'Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll' Star Denis Leary on His "Delicious" Role and Secret Plan to Woo Lady Gaga

'Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll' star-creator Leary talks with THR about his return to FX and recruiting real-life rock stars for the show.
Patrick Harbron/FX

As the creator of FX's new comedy Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, Denis Leary had little doubt that he also would end up playing the lead character, singer Johnny Rock.

"I just couldn't avoid playing this guy. It was such a delicious role," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "He's so egomaniacal; he can't get out of his own way."

The series marks Leary's return to FX and his first series role since the cable network's acclaimed drama Rescue Me went off the air in 2011. But the show also holds special significance for Leary because so many of his closest friends are musicians.

Leary spoke with THR about his real-life inspirations for the show, why it was important to have musicians in some of the lead roles and the quest to get Lady Gaga for season two.

Since Rescue Me ended in 2011, you developed the USA Network series Sirens, but you didn't appear in that. What made you so drawn to acting in Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll?

Four or five of my closest friends that I went to Emerson College with were musicians. They either left school, or, as soon as they graduated, they joined bands. They were in a lot of really iconic bands from the '80s and '90s … that were meant to make it, that should have been huge, but for some reason, the bands always imploded. I'd go to their gigs, hang out backstage and witness the behavior between the bandmembers. It was almost always the same story: Everyone was jealous of the lead singer, and the lead guitar player was generally jealous of the lead singer. … It's like a family, but everybody is bitter and resentful and in love with each other. It's a love-hate relationship. So I always had the idea in my back pocket.

While you were casting, what was the balance you wanted to strike of people who could play music and those you were OK with faking it?

I always wanted the [actress] who played my daughter to be able to really sing because I think the audience can tell when a vocal is live or when it's prerecorded. At least, I know I can. So I really made it a sticking point. I was willing to give it up if I couldn't find an actress who could sing because she also had to be funny and be able to improvise and do dramatic scenes — the whole nine yards. I was fortunate I found Liz [Gillies] because all of her vocals are live, with the exception of some of the montage stuff. … I knew the actor playing Flash either had to have months and months and months and months of getting used to playing the instrument, or if I could find a guy that could play guitar, I wouldn't have to worry about his body language, how he looked during a performance. I knew John [Corbett] was in a band and played guitar. I wrote it with him in mind because I also needed a guy who was handsome because that's part of the threat to Johnny — that Flash has always been way more handsome than him. I didn't think John would do it, but I wrote with him in mind and sent it to him. And fortunately, he was at a point in his career when he said he really wanted to do something connected to music, so that was great. Plus, he can sing.

And the other guys, it would be great if they could play, but I'm not going to require it because I had a great technical team, and I knew we could make it work. John Ales sent us a tape of himself. His audition was great, and he lied. I said, "Can you play bass?" And he's like, "Oh, yeah, I play bass." (Laughs.) Then he came in the first day, and he had no idea how to play the bass. But I admired him for the lying because I would have done the same thing.

How has the musical aspect of the show changed how you're used to producing television?

Part of the casting process on this was picking my musician friends out and saying, "Can you please, please, please do me a favor and work on this show with me?" Greg Dulli, who is a lead singer/songwriter for The Afghan Whigs and the producer of many great rock records for other bands, I just begged him, "Can you please come in with The Whigs, and we'll re-create the songs from the early '90s and heyday?" So I got him for a week.

When I did the stuff with Liz, the more modern stuff, my writing partner and I worked on the music together and then put Liz together with my comedy band, which is essentially all those guys from Emerson College who are all great, famous New York rock 'n' roll session guys. I put them in there for three weeks, and I just stayed in the booth in the control room, and I let those guys arrange it and let her play.

Johnny is very much trying to juggle his newly emerged daughter with his own career ambitions. How will those dueling pressures impact him as the season progresses?

The two women on the show, Elaine Hendrix's character, Ava, and Liz's character, Gigi, they really have the power. They actually have a couple of speeches in the final episode [of season one] that make it brutally, comically clear who's in charge for the rest of this ride. Flash and Johnny have to suck it up and realize they were never in charge. Henceforth, you either have to act like a grown-up man and come along for the ride or be left behind. Johnny's going to go along for the ride because he needs to make money in order to stay in the music business, but … he's not going to be in the spotlight anymore. That's always fascinating to me: people that [think], "If I was famous, it would make everything so great." Which, of course, it doesn't. If you're not happy when you're not famous, by the time you become famous and have money, you're just really unhappy. That'll be the lesson that Johnny has to learn over the course of his relationship with his daughter and the rest of the band.

There are also a good number of real rock stars in the first half of the season. What kinds of discussions were there with FX about who should be brought on and when?

I have this relationship with [Joan Jett], so I just called up and said, "Listen, here's the idea." She's not really fond of acting, but she can act — she did a movie with [Michael J. Fox]. I said, "I'll make it so easy; you just have to come in one day and shoot everything in one day." I guilted her into it. I called up Dave Grohl and said, "Listen, I will come to your house with the crew and just give me three hours. I'll let you improv, I'll just give you bullet points." He was like, "All right. Come on."

In the show, Flash used to work with Lady Gaga. Now that she's a part of the FX family — with American Horror Story: Hotel — have there been any discussions about bringing her on for season two?

Here's my secret evil plan. … I knew I could get a laugh making fun of some of the costumes she wears, but I also thought, she's such a star that anybody who's in her band may not be well-known — they disappear behind her — so I could have the audience accept the idea that Flash had played with her in a couple of tours. But in my head, I thought, if I start saying "Lady Gaga" enough, and she hears about the show, and she likes it, and we get picked up for a second season, I could pick up the phone and say, "Lady Gaga, it's Denis Leary. I don't know if you like the show, but if you like it, would you want to come on?" Then, I heard she got hired by FX. I said to [FX Networks CEO JohnLandgraf, "Listen, I'd love to have her, if we get picked up for a season two."

Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on FX.

 

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