|Jeremy Piven as Harry Selfridge|
Celebrity Extra: Tell me about what you thought when you first heard about the role, and that you’d be playing such an iconic, fascinating and brilliant man.
Jeremy Piven: I remember exactly where I was: We had finished eight seasons of “Entourage,” and I was taking a little bit of a much-needed break. I was passed information that here was a guy from the Midwest who had made a name for himself at a store (Marshall Field) that I had grown up going to, and my mother and her mother before that. He was incredibly ambitious; he decided to jump on a boat — it takes about three weeks to take a boat from New York to London — and go to England to invent a department store. At that time, department-store shopping didn’t exist over there.
He had an incredibly colorful life, and those involved (with the show) said: “Listen, let’s tell his entire life in four years. You’re the guy for it.” To be offered a role of this magnitude was humbling. I pretended like I needed to take a beat to think about it, but I didn’t. I needed to take no beat. I thought: “This guy exists? Are you kidding me? When do we start?”
CE: I don’t blame you for your excitement; this is such a wonderful show. What can you tell me about season three?
JP: It’s great, and the show itself is continuing to evolve. The third season, the stakes are raised; there are incredible turning-point moments, which I can’t tell you about too much, but it’ll completely take you by surprise. To be able to tell his life was so fascinating. It was beautiful and inspiring and tragic and all those things. It’s been a feast and just a gift to do this. It’s also a fascinating journey in terms of how it’s coming to people’s attention here in the States. As you know, we’re on PBS; it’s a very select audience. Overseas it airs on ITV, which is the equivalent of one of our major networks or HBO or something. It’s a monster hit. It’s been sold to 165 out of 200 countries. That’s more than “Entourage,” “Downton Abbey” — it’s just staggering. Here in my own backyard, it’s still kind of catching on. With season three starting on March 29, you can binge-watch the first two seasons (on Amazon Prime or iTunes), and then catch up on season three, which I think is the perfect way to see it.
CE: A lot of people compare “Mr Selfridge” to “Downton Abbey” simply because they are both period dramas set circa World War I and take place in England. How would you describe “Mr Selfridge” to dispel those misconceptions?
JP: I happen to be a fan of “Downton Abbey.” All of us as Americans are absolutely living in the present moment, and to see a simpler time where people have to confront each other face to face, it’s fascinating — it’s something, I think, we all secretly long for. “Downton” deals mostly with the country. And “Selfridge” is very much in the heart of the city. Those are two totally different energies. Yes, you get the period drama, but you have the pace and the energy of the city. It’s incredibly vital and edgy. It’s a faster-paced, energized version of maybe what one’s reference is for “Downton.”
CE: Harry Selfridge truly was a man ahead of his time when it came to advertising and modern-day selling hype. He was a brilliant trendsetter. What were your thoughts on the man as you did your research to portray him?
JP: He was ahead of his time in every aspect. At Marshall Field (his flagship store in Chicago) in the late 1800s, he built these enormous windows and portrayed scenes like a still-life play. That’s how he got people to come in. Quite a bit of what we see in department stores nowadays was his doing: putting all the products and perfumes where you can see them as soon as you walk in — he stole that particular idea from the French, but if you’re going to steal, you’re going to steal from the best — but those were all his ideas.
As soon as the television was invented, he put them in his stores and made it so the people could film themselves and show themselves in his store like a reality show. He wanted people to have a place where they could gather, be themselves, be whomever they see themselves as, and treated like guests. My mother and my grandmother have memories of being in Marshall Field, where there were places for my mother, as a little girl, where she could go and play and have the time of her life.
CE: Tell me about Harry Selfridge, the man.
JP: He had an incredible wife and family. He was a man-made celebrity and loved it. He put so much money into advertising. He was there every morning greeting all the customers, and there they could see the famous Harry Selfridge. It’s like walking in and seeing P.T. Barnum or Harry Houdini. He fancied himself a performer and an artist.
He wasn’t faithful to his wife, and she passes away (at the beginning of season three), and it completely rocks his world. He feels like he’ll never find love again. And that’s where we begin the season. He’s been taken down quite a few pegs. It was a little risky the way I’m playing it. I played him as a performer from the onset, and he’s been taken down quite a few notches. His heart is completely broken. He doesn’t know how he is going to continue. He’s got his mother there, and she’s been a rock for him, but now his wife is gone. And so he’s completely given up on love. And then enters Nancy Webb, who is this incredible force of nature who he completely falls for. I can’t tell you too much more.
CE: Why must you tease? I’ve read that Lord Loxley is back to make trouble for Harry …
JP: I think that’s one of the things that both “Mr Selfridge” and “Entourage” do so well is that they really take a cue from the performance aspect of the show itself — the execution — and they can see when a character is really executing well, and then continue to explore and heighten that character. And that’s the case with Lord Loxley. He comes in — he had no idea that he had been spoken of. Lady Mae would speak of him, and he was an off-camera presence the first season. And then enter Aidan (McArdle). Aidan is this brilliant Irish-British actor who plays him so brilliantly; he plays him almost like Richard III in terms of he relishes in his own evilness. He enjoys it. And he really is a thorn in Harry’s side. He’s back, and he blames Harry for the loss of his wife because Harry was very close with Lady Mae. They had a great relationship. I think they are alike in a lot of ways. They’re both survivors and incredibly crafty and all that stuff. But it was totally a platonic relationship. There’s something about that relationship that really makes Lord Loxley crazy. And he’s hellbent on bringing Harry down and his store down. He’s quite capable of doing it.