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Piven and 'Entourage' Back on the Scene

On the list of memorable series characters of recent years, Hollywood talent agent Ari Gold has a solid spot.

As played by Emmy nominee Jeremy Piven on the HBO comedy "Entourage," the originator of the phrase "Let's hug it out, bitch" is a profane bundle of energy who can be your best friend if he represents you -- and your worst enemy if you get in his way.

Co-produced by Mark Wahlberg, the smart showbiz satire debuts its third season Sunday, June 11, with an episode that proves Ari unstoppable even after being fired from a high-powered firm.

Now operating out of seedier digs -- complete with an inoperable elevator, and with put-upon assistant Lloyd (Rex Lee) still at his beck and call -- Ari edgily anticipates the opening of the big-budget movie "Aquaman," showcasing star client Vince Chase (Adrian Grenier). Ari also joins his wife (Perrey Reeves), quite reluctantly, in marriage-counseling sessions interrupted by his incessantly ringing cell phone.

Vince's title entourage remains intact, with his aspiring-actor half brother Drama (Kevin Dillon), pal and manager Eric (Kevin Connolly), and fun-loving Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) still by his side.

Also returning are Debi Mazar as Vince's publicist and Emmanuelle Chriqui ("In the Mix") as Eric's privileged girlfriend. Celebrities appearing as themselves this season include James Woods and "Titanic" Oscar winner James Cameron, ostensibly the director of "Aquaman."

Trying to keep Ari as much a Hollywood player as ever, despite his obvious demotion, is the sort of acting challenge Piven embraces.

"The car and the job are gone, the phone is shut off, and the bottom has dropped out," Piven says of life for Ari in the new season. "The cameras are rarely on sticks where Ari is concerned. There's always movement. He's always in flight.

"Acting is a momentum sport, and you're always trying to get that momentum in an arena that doesn't necessarily lend itself to movement. You have to wait for everything to settle down, then someone yells, 'Action!' I'm so unbelievably honored to be a working actor, it's my job to figure out how to get better. I don't take any of it for granted. I might even start running a scene before the point where it's written to begin. People indulge me in that."

One of those people would be co-star Lee, whose Lloyd is a frequent target of Ari's abuse.

"I just feel like we got lucky," Piven says. "Who knew Rex Lee would come in and give us such a great character to juxtapose against Ari? It's one of those great matches of the people least likely to be standing next to each other.

"There's this great form called commedia dell'arte, where you're allowed to explore and heighten emotions, and to be a big ham -- which is what I am -- and it calls for you to show the progression of things. I think that's what we've done here. We've continued the 'through line' of the relationship of those two guys."

At the same time, it points out how differently Ari treats some people -- particularly Vince, his star commodity.

"You see the professional face he puts on when he greets the boys," Piven reasons, "and I think that gives a little humanity to the creature Ari is. His wife obviously knows all his tragic flaws, but she knows how to play it. Lloyd gets it and sees all of [Ari's] warts but is still subservient to him at the end of the day. That duality is beautiful."

Piven is proud "Entourage" gives credit to its viewers. "The audience is so much more savvy than even I am in terms of knowing the [entertainment] business, because of the accessibility of information and the programs that show the backstage life of the industry. I hear about worries that our show is too 'inside,' but there are real reference points. A couple of names might be lost on a few people, but they can see how others react, and they can imagine what those names mean. And the imagining can be more interesting than the actuality."

The New York-born, Illinois-raised Piven wouldn't mind if others stopped imagining that it was his own agent who inspired his portrayal of Ari.

"The thing that's so flattering to me," he maintains, "is that people come up to me and go, 'I know the guy that's based on.' They'll name all these different people, and I'll say, 'Yeah, yeah, sure, it is.' I feel like I'm really onto something if that happens."

Ari is still a work in progress, Piven claims. "I've been kicking around a while, and I've seen so many casting offices and interactions with agents. I still take it all in ... even watching [producer] Steve Levinson, who is also Adrian's manager, deal with Adrian on the set. At one moment, I looked at him and thought, 'Wow. I hold my hands in a praying position and slump my shoulders just like that.' I'm always looking for new things to steal, because I'm just an artistic thief."

Also playing a gentler talent agent in the current movie "Keeping Up With the Steins," Piven is the son of two performers and acting teachers, Joyce Hiller Piven and the late Byrne Piven. Formerly a regular on Ellen DeGeneres' "Ellen" sitcom, he knows what it's like to be on a series that has critical acclaim but small viewership (notably, "Cupid" and "The Larry Sanders Show"), so he fully appreciates the wider attention his "Entourage" work has drawn.

"It's a flat-out gift," Piven says. "There are so many, great talented actors, and all they need is a shot and a great role. Until that moment, as far as the industry is concerned, that actor is just theorizing about what he or she can do. My father did this all his life, and he never had the opportunities I have been getting.

"Every actor's journey is different. I am so unbelievably thankful for this shot, and when I say it's not lost on me, I really mean it."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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