On Set with Mr. Selfridge’s Jeremy Piven

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Leah McLaren hits the aisles with Mr. Selfridge’s star Jeremy Piven (Historical Spoiler Alert!)

Jeremy Piven bursts onto the set, eyes bright, body vibrating with energy. “Sooo sorry to keep you guys waiting,” he says, flashing a feline smile to the assembled media who have just spent no less than eight hours hanging around set in the hope of meeting the star of the hit ITV period drama Mr. Selfridge. He takes his seat, the tape recorders click on and all is instantly forgiven.

We are sitting on set, in the Selfridge family dining room – a space filled with oriental vases, dark polished wood and leaded glass windows – think an urbane version of the dining room in Downton Abbey. The rest of us are out of place, but Piven looks perfectly at home, dressed as he is in a vintage wool waistcoat, burgundy tie and buttoned-up collar, his famous pit bull-jaw decorated with a manicured goatee that was the fashion of the time.

He might be late but, now that he is here, you get the sense that the star is entirely present. He presides at the head of the table, hands in prayer position under a thoughtful, jutted-out chin, taking questions as they come. Mostly he talks of his character, Harry Selfridge, the great American department store entrepreneur (founder of London’s Selfridges & Co. and an executive with Marshall Fields before that).

Now filming its third season, the show is on a remarkable high, enjoying big ratings and critical acclaim around the world in its first two seasons. Little wonder the drama has proved such an international hit – the concept by its very nature perfectly trans-Atlantic. The series opens with Harry Selfridge (Piven) having just arrived in London with his American wife and children in 1909 and preparing to open the so-called “greatest department store in the world!” – a feat he pulls off against all odds, in spite of shaky investment and risky overhead costs.

Selfridge, as Piven points out, “represents the kind of spirit that simply cannot be denied.” He is a drinker, a gambler and a showman – a man who loves his wife far more than monogamy, and risk far more than security. Irrepressible is the word that springs to mind, for more than anything else, Harry Selfridge, once set on course, cannot be stopped – and this will ultimately be his undoing. Though the show is just entering the later days of the character’s mid-life, we know from history that the
real-life Harry Selfridge died penniless, living with his eldest daughter, Rosalie – the tragic victim of his own risk-taking nature.

But before things went pear-shaped for Harry, many of his risks paid off. Not only that, they changed the face of modern consumerism as we now know it.

For as much as Mr. Selfridge is a show about one man’s life, career and dark family secrets (imagine Mad Men set in the Victorian era), it is also a show about shopping and how our need to buy things ultimately changed the world.
“A hundred years ago, you couldn’t just walk into a shop and buy anything you wanted,” pointed out Samuel West, a respected British film and theatre actor on the show who joined us earlier in the day. West plays Frank, a wise-cracking journalist who initiates Harry to the city’s more, shall we say, underground delights.

“Back then, a lady went to her dressmaker and the gentleman went to his tailor.Then Harry Selfridge came in and said, ‘Let’s go out and get the best things in the world, and we’ll sell them.” He brought in public toilets and bargain basements and invented everything that actually makes shopping a pleasurable experience. It seems normal now, but at the time it was just extraordinary.”

The notion of shopping as a transformative experience – rather than a necessary everyday trifle – is close to the heart of Mr. Selfridge. In many ways, Harry acts as a reverse cultural pioneer: a new world American capitalist who returns to the motherland (Britain) to spread his love of fashion and consumer spectacle.

Interestingly, many of the things we think of as antiquated in today’s point-and-click world of online shopping were once revolutionary, even shocking. There is the scene in the first season when, watching his showgirl mistress applying her makeup in her boudoir, Harry decides he will put cosmetics on display in the store. The young Victorian women in the accessories department are horrified – cosmetics are for “ladies of the night,” selling them is a bit risqué – but Selfridge insists, and the modern-day cosmetics counter is born. This paves the way for gloves, hats and scarves to come out of their glass cases and onto the shop floor where customers can touch and enjoy them. Harry’s hedonistic world view is brilliantly applied to the experience of buying things (why shouldn’t shopping be pleasurable?) with spectacular and history-making results.

But it’s not all showgirls and big profits for Harry. The show has a dark side, one that plays out through the many shop clerks who struggle with their own personal and political trials, especially through the Sufferage movement and, a little later, the First World War. If the first season was all about Harry’s indulgence, the second is about his struggle and triumph over his demons.

And then, as Piven puts it, “Just as he is finally become the sort of man and husband he wants to be, tragedy strikes.” He finds out his wife, Rose, is dying.

In the third season, which opens at Rose’s funeral, we find ourselves in a much more sombre place. “All the seeds that have been planted are finally coming to fruition in this season,” says Piven, though he is duty-bound not to give anything away. “There is a lot of action, but all of it is warranted because all of it is earned.”

But does he find it difficult, I wonder, playing a character that he knows ultimately comes to a tragic end? On the contrary. “That’s kind of what’s fun about it.” In fact, Harry’s many flaws attracted him to the character in the first place – perhaps not a surprising revelation from the man who brought to life Entourage’s Ari Gold, the most loveable TV drama jerk since Dallas’s J.R. Ewing.

“Initially, they said to me, ‘How are you going to create a character who cheats on his wife and that people still care about?’ But that’s actually the type of hurdle that you look for as an actor. There’s nothing clear-cut about this character in terms of him being appealing or anyone being on his side. It’s my job as an actor to … figure it out.”

The fact that the real Harry Selfridge went from rags to riches and ultimately back to rags again is not something that Piven concerns himself with too much as the show progresses. “Just as you can’t judge your character, you also can’t get ahead of him. And you may know where things are going from reading the script what the ultimate agenda is, but you have to put it out of your head and be totally present and in the moment.”

And with that, Piven gives a bright-eyed nod and polite goodbye and is gone. Off to shoot another scene in the life of his on-screen alter-ego, the magical and mysterious Harry Selfridge.

Zoomer magazine, Dec/Jan 2014