Multi-hyphenate Denis Leary, 57, was born and raised in Worcester and graduated from Emerson College. His acerbic stand-up persona led to an acting career that began on MTV in the 1990s. He has appeared in more than 40 films, and his TV show Rescue Me ran for seven seasons. His latest series, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, premiered last month on FX.
Denis Leary Oh, boy. You gotta go with sex. I would hope that would be everyone’s No. 1 answer, and if not, there’s something wrong. But I guess I can’t speak for everybody.
Pretty close. When I think back to the amount of talent I went to Emerson with—Mario Cantone, Stephen Wright, Gina Gershon—it’s mind-boggling. I remember graduating in 1980, and my friend Doug, who ran WERS, was like, “I’m going to New York. This guy has an idea for a channel that plays nothing but music videos.” And we were like, “Good luck with that!” Now he runs just about every other television network in the world.
Henry Winkler encounters? Well, he was a little bit older than me, but I went to Emerson on a scholarship, and I had to work as a security guard. Henry Winkler was already the Fonz, probably the biggest TV star at the time, and once a year, he’d come to Emerson to speak to the acting students. They assigned me to be one of his security guards. He wasn’t allowed to smoke in public, because he was supposed to be this role model, but he smoked. So I was the guy who’d take him into a secret room, and we’d smoke. Decades went by, and I ran into him at some awards show. And he walked up to me and said, “You’re the guy who used to take me into the secret smoking room.” I couldn’t believe he remembered that.
My mother. She’s 88. She’s probably going to live to be 135. She lives in Worcester. She came over on the boat. And that’s where I get my smartass, brazen personality. She will tell you the truth, no matter what. She just doesn’t care. She loves the Bruins, and I once took her to some charity thing. I introduced her to Bobby Orr, and she said, “Oh, you’re so handsome. You take such good care of yourself.” Then she turned to Derek Sanderson and said, “You ruined your life! You threw it all away!”
ShamelessCalifornicationNashville Wow! How’s that for a descriptive one-liner?
Well, at Emerson, we did original shows with original music, so some of the music students were the band. They all went on to be professional musicians. One of them writes all the music for SpongeBob SquarePants, and some became legit rock musicians. One of them played with the Del Fuegos, and the drummer played with Ozzy Osbourne…. I saw bands that were supposed to make it and didn’t. They almost all failed for the same reason: The lead singer and the lead guitar player both hate each other and love each other. It’s always a dysfunctional family dynamic. I thought it would be interesting to play with that, with a fictional band that didn’t quite make it. They can’t live with each other. They can’t live without each other.
Did you want to be a rock star? Yeah, in that late-’70s period in Boston, I had so many friends in bands. I spent all my time at the Rat. I even roadied for a few of the bands that were hot in the new wave and punk scene. A couple of times, I got up and sang, and I’d say, “Yeah, I think I can do this.” And they were all like, “Ahh, no you can’t.” [Laughs.]
Rock star you’d most like to change places with? That’s a great question. I have several favorites, but I guess it would have to be Mick Jagger. He’s the biggest rock star who’s ever lived, and he’s 72, dating a 28-year-old Spanish ballerina.
The Ed Sullivan Show and thinking, “Who the hell are they?” And I saw the Who on The Smothers Brothers when their drum kit blew up.
Growing up, it was the Rolling Stones and the Who. The Beatles were a little too clean-cut. I remember seeing the Rolling Stones on
Listen, I love Bowie, and I was a huge fan of the Police. My character on the show is the kind of guy who will dis someone like Bowie, but if Bowie walked into the room, he’d be fawning all over him. He’ll kiss ass to get anywhere in show business. So my dream is that if the show works, I would love to write both Bowie and Sting into an episode.
The truth is, back in the old, old days, we all got paid under the table. I was working as a comic at the same time I was working the door at places like the Ding Ho. Everything was kinda free. The drinks were free. The drugs were free a lot of the time. My rent was cheap; I was sharing an apartment in Cambridge with Jimmy Tingle and Steve Sweeney. We had it great.
Nothing makes you as creative as just a cup of coffee, but then you look at a guy like Keith Richards, who’s 73 and lived his whole life chemically altered. And when you see him play guitar, you think, “Maybe I need to get high and a little drunk.”
Well, with my character the real factor is his relationship with his daughter. His only chance in show business is her.
Victorious on Nickelodeon, and she’s really funny and she can sing. She came in for the audition and sang an Aretha Franklin song, which takes some balls. And she was pitch perfect.
It was the biggest and most worrisome part, because I knew I wanted to be able to record a lot of live vocals. I needed somebody who could really sing, because I can’t, and also someone who could do comedy and drama. My producing partner has three sons, and they said this girl Liz Gillies is on a show called
Ice Age I’ll tell you, it’s not bad. There’s no makeup. There’s no hair. You go in in a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt, talk into the electric stick for three or four hours. There’s a lot of improv in those movies, though. [John] Leguizamo does his thing, and then we come in. But making stuff up in a recording studio? Doesn’t really get much easier than that.
Rescue Me Well, once we were picked up and knew we’d be on for the foreseeable future, we always had a plan to do seven years, because it would air in 2011, the tenth anniversary of 9/11, which just seemed fitting. I loved that show. I loved those actors. And it was sad when it ended. But it was always going to be that way.
I think it comes from two places: anger and repression. I did 12 years at St. Peter’s in Worcester, with all the same nuns. I had 17 cousins who lived in my neighborhood, and we were in the older group. We were just evil to the nuns, so there was really no hope for anybody. By fourth or fifth grade, we were like, “This is bullshit,” but we had to put up with it. And the two things the nuns always said were “It’s not funny,” and “Stop laughing.” So of course, that egged us on.
Probably not. But there are certain things I can’t see any humor in. That said, after 9/11, a few of my New York firefighter friends were doing the cleanup work, and there were a lot of restaurants sending food in. I remember one night when one of the guys came back, started taking off his gear, and someone asked him how everything was. He said, “Y’know, the food wasn’t so great tonight.” [Laughs.]
Favorite movie you were ever in? The Ref was a blast to make. It was directed by my friend Ted Demme, and they cast Kevin Spacey, who was unknown then but was a friend from the New York acting scene. Same with Christine Baranski. Everybody was hysterical. We laughed our asses off. The other one is probably Wag the Dog, which was also a ton of improvisation. And it was Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Willie Nelson. I went to work every day with a hall of fame. During breaks in the scenes, we’d go out on the lawn, and Willie would take out his guitar and say, “Anything you guys want to hear?” It was insane.
Spiderman, going to the Emmy awards, all that stuff… I don’t know how to track it back. I think everything on there has a reason for being. Everything is some kind of stepping stone.
I really wouldn’t, because for a kid from South Worcester to hang out on a movie set with people like Robert De Niro and Clint Eastwood, making
Well, I guess: Welcome to reality. [Laughs.] And let me point out that I’ve spent a little time with Keith Richards over the years, and he doesn’t forget a thing and remembers everybody’s name.