Vincent Chase is the hottest actor in Hollywood. He's Leonardo DiCaprio with added height, Brad Pitt without the love problems, Tom Cruise without the issues. He has a blockbuster film directed by James Cameron due out any day now and free access to Hollywood's hippest bars and coolest clubs. If you had to create a movie star from a blender, then the laid-back Vince Chase, admired by men and adored by women, is what you'd come up with. There's only one problem: he doesn't actually exist.
Welcome to the world of Entourage, America's hottest comedy, a show that has gone from cult viewing to commercial hit in the time it takes Harvey Weinstein to greenlight a project and which arrives in Britain on ITV2 this Sunday.
Based on the early Hollywood career of actor Mark Wahlberg, Entourage centres around the exploits of Vince, a young actor living the life of a Hollywood player with his three friends from Queens, New York: the responsible Eric (known as E), who works as his manager; the dope-smoking, hip-hop-adoring Turtle, who is his driver; and Johnny Drama, Vince's half-brother, a failed actor. Meanwhile Vince's agent, Ari Gold (scene-stealing Jeremy Piven), is desperate to ensure that his client goes from stardom to superstardom as soon as possible.
The show is filled with knowing movie references (when Vince hits the big time with the launch of Aquaman the episode references Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous; when E meets faded Seventies producer Bob Ryan the scenes were shot at Seventies producer Robert Evans's house).
"Entourage works because it's about male friendship," says Doug Ellin, the show's writer and director (Wahlberg has an executive producer's credit). "The Hollywood setting is entertaining but it's really about the relationship between these guys. I get people coming up to me the whole time and saying: 'My friends are just like the guys from Entourage - we've got a Turtle and a Drama etc.' "
All of which makes Entourage sound like a male version of Sex in the City - and certainly that's how HBO, the show's maker, initially tried to position it. Thankfully, it failed because Entourage is funnier and warmer. And never more knowing than in the casting of Kevin Dillon, brother of Matt, as Vince's hapless, career-obsessed brother, a man whose biggest concern is whether calf implants would improve his casting options.
"Matt and I did laugh about it," Dillon admits. "Our relationship isn't really like the one between Drama and Vince, but I have crashed on Matt's couch before and, yeah, there were times when I wondered what was going on with my career. It's different now. Matt's even talking about maybe directing an episode."
If he did, he would join a long list of stars who have fallen over themselves to get on the show, including Ralph Macchio sending up his time as The Karate Kid. but Ellin stresses that he doesn't want it to become too heavy with in-jokes. "I know people enjoy the Hollywood references," he says. "But I think that would become pretty stale if the whole show was based around that. People enjoy watching Ari manoeuvre his way around Hollywood and they like watching the whole lifestyle thing, but I think the show has to have some heart. We would never do a story line where, say, Vince dumped his friends or someone developed a cocaine problem, because I think those sorts of story lines are overdone and clichéd.
"I grew up in New York and when I came here I could have done all that sort of stuff but I didn't. I'm still friends with the guys I was friends with before I came to LA and I want the show to reflect that you can do that."
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While that may be the case, Entourage's mythology has begun to take on a life of its own. When Vince won the part of Aquaman in an imaginary blockbuster to be directed by James Cameron, it wasn't long before Hollywood producers started mooting the idea of a real Aquaman movie provisionally directed by, you've guessed it, James Cameron.
Similarly, the low-budget indie movie Queens Boulevard, which Vince agrees to do in the show's first season, bears a remarkable resemblance to Oscar-winner Paul Haggis's The Black Donnellys, which is due to hit American TV screens this autumn. (In a further life-imitating-art-imitating-life twist Haggis has a cameo in season three offering Vince a role in a film about Pablo Escobar called Medellin.) By the time Vince considered doing a Ramones biopic late in series three, websites were beginning to suggest that Ellin should consider pitching to Hollywood rather than simply sending it up every week.
If Ellin finds that the line between art and reality has increasingly blurred, that's nothing compared to what Adrian Grenier, who plays Vince, is finding. "I do sometimes feel as though it's not me whose famous, it's Vincent Chase," he says. "You get people yelling 'Hey, Vince" at you when you're walking down the street and you do wonder sometimes are people offering you things or are they offering them to Vince?'
Yet that blurring between the lines is precisely what has made Entourage such a success. All the actors have a New York connection and most of them had been around for a while. The amiable Brooklyn-born Jerry Ferrara (Turtle) was best known for his role in the sitcom King of Queens, Kevin Connolly (E) was on the verge of quitting acting for directing, while Grenier was a veteran of quirky indie films.
"It was important to us to have actors who understood the material," Ellin says. "You couldn't have cast really successful actors because it would have unbalanced it and they needed to have that New York attitude, that sense they'd all stick together."
Jeremy Piven was probably the best known of the cast, having built a name for himself with eye-catching roles in films such as Grosse Pointe Blank, Heat and Old School and if a show with such a tight ensemble cast can be said to have a breakout star, then it's Piven.
His Ari, whose foul-mouthed catchphrases delivered at high speed include the immortal line "Call me Helen Keller, baby, because I am a fucking miracle-worker" is everything we're supposed to hate about Hollywood. He's venal, duplicitous, almost entirely without morals. The fact that we don't hate him is down to his unswerving loyalty to Vince and, despite all appearances, his fidelity to his wife, whom he refers to only as "Mrs Ari".
"Affection is key," says Ellin. "We're not saying Hollywood's a terrible place, we're saying this is how it works. Here are the good bits and here are the bad. It can be great and it can be really frustrating." He pauses. "But, you know, with lots of great jokes along the way."
'Entourage', ITV2, Sunday, 10pm
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