Where Ari Gold Ends and Jeremy Piven Begins

The Entourage actor shares what he’s learned about leadership—both good and bad—from his most iconic characters. And why he lovingly calls his parents “the worst entrepreneurs.”
June 4, 2015

Jeremy Piven wants to make one thing perfectly clear: He is not, nor has he ever been, Ari Gold.

Gold, of course, is the ruthless character Piven embodied for eight seasons, from 2004 to 2011, in the HBO hit Entourage. Piven slashed and burned his way to a Golden Globe and three consecutive Emmys as the poster boy for high blood pressure, and he now rekindles the role of the ranting superagent in the big-screen version of Entourage, currently playing in theaters around the country.

“He’s kind of a self-proclaimed bully—well-educated, opinionated, reactive, aggressive,” Piven says of Gold. “Yet because he knows what he’s doing, he’s able to navigate through that space, even having those flaws.”

Despite his protestations, it seems the actor feels a sort of grudging respect for the über-agent he’s come to personify.

“The fact that you are curious about how I feel about a fictional character means someone did something right,” Piven says. “But to be honest, who I am, the way I live my life, my philosophy are all very different from Ari Gold.”

OK, so the New York Post did once nominate Piven as “the biggest jerk in show business.” He can be reserved and is known to not suffer fools gladly. Ask the wrong question, and you might get a stiff answer. In a post-panel interview with media members following a promotional session for the final season of Entourage, a reporter asked a question Piven deemed frivolous.

“This is probably the last time you’ll get a chance to interview me before the series finale, and that is the question you ask?” he replied curtly. He answered the question, but moved quickly to separate himself from the subject (a party he held at his home).

He calls himself—and prefers to think of himself—as a boring thespian. The truth is Piven may be given to aloofness, but he does respond warmly when he feels the person interviewing him has done her homework. It’s a matter of respect.

Ask him about his first film role, in the 1986 teen gridiron hit Lucas, with Charlie Sheen, Corey Haim and Winona Ryder, and he’ll tell you about his own experiences as a linebacker on his high school team in Evanston, Ill. (“At 5-foot-9, I knew football wasn’t going to be a career choice.”) He’s also been praised on websites that follow the tipping and courtesy levels of stars toward servers and fans.

In his own life, Piven treats people more kindly than the fictional character he is best known for playing. Ari Gold’s clients may love his style, but his employees are less enamored of their boss. His talented and hardworking Chinese-American assistant Lloyd saw a chance to escape the vitriol, yet offered Gold a chance to change his ways: “Ari, swear to me that you will never again say anything offensive to me about my race or my sexual orientation.”

“I can’t swear to that,” the Gold character replied, “but I promise I will always apologize after.”

Not exactly the best way to handle employer/employee relations, nor was it ever intended to appear as such.

“He operates on the lowest level as a person and yet still succeeds, which shows you how good he is as an agent and how well trained he is at his job,” Piven says. “My job is to entertain through this character. People should not be inclined to use his methods in real life. What’s fun to watch in your living room is not fun being around, and I would not like being with a person who would be so disrespectful to others.”

Piven says playing that character requires him to “get as far away from myself as possible.”

In the real world, Piven’s a workaholic who lets his private life take a back seat to work commitments. Piven has never married and remains single as he closes in on his 50th birthday, July 26. He owns at least two homes, one in New York and the other in Malibu.

The Malibu place, right on the beach, has a very meditative feel about it, with Buddhist sculptures and candles accenting minimalist aesthetics that include dark brown wood floors and white walls. Everyone has to find inner peace or blow off steam one way or another. Piven is often pictured coming out of yoga classes, and he keeps a detached sky-lit room off the entry courtyard of the Malibu home for a private yoga studio. His commitment to the discipline is both a stress release and a palate cleanse from the high-octane channeling of Ari Gold.

“Yoga was devised to get to a place where you can meditate and be with your body,” Piven says. “There are people who look at yoga and think it’s dumb, but if you do it, you’ll realize that yoga opens you up to be present in your own space.”

His Malibu home also houses an instrument-filled jam space. He’s a talented musician who spends a lot of his free time playing the drums with his group, Bad Decisions.

He has taken to putting the Malibu home up for lease in recent years because he has lived in England from April until October while filming the series Mr Selfridge, which concluded its penultimate season on PBS this spring. The show focuses on the American who built England’s first luxury department store in London. The series is scheduled to end in early 2016, following its fourth season, which is in  production.

Harry Gordon Selfridge is a very real entrepreneur who went to England to found his own self-named department store. Even those who have never heard of Selfridge will know his contributions to the modernization of the retail business. As an up-and-comer at Chicago’s famous Marshall Field’s, Selfridge instituted the Christmas countdown—“Only 16 days until Christmas!” He also came up with such now-entrenched concepts as large windows on the façade of department stores, the phrase “the customer is always right” and bargain-basement sales.

Piven’s London digs are just a block away from a Selfridges location, and he says he uses the store and the surrounding areas as “bread crumbs” to connect with his character and the feeling of an American trying to find his way around town. Piven uses all his senses when creating his characters, and his searing portraits can be so real, it’s almost as if he becomes the character.

Actors are often saddled with the perception that they are the people they portray on the screen, and many people expect the same from Piven when they meet him. He certainly shares with both Gold and Selfridge an unyielding drive and commitment.

“In Mr Selfridge, he’s able to take that sort of aggressive part of himself that links Ari and Selfridge and shift it into an entirely different character,” says USA Today TV critic Robert Bianco. “He shows he doesn’t have to play the nasty sexist guy who insults people and leaves. He finds the part of the character he can disappear into. And in Selfridge, we see there’s an odd romantic hero inside Jeremy Piven.”

The hardworking actor has spent his entire life honing his craft, a family business handed down by his mother, Joyce, and his father, the late Byrne Piven, who died in 2002. His sister, actor-director-producer Shira Piven, works mainly in the theater and is married to Will Ferrell’s creative partner, Adam McKay, who directed Talladega Nights and Anchorman.

“My parents were always influential on me and led through their actions, not didactic messages. They loved what they did,” Piven says. “My mother always said, ‘Endings are important.’ How you leave something means something.”

For more than four decades, the Piven Theatre Workshop in Chicago has maintained a professional theater and a nationally acclaimed actor-training center for children and adults.

The much-lauded production company not only groomed Piven, but also Lili Taylor, Aidan Quinn, Kate Walsh, and siblings John, Joan and Ann Cusack. Piven went off to attend Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, before launching an eclectic career with roles in films ranging from Spy Kids to Sin City.

He’s proud of the fact that his career is filled with small parts made memorable: “I’ve made my bones taking scraps and turning them into a meal.”

The actor says his iconic run as Ari Gold was rooted in commedia dell’arte, a classical Italian form he studied with Tim Robbins. The technique is noted for exaggerated histrionics and heightened emotions.

“[The characters] had to be in an emotional state that, while rooted in sincerity, had to be played to the hilt at all times,” Piven says. “It’s an exhausting form, but also gratifying. Without training, I could never play that character. The harder you work, the easier it looks. I’ve learned that every time you are overprepared, you aren’t going to lose.”

Where he does find himself stalled is at the intersection of art and commerce. He drives a Cadillac, so he had no problem promoting the car, but artistic pride won’t allow him to hawk a product that he doesn’t believe in or respect.

He says while his parents were entrepreneurs in name, they lacked business acumen.

“My parents were the worst entrepreneurs. If everyone studied their skills, the country would grow broke so fast we would be in the Great Depression all over again,” Piven says. “My parents had the souls of artists, but they didn’t know how to run a business. But they did know how to create the highest level of artistry, and they got such joy from being actors. They were devoted to their life.”

Piven’s financially challenged parents filled his childhood with the richness of creative forces in the theater. He mingled with playwrights and actors. The best perk of becoming a celebrity, he says, was being able to raise money for his parents’ artistic endeavors.

“I try to help out with benefits for the acting school, to help kids on scholarships, but if any of your readers can help me, I’m always looking for ways to be a better businessperson,” Piven says. It’s a bit ironic to note that an actor who lacks self-confidence as a businessman has excelled playing the co-founder of a talent agency as well as a retail pioneer.

“I think it is a left-brain, right-brain deal,” he says. “We Pivens just don’t know how to do it.”

The Pivens are a family of performers, but the only son is actually quite well-rounded, understanding aspects of show business on and off camera, as well as the promotional side. As the star and a working producer on Mr Selfridge, he is involved both in the editorial and creative processes.

British producer Dominic Barlow says Piven works tirelessly. The budget of something like the Entourage movie is in stark contrast to the marketing budget afforded a series airing on public television. Barlow commends Piven for picking up the slack, acting like a preacher in his commitment to spread the word about Mr Selfridge.

“He brings a hell of a lot of energy,” Barlow says. “He singlehandedly markets this show globally…. Selfridge was nicknamed ‘Mile-a-Minute Harry,’ and we call him ‘Mile-a-Minute Jeremy.’ He has so much enthusiasm, and he always delivers more than is required of him.”

Barlow has set a Google alert for Piven, and says he is constantly amazed to see the actor traveling the world, appearing on radio stations and late-night or early-morning talk TV to push the show. But the full-court-press selling efforts don’t begin to account for Piven’s intense shooting schedule, which allows little to no spare time. “I don’t know when he sleeps,” Barlow says. “He seems to be on a personal crusade to make sure everyone knows the show is coming on.”

Selfridge sells in more than 150 territories, and Barlow credits Piven for the successful distribution. Now, Barlow says, when you Google “Selfridge,” you’ll get more hits for Piven and his character than the flamboyant real-life visionary who was one of the great businessmen of his time. Piven calls his work on the series the best he’s ever done. He praises his fellow actors for helping to make him better.

“I look to be outshined. I’m hungry to be outshined,” Piven says. “Only good comes from that. If you want to play it safe, that’s a slippery slope, because not being challenged is not going to bring you happiness. You need to check your ego at the door to grow.”

Piven sometimes comes off as a bit cocky and self-assured. It seems like a defense mechanism, a solid suit of armor against the reality that most actors spend their lives looking for decent work.

“If people knew how much rejection actors go through, they would be shocked,” Piven says. “Walking into rooms and auditioning is like getting down on one knee and proposing, only to be rejected. It really is about developing a thick skin.”

Having an intimate relationship with failure has made Piven all the better for it. “What a gift failure is,” he says. “People get defeated by failure, but it’s a chance to regroup and get some perspective. You can’t have what you wanted more than anything—that feeling can turn into pure inspiration.”

Success then becomes so much sweeter.

“Anyone who is allowed to do what they love is so lucky, and I’ve been incredibly lucky to be a working actor,” Piven says. “I slip out of gratitude and have to check myself.”

Ari Gold was an example of Piven’s willingness to take a role that—even though it initially seemed minuscule—suited his acting talents and would allow him to stretch himself creatively. “It was the smallest character in the script, and I took a small fee to do it,” Piven says. “I am the person who constantly has to pick myself up from the mat, to be the underdog. I learned from the time I was 10 that it doesn’t matter where you think you should be, but where you are, and you work from there.”

He came to the set overprepared, as always, ready to make the character an essential part of the show. More than a decade later, that tiny part is one of the most iconic characters in television history, an over-the-top pit bull who never backs down and hasn’t a politically correct bone in his body.

Ari Gold, in short, is the antithesis of the values set forth by businesspeople having a healthy sense of ethical and moral behavior. He’s the guy who gets the job done no matter who he has to screw over.

Doug Ellin created and produced the series, loosely based on the Hollywood experience of actor and co-producer Mark Wahlberg. Piven’s character was a caricature of Wahlberg’s superagent, Ari Emanuel, the outspoken brother of former White House Chief of Staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In a widely reported story, the real Ari was adamant about Piven playing the part he knew was partially created in his image. In a 2011 story on the show, The Hollywood Reporter said the character’s namesake put pressure on HBO, saying “Jeremy Piven plays me, or take my name off it.”

For his part, Piven believes Ari Gold couldn’t exist outside the confines of the fantasy world of Entourage. “Anyone who acted like that would probably be fired,” Piven says.

And again he mentions he’d prefer people not think that he’s anything like the role with which he’s most associated.

“Ari’s a slave to his urges,” Piven says. “He kind of has an anger disorder and works on his lowest level as a human being in a way that he’s constantly reactive and overly emotionally invested.”

“What you started to see was his loyalty to his client and his family, in his own odd way,” TV critic Bianco says. “His loyalty and intelligence proved to be his redeeming qualities. Not to say all agents are like Ari, but clearly he’s a composite of agent behavior the writers had seen. I know I’d rather have him as my agent than working against me.”

That’s acting, though.

“I don’t live my life through intimidation,” Piven says. “Ari’s great at what he does, and he knows how to solve problems.” But unlike Gold, “I’m not driven by money. I’m not a wildly offensive, abrasive guy. And I’m still working on myself.”

Read an excerpt from celebrity agent extraordinaire Ari Gold’s new book The Gold Standard: Rules to Rule By. How does a fictional character write a book? You’ll find out.

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