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Originally published Friday, January 26, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Q&A | The sleight of Jeremy Piven

Preparation to confront Jeremy Piven has involved a triple espresso and now a cup of coffee, to bring the game to his level. In 1992, Piven had...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Preparation to confront Jeremy Piven has involved a triple espresso and now a cup of coffee, to bring the game to his level.

In 1992, Piven had a small role as a keyed-up grocery clerk in the Seattle flick "Singles." He's returned some distance up the food chain to promote his new film, "Smokin' Aces." After playing high-strung characters in dozens of movies and TV shows, he copped an Emmy last year for his effulgently profane performance as talent agent Ari Gold in HBO's "Entourage." (It's back April 8.) The intensity continues to pay off: Last week, he livened up "Saturday Night Live," and next month he's The Playboy Interview. But there's been a miscalculation. He's very subdued. Slight illness, a bowl of soup, T-shirt and ball cap. There may also be a few molecules of awkwardness in the hotel suite where director Joe Carnahan holds court in the adjoining room. They've been doing team interviews, but I've asked to fly solo with Piven — although I didn't say explicitly it was because the movie isn't so great.

Q: Why does everyone want to kill you? In "Smokin' Aces," I mean.

A: Because Buddy "Aces" Israel doesn't know his place. He thinks that because he's a master of illusion and charismatic guy that the mob wants him to be a part of their team, when they just see him as a mascot. So he tracks mud in everywhere and brings everyone down. So they not only want to kill him, they want to extract his heart. So the stakes couldn't get any higher. And when that happens, count me in.

Q: Your character spends much of the movie with hookers and gorked out on drugs. Please describe your preparation in explicit detail.

A: Um ... I first of all use all of my props. So I was snorting everything that you see in that movie. But the reality is, it was powdered vitamin C, so I was the healthiest guy on the set playing the unhealthiest. That's the sad truth. I wish there was something more juicy for you.

Q: No, I want you to know that I believe in the law as well. You're one of the great fast-talkers. If you and Steven Wright were in the same room, it would be like matter and anti-matter.

A: Yeah, exactly. Actually, I'm probably more like Steven Wright in terms of my cadence and my natural energy than any character you've seen. I mean, I have to whip myself up into a frenzy to play Ari Gold. They come to me when they need a verbal stunt pilot just 'cause it's not something that comes easily to everyone, I don't think. So that's where I've kind of made my mark in a certain way. But the great news is, you saw "Smokin' Aces." There is a chance to show other sides, which is an emotional availability and things that I've been doing on stage my whole life.

Q: How much of Ari is you, and how much ad-libbing do you do?

A: Doug Ellin (the creator) is one of these guys that is incredibly hard-working and really knows the world that he's depicting. And these speeches that I get are really well-crafted. The greatest compliment I get is when people say, "I really love it when you improvise on 'Entourage.' That's improvised, right?" We take these words that are so well-crafted, and it's our job and my honor to make it seem as if it's being said for the first time. Everything is being said and felt and heard for the first time. So as a result, you have to approach it like a play. I have to run it, run it, run it, and open the play and see how far I can get, and by the time you're in front of that camera, you want to hopefully have the ease of a play in the last week of its run, where you get out of your own head and you're just totally present and you're in a state of play. And that's my secret, I've given it to you, and now I have to kill you.

Q: If Ari were to be asked on "The Actors Studio" what his favorite curse word was, how long would the answer take?

A: He would do a string of, "You evil, nasty [expletive] ... freak of nature, milk-mustached pretty-boy wannabe sugar-coated ... mutt."

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Q: That's the best answer I've ever gotten. The boys hauled off and fired Ari at the end of last season.

A: Horrible mistake!

Q: Can you tell me where he's going?

A: I can tell you this: He will rise like the phoenix. He has love and devotion for Vinny Chase, as he's demonstrated, and you cannot keep this guy down. We've already shot eight of them. So I can tell you that, in all honesty, I think that the best stuff that I've been able to contribute to "Entourage" is yet to come in the new season. There is a moment that I have with Lloyd, my gay Asian — or gaysian assistant, where I have to save him in kind of a gay "Jerry Maguire" moment, and I go deep into an area of L.A. that's predominantly gay, and it's some of the best stuff that I've ever been allowed to do, so next season is pretty interesting.

Q: Not only do you deserve congratulations for your Emmy, but it also takes a special kind of man to pull off the ascot you wore.

A: [Laughs] You know what it was? It was a moment when I thought, I want to do my own thing. Because guys, you know, it's cookie-cutter and everyone looks exactly the same, and I kind of wanted to do my own thing. That may be the last ascot you see me wearing — unless I'm in some F. Scott Fitzgerald situation.

Q: You've got a catch phrase now. Didn't it land you in the doghouse at a Cubs game in Chicago?

A: Well, they said to me — I was about to go out there, they said, "Why don't you do your catch phrase?" And I said "Really? Are you sure you want me to?" And they said "Yeah." I think the guy that asked me was kind of an older gentleman who had never seen the show, and he probably thought the catch phrase was, you know, "Good morning ... Rancho Cucamonga!" or something. I mean, he didn't really know what my catch phrase was, so I was like, "OK, but it's Sunday, and it's Father's day, and Wrigley Field is packed. 'OK, let's hug it out you little bitches!' " And it was like someone had scratched the record, and everything came to a halt.

Q: They were picturing Harry Caray.

A: God bless Harry Caray. Everyone really had a great time at the park, and I think that the powers that be weren't so happy with it, and I made a public apology. And the reality is, I was the last one to leave the park because I love the Cubs and I'm a huge Bears fan, and Blackhawks, and I have nothing but love for that city. I'll be there tonight. My mother has a theater there, a not-for-profit theater called the Piven Theatre Workshop. And so they accepted my apology, and hopefully I'll be allowed back in the stadium.

Q: You're one of the growing number of celebrities hiring themselves out for parties. What's your going rate, and what's it buy?

A: I don't really have a going rate. I think what's really funny is that I never thought of myself as the guy that would even be mentioned with those people. It's like I remember Vince Vaughn recently saying [in perfect Vaughn imitation], "I don't understand what the deal is, baby; I'm not even that good-looking." I feel like I'm suddenly lumped in with the pretty crowd and into these tabloid-type situations, and the reality is I lay pretty low. I really enjoy laying low. I do. And so the few times that I go out, I think it's kind of documented and then it's kind of blown out of proportion, to be perfectly honest with you. Now I personally don't have the makeup to go out and kill it like that and do like 14-hour days that I do.

Q: Today on CNN: We bombed Somalia, and you're on the outs with your friend John Cusack.

A: [Momentarily speechless.] Oh my god. CNN. War at a glance, huh? I think that we need to focus on the number of troops that are over there, the amount of money ...

(Carnahan abruptly walks into the room.)

Carnahan: Wrap it up! It's over! It's done! Let's get out of here!

Piven: Really? [Everyone laughs.]

Carnahan: Sorry about walking in like an [expletive].

Q: Sorry about the slight of not interviewing you.

A: Carnahan: That's OK. No, no, no, not at all. Jeremy is much more important and frankly more interesting.

Piven: A man of insight!

[Everyone laughs, and Piven makes me repeat the CNN question for Carnahan.]

Carnahan: You've got to be kidding me! How do you feel, J.P.? You've supplanted world events.

Piven: Somalia is a place that we went into, and it is not pretty. And my friend who's Ethiopian knows that you don't get into a fight with a Somalian even over a parking space. They are very proud and dangerous people. And this is the type of news that we need to know about all of this stuff daily. Some faux feud with a couple of knucklehead actors from Chicago means absolutely nothing.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

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