Inside a colossal and cold warehouse in north London, Jeremy Piven’s striding through the doors of the beautifully replicated ground-floor of Selfridges department store as it would have looked at its opening in 1909.
Wearing the suit and tales of an Edwardian gentleman, he’s unrecognisable as the man who came to prominence playing neurotic movie agent Ari Gold in glossy Hollywood drama Entourage.
“Someone asked what I was doing here in London and I told them I’m an actor and working on a TV show,” recalls Piven during a break in filming. “The woman went, ‘That must be tough because you look so much like that guy Jeremy Piven. Is that weird for you?’ It was like an out-of-body experience,” says the 47-year-old actor, laughing.
He blames the confusion on the beard he’s grown to play Harry Selfridge, the flamboyant visionary who founded London’s famous department store and who’s the focus of a glossy ITV1 production called Mr Selfridge.
A true showman, Selfridge garnered publicity for his store through bodacious PR stunts and with an almost manic energy, created a theatre of retail that revolutionised the way we shop.
“We’re shooting an episode right now where he embraces the beauty products and basically decides to put them at the front of his store when no-one was doing that over here,” explains Piven.
“He even decided to take a chance with make-up when no one was doing it. At the time, people thought it was only for those on the stage or prostitutes.”
In another storyline, Harry persuades a sceptical Louis Bleriot to display his plane inside the store after the French aviator had become world famous by making the first flight across the English Channel.
“It wasn’t easy for Selfridge and I’m sure people looked at him like he was crazy,” says the diminutive Piven, a smiling, friendly presence who’s the antithesis of his Entourage alter-ego. “But he put a lot of time, money and effort into publicising his store like you would a play.”
Selfridge had already transformed Chicago’s Marshall Field’s into a modern department store when he moved to London.
Piven, who was born in New York but brought up in the Windy City, can recall visiting the iconic shop.
“My family have a real history with it so I had a sense of where this guy came from,” says the actor who now lives in Los Angeles.
A man on a mission to make shopping as thrilling as sex, he describes Selfridge as a “feast” to bring to life.
“There are so many sides to this guy. There’s the public persona and then the private persona and, as an actor, to play those dualities is just a gift.”
The drama’s based on the book Shopping, Seduction And Mr Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead, from which the revered screen-writer Andrew Davies (of Pride And Prejudice, Bleak House and Little Dorrit fame) has cherry-picked the most intriguing aspects to create an epic, glamorous story.
As part of his research, Piven read the many books written about the great man - and also by him.
“He wrote a book about the romance of commerce and he’s pretty well documented, so that really kept me busy,” says Piven, who was astounded by the man’s energy.
“He was out almost every night but never missed that moment the doors opened,” he explains.
“Really, he was the first celebrity of the time who was available to be seen every day at his store. He loved [the recognition] and ate it up.”
Selfridge also had the unique ability to understand women.
“He loved, honoured, respected and celebrated women and wanted them to feel empowered,” says Piven, who isn’t married but is currently dating.
But Selfridge was no angel. The married family man was well known for his wandering eye.
“If you’re going to celebrate someone’s life then you need to celebrate their whole life,” says Piven. “We all have a shadow side and he lives in the light so much professionally but he loved to go out and gamble, it made him feel alive - and he was also susceptible to women.
“But you know, you can’t judge a man,” Piven adds, shrugging. “When you’re playing him, you’ve just got to inhabit it.”
One of the women Selfridge falls for in the drama is the celebrated stage star Ellen Love, played by Zoe Tapper.
Another important woman in Selfridge’s life is the confident, alluring and obscenely rich Lady Mae, played by Katherine Kelly, whose connections prove vital as Selfridge builds his empire.
“Those who only know her as Coronation Street’s Becky won’t be able to recognise her in this at the opposite end of the spectrum. She’s a genius,” says Piven. “I loved working with her because Selfridge bounds through these scenes with such confidence but then with her, he doesn’t know what to do with himself.”
But it wasn’t only the script, or the brilliant ensemble cast that drew him to the project - Piven also jumped at the opportunity to work in Britain.
“I’ve been such a fan of the UK and their arts for a really long time so it’s kind of an honour,” he sayse.
l Mr Selfridge begins on ITV1 on Sunday, January 6