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.
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 I: “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.
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.”
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.
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.
PART II: Assembling a Show
ELLIN The pilot was tough. It was seven days and a lot of voices. Kevin Dillon was like, “Can’t you idiots figure out who’s going to say what?”
DILLON It was basically working with six directors. We were getting conflicting directions. It drove me crazy.
ELLIN There was never really a plan. It was tough at first because you’ve got five great actors wanting to know, “What am I going to be doing?” I had no idea. I really didn’t.
CONNOLLY The Cannes red carpet was on another level. We were standing on the empty carpet that morning to rehearse the Medellin premiere scene, and they said to us, “You have one crack at this tonight, so if something happens, just go with it.” When we stepped on the carpet at 3 p.m. [immediately after A Mighty Heart star Angelina Jolie stepped inside], it was so loud that we couldn’t hear. We had to read lips so we didn’t step on one another’s lines. When the film came back a few days later, it was like: “Holy shit. How did you guys do that?” It looked like we had a million takes. From the beginning, we have always lived day to day, literally saying: “We don’t have an actor to do this. What’s going to happen?” In the pilot, there’s a scene with Jeremy and I at Koi and Ali Larter comes up …
ELLIN The original actress — I won’t say who — didn’t show up.
CONNOLLY We called Ali from the set. She was like: “What do you mean? Tonight? OK, I guess.” She helped us out in a huge pinch.
ELLIN It wasn’t even that easy to get Mark to do the pilot, but I wanted him in it. I didn’t know if he was coming or not. I remember we were standing on the Warner Bros.’ lot, and I was like, “Is he coming?” and Lev was like, “I think so …”
WAHLBERG Of course I had to do it. It would give it a little more credibility [to have another cameo].
ELLIN We were going to take bits of Mark’s life for Vince, but it became a combination of people. When Vince got offered to do a male-male scene in the early years, that was what I thought Mark might have been thinking when he got the Boogie Nights script. But when Vince was fired off of Aquaman, it was based on stories that I’d read about Spider-Man and Tobey Maguire. The character is named Vince because of Vince Vaughn. It sounds crazy now because Vince Vaughn makes $20 million a movie, but nine years ago when I first started writing this script, I was like, “Do you think there’s any way we could get Vince Vaughn?” It was done completely as an homage to the guy.
ALBRECHT These guys were writing so close to reality that show business people would watch the show and say, “That’s exactly how it is.” You had professionals going, “Yep, that just happened to me today.”
ELLIN We were taking in stories that we heard in town and spitting them out the way they came. Ari Emanuel really did leave his agency. After he saw that episode — which is still one of my favorite episodes in season two, where Ari gets fired trying to sneak out with the files — he told me he watched that with his wife, covering his face. He didn’t even know how we had gotten it so accurate. Then there was the Dom storyline — it would be like if one of my friends from Merrick or Connolly’s friends from Long Island wanted to come out to L.A. People were horrified. My mother called right after the episode and said she hated it. The phone calls just kept coming. And Ari and his wife are essentially my wife and me.
PIVEN Perrey [Reeves], who plays Mrs. Ari — and her name will be revealed this season, by the way — had basically one line in the scene.
ELLIN It’s my wife’s name, so …
PIVEN Yes, so Doug can go home. (Laughs.) As written [in the show’s fourth episode], we have this fight and I bark at her, “There’s a cabstand at f–in’ Yucca.” I said to her, “Instead of me barking at you and then you wandering away, why don’t you take the keys from me and wear the pants in this relationship, and then I’ll slink off after you.” She crushed it, and there was so much that was borne out of the relationship from that one moment.
ALBRECHT There was a time where we actually got a little bit too close to real-life situations. We had to be responsible because we ran the risk of insulting somebody.
ELLIN The Harvey Weingard character has an interesting backstory. Kevin Connolly calls me one night and says: “I’m at a party. Harvey Weinstein just came over and told me to tell my producers they’re dead. Tell them if they ever mention my name again, they’re dead.” [The character Harvey Weingard appeared in season two as a foul-mouthed producer and again in season four, purchasing Medellin for one dollar].
CONNOLLY “I kill people. I f–ing kill people” is what he said.
ELLIN And I’m like: “Did he really say that? Was he serious?” And [Connolly said], “I think he was serious.” Obviously, Harvey Weinstein is a legend, and everybody who knows him loves him or fears him. The story really hit me, and I had to bring him back. After the episode aired, Ari and Harvey called me together, and they seemed to love it.
CONNOLLY Early on, we took shots at people. It was never our intention to hurt anybody’s feelings or make anybody feel bad about themselves. When we started to realize that was a thing, we tried to back away. Like the Tara Reid thing, when Ari said: “No tequila? Tara Reid steal it?” I knew her, so I got the call from her. It bothered her.
PART III: Landing James Cameron
ELLIN James Cameron gave the whole show credibility. Janace Tashjian is my postproduction supervisor. She worked on Titanic with him. I wrote him into a script, and she said, “What are you doing?” I was like, “You know him.” I never in a million years thought we’d get him, and the truth is to this day, Aquaman the movie sounds terrible — but James Cameron’s Aquaman sounds great. Actually, I remember Mr. Cameron was writing Avatar while we were shooting his episode, and he came out of his trailer and he had my script, and he was like: “How do you do this? It’s so simple. I’ve got all of these blue guys …”
CONNOLLY When somebody’s playing themselves, they are very careful about the way they are portrayed. It’s funny how people take the show so literally.
ELLIN We had a reference about [Traffic screenwriter] Stephen Gaghan’s fee in an episode, and he called me up and said, “This is embarrassing, but you’re going to drop my quote if you put that in the show.” He was great about it. [In the episode that aired, Connolly’s character says, “$275,000 down the drain” after hiring and quickly firing Gaghan for a Medellin rewrite.]
CONNOLLY I always found that whenever directors, like Frank Darabont or Cameron, would come to Entourage, they’d all just seem to be happy to not be directing.
DILLON We’ve had Gus Van Sant, Martin Scorsese, Paul Haggis. Brett Ratner came on and did like 20 takes.
PIVEN Aaron Sorkin comes in, and he’s a genius writer, but he’s also an unbelievable actor. It’s a little unsettling. He was out-acting all of us.
ELLIN Sorkin killed it. There are some cameos we didn’t get. I wanted Russell Crowe. I tried for Obama this year. And Charlie Sheen. I spoke to his manager Mark Burg and he’s like, “Charlie loves it, he’ll call you back today.” I never got the call.
CONNOLLY We never really wanted Anthony Weiner. Doug tried to make a joke about it in an interview. He said, “I sent Weiner a text message and I haven’t heard back from him.”
WAHLBERG I think anytime you can have recognizable people playing themselves, it makes the show more effective.
GRENIER And because the show is shot so docu-style, it’s almost a reality show in a lot of ways. On some level, I think people get confused …
CONNOLLY It’s weird to me when somebody refuses to acknowledge the fact that it’s not real. I’m like: “Dude, are we really having this conversation right now? This is going to be over in two seconds if you don’t stop calling me E.” They somehow think they’ve gotten sucked into an episode or something.
FERRARA They often want an actual moment from the show. They’ll come up and say, “Hey, want to come smoke a joint?” I feel them get disappointed when I’m actually like, “I haven’t smoked weed in 10 years, sorry.” And even if I did, I don’t know if I would smoke your random weed.
CONNOLLY After the Sundance episode, all my friends from Long Island were calling me and screaming, “We’re going to Sundance next year!” After an episode airs, I have to break it to my buddies that it’s not always 100 pretty girls and two dudes walking around.
DILLON Everybody calls me Johnny. Actually, I started responding to it. Sometimes I’ll have to do a little “Victory!” just to get them out of my face.
PIVEN There was a moment when I actually went into my character’s mode. I was coming out of an osteopath, and Joel Silver was there. He was on the phone screaming, and I go, “What’s wrong, Joel?” He goes — I shouldn’t even tell this story, I’m going to get crushed. Anyway, he was trying to get Kate Beckinsale for a part, so I pick up the phone and start going as if someone yelled, “Action!” I started calling some people at my agency who got Kate on the phone immediately and worked this deal with him to get Kate Beckinsale a job.
PART IV: How to End a Hit Series
MICHAEL LOMBARDO, president of HBO programming I think Doug knew that if he was going to stay true to the characters, there would be bumps. As they’re approaching their 30s, there would be more stumbling blocks — not just disappointments in their careers but disappointments in their personal lives. He thought, and we totally supported him, that he had enough goodwill and had earned the opportunity with the viewers to take the show to a darker place last season. There were certainly some fans who missed the wish-fulfillment aspects of Entourage.
CONNOLLY It just goes to show that we affected people. I had some fans come up and go: “Oh man, my life’s hard enough. I watch your show to kind of boost me up for the upcoming week. What’re you doing to me?” I think people want to watch a show and feel happy.
ELLIN The only thing I can share about the final season is that I think people who have always loved the show, hated the show or changed their minds in the middle of the show, this will satisfy everybody. The last season gets back to our roots of the first season — it’s really about the guys looking out for one another.
LOMBARDO I went out to the last day of shooting [June 28], and I had a lump in my throat. It’s very bittersweet. This is a great group of people, and the show has meant an enormous amount to HBO. When you have something that’s working, it’s very hard to see it end.
FERRARA It’s been an amazing eight-year run. We wrapped up in a very traditional Entourage way, with all of the guys at the airport.
CONNOLLY I don’t want to give too much away, but I think it was important to all of us involved that we didn’t do an “ending” ending. We wanted to tee it up and be prepared to hopefully do the movie. We’re certainly not in a rush. The most important thing is that it’s done the right way. We’ve got a rep to protect. (Laughs.)
ELLIN We’ll see if there’s actually interest from a studio or whoever has to finance it, but I’m up for it.
WAHLBERG I think with the success of Sex and the City, there’s a good chance people believe there could be a great movie here. People have always complained the episodes are too short. I will fight to the end to get the movie made.