A Conversation with Jeremy Piven and His Mom, Joyce

On June 25, Evanston’s Piven Theatre Workshop will celebrate its 40th anniversary.

The gala honors alums Jeremy Piven, John and Joan Cusack, and Aidan Quinn, among others.

Those actors are just a few of the celebrated artists that the acclaimed theater and training center has produced (others are Kate Walsh, Hope Davis, Lili Taylor and playwright Sarah Ruhl). Founders and Artistic Directors Joyce Piven and her late husband, Byrne, were both accomplished actors and directors, and part of the theater group that spawned The Second City.

And the Piven legacy continues to thrive—not only through the Workshop and its renowned Young People’s Company, but also through Joyce and Byrne’s two children: Emmy-winning actor Jeremy Piven, who is most famous for his role as the Hollywood agent Ari Gold in the HBO series “Entourage,” and actor/writer/director Shira Piven, who also lives and works in Los Angeles.

Make It Better’s Arts & Entertainment Editor talked with Joyce and Jeremy about what Piven has accomplished through multiple generations.

Jeremy, what did your parents teach you about acting and theater?

It’s hard to pinpoint, because I was acting from a young age.

Joyce: He was 7 or 8.

So much of the work is about being in a state of play.

Being creative in the moment.

Some people call it “playing well without the ball.”

Joyce: I love that.

Jeremy: A writer/director/producer once said to me, “You stole the scene, and I don’t understand it, because you didn’t have any lines.” What a gift I learned at the Piven Theatre, to be present, to be creative in the moment, to be understood and understand as well. I hope that I’m a good example of the work.

Joyce: Speaking objectively as a mother [laughs], I think Jeremy is the example of the work. The workshop didn’t give him his talent—that’s God-given—but he was given the opportunity to exercise it. We offered an environment in which our actors could develop and grow.

My mom is being modest. I believe everyone has something to offer. My parents empowered you, so you felt you had something to contribute. That’s rare. If you ask most people why they didn’t continue exploring themselves creatively, it’s because they weren’t encouraged.

My mother, when you were done with a scene, would highlight the things that you did well, and she would slip in a note. So you were getting notes and you didn’t even know it.

Do you remember a moment when you knew acting was what you were meant to do?

Jeremy: When I went to college, it was my first time studying without my family and my parents came to see me play Mark Antony in “Julius Caesar.” We talked afterwards, and they said they thought it would be a good idea if I continued to pursue acting. It meant a lot to me, because they’re straight shooters.

Joyce: Let me back up a bit. Football was Jeremy’s passion in high school. When we saw him in “Julius Caesar,” we were waiting for the lights to go up and somebody burst through the auditorium doors. It was Jeremy, running onto the stage as though he was on a football field. He had that energy and access to his emotions and creativity. Afterwards, Byrne and I looked at each other and said, “God help us, we have another one in the family.”

Let’s talk about Jeremy’s most famous role—the abrasive, aggressive Hollywood agent Ari Gold. Jeremy, are you like him in real life?

It’s both flattering and frightening to think that one would equate me with the character Ari Gold. It’s so fun to spend limited amounts of time with him—to inhabit the guy and then shake it off. We were shooting a scene recently, and I ended up breaking a TV. After a day’s work, I don’t want to be the guy who thinks, “Man, I would have liked to have tried this.” I leave it on the field.

Joyce: Jeremy is an actor, and has many different sides to him.

And do you know Ari Emanuel, the Wilmette native who the character is based on?

I do know Ari, and Rahm Emanuel. That’s one amazing, overachieving family.

Wouldn’t people say the same about your family?

Joyce: It’s nice to be perceived as serious artists. We treat theater as an art.

Jeremy: Mom, I may misquote you, but it was something like, “You should respect the space you occupy when you act.” Is that right?

Joyce: Yes.