The comedian speaks to Variety about hiring Julieanne Smolinski, empathizing with losers, and grappling with his own mortality
When I sit down with Denis Leary, the comedian and writer currently starring in his creation “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll,” he’s coming off of days of edits, watching each episode of Season 2 over and over again, looking for the minute changes that need to be made. Confronting himself on screen doesn’t bother him if he’s working, but he recalls going to the premiere of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” in which he played Emma Stone’s father, Captain Stacy. He had to watch himself in 3-D. “I put on these glasses, and I’m sitting with my kids, and everything was great until my first time my guy showed up. You should never have to watch yourself in 3-D. My nose!”
Over nearly three decades, Leary’s made a career as a stand-up, actor, and writer, lending remarkable pathos to the a–holes he became famous for singing about. His best role is as firefighter Tommy Gavin in FX’s “Rescue Me,” one of the first and foremost examples of post-9/11 pop culture. But with his follow-up, Leary went in a very different direction. A slim comedy about aging rockers making a second foray at fame, “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” doesn’t live up to Leary’s tradition of unexpectedly sharp insult comedy; the ratings aren’t impressive, either. But the show appears to be a passion project for both Leary, who came of age in the Boston rock scene, and FX head John Landgraf, who Leary tells me is an interested, collaborative executive. And in what appears to be our era of lionizing the rock stars of yore — as both Showtime’s “Roadies” and HBO’s now-cancelled “Vinyl” attempt — it’s refreshing, at least, to witness an approach that joyfully ridicules its rockstars, instead of revering them.
Leary’s crackling delivery retains a bit of his stand-up sensibility even when sitting at brunch; as I attempt to keep up, he spools out anecdotes, sets up his own punchlines, and peppers me with questions: Have I watched “The Shield”? Did I like the ending of “The Sopranos”? What did I think of David Bowie’s last music video, “Lazarus”? Leary is as full of thoughts about the changing television industry and marketing in Hollywood as he is about his own projects. And though “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” feels like a half-baked sitcom in the wrong era, some changes for Season 2 — especially the hiring of Julieanne Smolinski into the writers’ room — suggests at least an astute reckoning with what the show is. Variety spoke to Leary about death, daughters, and making maracas — literally — out of a darker-than-usual storyline.
In the second season, you’re focusing more on mortality. I know David Bowie was a hero of yours. How did his death affect the show?
Going into Season 2, I knew I wanted to do mortality, because I thought it was a festering wound, somewhere in that band. The thing you would expect is that Johnny would have a heart attack, because of the way he doesn’t take care of himself. The only key thing was that it wasn’t going to be him, because you want somebody that’s either completely healthy, or more healthy than him. [President of FX John] Landgraf was the person that came up with Micki [a marginal band member, played by Kate Hodge].
The guy that was the tech advisor, one of my oldest friends on the show, Adam Roth, he was one of our music tech guys. Very involved in creating the music as well. He’s on set every day with the band. We started writing that mortality story, which he knew about, and he was on tour last summer, and came home. He had been getting shot up for a pinched nerve while he was on tour every night, with cortisone, because it was bugging him. When he came back, he went to the doctor. It was stage 4 liver cancer. He was diagnosed October 4th. He was dead by December 11th.
Meanwhile, we’re writing this story about mortality, and we’re like, “This is crazy that this happened to us.” It kind of blew us all out of the water, and in a weird way was actually — not immediately, but it was good for us, as writers, to be going through this. It was very hard to deal with; he was a huge Bowie fan, as well. Right after Christmas, when the “Lazarus” song comes out, and that whole weekend happens where the video comes out on Friday, then on Sunday they tell you that he’s dead. How crazy was that video? It’s strangely uplifting. The first time I saw it, I didn’t want to watch it, Adam’s brother called me and said, “You have to watch the ‘Lazarus’ video. It’s the first time I’ve felt okay since Adam passed.”
Landgraf, in the middle of all this, I was like, “Dude, it’s like, it’s so weird, but we’re getting so heavy about this death thing between Adam and Bowie,” and he’s like, “Yeah. You need something to take the edge off.” He said, “So here’s my idea. What if …” [Micki] played the maracas in the band. That was her main thing. “What if you guys have the ashes at home,” because I wanted to start the episode with the ashes. “What if she picks it up and she shakes it, and it sounds like maracas?” This is the head of the network, telling me this. I’m like, “Oh my God, that would be f–king great,” because then I went, “I can make maracas out of her ashes, then the maracas could be with us all the way through the season,” because they stay underneath the story, then they come back into prevalence in episode 10. They start to haunt us. They’re like a little ghost. When I heard that idea, it was like, “Okay, now I have the funny part of the death, so now I can carry it off.”
Was John Landgraf as involved with the first season, too? Was he similarly involved with “Rescue Me”?
Yes. He’s always been that way with me. When I first met Landgraf … I knew of him. I knew that he was considered sort of a big brain guy. When I was at ABC on “The Job,” we would just get notes that we were like, you’d show an entire episode, and their note would be, “Does she have to wear the purple skirt in scene four and five?” That’s the only f–king thing you care about, is your purple skirt? Really? F–k, we’re pouring comedy out of our veins onto the page, and these are the notes.
HBO’s notes [on the “Rescue Me” pilot] were kind of all over the place. Peter didn’t want to go there. We didn’t want to go to FX, because all they had was “The Shield” and this new guy, Landgraf. We’re like, going with a brand new guy? He’ll probably be fired in six months!
We went into a meeting with him. He said, “Here’s my notes.” He said, “The scene with Janet and Tommy, when he comes across the street, and he talks to her about the kids, and splitting the time with the kids, he needs to threaten her. We need to see him scare the s–t out of her.”
I was like, “F–k, that’s …” That was the scene that we had lined up in our heads for like three episodes later. He said, “If you don’t do that in the pilot, then we don’t get her response, which is basically ‘F–k you,” and we don’t get down. We need to get into the nitty gritty of that relationship.” I was like, “S–t, that’s actually a really good note.”
His second note was — we had Tommy throwing a sobriety coin in the ocean and walking away, and he goes, “I’ll tell you what. He shouldn’t be just walking away from the ocean after he throws that sobriety coin, because I can see that coming a mile away.” He said, “Not that it’s not interesting. I like the character, and he’s upset, right, but you can end that f–king scene on the coin dropping in the water, and just have a close-up of his face. He doesn’t have to walk away.” He said, “If he’s going to walk away, he walks away with a trail of ghosts,” which I was like, “F–k!” I actually said to him at the time — I said to Peter, “This guy is a smarter showrunner than we are.”
He doesn’t want me to call him a genius, but I really feel like he’s a story genius. He has no ego. He’s really out to make the thing better, because there’s a lot of executives that are watching the purple skirt, or where Dennis’s hair is parted. I don’t even know how to explain that, how crazy that is.
He’s such a fan that he’s very rarely wrong. I always feel like John, he’s not looking at it like an executive. His notes are like a fan’s notes. He’s very passionate. That ending to “The Shield.” The ending of that show is so psychologically horrific, but as a fan and as a writer, I remember watching that and going, “Oh my God. I can’t believe this is what happens to this guy. His biggest f–king nightmare,” which I don’t think I ever would have thought of. I wasn’t writing for that show, but I was certainly watching it. John said those guys were checking in with them, and he just kept pushing them, saying, “Whatever you do, don’t do ‘The Sopranos’ thing, because people were very dissatisfied.”
Julieanne Smolinski, she’s in the writers’ room now. What has that been like?
Let me tell you. I was a big fan of her on Twitter. She also wrote some really great essays, and some rock pieces that were fantastic. She was in rock journalism, she is unbelievably open about her own personal life foibles, no matter what they are. She’s got an amazing ability to write older women and younger women. She was getting very busy. When I first picked her up I got her for “Sirens.”
When I started the thing about doing this show, I said to Bob Fisher, who is another writing partner of mine, “Listen, call Smolinski and tell her this is the window I think we’re going to have.” He said, “We’re not going to get her, because Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda just hired her for ‘Grace And Frankie’ and they’re not going to hate her”— because I know her. They, of course, fall in love with her.
When the first season was ending and they picked us up, the first call I made was to Smolinski, and I said, “Listen, tell me what your window is and I’ll design it around.” I basically said, “I’m not doing the season without you.” The writer’s room was basically me, her, and Bob Fisher. My son was the writer’s assistant. “That’s going to be our room, and I want to guarantee you’re going to write at least two episodes before you have to go back to Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin-land.” I needed her to be involved all the way through, so I could have her stories. She gave me the window. That whole girlfriend story [that starts in episode two], experimenting with lesbians, it comes from her real life. If we get picked up I got to have her back, otherwise I’m screwed.
I had her on set very briefly, because of her schedule with Lily and Jane, but to have a chick that smart and that funny… I think it’s safe to say this: My wife’s a novelist. My wife can write men better than I can write women. Even the guys that they say write women the best, I don’t know how they do it. What I do is I come up with an idea and I go to the actresses, and I go, “What do you think? What do you want to change? What works for you and what doesn’t?” Because I can’t get into where that is, especially on a show where the two women are really the two most powerful characters, they’re really in charge.
One of those women is your character Johnny’s daughter, Gigi, with whom he has a very unconventional relationship. When he first meets her, he tries to sleep with her. You yourself have a daughter and a son. What went into creating this character of Gigi [Elizabeth Gillies], and why a daughter?
I think the daughter’s a more interesting dynamic for a guy like that. Without a mother being involved. I had a couple of friends, and I’m not judging them, because I might be in the same boat they are, who are making a living as musicians, and never became famous, but played with famous guys, and still kind of harbored that—F–k! I should have been f–king famous, and if he hadn’t done the … [trails off.] They had a little bitterness point. Waking up every day and still making money making music, but not with the spotlight on their face.
I thought, that’s an interesting character. And if you have somebody who’s 22, or 21, whatever the age is, and has even more talent, and could make it, that dynamic will always be interesting to me. When he sees her being successful at any level, there’s pride and envy, and the envy is the part that interests me.
Your characters in this show are these guys who are in one sense the epitome of cool, they’re living the dream, but on the flip side, they are also super losers.
Probably the happiest rock star I know is Greg Dulli, who is at the point in his career where he’s had a 25-year career. He never became a giant rock star, but he’s critically acclaimed, and he has this hardcore audience, and he makes a living putting out records every year and playing live gigs. He absolutely loves where he’s at, in terms of his life, and his art, and what he’s able to do, and his audience. Johnny would never have been happy being that guy. He’s even jealous of that level of it, but if he had got to that level, that wouldn’t be enough.
Do you feel like you are that kind of guy, or are you just playing that guy, or do you just feel for that guy, maybe?
I feel for that guy.
There was a sense of intense timeliness to “Rescue Me,” coming as it did a few years after 9/11. Why is “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” the show for you now? It spends a lot of time looking back to an earlier era. Is there something about music in particular, right now, that’s driving you crazy?
When we made [“Rescue Me”], the crew that it was based on had one of my oldest friends in it, from when we were in our twenties. I’d been around that crew. I’d known those guys for a long time. They all survived that day. Their rig got crushed. I knew they were all down there. You couldn’t communicate. Cell phones weren’t working. I didn’t find out until the next morning. I couldn’t, because they were just down there. Nobody went back to the firehouse until the next morning, and nobody had word on all those guys.
Anyways, my friend worked as one of our tech advisors on the show, and a lot of those firefighters were on the show with us. It was sort of a constant thing of telling the story, but also being surrounded, in the best way, by these guys that had lived through it. I also was carrying a lot of the grief that I knew firsthand. It was hard, because we were also riding that line of comedy and drama, which is very true to the circumstances of the firehouse.
There was a lot of weight on the characters. It was great stuff to play, but boy, sometimes it was rough. Some of the scenes were rough, and it was rough on all the actors that were in some of those scenes. It was rough on some of the firefighters, sometimes, when we would recreate things. It was heavy.
Jim Gandolfini had a great quote at one point, where he said, the thing about playing a character for that long is that you get to the point where you don’t know if you’re playing the character or if the character’s playing you. Because when you do a movie or a play, it’s three months, or six months, maybe, for a play, but three months in a movie, you’re in that head, then you’re out.
There’s no other way to deal with the emotional side of drama — for me anyways, as an actor — than to carry some of that emotion around. It was tough. I loved the show, but once I came out, I was like [long, shaky sigh]. You know what I mean? To go back to TV — not that I wouldn’t go back to do a drama at some point. But I certainly didn’t want to go back and do a drama right away.
Staying true to your roots, staying true to your ethnic identity, and trying to find those characters to play or write about has defined your work. How do you hold on to that identity, or to those roots, when you are in this industry?
The way that it happens for me is that … My mom still lives in the second house that we lived in, which is this ranch house. When I was a teenager they moved there. She won’t move out of the neighborhood. She won’t move out of that house. She’s going to be 90 this year, and she walks 5 miles a day. She’s very active. Her mind is like a vault. She remembers everything. She’s unbelievably funny, unbelievably smart, and it doesn’t matter what week it is. If there’s a cousin’s birthday, or some cousin complaining about another cousin, or an aunt, a fight with an uncle, or whatever, she’s going to tell you about it and expect you to either get engaged or, “Talk to your sister and tell her to tell him …” [Laughs.] That’s an anchor. She’s very proud, obviously, of my success, but she doesn’t care about any of it.