A few hours after dawn, a group of extras suited up to play members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. and assembled on a tennis court at a Beverly Hills mansion -- the location for Episode 8 of HBO's industry insider "Entourage." "Just remember," instructed the second second assistant director, "They want everyone to know what Hollywood is like ... on TV." The cast chuckled knowingly.
While other shows about Hollywood ("The Comeback," "Unscripted") have come and gone, "Entourage" starts its third season tonight with the first of 20 episodes, up from 14 last year, which was up from just eight the first season. The stock reason for its success, widely cited by the show's creators and actors, is that "Entourage" isn't really about Hollywood. The series, they say, is about something almost everyone can relate to: the friendship of four young men trying to make it in a world without rules.
Still. What has agents, actors, producers and publicists hooked on the series, despite moderate viewership, is that it also is \o7really\f7 about Hollywood -- the real traffic snarls on PCH, real restaurants on Melrose, real Laker games and real relationships among agents, managers, publicists and actors. "Everyone in Hollywood watches that show," said Brent Bolthouse, the town's premier party promoter. "Everyone in Hollywood can relate. It's all in there."
More than the Urth Caffe, Playboy Mansion or the nightclub Prey, the locals can't wait to see the sly, often mortifying details of their own lives on the screen -- the high-stakes deals hanging on a lunch or a rumor, the short attention spans, the neuroses, the petty humiliations and faux reconciliations. Over the past two seasons, "Let's hug it out, bitch," the peace offering of the tightly coiled yet almost likable agent Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven), has worked its way into the local culture. "A lot of people use it, as a joke," said producer Ben Silverman ("The Office"), admitting he says it himself with colleagues.
"Entourage" adroitly blends fact and fiction in this brutish, sunny industry town, Silverman said. "Battles for supremacy go on all day long across Hollywood every day," he said. Who the actual gatekeeper is for a hot young actor like "Entourage's" Vincent Chase "is a real-life struggle playing out every day over lunch," he said.
The archetypes are so strong, some have even had trouble separating art from life. Director James Cameron, who played a megalomaniacal director named James Cameron working on a fictional movie called "Aquaman," said he was surprised that acquaintances believed the project was real. When he jokingly remarked that he was making "Aquaman," they replied, "Yeah, I heard that. How's it going?"
"The funniest thing for me," Cameron said, "is I could have made 'Aquaman' with just two phone calls. It shows you how warped our perspective is. It spawned real momentum."
The only false note in the show, Cameron believes, comes from the characters that are not underhanded or manipulative enough. Chase (Adrian Grenier), the show's central figure who employs his brother and two childhood friends from New York, is "just such a nice guy," Cameron said. "He has his friends' back."
Saddling up a posse
IN the beginning, there was an idea -- a show about an actor's posse based on Mark Wahlberg and his friends: Vincent's brother Johnny Drama (played by Kevin Dillon) has the same nickname as a cousin and member of Wahlberg's entourage; and Chase's film, "Queens Boulevard," is a reference to Wahlberg's "Boogie Nights."
But "Entourage" head writer Doug Ellin didn't like it. "I said, 'I don't get it.' It was about hangers-on. I don't want to watch a show about people who live off somebody else."
Eventually, Ellin said, "I had to figure out how to make the guys relatable to me." A New Yorker and former stand-up comedian who moved to Hollywood in 1990, Ellin had lived the life himself, worked in a production company mail room, made the club scene, got some films made ("Kissing a Fool"), hung out at Sundance.
He moved the characters' hometown from Boston to New York. And he made sure each member of the entourage had a purpose: Drama cooks for the household while seeking acting jobs; Eric (Kevin Connolly) was asked to help Vince run his career. "There's only one hanger-on," Ellin said. "Turtle. And he gets paid. He's a gofer."
Now, he said, "The majority of stuff comes out of my head. It's all loosely based on a bunch of people." Ari Gold's wife (Perrey Reeves), the real boss at home, is based on Ellin's wife; Ellin's own agent, Ari Emanuel informs, among others, the contentious Gold. Instead of a Wahlberg-like rough-and-tumble Vince, which was difficult to cast, Ellin based Chase on the more artistic Leonardo DiCaprio. "What would Leo do?" tends to be the watchwords on set.