On Monday afternoon, Jeremy Piven and I met for lunch in New York City to discuss his new role on the CBS drama series Wisdom of the Crowd, his career in the years since his Emmy-winning run on Entourage ended, and the current state of the industry—which included a lengthy conversation about the HBO comedy’s women-objectifying legacy, at a time when Hollywood’s culture of misogyny and sexual predation is finally at a reckoning.
After some prodding, Piven’s response to my questions—about how Entourage’s celebration of womanizing and its idea that female attention is a Hollywood star’s prize play fares against the current climate—was categorical.
“If I encouraged bad behavior, that’s not good,” he said. “That’s not something that I want to be a part of. I played a fictional character that was based on a real person [power agent Ari Emanuel], but I’m just an actor. If you’re talking about my personal ideology, it’s the antithesis of Ari Gold.”
Barely 24 hours after our conversation, Piven was accused of sexual harassment by reality TV personality and actress Ariane Bellamar in a series of tweets citing two separate encounters with Piven, including an allegation that he had grabbed her breasts and buttocks without consent while on the set of Entourage.
“I unequivocally deny the appalling allegations being peddled about me,” Piven responded in a statement. “It did not happen. It takes a great deal of courage for victims to come forward with their histories, and my hope is that the allegations about me that didn’t happen, do not detract from stories that should be heard.”
HBO issued a response saying that, “Today, via the press reports, is the first we are hearing about Ariane Bellamar’s allegations concerning Jeremy Piven,” reiterating its “zero tolerance for sexual harassment.” A CBS spokesperson said the network is aware of the reports and looking into the matter. Vulture points out that Bellamar is not credited on having worked on either Entourage the series or the 2015 film adaptation.
Given the tenor of our conversation earlier this week, we reached out to Piven’s team for further clarification on his interactions with Bellamar. His publicist re-sent Piven’s statement, and said it is unlikely that he’d be making further statements.
What Piven had to say about Entourage is particularly interesting in light of the allegations against the actor, though it should be clear that he shared his thoughts on the topic before the allegations were made and they should not be viewed as a response to them.
“I think that any time we examine ourselves and go inward, it’s a good thing,” he said. “People are examining the show and what’s happening right now, and it can only be a good thing. It’s really disturbing to me when someone comes up to me and says, ‘Hey bro, I’m a douchebag because of you.’ It hurts my soul. I’m just an actor, and I was trying to inhabit a role the best I could.”
We are meeting on the occasion of Piven’s role in the CBS drama Wisdom of the Crowd, but the conversation took a natural turn to Entourage as we discussed what’s been a running theme in the years since the bro-y HBO comedy ended: The journey to distance himself not only from the blustering bombast of Ari Gold, but also the conflation of Piven’s own personal behavior with that of the character.
It’s not only the practice of fans, who tend to confuse actors for the roles they play, but something that played out in tabloid reports on a series of scandals, the least of which was the infamous incident in which Piven dramatically withdrew from a Broadway play citing mercury poisoning induced by too much sushi.
A fair amount of surprise about the kind of person they encounter is typically reflected in the profiles written about Piven, which reliably have also referenced a New York Post article rhetorically asking if he was “the biggest jerk in showbiz.” But, he says, that’s not him.
“When people meet me, they go, ‘Who’s this guy?’” he says, reiterating the point that he’s the antithesis of Ari Gold. “People are usually like, ‘Are you stoned?’ Literally.”
He shrugs at the idea that people have often confused him with the character, and the question about how that might have affected his reputation over the years.
“It wasn’t me, and the fact that I was mistaken for him, playing him possibly authentically, comes with the territory,” he said. “I love inhabiting this new character on Wisdom of Crowd. So I’m really embracing it. I think change is hard for people. I really hope they embrace it, because it’s really liberating.” The pitch of his voice gets higher, adopting a fascinating maybe-smarmy, maybe-earnest energy. “I would encourage them to do it. It’s wonderful.”
The opening salvo in his moving on from Ari was the PBS period drama Mr. Selfridge, which shot in London and ran for four seasons. Wisdom of the Crowd brings Piven back to a mainstream spotlight, but his decision to star in the CBS series was a surprise even to Piven himself.
“I never thought I would be in a procedural,” he says. “I’m not that guy.” In the series, he plays Jeffrey Tanner, a tech tycoon who launches a crowdsourced crime-solving app in order to help him find the person who murdered his daughter. He refers to the show as a hybrid procedural, because of that season-long arc.
He’s even been pleased that the show has stirred up some heated discussion about whether crowdsourcing platforms like the one in the show might be irresponsible, in that it might encourage misguided vigilante witch hunts and deny suspects due process—something we’ve seen routinely with the rise of social media.
Piven smiles mischievously at the mention of the conversation.
“That we’re engaging in a show that raises all these hot-button topics means that we’re attempting something that’s current, obviously,” he says. “There was somewhat of a misconception that I found charming, to be honest with you. Charming. That instead of seeing this as a piece of fiction for what it is, that it could lead to reckless behavior. It could. It could also lead to illuminating the truth and assisting justice. I think that duality is fascinating and worth exploring.”
But more than that duality, it was the character’s emotional struggle that attracted him. The grieving father is a new note for him to play, at least in front of an audience this large.
“One of the things that you look for is to not repeat yourself,” he says. “So it wasn’t like I was like, ‘I need to play a one-legged Russian immigrant who lisps and is going through a transitional phase where they’re becoming a woman and it’s turn of the century.’ You’re looking for great material, and you certainly don’t want to repeat yourself.”
Ari Gold, he says, was doing “pure commedia dell’arte,” referring to the 16th-century style of European theater. “When I talk about it, I get labeled as pretentious. It is what it is. It’s lovely; I guess as actors it’s pretentious to talk about acting, but it’s what we do and what we love to do.”
If there’s one thing Piven brings up a lot, it’s his theater background, and the humbler, decidedly un-Ari-like beginnings that suggests. He references his days doing theater in Chicago multiple times over the course of our interview, especially to drive home the differences in the lifestyle he champions versus the one celebrated by Ari Gold on Entourage, or in discussing his work ethic on the set of Wisdom of Crowd.
“I’ve been under the microscope before,” he says. “I was in my mid-30s when I started Entourage, and was 40 movies into a career as an actor who was always working but very much under the radar. So I was a 20-year overnight success. It’s not sexy to report on a guy who’s just a stage actor from Chicago. Where’s the scandal? There’s nothing to report on there. You know what I mean?”
Of course, a day after we speak there would be a scandal to report on. It’s a scandal that he, again, denies took place, and it’s one that will nonetheless make his comments about Entourage particularly interesting to dissect.
When we first bring up Entourage’s influence on culture writ large, Piven seemed at once game and hesitant to engage on the subject.
We’re in the middle of an industry upheaval, I tell him. The purveyance and excusal of toxic masculinity, predatory culture, and womanizing as sport are things that Entourage didn’t just depict to the point of fetishization, but that were in turn lionized by fans of the show. Does all of that now, against the backdrop of the Harvey Weinstein fallout, make him rethink the show’s message?
“It’s a great question,” he says. “I obviously didn’t write Entourage, so I’m in no way responsible for its message. I’m an actor who was hired to play a character, and who was held to the fire to say every word on that page.”
He and Ari Gold have very different ideologies, he says again. He says the role was too juicy to turn down—”the opportunity to play commedia”—and argues that, though Ari was abrasive and brutish, he was redeemed by his love for his wife and his monogamy. “As for the other characters’ storylines, I can’t speak to that.”
As his answer gets a bit defensive, I clarify that I wasn’t condemning him for his decision to star in the show or blaming him for its message or content—or for that matter even dismissing the show’s entertainment value at the height of its popularity.
“I get where you’re coming from, and I get what you’re going to be writing about,” he says. I tell him this isn’t a “gotcha” ploy, but a curiosity. “No, no, I do get it. And I don’t fault you for it. We’re living in very strange times.”
To his credit, he thoughtfully delves deeper into the idea that he starred on a show that glorified a certain idea about women. “I didn’t know where the show was going to go,” he says. “You sign on and you’re in. That’s the reality of it. Would I, speaking in the third person, Jeremy Piven, want to celebrate the objectification of women? Never.”
So maybe outside of starring in the show, but as a person in the industry, does he think that the show plays differently in a different time?
“If I glorified that type of behavior and I was giving people the idea that it’s a good idea to act that way, that makes me sad,” he says. “I was just trying to do my job the best I could. If that’s the result of it, then that’s not good. But I can’t control how it was received. I loved playing the duality of a character who seemingly was a pig, but who was monogamous. That’s where I’m at right now.”