Im­mersed in role

De­nis Leary plays a rock has-been on the make in his new FX com­edy, ‘Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll’

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - PROVINCE - EMMY AWARDS

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.”

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