Fame is a great equalizer. If you’re a fucked up, unhappy, miserable person at the beginning, when you get money and the fame, you’re just more fucked up and miserable in more expensive places.
Denis Leary first entered the pop cultural ether in the early ‘90s on MTV, with a machine gun rant dissing R.E.M. The rants became a regular promo feature for the channel, which, for those who only know the channel for Teen Mom, used to be the most important arbiter of rock music on the globe. Now, over two decades later, in the wake of a seven-year run with his FX series Rescue Me, Leary has returned to his rock roots with the FX’s Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll.
Created by and starring Leary, the show follows post-post-prime rock singer Johnny Rock, a self-centered, fame-obsessed self-saboteur who’s finally being forced to confront the reality that his dream of rock stardom is in the rear view. Adding conflict to the basic narrative is the appearance of his long lost daughter Gigi, played by newcomer Elizabeth Gillies, who, it just so happens, is a really good singer. Rounding out things is his band, a dysfunctional family unit of sorts, featuring Flash (John Corbett) – Rock’s songwriting partner, guitarist, and chief rival.
Leary spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about the show’s inception, how he’s had musician friends since he was in college studying writing and acting, and why, if you see him walking down the street talking to him self, don’t think he’s crazy, he’s just writing.
Tell me about the origins of this concept.
I’ve been fortunate [because] when I was at Emerson College in Boston studying acting and writing I was in a theater group called the Emerson Comedy Workshop, which did original plays and shows, and a lot of original music. So there were a lot of music students involved in productions. A bunch of those guys eventually either dropped out of school, or as they graduated, became professional rock musicians, and very successful. You know, they played with some very famous groups like the Jim Carroll band and Ozzy Osbourne’s band back in the ‘80s, some of them actually went into composing. Enough of them were in rock ‘n’ roll bands in the ‘80s and ‘90s that I got exposed to the backstage behavior, and some of the behavior on the road in these bands that quite often just blew up. So I always had it in my back pocket. And those guys are still close friends of mine – one of them was one of the composers on Rescue Me.
I always thought it would be an interesting to investigate the world of a bunch of people that wanted to be famous – because that’s basically why people get into rock ‘n’ roll – and then didn’t. And especially later in life, as I was doing Rescue Me, it started to dawn on me it’d be really interesting for me as I got older to play a guy who really would have sold his soul to the devil to be famous, but it just didn’t work out for him. It was before the last season on Rescue Me, Peter Tolan – who as my writing partner on Rescue Me – told John Landgraf the idea at the TCAs…and John said, “I want to buy it,” and I said, “But it doesn’t exist! I haven’t written anything, I don’t know why Peter told you.”
It’s so hard to sell a show.
I mean, you know. It actually was a good thing for me because it put a gun to my head. I knew it was going to take me a few years, because I wanted to get away…
From TV for a minute?
Yeah, being on television playing Tommy Gavin. But it did keep it alive in my head. And fortunately John was still interested by the time I gave it to him.
How many writers do you have on the show? Is your son writing on it as well?
My son co-wrote an episode that comes later in the season, there’s a couple of episodes where people in the band, including my daughter, get interested in other avenues because she’s not satisfied with everything I’m writing for her. One of the areas they fall into is EDM – Electronic Dance Music – which Johnny doesn’t know anything about and, of course, which he hates. My son – not that he isn’t a fan of it – but he’s a fan with a sense of humor about it. So when we were talking about it, I said, “You know, I won’t be able to write that, you’ll have to write the music for that, and you’ll have to come up with the ideas for scenes because I don’t know that world.”
He co-wrote that episode with me. And then Evan Reilly – who was the third wheel on Rescue Me, was on The Walking Dead after Rescue Me, and he’s actually working on that HBO show Ballers now. So right before he started Ballers, I said, “You have to promise me to write an episode of Sex&Drugs, and he wrote an episode that comes up in the middle of the season. Everything else was me.
So it’s you and then you’re kind of farming out select ones here and there?
Yeah. Because it was so ingrained in my head, I felt like I wanted to get the first five out of my head so I could find the characters and adjust the actors, because I like the actors to have a lot of input. If we went ahead for further seasons, one thing I’ll love to do is to bring in a female voice to write. And at least one more young writer, you know?
You’ve written songs, and you’ve been friends with all these musicians. There’s this kind of music-savvy, referential thing going on with the show – despite your own music knowledge, have you had to call on other resources to make sure your references are as sharp and savvy as you want them to be like you did with the EDM show?
My favorite rock bands range from the Rolling Stones to the Clash, and David Bowie – those guys are all from my childhood and growing up obviously. But because of my kids, I’ve constantly been exposed to new bands and stuff as they were growing up and as they’ve gotten older – they’re in their 20s now. And I love new music. A bunch of my friends – those guys I was talking about who are all technical advisors on the show and play on a lot of the songs – they’re also playing with a lot of younger artists. So, not that I’m savvy, but I have a lot of knowledge about it. Liz Gillies – who plays my daughter…you have to drag her kicking and screaming to listen to new music. She likes really old rock ‘n’ roll…
I read she’s like into vinyl and stuff.
Yeah. So I couldn’t get anything new out of her. But certainly I was surrounded by a lot of the musicians that we have in the studio, you know – Greg Dulli from The Afghan Whigs who was producing the old Heathen songs, he produces a lot of young bands. So I feel like, if I don’t have it at my fingertips, I have a lot of people I can call up. And it’s funny, a lot of them of are older people. Liz I thought was going to be an encyclopedia of some new music and some new, hip slang, but she really isn’t, she’s a throwback. So it cracks me up.
She’s like in her early 20s, right?
Twenty-one. She’s 21, and she can tell me more than I know about Janis Joplin, but when I tell her about Diane Coffee or anybody else new, she’s like, what’s that? This girl, she’s dying to sing Peggy Lee songs in real life – she wants to cover Fever. And meanwhile I’m like, “What about the new Florence and the Machine album?” She’s like, “Who are they?” I’m like, “Ok, whatever.”
From a narrative standpoint, to what extent is this rock ‘n’ roll pretext a just fresh way into a story that really is about classic themes like a father and a daughter, and this sort of family unit in the band?
Well, it’s a great device to get in there. I guess any band is a family, so it’s really about a dysfunctional family. But it’s also that monster of fame, what it’s worth, and your legacy, and who remains famous forever and all that bullshit. Which at this point, 25 years into being famous…one of the episodes, where she and I get into this argument about who’s famous and who’s not [is] all based on stuff that I actually heard from my own kids. My kids thought that Paul Newman was a chef. Why would they know any different? They’ve never seen any of his movies – they’ve only seen salad dressing on the table at dinner, you know? To them Steve McQueen is this fantastic director who recently won all these awards. They have no idea! Music is the one thing that carries through. My kids know Frank Sinatra and they know Louis Armstrong and the Rolling Stones. Not because of me, those songs still exist out there in the air.
So you feel there’s something a little less fleeting about the musical fame?
Well, I feel like it’s a great avenue for us, you know? If we get to tell the story for as long as I want, one of the places that it has to go is away from Johnny a little bit. Because in order to become famous, which is what she wants to be, [Gigi] going to have to find a sound and the right young guys to make her sound right. Who she’s going to be writing songs with is a really interesting future for this show. If it’s not Johnny, what does Johnny do at that point? Not to mention the other people in the band – the bass player’s got rock opera on his mind. So, at a certain age, for a guy like Johnny Rock, you have to look at it and say, “Throw away the fame idea, that’s never going to happen. Just hope to have a job in this business so that you can keep making a living as a musician.” But he’s so obstinate and blinded by the possibility of having a spotlight on his face that it’s hard for him to see that.
So, he’s gonna witness his daughter go down whatever Faustian path the quest for fame brings her down, right? And he’s going to have to witness it from the passenger seat.
Yeah. I figure at a certain point there’s a dividing line – are you going to be a worthwhile dad, or are you just going to be kind of a self-focused, bitter, resentful guy standing in the shadows. The truth is, you can make money with her. That really becomes the true line, no matter what else he may be thinking, the truth is he can stay in the business if he stays attached to whatever machine is going to turn her into a famous singer. The other thing is that fame is a great equalizer. If you’re a fucked up, unhappy, miserable person at the beginning, when you get money and the fame, you’re just more fucked up and miserable in more expensive places. So she has to learn a few things, and he certainly has a few things to learn.
There’s that dichotomy with him – he's so selfish and she’s forcing him to actually care and be protective, and he’s torn between these motives throughout…
Yeah, and there’s a modicum of talent there. Like his manager says to him in one of the early episodes, “You have a choice: you become a bartender or you fucking stay in the music business.” Some of the guys that work on the show I was telling you about, my friends…they’ve played with some of the biggest acts in rock ‘n roll, [but] you would never know they’ve been up on that stage because its not about them. It’s about Bob Dylan or Lady Gaga or whoever it is who’s the star. But they’re happy because they’re making a living as musicians, they gave up years ago on being famous, and they’re just happy to make a living at it. They have families, they have nice clothes, live in nice apartments. For Johnny, it’s like the golden goose has arrived. He really just has to handle it at the right way.
You’re sort of a legendary hyperkinetic, frantic guy. Writing is a pretty sedentary, obviously solitary thing. How do you write? How does that sedentary meditative aspect of it fit with you?
I find that most of my writing is walking around. It’s the process of outlining it in my head and on cards, and a lot of that is driving. I love to write while I’m driving, listening to music, but I also like to walk around and think. If I’m in the midst of a script or a particular scene, I like to walk around and talk it out loud, the different characters. So I have to be careful that I’m not in too public of a place, because that can look insane. Right now I’m writing, [but] I’m out in the country, so there’s plenty of room to walk around and pace and think.
What about writer’s block?
Years ago I developed this system, if I got a block, I would go work out. While I was working out, because I was focusing on something else, an idea will come to me. I find that physical activity is key. If I’m in New York and I’m writing, I get out and start walking around the neighborhood. The beauty of the iPhone is you can quickly record everything that you’re thinking anyways. In my neighborhood, people quite often have seen me walking around, talking aloud to myself into an iPhone thinking I’m on the phone with somebody. When in fact I’m just recording dialogue ideas or monologues.
Or they think there’s Denis Leary – he really is crazy.
Yeah, he really is crazy, haha. For me, by the time I physically sit down and actually write the script, I’ve got so many cards and so many possibilities in my head, that that part of it – the actual physical writing of it – happens really fast. It’s really the buildup to that. If I give myself two weeks to write an episode, that first week is note cards, walking, pacing, talking to myself, sitting in restaurants drinking coffee and mumbling to myself. Finally when I sit down in front of a computer, most of my work is done.
It’s sort of dictation at that point, or transcription?
Yes, dictation. I also I really like the actors to play around with a lot of the stuff that I write. I always look at it like there’s less pressure on me on that first draft because if I’m in the midst of production, I go to the actors and I have them play around with or come up with ideas and throw them back to my face. Then on the days where we shoot, sometimes in advance the night before, we’ll start improvising around with what we have and finding great stuff. We may even play around and improvise during a lighting setup with some of the stuff we have for the next day. And I’ll do those rewrites at night. Those are easy.
What’s the hardest part of writing this show for you?
The hardest part on this is the music, because you know you have to really prepare that for that the most in advance. In advance for this first season, we spent a good month in the studio with the musicians and with Liz and with Elaine Hendrix, coming up with the arrangements and making sure we had them and then recording them. Then on set I like to use live vocals – which Liz is fantastic at, I’m not so great at because I can certainly go off-key at any moment. But most of my songs don’t require…
A technical, gifted voice. I’m really just a rock ‘n’ roll screamer.
One interesting side note here is the fact that Johnny has his issues with writing songs sober, which is kind of the rock ‘n’ roll stereotype… In reality, where do you stand when you’re writing – whether it’s a song or a script – don’t you feel like sobriety is kind of a requirement when you’re actually writing?
Yes, I actually do. I feel like for me, on the script side, I can only have caffeine. I can’t work with anybody that’s doing anything other than that. I don’t believe anything that’s coming out of their mouths. I don’t believe they're going to remember it. I need everybody in the room to have coffee or water. When it comes to music, I feel the same way about creating, but have certainly been in the presence of enough great musicians who need a little weed or like to have a little alcohol when they're in the studio. And I've seen it live, I watched the Rolling Stones rehearse at one point back in the ‘90s when they were doing the Voodoo Lounge tour… It was really interesting, Mick Jagger was…
Cleaning his voice out before rehearsal and drinking bottled water and tea, and Keith was certainly not drunk or high, but you know, he had his own chemical set up. Then you watch these guys rehearse for two or three hours at a time, and it was astonishing how good they were. I think Ron was also drinking, Charlie was straight… So can I fault people who like to work under the influence? I can’t. I do think it’s going to be a interesting journey for Johnny because he’s already given up cocaine by the third episode of season one, and certainly his daughter is going to be after him to get rid of the other stuff. It’s so hard to say because there’s so much great music created under the influence, but music is one of the few things left people try to argue that case for.