‘Entourage’s’ Jeremy Piven: ‘I’m not Ari Gold’

Ari Gold, the ruthless Hollywood player of HBO’s " Entourage,” commandeers his agency’s conference room with his typical force-of-nature bravado. No longer content with being the planet’s most successful agent, he outlines a bold plan for conquest.

Jeremy Piven: An article in Saturday’s Calendar section about actor Jeremy Piven of HBO’s “Entourage” said the series revolved around up-and-coming movie star Vincent Chase and his posse of friends from their New Jersey neighborhood. The characters of Chase and his friends are from Queens, N.Y. —

“I’m bringing an NFL team to Los Angeles!” he proclaims before warning his underlings to keep quiet about the high-level negotiations with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones: “I’m not threatening your jobs, I’m threatening your lives! I’m serious.”

Moments later, Hurricane Ari had blown over. Jeremy Piven, who portrays the uber-agent, walked off the set and settled in behind the show’s creator, Doug Ellin. Gold’s brashness stands in stark contrast to Piven’s low-key, thoughtful demeanor.

“Everyone needs an outlet, and playing Ari feeds my adrenaline junkie,” he said softly. “But I’m not Ari. I don’t think he would have the patience for an actor like me.”

As “Entourage” enters its seventh and penultimate season Sunday, Piven is moving at full foul-mouthed throttle in the role that has scored him three consecutive Emmy awards as outstanding supporting actor in a comedy. Though the show theoretically revolves around the struggles of up-and-coming movie star Vincent Chase ( Adrian Grenier) and his posse of friends from their New Jersey neighborhood, the 45-year-old Piven has emerged as the show’s not-so-secret weapon and its most recognizable star.

He’s particularly pumped that Ari, who always seems to land on his feet despite his often risky maneuvering within the Hollywood fast lane, will hit a few walls this season. “He’s incredibly reckless and will be taken down,” Piven said. “He’s drunk with power. I love it. It’s what continues to give this show its edge. We’re going to show what happens to a person when they have success and wealth, and it’s still not enough.”

But whatever comeuppance Ari Gold receives in the show’s final two seasons, the overpowering character will have enough juice left for a planned “Entourage” movie. In fact, Piven may become so closely identified with the role that he may find the Ari aura hard to shake — some of his recent films such as “Smokin’ Aces” and “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard,” did not exactly set the box office on fire.

But for now, Ellin is concentrating on Season 7 and he’s particularly pleased with Gold’s story line and Piven’s performance. “Jeremy is so great, and has been great since the beginning of the series,” he said. “He’s always up to whatever I give him. The more pressure I put him under, the more he excels.”

Though Piven assures fans that Ari will still have plenty of fictional slings and arrows to fire this season, he’s still a bit stung by the real slings and arrows aimed at him over his controversial exit from the critically acclaimed Broadway production of “Speed-the-Plow” in 2008. Piven abruptly left less than two months into the production after his doctors said he was suffering from mercury poisoning brought on by the heavy consumption of fish and sushi for decades.

Even though Piven had received rave reviews for his performance in the David Mamet play, some observers thought the actor was lying. Any illness, critics charged, came from an overactive dating and night life. “My understanding is that he’s leaving show business to pursue a career as a thermometer,” Mamet said at the time.

The suggestion that he was faking his illness in order to ditch a demanding role still hurts Piven, who in addition to “Entourage” has appeared in several TV series (“Cupid,” “The Larry Sanders Show”) and films (“Old School,” “Runaway Jury”). It hits particularly hard given his theater roots — his parents founded the Piven Theatre Workshop, which was the training group for noted performers John and Joan Cusack, Rosanna Arquette and many others. (A professional arbiter ruled last year that the actor did not breach his contract by leaving the play.)

“That talk really did hurt,” Piven said. “I grew up in a family that dedicated its life to the theater. There’s the truth and reality, and there’s the spin and perception. There was this misconception that the Hollywood boy tried to do Broadway not realizing what it was. Doing Mamet on Broadway is the Holy Grail. If anyone thinks I would take something like that for granted, they’ve got the wrong guy.”

But he chose not to speak out and publicly defend himself: “I didn’t retaliate, decided to take the high road. Now I think I did the wrong thing in doing that.”

He knew early on in the production that he was very sick and was suffering from the Epstein-Barr virus, a debilitating illness characterized by fever, aches and extreme fatigue. There were times when he was on stage that the pain was so intense that he could barely see.

“My body was literally trying to survive,” Piven said. “I was in bed every day until the moment I hit the stage. As soon as I was offstage, I was in bed. I never had a drop of alcohol.”

Finally, his doctors told him that if he continued, he could die.

Piven, who has since adjusted his diet, said he is now focused on bringing balance to his life — and being the best Ari Gold he can be.

“I’m dedicated to my health and to getting into the best shape of my life,” he said. “I want to deliver work I’m proud of.”