ATLANTA -- The oily agent Ari Gold in HBO's Entourage and the coked-out Vegas entertainer-cum-mobster Buddy "Aces" Israel in the movie Smokin' Aces (which opened Friday) are pure, manic energy.
But Jeremy Piven, the guy who plays them both, is trying not to pass out on the table of a Midtown hotel conference room during a recent visit to Atlanta.
"I don't know how rock stars do it, man," he groans, groggy, slouching forward.
"Waking up really early and working all day until you get on a plane -- that's what's kind of brutal."
In Atlanta, he started with the sun, doing radio interviews. But that was five hours (and many handshakes and much chitchat) ago, and this is his final city on a long promotional tour.
Though it's lunchtime, he looks ready to crawl under the covers and sleep it all off.
After working two decades in barely noticed best-friend roles (often to his childhood Chicago pal John Cusack), Piven, 41, has finally come into his own, first with Entourage, and now, with writer-director Joe Carnahan's blood-drenched mob-hit movie. Piven is now a headliner rather than a below-the-title player. But his body is having a hard time adjusting to the pace.
In the crosshairs
In Smokin' Aces, Piven plays Buddy, a magician specializing in card tricks, who gets involved with the mob and winds up cornered by the feds to testify against his underworld cronies. That's when he goes into hiding in a Lake Tahoe hotel penthouse, as FBI agents and a mind-blowing number of professional hitmen all try to get to him first. (The huge ensemble cast includes Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia and Ryan Reynolds as federal agents, and Alicia Keys, Hustle & Flow's Taraji P. Henson and Ben Affleck as some of the gunsels.)
Piven felt empathy for Buddy, a guy who went too far when fame wasn't enough. "He latched onto the mob, but he is unrealistic with his own skills," he explains. "You can't just decide to be part of something you know not of what it is."
"That's not a good sentence," he sighs. "I'm tired."
He soldiers on: "That's what happens to people, I think," he says. "Possibly you have so many yes-men around you that one gets fairly delusional."
Like, say, people in Hollywood, with their, um, entourages?
"Yeah, absolutely. That's an excellent point. I think this can happen to anyone of any generation in any arena."
A supporting actor Emmy winner last year for Entourage, Piven was preparing for the Golden Globes, for which he was nominated once more (though he would lose to Jeremy Irons, for HBO's Elizabeth I ).
"I'm not ready for it at all," he admits. "I'm so exhausted right now. I don't know what I'm gonna wear. All I know is that I'm bringing my mother, and I'm very proud. That's all I can tell you right now."
His mother, Joyce, who ran a theater program with her husband in Chicago and still acts and directs there, is best friends with Cusack's mother, Nancy.
Which leads, awkwardly, to recent gossip about Piven and John Cusack falling out. What's that all about?
Piven shrugs ... and dodges. "There's many things that we need to be learning on the news right now -- what's going on in Somalia, what's going on with adding more troops to Iraq. These are major things we all need to know about, and as jingoistic as our country is, let's at least stay on the real news.
"I remember I asked Dustin Hoffman, 'Do you still stay in touch with Hackman and Duvall?' And he says, 'Oh, man, I wish. It's just that our lives are so busy.' And so that's all that is. The fact that someone would try to make news of it -- I'm flattered that someone is talking about me, but it's not real news, and it's not a real story."
So, back to Smokin' Aces.
Dirties up well
To play Buddy, Piven crammed three years of sleight-of-hand training into three months. "There wasn't a moment when I didn't have cards in my hands," he says. "I didn't have any skills to begin with. None. I couldn't even do a bat mitzvah. ... They would've gotten a strange clown to ride a pony and swing away at a pinata, and I would've been fired immediately."
But he ultimately got good enough to perform one night at Hollywood's magician enclave, the Magic Castle. (That footage will be included on the Smokin' Aces DVD.)
In Aces, Piven spends most of his scenes in a bathrobe, unshaven, sweaty, his nostrils aflame from cocaine. How does he feel about looking so lousy?
"Fantastic! I think I look better dirty than clean," he says. "Some people clean up well; I think I dirty up better. You can't be vain as an actor."
With Smokin' Aces, Piven might become even more recognizable, after a couple of years of having strangers come up to him shouting, "Hug it out!" (He improvised that Entourage catchphrase himself.) The only real difference he's experienced since transitioning from semi-familiar face to a pop-culture icon is that people are a lot kinder to him.
"They come up and say, 'Hey, man, I really like your work,'" he says. "I wish that on everyone who works hard at what they do."
And Piven is always working, including his first hosting stint on Saturday Night Live last weekend and work on Entourage, which returns April 8.
So what does he do when he isn't working? "I don't know. When is that day gonna come? Can you tell me?"