranks has given him a bad (or good) case of altruism, he seriously entertains this idea.
At first, Piven feared the play would be seen by some as perpetuating his small-screen Hollywood wars: "My initial concern was 'Am I going to be repeating myself?' Then I reinvestigated the play, and I realized, 'No, I'm not — at all, in fact.' "Bobby Gould is celebrating the gods of success at the moment you meet him and, at the same time, is trying to be good. That's his main focus. Ari Gold is just trying to put food on the table for his family and would do anything to get it. Bobby is in a different place in his life. Both are driven, ambitious, Type-A American characters, but they're different. I think I relate much more to Bobby, actually, than to Ari."
Piven's only previous New York appearance — in Neil LaBute's touchingly tortured Fat Pig Off-Broadway — was, likewise, a long way from his usual Gold standard: a sympathetic depiction of a modern male who caves in to peer pressure and gives up his overweight girlfriend. "That was a case where the character was more like me than others I've played. People would say, 'Wow! How did you pull that character off?' Well, Neil LaBute writes tragically flawed alpha males so well, and I somehow related to the guy more than others. It takes energy and focus to whip yourself up into a frenzy to play a character like Ari Gold. My natural state is much calmer. People meeting me don't know if I'm putting on a calm act or not." [This is true.]
The role has rewards — he has three Emmys to show for his four nominations — and he has translated Gold into a Golden Globe (not so you'd notice, though: The year he won, the writers' strike cancelled the telecast. A few days later, a guy showed up with his Globe, gave it to him in his driveway, then whipped out a cell phone to commemorate the moment with a photo. "That was my Golden Globe ceremony," he notes ruefully).
Whether there's a Tony in his future is almost irrelevant. The thing is… Broadway: "Everything I've done has led up to this moment. I grew up in the theatre. Both my parents were theatre animals. I was eight years old when I climbed onstage with my mother and father and did Chekhov's The Darling, not knowing what I was doing, probably butchering Chekhov. My mother still runs the Piven Theatre in Evanston."
In Chicago, he fell in with The New Criminals, a theatrical troupe that did a three-hour adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (he was Hunter Thompson's sidekick) and practiced Tim Robbins' style of commedia dell'arte ("That style really set me free"). Then calls from Carol Burnett's "Carol & Company" and Garry Shandling's "The Larry Sanders Show" sent him west.
With 22 years in films and TV, it has taken this "child of the theatre" his whole 43 years to get to Broadway — but theatre was a constant.
"People said when Speed-the-Plow came up, ‘What'll you do? There's no second take.' They don't realize I'm, first and last, a stage actor. What I try to create when I work in front of the camera is the momentum you get onstage. You can't get it anywhere else — and you need it since you work in fragments if you work in film. I don't even think of it ["Entourage"] as TV. Here we are, shooting on film with language that's not curtailed by the standards and practices of network TV — so we have that freedom of language. It's as if I'm shooting a stage play. At least that's the way I envision it.
"I've always wanted to come to Broadway. It has definitely been a dream of mine — and my family — to play on a grand stage like this. I've dreamt of doing Julius Caesar on Broadway — Marc Antony is a role I've always wanted to do, and Brutus is incredible — and to be in the Barrymore, a place with such great history, where A Streetcar Named Desire was first done!" Maybe Piven will pick up some Brando vibes during his stay on Broadway. That would really send Ari Gold over the edge!