Immersed in role
Denis Leary plays a rock has-been on the make in his new FX comedy, ‘Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll’
Denis Leary plays rock hasbeen in his new comedy.
For starters, you must understand that Denis Leary is a rock ‘n’ roll fan. It doesn’t take much to get him weighing in on the Clash record that means the most to him (“London Calling”) or the merits of John Lennon’s final album (loves him, hates it).
But Leary’s rock ‘n’ roll immersion goes much deeper. Decades of his own brand of stardom as an actor and standup comic have found him rubbing elbows with rock gods like Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler. And on his stand-up comedy tours, he brings along a band of “real rock ‘n’ roll musicians and session guys,” he says proudly, with whom he performs just for fun.
So he never saw himself as a rock star. But now he’s having a blast playing one on his new comedy, “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll,” for which, as with his previous series, “Rescue Me,” he not only serves as leading man but also creator, executive producer and writer (as well as having co-written the songs). It premiered last night on FX.
Leary plays Johnny Rock, leader of a rip-roaring New York band called The Heathens that released one album in the early 1990s, then collapsed in a heap of crazy excesses and raging egos. The band is notorious for its riotous flash-in-the-pan-ness, while Johnny, now 50, is an unremitting burnout angling for a comeback.
What a moment for a hot young woman named Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies) to arrive in Johnny’s life, revealing herself, much to Johnny’s shock, as the 20-year-old daughter he never knew he had, while, much to his excitement, demonstrating she’s the fame-seeking singer who can possibly jump-start his career.
Gigi’s voice is his ticket to persuading The Heathens (played by John Corbett, John Ales and Bobby Kelly) to reunite, with her as lead vocalist, for Johnny’s last chance to get his band on the charts.
But all will not go smoothly. Johnny is a protective dad, yet no less competitive and willing to exploit her. And she, no shrinking violet, will stand her ground. Gigi, after all, is his daughter - and he’s a rock ‘n’ roller.
That posed more of a challenge to Leary than expected. Sure, he can summon rock-star looks, even now at 57: In person, he is tall, wiry, radiating energy and sass, with a thatch of great hair.
“But, dude, performing like a REAL rock star was waaaaay harder than I thought,” he discovered the night The Heathens in their vintage-’90s incarnation took the stage of Manhattan’s Irving Plaza ballroom to shoot “archival” footage of the band back in its prime.
“You take it for granted, whether it’s Steven Tyler or Iggy Pop or any other lead singer, how ( flipping) cool they look,” he tells a reporter visiting his Lower Broadway production office.
“They can take control. They take over the stage. They grab the audience’s eyes even during the guitar player’s solo. Why do you think (Who lead singer) Roger Daltrey started swinging that microphone over his head? Cause otherwise everyone would look at Pete Townshend!”
That’s what Leary learned filming full-strength Johnny Rock at that time-capsule concert.
And he knew it wasn’t something he could keep up every week.
“I don’t have the voice or the training to carry this show as a singer,” he says, adding with his wall-to-wall grin: “As a washedup singer? Yes!”
Luckily, he - like Johnny - has powerful backup: A series costar who can rock the rafters as well as hold her own in the improvising style Leary likes in his actors.
Gillies, who sizzled as a gothaffecting performing arts student on Nickelodeon’s musical drama “Victorious,” more than fills the bill here: “a real lifesaver,” Leary calls her.
She also furnishes a necessary dose of estrogen. “Sex& Drugs& Rock& Roll ” echoes Leary’s “Rescue Me,” which, from 2004 to 2011, rallied a company of tight but combative Alpha Males - New York City firefighters - and their women, who were anything but the weaker sex.
Leary revels in exploring the glories and follies of an eroding patriarchy where women can take charge whenever they choose. And as on “Rescue Me,” he again plays its beleaguered champion, a heavy-drinking, pillpopping, womanizing, motormouthed leader of the band - this time, literally.
The idea for “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” struck Leary years ago while on a tour bus with his band promoting the premiere of “Rescue Me.”
“By the third date,” he recalls, “the musicians started getting on each other’s nerves. By the fifth date, there were picayunish arguments like ‘Who drank my Gatorade from the refrigerator?’ ‘I took one sip, man, I had to swallow some pills!’
“Every band I’ve known has this same vibe, this disconnected, sloppy set of energies that converges on stage and is probably the thing that makes the band great. But offstage, it was resentment and bitterness. We had 15 more cities to go, and it just got funnier the longer we went.”