The multiple Emmy winner describes his lead role in the new series, Mr. Selfridge.
Actor Jeremy Piven
Tavis: No one plays fast-talking, take-charge characters better than Emmy-winning actor Jeremy Piven. His role as the always-aggressive Hollywood super-agent in “Entourage” just about defined that series, I think it’s fair to say. Now he’s tackling a role that bears some resemblance to Ari Gold, at least superficially.
He plays Chicago-born Harry Selfridge, who went to England and turned London’s cultural norms upside-down by just about inventing the modern department store as we know it.
“Mr. Selfridge” is the name of the series, and it’s part of PBS’s Masterpiece on Sunday nights. Let’s take a look at a clip from “Mr. Selfridge.”
Tavis: Dude, you have gone from HBO to PBS.
Jeremy Piven: Yes.
Tavis: I’m not sure what that means. (Laughter)
Piven: It means that I’ve made it, to be honest with you, because this is a great station that has quality programs, and -
Tavis: Well, thank you, Jeremy.
Piven: Yeah, I wasn’t saying yours. (Laughter)
Tavis: Ba-dum-bump. I walked into that chin up, booty out.
Piven: I know. (Laughter)
Tavis: Go ahead, Mr. Piven. You were saying?
Piven: (Unintelligible) thank you. (Laughter) No, listen, man, I grew up watching PBS and wanting to be a part of it, just like HBO. It’s so much about the piece itself, and now we’re living in times where the audiences are more savvy, so word gets out fast because of social media and all that stuff, which I find very empowering and cool.
So that if you have a show that – listen, I know that I bring with me a certain demographic that may not be watching PBS, and that’s kind of exciting to me, so that they can suddenly tune into PBS, see your show and everything else, and Ken Burns and all this great stuff. That’s exciting to me, so I look forward to this journey.
Tavis: What is up with this British invasion? It’s like everything that’s a hit in Britain – “Downton Abbey” is doing remarkably well. Now we got “Mr. Selfridge” here.
Tavis: What’s happening that – maybe the question isn’t what’s happening. Have we always been this enamored with British culture?
Piven: I have been, because I kind of grew up watching the BBC stuff with “Monty Python” and all that craziness, and then all the Ricky Gervais stuff and “Absolutely Fabulous.”
I think, and I could be wrong, that we’re living in times where it’s really easy to hide. You text someone, you don’t have to go face-to-face, and these are simpler times when if you needed to speak to someone, you had to embrace the confrontation.
People are doing what they can to delegate other people to deal with those confrontations, and so this is kind of juicy for people, to see a simpler time where we’re actually communicating with each other.
Tavis: So I’ll let you do the honors. You’ve read – besides, you’ve done more reading about Selfridge than I did -
Piven: I hope so.
Tavis: – in preparation for this conversation. Tell me about Harry Selfridge.
Piven: True American pioneer in every sense of the word. Made his bones at Marshall Fields in Chicago, and -
Tavis: Your hometown.
Piven: Yes. Yes. So I would go to Marshall Fields, my mother went there, my grandmother, and you get a sense of what he created. He transformed the entire place, came up with the phrase “The customer’s always right, treat them like guests.” They didn’t have sales.
He came up with this bargain basement sale. He just transformed shopping in Chicago. Thought if we have these enormous windows and we treat it like a play and we depict a scene, then people will come in. That was his theater.
Then he basically took that and ran with it when he started Selfridge’s a hundred years ago. Last year it was voted the best department store in the world. So I think he was on to something. He did something right. He lived 90 years. I don’t want to get ahead of myself and telegraph what’s going to happen, but he had a beautiful and prolific and tragic life, like Shakespearean type of tragedy, what happened to him.
So that listen, I have no idea how long the show’s going to go. We’ve been picked up for a second season. Andrew Davis, who is a brilliant writer, kind of the Aaron Sorkin of the UK, wrote this thing based on Lindy Woodhead’s book, “Shopping, Seduction, and Mr. Selfridge.” What he did was he wrote a pilot that blew me away, and then he marked out what four seasons would look like.
Now you have to understand something – when you get a pilot in the States, that’s it. You sign a contract for the great unknown. This was so meticulous and his life is such fertile ground for a series that we could run this for a while.
Now I would have to play him into his eighties, which I think would be really, really fun.
Tavis: Give me some sense, as you see it, at least, Jeremy, of what some of the take-aways are from his style, his innovative style, for entrepreneurs in a contemporary sense.
Piven: He knew that in the UK, they don’t have a reference for customer service. The culture can’t lie in the way that here, how is your day, how are you, sir, can I help you? There’s none of that over there, they just don’t, there’s nothing.
He sensed an opening there, and he knew, listen, it’s in the pilot. His backers fell out. He needed to find $3.5 million in 1909 at the speed of light. That’s like $350 million today.
He willed this entire thing to happen. He started, as you just saw, as a stock boy, worked his way up. I think it’s the Malcolm Gladwell thing, where he put in well over 10,000 hours. He knew what he was doing. He willed this entire thing to happen, and there’s some great – I’m going to go in a totally different direction right now.
Piven: There’s some great Eckhart Tolle books, “The Power of Now,” “A New Earth,” and all this kind of stuff about whatever you’re feeling, there’s a vibration or an energy from it that’s palpable and real.
With him, I think that he believed in it, and he led the charge. These Brits, as you see, they’re like, “What in God’s name is going on with this man? I don’t know if I believe any of it.” They all fell into line.
If you see Selfridge’s, it’s this huge place that is like an homage to the White House. There are pillars, and imagine that when there was nothing on Oxford Street. He kind of accomplished the impossible, and I think if you were to equate it – it’s hard to find someone that’s doing it today.
I think that there are people like the Richard Bransons of the world who embrace self-promotion. They’re shameless about it and they love it. He’ll go in a hot air balloon and travel around to get attention, and Harry was the same way.
I took a chance with the way I played him. I played him larger than life, and he was beaming, and he had that smiling – he was an art of taking the high road.
Tavis: Why do you refer to that as taking a chance?
Piven: Well, because he loved PT Barnum and he loved – the department store was his theater, so he was kind of performing. You have that, and it’s juxtaposed to the very, very subtle British performances. Right from the first table read, I launched in.
You have to understand he’s very different than someone like Ari, because Ari ruled with an iron fist, through intimidation. This guy is more like Obama in terms of when Obama’s in the middle of a speech and someone calls him a liar, he’s not reactive. He smiles, he takes -
Tavis: Oh, come now.
Piven: – and he takes the high road, in public.
Piven: In public he did.
Piven: You know?
Piven: That’s the way he operates to us. Someone like Harry does the same. Nothing can rattle him. He’s beaming and he’s just a ray of sunshine. That’s the way he operates.
Now, behind closed doors, you see in the pilot he lets all of his doubts and fears, it’s all written all over him as soon as he closes that door and they can’t see him. He’s also a risk junkie. He loves gambling, he loves women, he loves all these things, and loves his family.
There’s so many dualities in this character to hang your hat on that it’s just a feast. I’ll screw it up, but it’s there (laughter) for me.
Tavis: So I’m just imagining – and I could be totally wrong here – that to be that successful then or now, there are people who believe that you have to have a cutthroat quality to you to be that big, that successful in business, and particularly in retail. Was he cutthroat?
Piven: I think it’s interesting that it’s the exact opposite of what you’re insinuating, in the way that look, the reason why he went to London to open a store instead of Chicago is he didn’t want to compete against Marshall Fields, who was the guy who was his mentor.
Piven: Today, you set up shop and you crush that guy, you crush him. (Laughter) That’s not – he wasn’t that guy. That’s one of the things that I love about him is he respected and loved the fact that this guy gave him a shot and didn’t want to beat him at his own game and was like I’ve got to go far away.
Tavis: Maybe I misread this, but he was a partner in Marshall Fields.
Piven: Yes, but, and he -
Tavis: And wanted his name to be added to the masthead, but they wouldn’t do that, obviously.
Piven: Yes, exactly. Listen, in this particular case his ego served him, in the way that he wanted his name above the door and they wouldn’t give it to him, so he said okay, you know what? I’m going to go to a whole other country and I’m going to make it happen over there.
I’ve never even heard of that before, to be honest with you, and it’s amazing what he accomplished.
Tavis: Yeah. What do you make of that, getting a chance to play this guy, because back to the way this conversation started, there have been a number of British invasions that have come this way? But what say you about an American entrepreneur going to England and just setting it off?
Piven: The press didn’t embrace him from the jump, and his partner immediately pulled out. There was all of that, and we get to explore that, which I really love. Also, what I can’t believe is when you come across a really good idea, you have this moment like where you think, “God, this is so good, it had to have been done before, but it kind of hasn’t in this way.”
I think with us, which is really interesting, we embrace the American spirit, that kind of can-do attitude that you could do anything you want in this life. Over there in the UK, it’s kind of the antithesis in terms of it’s all about tough love. It’s all about I don’t think it’s going to happen for you.
You can try, but the odds are against you. But good luck to you. Over here, it’s like whatever you want, you can do it. You can do it. What’s so interesting is we’re exploring a little bit of that, which is really great, because I think we both can learn from each other with our countries that we could learn to be a little more cautious, but not get in your own way, obviously, of the American dream.
I think whether they admit it or not, there’s something kind of innocent and beautiful about the American dream, and they can use a little bit of that themselves.
Tavis: I made a bad joke about this earlier, so I won’t make another bad joke about it, but is there anything that you have taken from your having played Ari so well on “Entourage,” anything that you take from that experience vis-à-vis this character?
Piven: Well, you have to understand I think that we’re made up of all the work and everything that we’ve done in our entire lives, and the readiness is all, as Shakespeare says.
Now I had one scene in the pilot of “Entourage.” My character was billed last. I was thought of as a fringe player. I’m an outsider. I was just the old guy. Who’s that guy? We’ll give him a shot, whatever.
But I was 40 movies into it; the last movie I’d done was “Old School,” which to this day is still a comedy that people enjoy. It doesn’t – you have to put your ego aside, which is one of the greatest lessons I’ve ever learned.
Now at the time, my agent said, “This is a very small role in an ensemble piece. Let’s look for a lead for you to carry something.” I said, “No, no, no.” I knew there were a bunch of variables. High pedigree of shows on HBO, with “Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” all that stuff.
I knew that creatively they’re going to give you a shot to do your thing, and if you execute well, they’ll come to you. So you just have to basically start from scratch again and prove yourself again, which is kind of fun.
You put your ego aside, that part of you that may say, “Hey, do they have any idea who you think you are or whatever?” (Laughter) You put all that aside and you climb the mountain and you do your thing, and luckily, I knew that that character had a lot of dualities, because he loved his wife. He thought he was a pig, but he was monogamous.
Harry is the antithesis in the way that his bark is worse than his bite. Sorry – his bite is worse than his bark in terms of he’s a proper gentleman in public, and everyone thinks, “My God, this is a guy running the straight and narrow. At night, he’s out running around. He’s a slave to his demons.”
Ari, he was all bark. He looked at every woman, he thought he was a dog, he’s monogamous. They live in totally different universes. Growing up on the stage, logging the hours, loving to be a stage actor led me to being able to contribute to a – I learned Commedia dell’Arte from a guy named Tim Robbins, who’s a brilliant actor/director.
Piven: I’m forever indebted to him, because you’re in one of four states, happiness, sadness, anger, or fear, at all times as an actor. You’re deeply rooted in let’s say one to 10. You’re at 10, as if you just won the lottery, or the greatest tragedy of your life.
So I performed on stage like that all the time, so that Ari, I could invest in the fact that he was emotionally overinvested in everything. Now the downside of that might be, if there is one, is that if you create a dimensional character that seems authentic, is that people will indeed confuse you for this character.
That’s kind of what happened to me. Now I’m not playing the victim in any way, shape, or form, but that’s kind of what happens, and it’s hard for people to shake. I’m just a stage actor from Chicago. I am not an abrasive, money-hungry -
Piven: Yes, abrasive blah, blah, blah. (Laughter)
Tavis: Does that – since you went there, and I appreciate you for going there. Let me follow you in, Jeremy.
Tavis: Does that mean that you are now – I want to phrase this the right way – does that mean that you are now reexamining the process that you use for the roles that you pick, given that experience?
Piven: Oh, absolutely, without a doubt. I think the easy way out is hey, we need a fast-talking, abrasive agent type character. Let’s make Jeremy an offer. The easy way out is yes, let’s do that. Let’s retread the same territory.
But that’s not that interesting, and I think what’s fascinating about Harry is – that’s why I said to you, it’s to make this choice where he’s always smiling and beaming and taking the high road. In preparation for this role I knew that that’s where this guy had to live and that’s where the stakes were.
It’s kind of the antithesis of someone like Ari, and then ultimately, as the series progresses, you’ll see he really is completely different. Yet from the outside, as you said in the beginning, an audience may think this character is enough like Ari that I know he’ll be able to play it, and that’s one of the biggest variables with audiences.
Now they can just take a look at something and go yeah, I don’t – I’m not buying it.
Piven: Or yes, I think they’re all capable of doing this, and I’m going to take this ride. So for me, whatever it takes to get them in, to take this ride with us, I will take. Now, have I seen that it’s hard for some people to separate those past eight years from my next project?
There was a reviewer that literally said three things: Jeremy’s miscast in this role of Mr. Selfridge, and then in the next paragraph he said, “But I see why they came to him. It makes sense why they came to him for this role.” Then thirdly, he then said listen, in fairness to Jeremy, this is the next role he’s done since “Entourage,” so I may be having a tough time letting this go.
So I applaud his honesty and his confusion, because he lays it all out there. (Laughter) Wait a minute, you just said that I’m wrong for the role, but then you see why they came to me.
Tavis: Yeah. You’ve got to stop reading critics, man.
Piven: No, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. (Laughter)
Tavis: I stopped a long time ago.
Piven: Yeah. No, it’s smart.
Tavis: It ain’t good for my mental health.
Piven: No, you’re right. (Laughter) You’re absolutely right.
Tavis: I just do what I do, and that’s it.
Tavis: That’s all you can do -
Piven: You’re right.
Tavis: – is what you do.
Piven: You’re right about that.
Tavis: But I digress on that. Help me understand – this is inside Jeremy Piven’s head – help me understand how or why you made the choice at this point in your career to do something where PBS is the delivery system.
I’m not asking for a suck-up to PBS. I’m just – why is this the right space for you at this point in your career? Because it is a very different audience than what – yeah.
Piven: Yeah, but the straight-up honest answer to that is, and it’s very clichéd and I apologize for it, but it is all about the piece and the work and the role and the opportunity.
Tavis: No matter the distribution channel?
Piven: No, it doesn’t really matter.
Piven: If you’re doing, if there’s some off-off-off-Broadway situation where there’s a great opportunity to play a role that I haven’t done before, something that’s really juicy that you want to get into, then you go and do that, and you embrace it.
But also, to ITV’s credit, who produced it over there, they – you have to understand, the Brits, they work with less and make it look like a lot more. They’re just, everyone is on top of their game. They raise whatever game you have.
They promoted the hell out of it. We averaged 8.5 million people a week in the UK. We’re doing “Downton” numbers. Over here, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but you can’t get ahead of yourself. I love the show. I know that each week it gets better. I’m really proud of it.
So to answer your question, it really just is about the piece, and then all you’re trying to do as an artist is get better. That’s really it. If this is a chance to do that, which I think it is, then you embrace it.
Tavis: Yeah. How cool – I referenced this a couple times already – how cool playing a guy from your hometown?
Piven: It’s the best.
Piven: I actually, when I met with the producers, my Chicago accent has been homogenized because I’m a master thespian. (Laughter) But there is a hardcore Chicago accent. It sounds like this – a couple-two, three, times. My friend Mike, he was hardcore, dude. He was hard.
They go, “What is that?” I said, “That’s a Chicago accent.” They said, “Don’t do that. Don’t ever do that again.” (Laughter) I was like, “Okay.” They’re like, “Is that Irish?” I said, “No, it’s not Irish.” “That’s an Irish accent.” They were so confused. (Laughter)
But you know what’s interesting, if you were to study, like, the history of certainly a Chicago accent, it’s probably – look, they call Chicago the city of neighborhoods. There’s so many Irish folks in Chicago that that was probably the dominating sound, and it probably -
Tavis: Right. I’ll buy that.
Piven: – trickled down to what we know as of today. So they were like, “No, no, your flat, Midwestern accent will be fine.”
Tavis: So do you know how to sell this thing? Do you know how to promote this?
Piven: That’s all I’ve been doing. I don’t know what -
Tavis: So hold it and talk about it. (Laughter) Tell me about it.
Piven: Well, you know what’s interesting about this -
Piven: – is – (laughter).
Tavis: I’m letting you go. Go, go, go. (Laughter)
Piven: It was originally made into 10 episodes.
Piven: PBS took it and they turned it into a two-hour pilot, and then they’re making eight episodes out of it. Each episode gets better. There isn’t a person that doesn’t inhabit the screen in this that I don’t think is amazing and brilliant. They raised my game completely.
I think at a time when people are fascinated with things like “Downton Abbey,” “Downton Abbey” is the country; this is the city.
Piven: It’s got a sense of humor and it’s fast-paced and it’s sexy.
Tavis: And it’s on Blu-ray.
Piven: It’s on Blu-ray, yeah, indeed. (Laughter)
Piven: So come to my home and we’ll watch it together. I don’t know, what do you want me to do?
Tavis: That’s it, you did it. (Laughter) It’s “Mr. Selfridge” on PBS, on Masterpiece on Sunday nights, starring our friend Jeremy Piven. I’m sure these loyal PBS viewers already are watching it and loving it anyway.
Piven: So why the hell am I here?
Tavis: Well, because we just want to tell you thank you. (Laughter) And congratulations.
Piven: Thank you, man. Thank you for having me.
Tavis: Glad to have you here. Good to see you, man.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
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