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Solving crimes through crowdsourcing is a dangerous game

Actors Jeremy Piven and Richard T. Jones talk about the "scary" premise behind the new CBS crime drama "Wisdom of the Crowd."

We live in an age of cameras. They're mounted on street corners, posted on buildings, and planted on us, in our smartphones.

That's how we get to see so many as-they-happened images of real-life crimes, natural disasters, dramatic rescues and what-were-they-thinking moments. But what happens when a parent, mourning his child's murder, builds a crowdsourcing platform and asks the public to help track down evidence to solve the crime?

That's the premise of "Wisdom of the Crowd," a new CBS drama airing Oct. 1. (Disclosure: CNET is a division of CBS Interactive.) Jeremy Piven, best-known for his role as Hollywood agent Ari Gold on the HBO series "Entourage," stars as rich Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jeffrey Tanner, who's grieving over the death of his daughter. The show opens with him quitting his successful tech company to launch "Sophe," an online platform designed to gather new evidence from the public so he can find her killer. Veteran actor Richard T. Jones plays Tommy Cavanaugh, a San Francisco police detective who investigated the murder and may have put the wrong man behind bars.

"It's something that kind of exists today in different forms," Piven says of the crowdsourcing service. "People are really responding to that idea because it's both inspiring and scary because it could incite vigilante behavior. So I think it's a hot-button topic."

Piven and Jones visited CNET's offices in San Francisco on Sept. 19. We sat down together for a question-and-answer session about Silicon Valley, tech culture and the pros and cons of crowdsourcing for solving crimes. Here's an edited transcript of our conversation.

In the Wild

Richard T. Jones stars as Detective Tommy Cavanaugh, Blake Lee plays Josh Novak and Jeremy Piven is tech entrepreneur Jeffrey Tanner in the new CBS crime drama "Wisdom of the Crowd."

Robert Voets/CBS

Q: What did you know or think about Silicon Valley and tech culture before you signed on to "Wisdom of the Crowd"?
Piven: We do not know a lot about tech -- let's be honest. I did my research and I've learned about the Steve Jobses of the world and the Elon Musks and all these innovators. But we're from a generation where we didn't grow up with all of these apps. So we're kind of cavemen in that way. I'm trying to catch up as much as possible. From what I've learned, it's this interesting combination of technology and creativity, and it's where they both come together -- you see Steve Jobs really realizing that the biggest variable to his success was not limiting himself and his ideas. And that's a really beautiful thing. We've been intimidated by the tech world because we don't speak that language, but we've been embracing it.

Richard plays a cop whom we team up together, but he is the antithesis of anyone who is embracing the world of technology, especially when it comes to crime solving.

Jones: I play like a real person who doesn't get it. I do have a phone. So that's what I know about technology.

You've said this is a controversial topic -- using crowdsourcing to gather information. In the pilot, the idea of vigilantism comes up. What do you think about the pros and cons of all this?
Piven: It is dangerous. We explain in layman's terms that 90 percent of crowdsourcing you can just kinda toss away, and then 10 percent of the information you can use. And so, it's dangerous, but it's also kind of fascinating. I think, as you guys know, we're crowdsourcing everything today without it being labeled -- from the restaurants we go to, to the routes that we take. All these things are crowdsourcing, and it's basically using the idea of collaboration, which artistically I love. Anytime you get a group together and you put everyone's head together, you can come up with better ideas. So you're going to have to take the good and the ill, and it'll be interesting to see how the show is received. That's one thing we can't worry about. We go to the stage and we do our thing, and then we have to put it out into the world. I think there's been some hesitation initially with some of the people -- how we're going to address certain things, like when it does go wrong. So that's going to be fascinating.

Jones: Like Jeremy just said, you have to take the good with the bad. But what's interesting about my character [is], How do we use this platform and kind of keep it controlled? And as we all know, once you put it out there [on the internet], we'll lose control of it. It has a life of its own and that's obviously the scary part, but it's also exhilarating because you don't know exactly what you can find from that. So I think you get a little bit of both sides. My character is very pessimistic about the control of it, where Jeremy's character believes in the good of people.

Let's talk about how you approach the characters. Richard, you've played cops before. What makes this role different?
Jones: That's a tougher question than it seems. I believe it's about his relationship with the other people in the show. My character happens to have a son. He divorced a wonderful chef who is on her way to becoming a zillionaire and a I'm a cop in San Francisco making no money. And then I run into this mogul who is known in the area and kind of worshiped by all people, people who love technology. And now we're becoming friendly with each other and we're working together. How I approached it was really like how I would approach a new friendship or an introduction into a new area. I kind of just let it happen. So after reading the script, I was like, "OK, this is interesting because I don't know anything about technology and this is a way to learn without really having to study about it." I could learn through asking questions, like my character would naturally and honestly do. He could be organically stupid. [Laughs.]

Piven: Exactly. [Laughs.]

Now playing: Watch this: Crime solving through crowdsourcing
4:12

Jeremy, when you were on "Entourage," you talked about approaching that character as commedia dell'arte -- where you're sincerely believing who you are, so that It seems over the top.
Piven: Commedia dell'arte was one of the first forms of acting before there was electricity, and they had kerosene lamps and you had to put on white face so people could see you. And you had to be in one of four emotional states -- happiness, sadness, anger, fear -- at all times. If you weren't in one of those states, you were asked to leave the stage. So you were in a heightened state of emotion at all times. And my teacher was Tim Robbins, who is a very great actor and director. That was the first form of acting I studied, and it just set me free. I never got a chance to use it, but when I was playing Ari Gold -- he's an insane human being. So all I did was play him in that constant heightened state of emotion. I mostly played the anger; he was mostly angry. [Laughs.] But it was heightened, it was full-blown, and hopefully it's sincere. No matter how big you make it, you have to make it real and truthful. That's the way I played that character, and the result of playing an authentic character was that people thought I was actually him, which was both confirming and tragic. [Laughs.]

It was a blast to play. It was incredible. The life of an actor is great because you get to play all these different roles. And now I'm playing a guy who is heartbroken because his daughter's been murdered and he thinks that his grief will go away if he catches the killer. Your grief will not go away, but it's a brilliant premise in the way that it can lead to any type of behavior on his part. It was just a role that I couldn't walk away from -- the idea of playing a real human being that is emotionally available and loves his daughter.

Let me ask you some questions about tech. What's your favorite tech?
Jones: Cell phone -- would that be a good answer?

jeremy-pivin-cbs-cnet4286

"We're crowdsourcing everything today without it being labeled -- from the restaurants we go to, to the routes that we take," says Jeremy Piven (left).

James Martin/CNET

It's a valid answer, yeah.
Jones: Yeah, because I'm like constantly on it, unfortunately. Every form of communication is through it. I don't know what I would do without my phone now.

Piven: I like the app Waze. And I got the -- you can select a celebrity voice now, so I selected Owen Wilson and he does his character Lightning McQueen.

[Starts doing an Owen Wilson impersonation.] Turn right. Cha-chow. So turn left, it's a little awkward, but keep going. I know you're on your way to Home Depot, but if you can stop, take a left right there. There's a lovely --- it's a Whole Foods. And they have a Reishi cappuccino. It's wonderful. I go in there in my pajamas. And my nickname is the Butterscotch Cowboy, and I like to, you know, play this role in every movie. And I just sound like this no matter what. And Jennifer Aniston's a friend. I like to go go-carting.

I could literally do that forever. [The whole audience laughs.]

What piece of tech would you like to be invented just for you?
Piven: I want an app that can help me make better decisions. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? That would be amazing, you could just show it the situation. You say "What do I do about this? She feels crazy and self-consumed and delusional. Should I proceed?"

And the app answers.

"No, you shouldn't. You are more evolved than that.

Please stop going for low-hanging fruit.

You are the oldest man in this club. Please leave.

Stop going to clubs. You are too old."

That would be an amazing app.

Jones: A flying car. Or let's go further: a time machine. Yes. A teleporter or something. There you go. That's what I need. A teleporter.

So you don't have to get on planes?
Jones: Exactly. And no security.

You're both TV stars now -- what was your favorite TV show growing up?
Jones: "Good Times." I could say "The Cosby Show," but then I'd get some looks. [Laughs.] But you guys know you love "The Cosby Show," all of y'all.

Piven: I think you have the wrong generation.

Jones: They've watched it. They've seen it. [Points to laughing audience.]

Piven: Being Jewish, I wasn't allowed to watch "Hogan's Heroes" because it was a comedy about Nazis. You know, it was kind of like, "Well, that wasn't funny. They killed 6 million Jews." As a child I didn't know that, you know? I watched -- remember those cartoons, they had -- the Jackson Five and the Osmond Brothers. And "Welcome Back, Kotter."

Jones: Now we're really dating ourselves ... Everyone's like, what are you talking about?

Piven: Everybody knows "Welcome Back, Kotter," man.

Last question. What would you like to be asked that you're not asked in interviews?
Piven: I think we're living in times where people outwardly don't seem to be that curious about other people, and I think that's a shame. Sometimes people are afraid to ask questions and that's too bad, because we could obviously learn so much about each other. What's interesting is I spent the past four years working in London [on the PBS series "Mr Selfridge"] and we speak the same language differently. Like everyone knows in London where they went to university. Here no one's ever asked me what college I went to. Ever.

Jones [laughs]: What college did you go to?

Piven: None of your business, man. It's none of your damn business. That's why we don't ask. No, I went to NYU.

Jones: I learned that just now, by the way.  

Piven: Yeah, exactly. People wanna know what car you drive, maybe, as opposed to what school you went to, which I think is weird.

Jones: I guess, the question that we never get is, "Do we all get along on the show?" -- which everybody really wants to know, because they like TMZ.

So do you?
Jones: Yes, we do. Look at that, I was gonna leave you hanging in case you asked. [Laughs.] We all have a blast actually. Yeah, it's fun.

Piven: We all really get along. It's great. People don't know, but our hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. -- and we're filming all that time. We do 12-hour days, and that's when you don't go over. You do 12- to 14-hour days. I'm not complaining. It's just a reality.

Unless you're on a sitcom, and you work 14 minutes a week. 

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