It's lunchtime July 8, and the creator and stars of HBO's "Entourage" — starting its eighth and final season July 24 — are catching up over drinks at Montage Beverly Hills' new Macallan Bar, £10, for a discussion with The Hollywood Reporter.
Adrian Grenier leisurely peruses his iPad as Jeremy Piven, Kevin Connolly and Kevin Dillon discuss the merits of "Cowboys & Aliens" star Harrison Ford. "He can open anything," Piven says with a dismissive wave of the hand. A noticeably slender Jerry Ferrara steps onto a balcony overlooking the hotel's glimmering pool and lights a cigarette while series creator Doug Ellin coordinates transporting his own entourage — his brother Rob, childhood friend Larry and Larry's wife — from the valet stand to £10 two floors above.
Bowing in 2004, five months after the network's storied series "Sex and the City" bid farewell and as "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under" headed into the twilight, the half-hour dramedy from then-freshman showrunner Ellin and executive producers Mark Wahlberg and Steve Levinson (Wahlberg's longtime manager) followed four friends — all little-known actors at the time — from Queens as they navigated Hollywood's glitzy labyrinth of sex, drugs and velvet ropes.
Averaging 8.1 million weekly viewers in its 2010 season, up from 4.7 million in season one, the first real glimpse at the seductive inner workings of the entertainment industry has become a cult favorite not only with its slightly male-skewing 18-to-49 demo (among HBO's youngest series) but also with the industry it depicts.
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Now, nearly a decade and six Emmy wins later, the group finally reveals the inspiration for the eerily familiar characters, too-close-for-comfort storylines and hush-hush plans for a big-screen sequel in a candid conversation with THR's Leslie Bruce and Lacey Rose. (Because of scheduling, interviews with Wahlberg, Levinson and execs Chris Albrecht and Michael Lombardo were conducted separately.)
PART 1: 'HBO was very, very hard on us'
Mark Wahlberg, executive producer: It all started when I was making a documentary about my friend Donkey [Donnie Carroll], the real Turtle, and his quest to become a rapper. The reality TV craze was just beginning, and everybody started saying: "We should film you and all your guys and all the craziness going on. That would be even funnier." I said, "Absolutely not." So we decided to turn it into a scripted version.
Steven Levinson, executive producer: Doug's older brother is one of my closest friends from college, so Doug and I have been friends for a long time. I suggested to Mark that we go to him to do this. [At the time, Ellin was an out-of-work writer and independent filmmaker.]
Wahlberg: Early on, Doug and [executive producer] Larry Charles would come over to my house and I would invite lots of friends over, and we would tell lots of stories of things that happened along the way. I always felt that I could trust Doug.
Doug Ellin, creator: Mark was gracious enough to say, "OK, I'm going to stand back and let you guys take whatever you want from my life and, hopefully, it's going to make me look good." I wrote a draft that Steve and I really liked. After showing it to HBO's Carolyn Strauss and Chris Albrecht, Steve called me and said, "They hated it." I said, "What did they hate about it?" And he said, "Everything." I took my German shepherd to the park, it was 1 o'clock in the morning, and I just sat there.
Levinson: The original script was pretty dark in terms of where Vince was in his career. There was an edge to it. It was very representative of where we ended up going.
Ellin: It opened at the premiere of Vince's movie; everybody hated it and nobody knew how to tell him. Carolyn and Chris at HBO kept trying to get me to go further back with the story so I had somewhere to go with it. They were interested in the wish-fulfillment aspect.
Chris Albrecht, former HBO chairman: What I felt from the beginning was the same thing that I felt about "Sex and the City" before we launched that show. It was tapping into something that people were becoming obsessed about: celebrity and fame. And we were consciously going after a younger audience. We wanted to make sure we were grooming a younger demographic to want to become HBO subscribers, so this show had to be fun. We wanted the audience to want to be this guy.
Ellin: I'd never run a show before. HBO was very, very hard on us. They had us do draft after draft. It was a long, tiresome project that I never imagined was going to go after the reaction to the first script.
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Wahlberg: If they had done my version, it would have had a lot more violence and craziness that people might not have found entertaining. Ultimately, you want to feel good at the end of watching it. Too much of it would have been a downer.
Levinson: It wasn't that there was a whole host of notes — there was one note, and it had two words: "More fun." Doug and I initially needed to understand the distinction between fun and funny. It seems obvious, but it wasn't to us at the time.
Ellin: If you're driving in a Ferrari with three beautiful women, you're having fun. It's not funny. HBO also was very adamant that this should not be a story-driven show. The last script I wrote had almost no story. I was like: "This is the worst script I've ever written. There's nothing happening, they smoke some pot, they pick up girls." That was the script that got green-lit. Then we had to find a cast.
Wahlberg: Originally, we couldn't find that many Boston guys who were believable and were going to fit those roles. My friends [on whom the characters are inspired by] all had an opportunity to play themselves. Johnny "Drama" [Alves] even auditioned for Ari as well. But the biggest thing was finding a guy who was a believable star that wasn't already one.
Ellin: Nobody thought we could cast the Vince character. There was a time when HBO would say, "Less Vince, less Vince."
Albrecht: Vince was the tough one. If you didn't believe that Vince is a movie star, then you would never believe the show. But there was just something in Adrian's eyes that made me say, "I believe him; I believe this." It was definitely a different way to go; it wasn't quite Wahlberg; it was more Leonardo DiCaprio.
Adrian Grenier, "Vincent Chase": I was in Mexico at the time, flat broke, when I got a call from Steve Levinson, who's my manager, and he said: "You're coming to L.A. There's a show, and you're perfect for it." I asked what it was, and he said "Entourage" on HBO. I told him I didn't do TV, and I hung up. Imagine if he let me get away with that.
Ellin: By the time we finally had a script that was a go, Adrian read it and said: "There's no character here. There's nothing for me to do." And there really wasn't. We added a lot of Vince literally in the last three days before we shot the script.
Wahlberg: Adrian and Jerry were more concerned with the Yankees, who were in the playoffs at the time. I told Jerry: "This role is yours to lose. Go in there and f--ing smoke these guys." I was very involved with casting. Then I had to convince Jeremy that this would be a career-defining role for him.
Ellin: Ari was not prominent in any of the earlier drafts. At one point, he came out of the show. Originally, Jeremy Piven reminded me of my agent Jeff Jacobs from CAA, so in my very first outline I had written Piven in as playing Jeff. Then I went into the initial pitch meeting and met [Wahlberg's agent] Ari Emanuel, who said: "All right, it's Mark and his life. This guy is going to write it, and if it sucks, we'll fire him and someone else will rewrite it." I had never seen anybody in this business really talk like that. I always thought that was just in the movies. So I said: "This guy's a character. He has to be in the show." Then I met Piven, who had gotten himself into great shape, and at that point he kind of looked like Ari.
Jeremy Piven, "Ari Gold": My agent said I had this audition for "Entourage." They said, go in and audition, so I read the pilot and, you know, I'm 200 years old and I've been acting for 197 years, so to play the ninth lead behind Turtle and make $11 — I figured maybe I could go in and meet these fine people, and they'd say, "Thank you so much."Get a sneak peek of 'Entourage' season 8
Ellin: Our casting director didn't tell me that she was forcing him to read. I thought the meeting was to kiss his ass because I thought Jeremy was a big star. The role was not necessarily going to be a regular, and I was being told: "You cannot have him. It's that simple. He has to sign a six-year deal [and he didn't want to]." I was saying, "We can write him out, we can do anything, but we've got to have him." Ari Emanuel called from a plane in China and said, "Jeremy Piven plays me, or take my name off it."
Grenier: Before Jeremy had agreed to do the part, we were already shooting 12- and 14-hour days. We didn't know if Jeremy was going to say yes. I remember Doug got off the phone and announced to the crew, "We got him." The whole crew erupted in applause. I'd never seen such relief on Doug's face.
Ellin: I told Jeremy, "I swear to God, this show might be terrible, but I know how to write you." Ari Emanuel was a jumping-off point, just like all of these characters that exist in real life were jumping-off points. It clearly shifted from that.
Piven: I know I'm not supposed to talk about this, but I don't care. Ari Emanuel is such a specific guy. He's highly intelligent, motivated and an overachiever. He's such a character, and to be around him is kind of fascinating. Reading that pilot, his cadence was there. All of his tics, his energy and his brilliant ADD fuel this character.Story: Grenier says ‘Entourage’ movie will happen
Wahlberg: There was a time when I think Ari was a little uncomfortable with it, but he's gotten used to it. Every once in a while he'd call up and say, "Guys, you cannot do this." Now, we go golfing, and somebody will come up to me and say, "I like 'Entourage.' " And Ari will say: "You know who I am? I'm the real Ari."
Kevin Connolly, "Eric 'E' Murphy": When the calls were coming through about the show, I kept blowing them off. It was a little too close to home for me. Leo [DiCaprio] and I are buddies, so the way they pitched it to me sounded too weird. Finally, I got a call from Mark, whom I had known for 10 years, and it was like getting called in by the mob boss for a sit-down. I went to meet him at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and he was sitting at the bar with David O. Russell, who says, "Is this our guy?" And Mark says, "Yeah, that's him."
Kevin Dillon, "Johnny 'Drama' Chase": I was actually the only one auditioning for Johnny Drama. I looked around the room, and there were so many guys in there, I figured there had to be a couple Dramas.
Wahlberg: When Kevin Dillon walked in the room, I said, "Nobody else should even read for the part — and he shouldn't even have to read for the part."
Jerry Ferrara, "Sal 'Turtle' Assante" I had just signed with Steve Levinson, and he had seen an independent film I did. He said I should meet with Doug. I auditioned for it quite a few times, and the biggest stress for me was just the age thing. I was 24 years old and didn't even have facial hair yet.
Connolly: It's funny. I know it's something that you guys were concerned about early on, but nobody has ever questioned how these guys could be such good friends when the age difference is so great. It's never come up.
Dillon: It's because of my youthful good looks.
Piven: Let's be honest: We've been working for eight seasons without close-ups. You get close on Johnny Drama, and he's a crypt-keeper.
Copyright 2012 The Hollywood Reporter