In a powerhouse turn Jeremy Piven stars as a Jewish tap dancer in Nazi Germany in “THE PERFORMANCE”

Last Updated: January 6, 2024By Tags: ,

We’re used to watching Jeremy Piven be funny. His darkly humorous turn during eight seasons on “Entourage,” to say nothing of his earlier work in “PCU” and “Grosse Pointe Blank,” have made the Chicago native a favorite of directors seeking to realize edge, slightly (or more than slightly) dangerous obsessives fond of four-letter vocabulary.

Indeed, while appearing on a video call from Houston, Piven was prepping for some standup dates at the Improv. And even though the film we were here to discuss was quite serious, the 58-year-old seemingly couldn’t resist trying out some schtick on a humble reporter.

“As an actor, if I can’t be present and perform with the [contours] of the script…and what’s in front of me, I should truly give it up and find other work—go into roofing or something,” Piven said. “I think the last Jewish carpenter was Christ. ‘Goodnight, everyone, thank you for coming!’”

It’s a tension-breaking moment—and a welcome one at that. Piven had agreed to discuss his exceptional star turn in the new film “The Performance,” which premieres at the Palm Springs International Film Festival on Jan. 7 at the Annenberg Theatre. Based on a short story by “The Crucible” playwright Arthur Miller, “The Performance” centers on an American tap dancer named Harold (Piven) whose troupe is invited to perform in Berlin in 1937. At first, Harold, who is Jewish, pauses at the invitation, but the money will be good—and the entreaty from the charming Nazi officer Flugler (Robert Carlyle) is so strong that Harold risks it all to bring entertainment to the highest levels of the Third Reich.

Piven is also a producer on “The Performance.” His sister Shira Piven (“Welcome to Me”) directs from a screenplay she co-wrote with Josh Salzberg. Jeremy says it was their mother, Joyce, who first brought Miller’s story to his attention.

“I immediately knew that I had to do it,” he said. “It was such a beautiful way to illustrate how insane any type of racism, antisemitism, and any type of hatred is. It illustrated it so beautifully and organically.”

The Pivens’ late father, Byrne, was a legend in the Chicago theater scene. He even cofounded a theater company with Mike Nichols and Elaine May that helped train many actors working today—including Jeremy. But one thing Byrne did not teach his son was how to tap dance.

“It was a combination of story, theater, drama, and sketch comedy, where we would do improv,” Jeremy said. “I started working with [Byrne] when I was 8 [but] tap dancing and musical theater wasn’t a part of the program.”

Accordingly, Jeremy studied with Broadway mainstay Jared Grimes, who also choreographed the dance routines in “The Performance.” (Grimes has a very small but crucial role in the film.) Because it took nearly a decade to get the film off the ground, Jeremy had more than enough time to perfect his toe-tapping technique.

“I was able then to fully, authentically play the role,” he said. “The greatest quality an actor can have is to be completely delusional and not let reality get in your way [of] why I shouldn’t play a tap dancer in this drama.”

Shira, speaking from a home she owns in Ireland, said that she and Jeremy have much experience over the decades working together on stage. She’s directed him before, as she has both of their parents—but this was definitely the first time she had done so when Jeremy cracked several ribs during one particular scene.

“I didn’t really get hung up on the fact that he was my brother until he broke his ribs” during that intense scene, Shira shared, “and then all bets were off. But [even before] then, we were comfortable, and we trusted each other. It was really fun watching him play and maybe giving him one little thing and seeing him run with it.”

That word “play” came up frequently with the Piven siblings—not just in terms of the act of portraying a role but in granting both Jeremy and the rest of her cast the room to find their characters more authentically.

“Giving actors freedom is to me so incredibly important [to] play to their full potential,” she said. “I believe that with actors, and I believe it with heads of department as well: They have to be free to follow their instincts, and I will kind of guide them from there.”

A crucial performance in the film comes from Carlyle as Flugler, whose money entices Harold to bring his troupe of tappers to Germany. Flugler, himself a failed actor, sees Harold as almost a vessel for his own frustrated ambitions. What Flugler doesn’t know, however, is Harold’s religion. That tension informs much of “The Performance” as the relationship between Harold and Flugler blossoms while in Germany, even as Harold becomes increasingly paranoid that his Jewish identity will become known.

Though Carlyle, known for malevolent turns in films such as “Trainspotting,” was called upon to pull off some truly dark moments, Jeremy says the Scottish thespian was both a great scene partner and a kind human being.

“It was funny because [when] we did our first scene, Shira came over, and it was the only time I saw her say ‘I don’t have any notes,’” Jeremy said. “As sweet as [Carlyle] is, there was a certain evilness that he inhabited that was so palpable and so frightening. And you have to understand, he’s wearing an actual Nazi uniform.”

“When I had my first meeting with [Carlyle], it was over Zoom because we were already in Slovakia doing preproduction,” added Shira, who said the actor profusely thanked her for considering him for the part. “He just fell in love with the story and the character.”

“I think actors can learn a lot from his performance because you’re never the devil in your own story,” Jeremy said of his costar. “And that’s the way he played it. You get a sense that this guy, who had always longed to be a performer and was passed over…sees us performing, and it kind of awakens that inside of him.

“He and I mirror each other because he’s trying to impress the Führer, and I’m trying to impress the universe.”

Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava, stood in for Nazi-era Berlin. Because the country shares a border with Ukraine, several refugees from that war-torn nation even became extras in “The Performance.”

“It’s the least we could do,” Jeremy said. “Being on set and being so lucky to be a part of my dream production, and then at the same time to meet a man who was a police officer in Kyiv, and now he’s working as an extra with his family on my set [was] just really heartbreaking.”

One of the Pivens’ uncles served and died in the Second World War; his stated mission for joining up was to fight the Nazis. While many in the world chose to disbelieve, or even ignore, that the persecution of Jews was a major part of Hitler’s plans, Shira said that her father’s contemporaries in America weren’t so naive. Shira said that another living uncle, now in his nineties, told her, “We knew what was going on.”

“[He] didn’t have the internet, didn’t have all of the tools that we have now to know what’s going on in the world,” she said. “But he felt like ‘we’ knew. And I don’t think Harold knows everything, but he knows it’s dangerous,” but he nonetheless travels to Berlin with his dancers anyway.

The film’s dance sequences are extraordinary, certainly as choreographed by Grimes, as captured by Shira and her director of cinematographer Lael Utnik, and rendered into exciting montage thanks to editors Oona Flaherty, Jessica Hernández and Michael Hofacre. They bring an exciting artistic levity to what is often a very difficult film to watch.

It all adds up to a rather unique cinematic experience as well as a tour-de-force for Jeremy and his acting skills. “The Performance” tackles those dark times in a way that perhaps would have been difficult to realize on film when Arthur Miller first wrote the story. But thanks to the work of a gifted pair of siblings, the lessons of “The Performance” can be experienced in this haunting film that is not only about prejudice but who we are both in front of other people—on stage, as it were—as well as in the privacy of our own lives when some manner of “pretend” is still required to hide our true selves.

“It’s so difficult to make an independent film. It’s almost like a miracle,” Jeremy said. And to do one that’s a period piece, that takes place in 1937, is very rare because I can tell you firsthand, it took me over ten years to find the money.

“And the more they said no, the better I got at tap.”

The heavy subject matter of “The Performance” may explain Jeremy’s cracking several jokes during our conversation—which was also punctuated with discussions about Chicago-style deep dish pizza in homage to his family’s history in that city.

“An Irish goodbye is when you leave without saying goodbye,” Jeremy said, returning to schtick that leavened the mood of the chat. “A Jewish goodbye is when you say goodbye, and you never leave. ‘Goodnight, everyone!’”

“The Performance” will screen at the Palm Springs International Film Festival January 7, 12 and 14.


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