The drama series Mr. Selfridge, which airs on PBS’ Masterpiece Classic, tells the story of an American man, named Harry Selfridge (Jeremy Piven in his first television role since Entourage), who created the renowned London department store Selfridges in 1909 and changed shopping forever. With an incredible charm and bold vision, the fancy window displays, cosmetics counters and merchandise Selfridge would allow potential customers to touch would eventually become commonplace.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, actor Jeremy Piven talked about how he came to be a part of this television series, what makes Harry Selfridge such an interesting man, the similarities between Harry Selfridge and Ari Gold, that he’s become very protective of this character, how viewers will get to see the light and dark sides of this man, and that he would love to continue exploring this role for future seasons. He also talked about the fans’ desire to see an Entourage movie, and not being worried about making a misstep by continuing the story for a feature. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
JEREMY PIVEN: I got lucky. They came to me. My agent showed me some of Andrew Davies’ ideas for the series, and basically laid out the story arc for the pilot and for episodes to come. I’ve never seen someone so meticulous and so prolific. He knew what he wanted to do for four seasons. When you do a television show in the States, you get the pilot, and then it’s the great unknown. That’s the way it is. It’s this great leap of faith. It’s the Russian roulette of art. With Andrew, also because they’re going off of Harry’s life and the trajectory of his beautiful and glorious and tragic life, they had a real sense of where they would want him to go, and where they would want the rest of the people in his world to go.
I just read it and thought, “My god, I’d love to see this!” I’m so happy they thought of me for this. And the great thing about the UK is that they obviously have distance on our culture, so all they know is what they see of you as a performer. What they saw of me, as a performer, led them to believe that I could play this American entrepreneur in 1909, who inspired people through his light and passion and energy. And then, he also had his demons. He loved to gamble. He loved women, even though he was married. So, there are a lot of dualities with this guy. It’s a fully-blown, juicy character. I was just thrilled that they even thought of me for it. I’m just blessed.
What makes Harry Selfridge such an interesting character?
PIVEN: What’s interesting is that, even in the UK, they had no idea that he was an American. It was news to everyone that this staple in British culture, that they’ve all been going to, thinking that it was their own, was started by an American. The idea that he went over there 100 years ago, when that didn’t exist, he transformed the culture and consumerism forever, but he came by it honestly. He had done that in Chicago, and then traveled overseas and made it happen over there. He was so passionate about work and the integrity of work, and his connection with each person who worked for him. Even though he employed thousands, he tried to connect with every one of them, and they would just do anything for him. There were people who were loyal to him and spent their entire lives working at Selfridges, and you don’t hear about that anymore. And I think people are gravitating towards these period dramas because I think they’re looking for a simpler time. It’s an escape, but at the same time, it’s part of our history. It has both. It’s not a fantasy where it’s something that is just completely made up, which is fun, as well. But, this is rooted in our history, and then you do get the feeling that it’s also escapism.
PIVEN: People have been overdosing on their guilty pleasures. They’ve scoured through their reality TV and it’s not nourishing them anymore. I think they’re gravitating towards these other forms, which is really great. I’ve been a fan of Downton Abbey since it first aired here, and in the UK, we were being compared to Downton. It’s a good complimentary piece to it. Our piece has its own energy and pace, and it’s very contemporary, in that way, but it’s also funny. It’s different than Downton, in that way.
This is the first TV project you’ve done since Entourage. Did you want to make sure that, if you were going to do another TV project, it would be very different?
PIVEN: I wasn’t even thinking about TV, to be honest with you. They say it’s the Golden Age of television, and I don’t know if they’re saying it tongue-in-cheek, but the stuff they’re doing on TV right now with the premises that are so completely original and the writing that is so great, you’d be lucky to find it in TV, film, stage or anywhere. It’s not limited to one arena. A character like Harry Selfridge and a storyline like this, you’d be lucky to find anywhere. There’s no way I could walk away from this. I was literally growing my beard, as I was reading it, willing it to happen. There’s also an audience that has a reference for me, from this other stuff that I’ve done, that I maybe can bring over to Masterpiece, and I’m very proud of that. To someone that wouldn’t necessarily tune into a period drama, I’d say to them that it’s as vibrant, entertaining, juicy and edgy, as anything they’re going to see. It just happens to have taken place a hundred years ago.
PIVEN: Anyone who has followed Ari Gold will know that Harry Selfridge doesn’t lead through intimidation and with an iron fist, the way Ari does. He uses a totally different tact. He’s a different human being, and yet he has to save the day, in a very similar way that Ari did. So, I think people who loved watching a guy having to rise to the occasion and make things happen won’t be disappointed. He actually gets into more trouble than Ari, to be honest with you. Ari didn’t cheat on his wife, and Harry is susceptible to that and gambling. Even though he is this gentleman, you have this other side to him. That duality, to me, is one of the many things that drew me to this character.
When you’re playing a guy like this, who so many people have so many different opinions of, do you form an opinion for yourself, or did you just become protective of him, as you learned more about him?
PIVEN: I definitely became protective of who he is, without a doubt. When people come up to me and are like, “Oh, you’re playing that Selfridge guy. I heard that he was quite a womanizer and would bring women into the store and let them buy anything that they wanted.” I’ll say, “You don’t know him. You can’t judge him.” I protect him, as if he were my father, and try to talk about the other things that he did. We weren’t there, but we do have certain documentation that says he was susceptible to women. He loved his wife immensely and had incredible respect for her and his mother and his family, and yet he had his demons and was a risk-junkie, if you will. In that way, I think he was a lot more naughty than Ari Gold is.
People don’t realize what a huge risk and chance this was for Harry Selfridge because you take big department stores for granted now.
PIVEN: He changed the culture completely, and he transformed consumerism. If you were wealthy, it was so uncouth to go shopping. You had a dress maker and you did it that way. The King made an appearance at Selfridges, and he’d never shopped before, in his life, or used currency. It was so fun for me, and a treat, to play off these brilliant actors. Some guy would come in as a day-player, who had just stepped off the stage at the National Theatre of Great Britain, and who was an accomplished, brilliant character actor popping in for a couple moments with me, and I was just lucky to be playing opposite him. I felt very comfortable there, with these people. It was really nice.
PIVEN: With someone like Frances, she opens her mouth and it’s so completely different than Rose Selfridge, the character she plays. Her American accent is flawless. She grew up in Australia and her husband is British, so she has this hybrid accent, which is actually so beautiful. She’s such a beautiful, mature woman, and you juxtapose that to the young, vibrant Ellen Love (Zoë Tapper). There are all these incredible women in Harry’s life, and that doesn’t stop. He loves women and he loves empowering them, and he’s surrounded by them. Frances was just so great. She was just incredibly professional. We were all very respectful of each other’s process. You’ve gotta give it up to ITV and Jon Jones, who directed the pilot, and (executive producer) Kate Lewis, and everyone who put this thing together because they cast the hell out of it. What they do in the UK, that’s different from the States, is that they don’t cast types. They cast actors. A lot of these actors, you’d hear this heavy accent, and then they’d drop it and get right into character. There’s something so refreshing about that.
After playing Ari Gold for so long, is it fun to know that your fans are getting to see you in such a very different light, as Harry Selfridge?
PIVEN: After eight years of playing Ari Gold and being in people’s living rooms, I think there’s an association with me and that character, but people meet me and they go, “Who’s this guy? What’s wrong with you? Why are you so calm?” And I’m like, “This is just who I am.” They’re like, “Why aren’t you yelling at me?,” and I’m like, “Oh, no, that’s just a character that I play.” It’s a very big compliment that they think it’s a documentary on Hollywood agents. Your job is to take the material and try to make it as believable and present and as seemingly improvisational as possible, and yet it’s just a character. So, to be given the opportunity to play Harry is amazing. When they cast me as Ari, they knew me as an actor. I sat with them and worked out the character. I come from a theater family and a theater background, and I come from a philosophy that you respect the space you occupy when you work and you put everything that you have into something. I don’t know any other way than to put everything that I have into something. That’s just the way it is. It’s a very similar take on it, over there. I studied Shakespeare at the National Theatre, and the classes are seven days a week. You’re either rehearsing or you’re seeing plays, when you’re not in class. I talked to the casting director at the National Theatre, when I was a junior or senior in college, and I said, “How would an American be able to perform on the stage here?” She said, “Oh, my dear boy, that’s impossible! You have to be a star, otherwise you won’t be able to perform here.” I thought, “I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen, but I just want to perform here, so I’ll keep working until maybe I just get the opportunity to work here because I love it here.” And here we are, all these years later, and somehow it’s happened. This is one of those full-circle moments.
PIVEN: I think that he was a very vibrant person, himself, who didn’t need a lot of sleep. They called him mile-a-minute Harry. And I think that he loved life, and he was obsessed with time and that we have a finite amount of time. A lot of times, in our lives, we don’t check in and realize, “My god, wait a minute! We’re not going to be here. Let’s make the most of this!” I think he had an incredible hunger for life and wanted to surround himself with like-minded people.
Will viewers get to see much of the darker side of Harry Selfridge, or is that something that would develop in possible future seasons?
PIVEN: He lives in the light, and then it also gets dark. I can’t tell you too much, but we don’t burn our steps. It gets there organically, but at the same time, he is brought to his knees and there’s a realization from that and he gets back onto his feet. Sometimes in life, we have to continue to learn the same lesson until it sticks, and that’s true with Harry. But, it leads to really compelling drama.
Now that you’ve lived with this character and had this experience, do you want to continue to play him and do another season?
PIVEN: I would love to! He lived a very full life and it’s very fertile ground, so there’s a lot more to do. And I love the character, so why not?
How do you feel about where things are at with the Entourage movie?
PIVEN: One of the great things going on right now is social media and you get a real sense, immediately, about what people are feeling and thinking. There’s such a curiosity there. People are missing Entourage and they want to see a movie, so whether we do it this summer or in a year, I think that people will be curious. I could be wrong.
PIVEN: I don’t think about that. When you try to worry about missteps and all that kind of stuff, that’s not the healthiest way to be. You just swing away with everything you’ve got, and you have no regrets because you just leave it all on the field, to give a bad sports analogy. That’s all you can do. And then, you leave it all up to everything else in the universe, not to be too ethereal about it. Listen, for eight years, I gave it everything I had. If it’s a week or a year or five years from now, when I reinvestigate that character, I know that I can slip the power suit on and dig right in there because I had a sense of that guy and his ambitions and fears and doubts and loves, and all that stuff, in the same way that I’ve grown to love and know Harry.
At this point in your career, what do you look for in a project? Is it important to you to know who you’ll be working with?
PIVEN: It’s definitely instinctual. There are so many great directors that I haven’t worked with and that I would love to work with, and actors and writers, so those are variables. And then, it’s about trying to mix it up and find roles that I haven’t done before.
Mr. Selfridge airs on Sunday nights on PBS’ Masterpiece Classic.