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September 2 2014

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How He Made How To Make It In America

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You may not know who Ian Edelman is, but you’re about to enter his world. Edelman (pictured, with Victor Rasuk) is the creator of the new HBO series How to Make It in America, which stars Bryan Greenberg, Rasuk, Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, and Lake Bell in the red-hot center of the downtown New York art and fashion scene. Locations such as Avenue and La Esquina will feel suggestively familiar to members of the city’s real-life fashion set; so too will series story lines about, say, day-jobbing at Barneys and trying to launch a denim line. Here, Edelman talks with Style.com about American dreams, New York stories, and what he learned from the Pegleg designers.

This show strikes me as possibly autobiographical. Is Ben you? Did you make an abortive effort to launch a denim line in your twenties?
Actually, the idea for the show came from me reading about all these American success stories and getting inspired. I mean, look at Ralph Lauren. Ralph Lifshitz from the Bronx, he gets his foot in the door of the fashion industry and through sheer, you know, vision and hustle, winds up creating the first lifestyle brand. He’s an icon and a gazillionaire. And I started wondering, how would that story play out in the world I know?

Which is where the autobiographical tone comes in, I suppose. You do a good job setting up that downtown skate/art demimonde.
Yeah, well, I grew up in New York, skating, playing basketball, and I wanted to show that world off. But I’ll tell you who did have a clothing line, if you want autobiography—Stephen Levinson, who’s the executive producer of this show and of Entourage. HBO put us together after they bought the pitch for How to Make It in America, and one of the ideas he brought to the table was this story of trying to start a sportswear brand, because that was something he’d done, pre-Hollywood.

Did your original concept for the show change much through development?
The show did turn into more of an ensemble piece than I’d imagined.

I guess I’m mostly wondering if the show you’d conceived got Entourage-ed.
Well, obviously, they’ve had a ton of success with Entourage, and so there were conversations like, OK, here’s something we know works for Entourage, story-wise; is there a way we can use that? And there are similarities. But there’s a huge difference, too: How to Make It in America is not wish-fulfillment television. These guys are strivers; they get into a club because they know the bouncer, not because anybody’s a movie star.

One of the other big differences that struck me is that the female characters in How to Make It in America are much more fully realized than they ever are on Entourage. Was that a goal, going in?
Not an explicit goal, but we knew that Rachel—Lake Bell’s character—was going to be a core character, and so of course we had to invest in her point of view. I think that character brings up another big difference between this show and Entourage…I mean, Entourage is almost totally focused on the Hollywood, industry part of L.A. Whereas we cross the borders of New York—there’s Rachel, who works downtown, but who has this very north-of-14th Street aspect to her, and there’s Luis Guzmán’s character, who’s a Dominican gangster trying to go straight, and there’s another key character who’s a hedge fund guy, and so on. That was essential to me, showing the way these different worlds intermingle. Which they do, in New York.

You’ve been living in L.A. for almost a decade. Were there things you’d written about New York—and this particular cool-kid world within New York—that you found you needed to change once you got back on the ground to shoot?
I was definitely having anxiety about that, so I flew out before we shot the pilot and spent a few days hanging out with the kids from Pegleg. That reassured me. The places have changed, the names have changed, but for the most part what they’re doing is not that different from what I used to do. It’s the same grind. That’s how I met [Kid] Cudi, actually—hanging out with the Pegleg guys.

I was going to ask about that…
I think he may have still been working at BAPE when they introduced us. I kind of knew who he was—I’d heard some mix tape stuff—but long story short, it was good timing. We got lucky.

A classic New York story, that. Like Susan Seidelman casting Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan.
I’ll tell you another classic New York story. So, of course, these characters are all amalgams of people I know. Friends, friends of friends, people I went to school with, whatever. You steal a little here and a little there. And Cam, Victor Rasuk’s character, he’s got a bit of this guy I used to skate with—this Dominican kid, he and I would run around town together, a couple of ragamuffins. Well, lo and behold, there’s this woman at HBO, and her husband knows this guy. I’m sitting in a meeting with her and we figure out this connection and we laugh and that’s the end of it. A while later, I run into some friends. And they tell me that this guy—my old Dominican friend—is going around, telling everyone he knows that HBO is doing a show based on his life.

You should give him a cameo. John Varvatos got one… But actually, speaking of Varvatos, that raises another question. I’ve seen the first four episodes of the show, and thus far, I’m impressed with its garmento vérité. But I wonder what will happen when—or if—the story lines head into the runway fashion world.
I’m intrigued by that world, and I kind of like the idea of Ben (Bryan Greenberg) and Cam trying to, like, scam their way through Paris fashion week. I could see that happening. But not anytime soon. They just started climbing the ladder. And they’ve got a ways to go.


Photo: Courtesy of HBO

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