It's rare that even a movie's biggest fan can recall all of the little throwaway lines of dialogue and performance details from supporting players. But if that supporting player is Jeremy Piven, you can almost guarantee it will come immediately to mind, whether he's an assaultive partygoer who turns introspective during a Gas 'N Sip hangout session in Say Anything, or a pal searching for romantic redemption during his high school reunion in Grosse Pointe Blank. Finally in charge of his own film, The Goods, Piven is no less generous with his comedic set-ups, sharing the screen with a talented ensemble of players (including Ving Rhames, Katheryn Hahn and Rob Riggle) who find themselves tasked with the challenge of liquidating an entire dealership's stock of cars over the Fourth of July holiday.
Cinematical recently spoke to Piven via telephone to discuss his participation in the film, which is produced by Adam McKay (Step Brothers) and directed by Neil Brennan (Chappelle's Show). In addition to talking about the good fortune that found him at the helm of a summer comedy, Piven discussed the prospect of making a car salesman a charming fellow, and reflected on the reasons why folks seem to find him such a convincing con man.
Cinematical: A car salesman is perhaps not the first person you think about when you imagine a sympathetic character. How much did you want this guy to be genuinely likeable and how much of a snake-oil salesman did you want him to be?
Jeremy Piven: There's this great quote that [John] Malkovich had back in the day that you should never judge your characters, and I totally believe that. The most flawed characters, I believe, are the most fun to play, and they're the most fun to watch because we're all eccentric people when it comes down to it. None of us are perfect, and I think this guy is doing the best he can, but he has such a limited skill set to deal with any kind of emotional problems. Like, he's never had a woman treat him the way he treats women, and he's been on the road as a car salesman his whole life, so when there's a woman that just sleeps with him and leaves him, he has no idea how to even deal with that – so he loses his mind. So to start off as a guy who sees himself as a rock star but he can't sing, he's living the dream by eating all of his meals in strip clubs, so his dream ultimately comes crashing down around him – and I had the time of my life, man.
Cinematical: Obviously Ari's not the same character – although he exudes a more obvious kind of success. But why do you think people seem to associate you with these guys who sort of dance on the edge of being a great salesman and also being a bit of a huckster?
Piven: Well, this particular role, the guy producing it had seen me, oddly enough, not even on Entourage; he saw me do a monologue that Adam McKay wrote on SNL and the way that Adam wrote it was me poking fun at myself and playing into this idea of maybe the way I've been portrayed. Adam is my brother-in-law and married to my sister and he knows me as Uncle Jeremy; he knows me the way I am, and I think he found it very comical they way I've been portrayed. So he kind of played it up and we had fun with it and then they came at me for this role. [But] I don't know how to navigate this question, because I have no idea how I'm perceived or any of that, so I can't necessarily get into that – and I don't think it's healthy anyway. But I think when you play tragically-flawed characters, it's just more fascinating, to be honest with you. I mean, I find these characters kind of endearing, and I think it's your job to infuse as much integrity as you can into them and make them accessible and unpredictable. So I don't know – it's hard to say; I think you'd probably be better at answering that than me.
Cinematical: You describe the tragic nature of this character, but when you're developing or playing him on the set, how tough is it to make those aspects funny as opposed to just kind of pathetic or melancholy?
Piven: I think it presents a challenge, and that's why we do what we do. It's not easily solved, and because of that it makes it so fun to get in there and work and play when you've got actors like Will Ferrell and Ed Helms and Dr. Ken [Jeong]. You're in good hands. And when you've got Adam McKay overseeing the whole thing, you couldn't be in better hands. So going to work was just a joy; I mean, they all made me look better, end of story.
Cinematical: There seems to be a common perception that comedies today are largely if not exclusively improvisational. How much is that true and how much is that approach secondary to a more traditional manner of working from a script?
Piven: I think that guys like Judd Apatow have given his troupe of actors so much freedom, and so what you get is these guys who are allowed to continue to explore what's funny. I love freedom, I really do, and at the same time, this particular movie, the script was so funny that we could do it completely as written and then have fun and mix it up as well and see what works. So we did kind of a hybrid.
Cinematical: The director, Neil Brennan, worked with Dave Chappelle, and Adam has his own style. How did you collaborate with them to find something that suited all three of you comedically?
Piven: Adam is one of these guys who has this rare combination where I think he's the funniest guy in the room, but he's not precious with his words, which is kind of a rarity. But also, you hear about this happening with people like Woody Allen; I mean, I've never worked with him, but where they say "oh yeah, just say whatever you want." It's just kind of supreme confidence, and then him wanting to find out what's the funniest thing that you could do. I think that's part of the genius of how he works so well with Will Ferrell, because Will Ferrell's mind is amazing and so sharp, and I don't think he gets enough credit for what he does because he makes it look effortless. The guy just knows funny. So Adam was always stressing to us to open it up and to take chances and to go to that place. Neil comes from in my opinion one of the funniest shows of all time, and I think Neil is one of those guys who hears almost comedy like music, so he would give you almost musical direction at times. So he was very specific, and I think that if you combine the two, that's when you have kind of two different worlds coming together - and yet it worked, if that makes any sense. It's like, how in God's name could the two coexist? But they did.
Cinematical: This is a starring role for you, but you've had a lot of success distinguishing yourself amongst different ensembles. Certainly if Ari's popularity hadn't explored, Entourage could have focused primarily on Vince and his pals; but that's something you've done throughout your career in everything from Say Anything to Grosse Pointe Blank. Is that something you're comfortable with, or are lead roles something you've wanted to do but haven't had those chances?
Piven: Well, thank you for those compliments. One of the great things about growing up in the theater and being a part of acting troupes for so long is that we kind of feel like we're all in it together. That's something that's a little bit different than Hollywood, and I came out here with that mentality and that's not necessarily the pervasive mentality. We kind of learn from one another and it's a very collaborative event. Each role that you play, you play it as if it's the lead, and he may only have a couple of lines. So you give it integrity and you just kind of do your thing and be as specific as possible to play and open it up, so I've just been doing that for a while and I think I've just somehow stuck it out long enough that this thing came my way. I've been lucky enough to play the abrasive best friend opposite Nic Cage and Cusack, so I've seen performance be crafted, so I'm honored to be able to carry this film. But the reality is our ensemble group of actors is so good and so funny that I don't think they need me anyway. But it was great to be there, and great to have this opportunity, and I really do like it. one of the things I did notice which was so heartwarming to me is after 50 movies to have my stuff remain in the movie, quite literally; because you're the lead, they kind of have to keep your arc, and a lot of other times I was contributing things, they have other priorities. In this particular one, I was one of the top priorities, and it was really fun.
Cinematical: You talk about the humanity of the character and the way you portray him, but at the end of the day does the movie need to convey a message or deeper meaning? It seems like an almost ignoble goal for a filmmaker or actor to "just" want to entertain.
Piven: This movie, above and beyond anything, was made to entertain, flat out. In the true kind of tradition of the movies of Adam and Will, you can kind of take it on any different level that you want to. They can just simply be lowbrow comedies and just have a great time and [say] man, was that funny. But, also, there's some other things going on if you want to embrace that as well. None of it's didactic or whatever, but they're smart lowbrow comedies, if that's possible. It's kind of like they dive into these totally American characters that may be delusional (laughs), that may be kind of narcissists, or any of these things. But I think people can go to the movies and see all of these characters and see characters they know with qualities they find in themselves, but just go and laugh and have a great time – and that's what I've been seeing across the country. That's one thing that I really will say to you – the thing that's the most heartwarming in this entire experience is seeing people genuinely laugh. You can tell people really want to laugh right now; that's why they laughed at The Hangover, and I just feel like they brought us into the summer, and The Goods can bring you out.