Emmy-winner Jeremy Piven talks about the inspiration behind Masterpiece’s Mr. Selfridge
When talking to Emmy-winner Jeremy Piven (HBO’s Entourage), one thing becomes immediately clear: the actor is incredibly passionate about his involvement with Masterpiece’s Mr. Selfridge. The role of Harry Selfridge, a department store impresario who moved from Chicago’s Marshall Fields to start Selfridge’s in the United Kingdom, is a significant departure from Piven’s most famous roles. His near-encyclopedic knowledge of Selfridge’s life provides evidence into the great deal of research Piven did to fully become Harry Selfridge.
Despite having won three Emmys as Entourage‘s Ari Gold, Jeremy Piven’s turn as Harry Selfridge feels like a fresh start for the actor who allowed himself to explore emotional depths not seen in your typical Masterpiece production. An Emmy nomination would be a recognition of this growth and of the merits of the series itself which ended its four-season run this spring on PBS.
AwardsDaily TV: So, Jeremy Piven, Mr. Selfridge is a departure for you as an actor. What drew you to the material initially?
Jeremy Piven: I think, like a lot of Americans, we’ve been drawn to British period dramas. When this came about, it was an opportunity to attempt to inhabit a guy who was an American in the midwest from where I’m from in Chicago. He made his way in Marshall Fields and ultimately kind of invented the department store and the culture of shopping. He was a authentic guy that was someone we never knew about and created Selfridge’s which is, to this day, a very prominent store in the UK. I thought his story was fantastic. He was someone that was incredibly innovative and creative. He was this beautiful contradiction. He lived in these dualities, and that’s what I find fascinating in characters.
He was such a hard-working, prolific guy during work hours, and then, when he wasn’t at the store, he kind of rabbled a bit. He had this incredibly colorful life. The more I read, the more I was fascinated by him. [The creative team] really knew what they wanted to do. They had it all mapped out. Unlike American shows, they knew what they wanted to do for four years and had it all outlined. In terms of his trajectory, it was as true as it could possibly be, and then they used dramatic license with the rest of the characters that surrounded him. I just thought it was an opportunity to go over and work with these beautiful, brilliant, British actors in a piece that I thought would be a really fun adventure. And it was!
ADTV: Ironically, your iconic role as Ari in Entourage was far flashier than Harry Selfridge, but Selfridge is far more deconstructed as a human being. Far more of a mess. Ari is kind of toothless comparatively, don’t you think?
JP: Ari had an incredibly volatile presence obviously, and he was totally overly emotionally invested. As an actor, it’s just so fun to play in that space. And Harry was a turn of the century gentleman. He was one of these guys that you wouldn’t suspect would go out galavanting at night and was a risk junkie. He fancied himself a creative entity – an artist. He found art in retail, and he was very drawn to any type of risks. He was a gambler and fell in love early on with a stage star at the time and then ultimately with the Dolly sisters who represented energy and youth… It was well documented that he lost most of his fortune gambling with his twins. It kind of plays out almost like a Greek tragedy, but yet he kind of did it his way.
It’s interesting because… PBS is such a brilliant station with an incredible pedigree of shows that they purchase from the UK and put on their station. And the Downton Abbey‘s of the world, they’re co-owned by NBC Universal that has deep pockets. Mr. Selfridge has no help whatsoever. iTV did such a brilliant job. The show was purchased by PBS and put on the air without any advertising, so I went from this HBO juggernaut to this beautiful “ma and pa” organization. It was very interesting. The show being a hit overseas and then having it kind of make its way in a very kind of sweet under the radar way in my own country. Does that make any sense?
ADTV: Absolutely. It’s definitely one of those “word of mouth” building shows.
ADTV: Tell me what kinds of acting cues did you use to define the character of Harry Selfridge for yourself?
JP: Well, he was enamored with P.T. Barnum, and, if you look at everything he did, he was always taking a page out of P.T. Barnum’s book. He would create events that caught people’s attention, and, ironically, he depended on advertising that he bought himself to gain the success of the store. He would purchase full-page ads in the paper advertising Selfridge’s when no one else was doing that. He was there every morning at 9am on the dot to greet all the customers, and he really believed that they should all be treated decently and as his guests. I’ve spoken to my mother about this, and she remembers as a child going into Marshall Fields and being treated so well as a child. That was part of Harry Selfridge’s doing. He wanted to make it an event that was special. It meant the world to him. So, that’s part of the perspective that I incorporated into the character. The showman aspect of Harry Selfridge was eventually beaten out of him.
That’s what I really love about doing a series – you get to explore the trajectory of the show, the character, and all of that stuff. He was a guy who loved his wife but wasn’t faithful, ran around, and then came to terms with how important she was in his life. When he finally got that and was totally present, she became ill and died. So, he then threw himself into another relationship, and she ended up being a charlatan. Took him for his money, and he kind of was beaten down. You see these layers being stripped off the guy through the journey of the show. The show works when you see all four seasons. It plays out like a heightened version of a mini-series spread out over 40 episodes, but it definitely has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It can exist on its own. That’s the way they envisioned it over four season, and that’s the way it played out.
I know I’m too old for graduate school, but it still felt like it to me. – Jeremy Piven on working in Masterpiece’s Mr. Selfridge
ADTV: In the final episode during the 20th anniversary celebration, Selfridge thanks his staff for their dedication as he leaves the store. The emotion in that scene feels startlingly real. Was the scene filmed at the end of your shoot? Was that real emotion at play in you?
JP: We were filming that at the end of the run. It’s interesting because the Brits really like to incorporate the thing about the stiff upper lip. Sometimes, there’s a hesitation to engage in male emotions, if that makes any sense. Harry was an American, and he was incredibly proud of that store and the store was his life. What people don’t know is the reason he went to London was that he didn’t want to compete against his mentor Marshall Fields in Chicago. That’s why he got on the boat… and started over there. He did it, and what a great accomplishment it was. And then it was taken away from him by his board and by his son! And that’s true!
As an actor, you hope to be as present as possible. That’s your wish. That was that moment. He’s looking around at all this staff that he loves… he took great pride in that and treated everyone on an equal playing field… So, he’s looking around at all of these people, and all you have to do is just put yourself there in that place. The emotion is a result of that. If you juxtapose his emotion with the British stiff upper lip, then that’s kind of what the show is about and what the journey was and who he was. He was an American navigating over there. He loved the culture. They loved his energy, and, having been over there myself for four years, I loved it. I learned so much. I loved played him.
ADTV: You’ve won three consecutive Emmys for Entourage, and there’s conversation about your performance in Mr. Selfridge. How would recognition for this series register differently with you?
JP: This is one of the great things about being an actor. No two days are ever the same on a set. Obviously no two endeavors are ever the same. Filming over there in London, the entire experience was very much like Harry’s experience. I was the lone American, trying to navigate through this. I’m really proud of the time that I had there. I know I’m too old for graduate school, but it still felt like it to me. I think it would be great because I’m just so proud of these other actors that I played with. They deserve recognition and were so good. Every single one. They all had this specific intention whenever they played a scene, and it was a gift to be around. It would mean a lot to me to draw attention to their work and to the show.
ADTV: What’s the next big challenge for Jeremy Piven?
JP: I’m working on something myself, an idea that I’ve been wrestling with for a while, and I just want to be a bigger part of the process. I want to create something here and see where it goes. It’s too early to discuss it until it comes to fruition though, but I figured I’d give it a shot. Why not?
Jeremy Piven and Masterpiece’s Mr. Selfridge can be seen on iTunes and Amazon.