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Smokin' Aces with Joe Carnahan and Jeremy Piven
By Sean Axmaker
January 29, 2007 - 12:35 AM PST

"Sometimes aggressively funny, sometimes aggressively violent, sometimes aggressively still and quiet."

Why a magician? Why is a stage magician instead of a singer or a comic or a more traditional Vegas headliner?

Carnahan: I like the idea of an illusionist, somebody being able to build worlds that are maybe built on sand. It's all sleight of hand, in the same way that you think about fame as a great sleight of hand. Buddy's able to posit himself as a kind of faux mob boss. He's able to convince enough people that he was legitimate and real and a serious enough threat that his greatest trick now will be, "How do I get out of this? Because I've obviously wandered into something that isn't like the movies. I don't want to go out in a blaze of glory in some gunfire, so now I'm facing this situation that I have to extract myself from. So how do I do that?"

You do it with what you've been doing your whole life, which is illusion. And I've always had a fascination with magic, if only because it is one of those things that continually confounds me. All magicians are essentially con men. They are, and I don't think that's being derogatory or pejorative in any way to magicians. I think it is a very, very elaborate con and I love the idea of it being in that world.

Jeremy, you turn Buddy's card handling into a reflexive piece of business. When he's nervous, he plays with the cards like it is instinctively calming. What did you as an actor have to do to get to that point, to make it look so natural and second nature that was like drumming your fingers?

Piven: I didn't have any real skills as a magician or even maneuvering around cards. There are guys who play a lot of poker that have a real reference for it. I'm coordinated - I'm a drummer; I've been playing the drums my whole life, and I'm an amateur mime. Paul Wilson was the guy I was working with and I had to start from scratch and use those cards as worry beads, which is what Buddy Israel does. I had to really start at the beginning, maneuvering around cards, and then get up there and perform magic tricks in front of a live audience. I had to get that all under my belt so that I could get a real sense of this guy, and I did. It changed my perception about magicians and about this character, and it gave me a real kind of reference and a sense memory as to what that feels like to pull one over on the entire crowd. And it is addicting. You just want to get higher, and that's what happened to Buddy.

You mentioned you had a career playing the abrasive best friend. What makes you the go-to guy for "abrasive"?

Piven: To be honest with you, it's a matter of who can actually do it. I made a real living at it because I think my real specialty was making something out of nothing. If you were to look at most of my roles, there are maybe just a couple of lines written. What I would bring to the table is, I would write out many different options in terms of the dialogue, and so then one scene may turn into three. Suddenly there's another role that comes up that is three scenes and then I whip three into five. You do the math. You're with me, right? Carry the two... And you just kind of keep going because I was never allowed to audition to play the guy that gets the girl. That was a very short list. And then within all that, you can't be more compelling or bigger in the frame than Nic Cage or any of the people that I've been lucky enough to play off. There is a whole process that you go through. Joe knows this; you test it and you've got your hero and you've got your abrasive best friend and never the two shall meet.

Carnahan: It becomes a very subjective thing run by studio wags who get paid exorbitant amounts of money to test those things. All I wanted to do with Jeremy, and all I wanted to do for me was to bring this considerable skill set to the party and not leave any tool unused. Break open the box and let's see everything. I want the crescent wrench, both the metric and the US, all that stuff.

Piven: And then he's like, "Do you have a blowtorch?" And I say, "Yes sir, I do."

Carnahan: And a wood burning tool, if that doesn't work for you.

Piven: And a branding device!

Joe, Smokin' Aces is very much like your first film, Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane, in that you start off with exposition delivered at a breakneck pace. There's a whole story that's already happened and here it is, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. You direct the dialogue and exposition like an action scene and then you throw the audience in to watch the pieces come together. No one else makes films like that.

Carnahan: That's right, that's what I want to do. Listen, all films should be different experiences but this one definitely has DNA strands from Blood, Guts. I love movies that punch me in the mouth a little bit and make me think. I like that Smokin' Aces is at times very frustrating and difficult and confounding. I like that. Good. I think that there's room for movies that are a little off-kilter and sometimes aggressively funny, sometimes aggressively violent, sometimes aggressively still and quiet. I'm glad you feel that way; that's the sense that you want to create, is that there aren't movies out there that are being made like this.

What is it about this unconventional structure that you like enough to come back to it with a bigger budget?

Carnahan: I had spent an inordinate amount of time on another movie, Mission Impossible 3, and I found that to be very confining in a lot of ways. When you no longer feel confined and restricted, you want that full range of motion and that's what Smokin' Aces is, man. It's like me saying, "I want to take everything that I've ever loved in a movie and try to put it in one film." And it's difficult and it represents to me a great challenge and a unique challenge and that's why I did it.

Jeremy, the part of Ari Gold on Entourage has made you, for lack of a better word, bankable. It has made your name and given you a high profile. But you've been working steadily for 20 years in movies and on TV, as well as the stage. For a professional actor, isn't that a success in itself of different kind?

Piven: When you get to perform and do your thing, whether it's on a stage in Chicago or anywhere along the journey, that's the success, to actually do what you love to do. But to be this stage actor who contributes a little bit here and there and guys like you recognize it and say, "Oh wow, I dig it," that doesn't mean that my phone rings. Because it never did. And that was part of the great lesson for me. You can't get ahead of yourself. You never compare and contrast, ever, because no good will come of it. Like Shakespeare says, "the readiness is all."

So if you're doing a thing, and you're contributing, someone will come along, like Joe Carnahan, with a role like Buddy Israel, or HBO, where something will open up. You have to understand, this role [on Entourage] that opened me up is an perfect example of my entire career. It's the fifth lead in an ensemble show in which I had one scene in the pilot. I had to take a chance on a guy named Doug Ellin, who is the creator of this show, billed behind a guy named Turtle.

I started off with no billing, no money, no trailer. The only thing that you have to go on is that fact that HBO is an incredible company to work for, in which their pedigree of show is like no other station, and they believe in their shows and let you find your voice. And the world is so incredibly fertile and this character, Ari Gold, exists in this universe and I know how to play him. So I had to say, "Put your ego aside." You can't come from a place where you're saying, "Yes, but I'm 40 movies into it and I should be producing and starring in my own show, if I were to go back to TV." There's no time for that. You've got to go in there and do your thing. And that's what, in a sense, broke me to the next level, so I'm really proud of that.

You keep going back to the stage. You've been quoted as saying, "I'm a stage actor, that's what I do."

Piven: Yeah, it is what I do. It's what I do best.

After all these movies and TV shows, you still make the time to back to the stage. Why?

Piven: Just because I love it and it literally is what I do best. I'm an actor that responds to momentum better than anything, so when you do a production, you do it all at once, obviously, and then you find a way to get that momentum. And you have those moments where you're trying to recreate that on the set, of constantly trying to get that momentum back. "Let's go again, let me do it again, let me do at least two in a row, let me do three in a row." And Entourage - thank God for those guys - they allow me to do it kind of like a play, so I do find that momentum. They never put the camera on sticks. It's never static. They bring a steadycam with me and there's a lot of movement, thanks to Doug Ellin, who has turned out to be an incredible writer/director/producer, and Julian Farino, who was a producer and our director.

Listen, truly it's all about the material. So if Neil Labute has an original play like Fat Pig and I make $11 a week, I'm on a plane and I'm there. It really doesn't matter to me. It really doesn't. I don't have an entourage. I don't have a lot of people I'm paying for. I can exist on very little, to be honest with you. So if there's a piece that I fall in love with, I can be down the street doing A Streetcar Named Desire, kabuki style, right next to Seattle's Best Coffee next Tuesday. That may happen. Just slide me the script.

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"We just vibed almost immediately."
"Sometimes aggressively funny, sometimes aggressively violent, sometimes aggressively still and quiet."

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Sean Axmaker
A film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database, Sean Axmaker is also a frequent contributor to MSN Entertainment, Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine and His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.

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January 29, 2007. Smokin' Aces with Joe Carnahan and Jeremy Piven by Sean Axmaker

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