Jeremy Piven is no stranger to playing larger-than-life characters. For eight years, he starred as the venal actors’ agent Ari Gold in hit comedy Entourage, creating an anti-hero who embodied the grasping excesses of Hollywood. In the process, he garnered three Emmys, a Golden Globe and worldwide fame.
Harry Selfridge may not be as abrasive as Ari, but the upstart American who turned shopping from a necessity into a pleasure in buttoned-up Edwardian London undoubtedly shares his DNA. So is Selfridge’s story — a tale of both success and excess— one of chutzpah or hubris?
“It’s chutzpah,”says Piven, firmly. “Harry was a guy who was turned on by the idea of working hard and achieving and inspiring people. He wanted people to feel good about working in his store and he wanted people to feel good about shopping in his store.”
In a time of austerity, is Selfridge’s happiness-through-shopping mantra anachronistic, if not entirely discredited?
“That’s the question of the moment,” he says. “When you’ve got people on Wall Street who are playing the shell game with money, it’s only a matter of time before the jig is up. But the brand of consumerism Selfridge embraced was rooted in honesty. Sure, he loved to make money and the finer things in life, but it wasn’t as if he was trampling on people and doing some sort of pyramid scheme to get it.”
Emphatically an American abroad, Piven’s had some home comforts imported while working here: he’s carrying a celebratory cigar (“you gotta have your vices!”) and recently had his mum to stay. Joyce, an actress with whom Piven still runs through his lines, taught such future stars as John Cusack and Lili Taylor at her Chicago theatre workshop.
“I’m not the norm,” Piven says of his upbringing. “I grew up in Chicago in a theatre family. We were performing the Scottish play and my father was directing himself as the king — but none of us could work out how to start our lawnmower.”