At 12, Denis Leary sang in the church choir for a week before he was kicked out for smoking on the balcony. In high school, a nun caught him cutting class and coerced him into a production of Mame. Getting into musical theater proved to be a win-win: he got to kiss girls and perform. At Emerson College, Leary joined a comedy workshop that incorporated music in its shows, and he has since made his name in stand-up, films and TV—most notably his seven-year run as firefighter Tommy Gavin in FX’s Rescue Me. After working on a couple of movies, Leary’s back with FX as executive producer, writer, composer and star of the new series Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, premiering July 16th at 10/9c.
Leary plays has-been rock star Johnny Rock, whose band, The Heathens, broke up the day their only album was released. Johnny slept with the wife of guitarist Flash (John Corbett), sabotaging everything. But salvation appears in the young, hot and talented form of the daughter he never knew he had (Elizabeth Gillies), who offers a $200,000 carrot if Johnny can reunite The Heathens and write her some songs. It’s your classic sitcom dysfunctional family, but under the influence, a lot louder and, Johnny says, “full of immature egotistical assholes.”
We asked him about music memories, rubbing elbows with rock stars and bringing rock ’n’ roll excess hilariously to life on TV.
“I can’t go on stage after swallowing half a bottle of vodka. I just can’t. But I’ve seen guys do that and then go out in front of a full arena or a football stadium and just play an unbelievable show.”
Were you into music as a kid?
My father was a talented musician, he was able to play any instrument but of course, because I’m an asshole, when my parents ever wanted me to learn how to play the piano and the guitar, I rebelled. In college, I started going back to playing the guitar. I was playing in this band with these guys from this theater group I was in, the Emerson Comedy Workshop. I thought about singing full time, but they said, “You’d have to quit everything else, because it’s all in or all out.” You have to spend a lot of time to be good. So I decided not to do it. I was too hell-bent on being an actor.
So the wish fulfillment for me is I love rock and roll. I think it’s really interesting to follow a group of really dysfunctional people and the vanity and ego side of it. I’m very interested in why guys don’t make it and how they blame other people for why they don’t make it in show business, and to throw a young person in the middle of that who’s got all the talent and potential and hasn’t fucked it up yet is interesting.
Do you remember the first rock song you wrote?
It was called “Chainsaw Love.” It was literally three chords and it was the words “chainsaw love” over and over again for about two and half minutes. It was 1976 or something, so it was the beginning of punk. I don’t think there’s a recording of it but at the time I thought it was a great song.
What was the first concert you went to?
My first concert I saw was The Who at Boston Garden in 1975, ‘74. I was a teenager and went with my brother. It was amazing. I saw the show they did with Quadrophenia at the Boston Garden last year, and the energy was unbelievable. Daltrey hit every note.
What bands served as inspiration for the show?
Some of the bands that I love—The Clash, The Stones, The Who, The Replacements, The Del Fuegos. Later I was into Nirvana and Afghan Whigs. The stuff that I like is the same stuff that Johnny likes. He’s a huge Bowie fan.
Did you research rock star debauchery?
I’ve certainly witnessed some of it in my show business travels, especially getting to be around some big time rock bands. I read Pete Townsend’s book, I read Steven Tyler’s, I read Joe Perry’s, I read Keith Richards’. I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of these guys over the years and do some charity gigs with some of them and hear some of their stories. It’s certainly an occupational hazard, some of that stuff. Some of it is kind of amazing to witness. I can’t go on stage after swallowing half a bottle of vodka. I just can’t. But I’ve seen guys do that and then go out in front of a full arena or a football stadium and just play an unbelievable show.
We had technical advisors making sure everything looked and sounded right including the equipment. You have to be authentic. We live in a Twitter world, for God’s sake. We also wanted to make fun of what it’s like to be a working struggling musician and come up with a bad song idea. Sometimes if your ego is big enough, you think the biggest piece of shit is the greatest thing ever written. I hope we pull that off.
You’ve worked with some of the cast before, some not.
I ended up sort of lucking into some great people. I wrote the part of Bam Bam with Bobby Kelly in mind. I’ve known him for years and acted with him. For Flash, I needed a guy that was supposedly the same age as Johnny but still handsome and looks younger than he is. I didn’t know John Corbett but I knew he could act, play and sing. I didn’t think there was a chance I’d get him. But I sent him the script and he called back the next day. For the character of the daughter we needed someone who could really sing, be sexy, be able to do comedy and drama and improvise. My casting director had seen 13 on Broadway when Liz was in it. She came in and kicked ass.
Dave Grohl and Greg Dulli are in the first episode. Any future rock star cameos?
I didn’t want to overdo it on the first season, but we do have Joan Jett. If we get picked up, there are so many people… like David Bowie; he’s a great actor. I’m a huge Bowie fan and he lives in New York. I could write a great episode for him.
You have two kids. Are they interested in the business at all?
Yeah. They both want to get into the business. My son wants to write. He worked on the show as a writer’s assistant. My daughter wants to direct. I’m glad they want to be behind the cameras as opposed to in front.
Do you have a personal and professional to-do list?
No. I’ve never worked with Al Pacino but I certainly am not complaining because I got to work with de Niro and Dustin Hoffman and Clint Eastwood. The Red Sox have won the championship now three times. So my only dream is this right now. I hope this show goes and stays on the air because I’m really having a good time with these actors and I love being on FX. My kids are grown up, they’re healthy, they’re good kids. So I’m good.
Photos by Patrick Harbron/FX