It’s going to be a week of debuts for the multiple Emmy nominee and Spider-Man actor with his first appearance at Comic-Con and his return to TV with the July 16 premiere of his FX comedy series. Co-starring John Corbett, Robert Kelly, John Ales and Elaine Hendrix plus Nickelodeon alum Elizabeth Gillies, Denis Leary’s Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll goes way behind the music to the short rise of The Heathens and the multi-decade fall of lead singer Johnny Rock. The show starts with a previously unknown daughter, played by Gillies, coming to NYC and throwing some dough at Leary’s has-been Rock to get the almost famous band from the early 1990s back together to make her into a star. Needless to say, there are a lot of power plays and not all of them on guitars.
Before he headed to San Diego for today’s panel with the rest of the cast, Leary talked about some of the inspiration for the show (Hello Paul Westerburg?), getting the green light from FX’s top man, his dream cameos for a second season and going back to his comedy roots.
DEADLINE: You started out as a comedian but you made your TV series bones in drama with Rescue Me, so why the shift back to comedy with Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll?
DENIS LEARY: When I clicked into this idea of doing a band and examining a band as a dysfunctional family, I wanted to reverse that Rescue Me formula. I wanted to make people laugh, but then every once in a while turn the knife a little bit and make them go ‘oh, oh, that was kind of serious there.’ I think it was also more interesting to John Landgraf at FX because I pitched it to him without having the script in hand right before the last season of Rescue Me in 2011. I said I have another idea. It’s a half-hour comedy and it’s set in the world of rock and roll. It’s about a dysfunctional band. He was immediately on the same page and said ‘that is interesting to me because you wouldn’t be competing against your own reputation on FX as a dramatic one hour.’ The whole thing felt right.
DEADLINE: Knowing you, there’s got to be a twisted twist, right?
LEARY: The true story of Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, the TV show, is that as you get to the end of the first season you realize these guys do not run this band. This band is run by those two girls, Liz Gillies’ character and Elaine Hendrix’s character, and those guys, their entire world is run by those two women. By the way, terms of music, Liz Gillies is just astonishing as a singer, just amazing. Elaine is also a great singer and a great dancer. So, the guys on the show have no power, which I think is hilarious.
DEADLINE: Saying that, what gave you the idea to have The Heathens be a band from the early 1990s that imploded and now are trying to rebuild in a whole new music industry?
LEARY: When I first got famous, Greg Dulli was also just starting to cook with the Afghan Whigs, and because of the MTV awards I met Dave Grohl and Nirvana and all these rock and roll bands. So I had experience with what it was like when people were taking off at that time. I always thought that was a really interesting time. So I thought it would be interesting for The Heathens, kind of like The Replacements, to be a real great rock and roll band that was kind of a mess to be happening then, because they could have made it if Johnny wasn’t such an idiot. Then 25 years later would be the perfect time for him to have to look back at what he did wrong.
DEADLINE: Do you think, Jesus, one or ten bad moves or movies here or there and that could have been me?
LEARY: Well yeah, it’s true. There are so many ways to look at it. One of the things I always believed in was my dad came to America and he was a very talented musician, but he couldn’t make a living that way so he had to support his family as an auto mechanic which he also loved doing. He was also such a great dad because when I first told him I thought I wanted to go into show business, his response was okay, that’s interesting. Like there was no trying to steer me in another direction. It was kind of like his belief that he came to America so his kids could do whatever they wanted.
I’ve always believed, and Dustin Hoffman said this one time, that if he hadn’t made it as a film star, he would still be happy as a character actor because he was a character actor because of his face from day one, so he would always work in the theater. I feel like Johnny does, well like Johnny should feel, that this is part of the story of the show. Johnny should be happy that he could still make a paycheck in the music business because it means he doesn’t have to be a bartender. My wife and I were poor when I started but we struggled along until things happened for me in my thirties. I knew I was doing what I loved even if I wasn’t getting paid for it, so I think I’d still be doing it. I’m glad things worked out. I’m one of the people that when I wake up I have to do what I do. It’s not like I want to do it. I kind of have to do it.
DEADLINE: Another thing it feels like you have to do is have good solid real rock’n’roll cameos in S&D&R&R. And you had the real them in the Heathens’ world. Who is on your wish list for a Season 2?
LEARY: Dave Grohl and Greg Dulli are sort of the male foils to Johnny because they’re the two guys that made it from his group of friends. Of course he blames them and also at the same time kind of wishes he could hang out with those guys. Joan Jett is this person that he crossed paths with who is also sort of folded back in. My dream would be that I have those three back and have them play at least an episode each in season two. My other dream is David Bowie. I mean Bowie’s a great actor. If I can get David Bowie to play himself on the show, I think my head would blow up. I hope I get (Aerosmith’s) Steven Tyler to do the show too. That would be another dream.
DEADLINE: When Rescue Me came on back in 2004, the TV resurgence was starting to find it’s footing, now it’s in full flight. Coming back after 4-years making movies, what’s your take on TV now?
LEARY: Listen, I’m no prophet and I’m no genius, but I can only tell you what I seem to know. As a fan of television and the movies, I think it’s all for the better. I mean anybody will tell you that as an actor or a writer. Everything you look at now, the scripts that come in that you look at, the television scripts are way better than the movie script. The talent is going to television.
I think The Sopranos was the real game changer. We were lucky enough to be sort of in the wake of what they were doing. I remember shooting and looking at our footage at the time on Rescue Me. You would shoot for the old television screen, but we were shooting wide screen for some of the plasmas that people already had. That frame is shaped like a movie screen, so when I looked at how beautiful the shots were in that movie screen format hanging on a wall, I thought there’s a future here. So tonight in my living room my wife and I are going to sit down and we’re going to push a button and on beautiful TV screen with a great sound system watch that Nina Simone documentary on Netflix. The future’s here on TV.
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