If there ever was a year when Jeremy Piven could be excused for missing the annual Piven Theatre Workshop Gala — which benefits the theater his mother Joyce and late father Byrne founded in Evanston 41 years ago — it would be this one.
The three-time Emmy winner has been in London filming “Mr. Selfridge,” his first TV series since “Entourage” ended its eight-season run on HBO last September. And unlike on “Entourage,” where he was a scene-stealer but not the lead, Piven is the star of this early-1900s period piece for British network ITV.
“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” Piven said over the phone from London last week. “I’m not going to lie to you, the last thing I need to do is jump on a plane to go to Chicago for a day. But nothing is going to keep me from doing (the Piven Theatre benefit). I’m doing this for my mother and also to honor my father’s memory. It means a lot to me to be in the position where I can contribute in some way. That brings me enormous pride.”
Most of the students at the theater are on scholarships, Piven said, which is why the galas, including Saturday’s at Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston, are so important to the theater’s existence. The 46-year-old actor himself was trained at the theater, as were actors John and Joan Cusack and Kate Walsh.
This year’s gala will be the first since the popular “Entourage” ended. How that will affect attendance and the look of the crowd — Piven isn’t sure. But he expects celebs to attend just as they have in past years (the Bears’ Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman will be on hand). And although there will be no “Entourage” walk-on role up for auction this time around, Piven said guests will be able to bid on a walk-on role on “Mr. Selfridge.”
In the show, Piven plays real-life retail mogul Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American who founded British department store Selfridges. Selfridge was known for his vices, including gambling and womanizing, as well as his then-innovative motto, “The customer is always right.” Before opening his first store, Selfridge spent a significant amount of his career working in Chicago for what later became Marshall Field’s.
“It’s the same folks who do ‘Downton Abbey,’” Piven said of the “Mr. Selfridge” team. “This project came to me like a gift. After ‘Entourage,’ playing a character like this is a feast. … Audiences are now more savvy and enjoy looking at simpler times. I think we’re getting away from the fast food entertainment like ‘Jersey Shore.’ I could be wrong.”
Piven said filming on the show, which is expected to air in 2013, is half done. How have British fans treated Piven so far compared with U.S. fans?
“They’re much more polite,” he said. “One person's take on it was, if they were to recognize me, it would be as quiet as two ships passing in the night. They would walk a block down and then text a friend, as opposed to someone screaming ‘Let’s hug it out, (expletive).’”