As he reprises his role as the effervescent Mr Selfridge, Jeremy Piven talks to me about glamour, the Great War and self-destruction…
Jeremy Piven is not a man who gets lost in a crowd. Fiercely intense, the three-times Emmy-award-winning actor has undeniable presence. And this month he returns to our screens, playing Harry Selfridge, the brilliant but self-destructive American who founded London’s Selfridges department store.
I first met the 48-year-old on the set of the show. He was in the middle of filming three scenes – which will appear in Sunday night’s episode – and was in character, with the strident strides and the booming voice, which echoed off the walls, whether the cameras were rolling or not.
A few weeks later, however, I got more time to speak to Piven, and asked how he was getting on with his character, Harry, as he returned for a second series. ‘After studying him and putting on his shoes for a couple of years, I have great compassion for him,’ Piven says. ‘I feel very close to him, a little like a family member.’
While audiences rejoin the show on the eve of the Great War, when the fortunes of Harry Selfridge are still riding high, it is well documented that the businessman’s life did not continue that way. In 1940, the Selfridges board forced him out of the store he had founded, and he ended his days in a rented two-bedroom flat, which he shared with one of his daughters.
‘After all that he did – and with his love and passion for the store – to be treated that way is tragic and unfair,’ says Piven, with real passion. ‘It’s very devastating and it’s a cautionary tale for us all. I think that for everyone, the pendulum swings both ways; no one can be on top for their entire life.’
Life’s pendulum is certainly swinging in Piven’s favour at the moment, but what attracted him to the series? ‘The first thing I read was a breakdown and I thought about the trajectory of Harry’s arc; I was hooked from that. He lived such an incredible life.
‘It was so rich, so full and it plays out like a Greek tragedy… and it actually happened, so you can believe it. I was blown away that no one had discovered this before and I felt so lucky.’
So what’s the secret behind the enduring appeal of period dramas such as Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge and Call The Midwife? ‘It’s just a simpler time when people really had to communicate with each other and they could not hide behind text messages or email,’ explains Piven. ‘Maybe we’re all longing for that. Everyone put so much time into their appearance then, too. People now are a lot more casual.
‘Also, I think, Harry really believed in putting on a show, and that exists in Selfridges to this day. It doesn’t necessarily apply everywhere, and that’s too bad.’
Piven is probably best known for his role as Ari Gold in the television series Entourage (it was for this role he received his three Emmys and a Golden Globe). How does filming in the UK compare?
‘We do 12-hour days, which is a blessing. In the US, if you can get away with a 12-hour day you’ve done something right. But here they get it all done, and they don’t skimp. That’s one of the many things that’s been so impressive about working over here – they figure out a way to work on their highest level in a very short amount of time compared with the way we do in the States. They’re so efficient and it’s really inspiring.’
As Mr Selfridge, Piven sports what would, on a lesser man, be a scene-stealing beard. How does he feel about his new hirsute look? ‘They really experimented with facial hair back in the day,’ he says. ‘Harry had some very aggressive mutton chops – horrific – which I don’t think that ITV wanted in people’s living rooms every week.’
Is his character’s bushy beard real, or is it courtesy of the make-up department? ‘I’m incredibly lucky in that I’m a very hairy beast,’ he says.
‘On our break [between filming each series], being an incredibly ambitious American, I did a Tom Cruise movie, so I had to shave and keep my moustache. Then when that wrapped, I had a week to grow the beard back and it somehow happened. It’s both good to know and frightening that my facial hair grows like that.’
The first series of Mr Selfridge pulled in more than nine million viewers for its opening episode – how does the second compare? ‘As proud as I am of the first season, I think that we’ve gone to another level with this one,’ he says. ‘We’re trying to stay as true to Harry’s life as possible and the writing has been incredible. It’s funnier and we’ve brought in some new characters.
‘What means the most to Harry is his partner Rose, and you’re going to see this year that he does everything he can to earn back her love and trust.
Set in 1914, on the eve of the Great War, how much does the conflict overshadow this series? ‘Well, Harry’s ended up becoming a British citizen and he’s proud of this and his country, and wants to do anything and everything to help. A lot of the Selfridges men enlisted in the war and he was the first one to say, “All of the jobs will be secure when you get back”.
‘You have these characters that you’ve grown to love, like George Towler, who set off for the war. These people thought that they were going to bloody the noses of some Germans, and they had no idea that folks would die – no clue. It’s heartbreaking.’
What’s been the most challenging part of playing Mr Selfridge? ‘Well, the language is so beautiful, intricate and thoroughly of the time, so every day is wonderfully challenging.
‘Whenever you play a character it’s your job not to judge them but to embrace them, and that’s pretty easy to do with Harry.’
FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE LADY MAGAZINE ON JANUARY 17, 2014