A decade ago, Denis Leary and FX were synonymous with each other, thanks to Leary’s critically acclaimed series Rescue Me that helped establish the network as a major force in original programming. Four years after Rescue Me aired its final episode, Leary is poised to return to FX with Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll.
The series follows fictional rock band The Heathens, whose rise to fame in the mid 1980s was cut short when lead singer Johnny Rock (Denis Leary) was found in bed with his guitar player’s wife. The real kicker? It happened on the same day the band’s album was released.
Twenty years later, Johnny Rock is no closer to the stardom he’s spent a lifetime pursuing, but he might have one more chance thanks to Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies), the daughter he never knew he had. Gigi shows up in New York and convinces Johnny to get the band back together, with one catch – she wants them to start writing songs for her.
Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is scheduled to premiere this week, and we had a chance to chat briefly with Leary and Gillies about their roles last weekend during San Diego Comic Con. Check it out below.
Where did the idea for the show begin?
Denis Leary: I’ve known musicians my whole life. When I was a teenager, guys I was close with became members of rock and roll bands in Boston, and most of them went on to be in bands for like 35 years – some of them very famous bands. So I was backstage a lot, and got to witness a lot of the crazy egomaniacal behavior.
I wanted to do a half-hour [show], and at the end of Rescue Me, I thought this would be a great way to go, and I would probably have a blast doing it. And then I found her [gestures to Elizabeth Gillies], so hopefully if it works, I’m just gonna ride her coattails for the next five years.
Elizabeth Gillies: I’ll make sure not to wear a coat. [laughs] I’m like a grandpa, that was the worst joke ever.
Can you talk about some of the real-life rock stars that influenced your characters?
Denis Leary: For me, there’s a couple of guys I know who never made it, and were pretty bitter about it for a long time. So I based it a little bit on those guys, because they still looked like rock stars – and you know, when you’re not a rock star and you look like Keith Richards, walking around in that outfit, you look kind of crazy, so I loved the idea of a guy walking around with this outdated look.
That’s the most fun part of the show for me, the relationship with her, because I look so ridiculous half the time. For me, it’ll be interesting to watch him have to learn from her – how to behave as a dad, how to dress…
Elizabeth Gillies: That would be a funny episode, me dressing you like a dad, in dad clothes.
The title font is reminiscent of the Sex Pistols, and even the name Johnny Rock is similar to Johnny Rotten. Could this almost be like a “what if” scenario, like if the Sex Pistols had never taken off?
Denis Leary: I suppose it could, but I think Johnny Rotten… that band sucked, I think he’s admitted that a million times. They were terrible, mostly because of Sid Vicious, but he was great just as a performer. And I loved Public Image way better than the Sex Pistols. I think he’s just a really interesting character – he’s way more interesting than Johnny [Rock] in terms of his opinion about being famous, because he was so famous for so long.
But if you ask Johnny [Rock] if he would trade his life with Sid Vicious, just to be famous for like six months, he probably would’ve done it when he was younger. He’s desperate to be famous in the worst way, which is probably how it will end up for him.
What’s the dynamic like between Johnny and Gigi, and how do you see it evolving over time?
Elizabeth Gillies: Well, it starts off pretty one-note, and then it takes on about a thousand other notes. We get invested, and the relationship becomes very complicated. But it’s funny, too – we just tear each other apart. We mentor each other, in a weird way. [turns to Denis] I mentor you, even though you’re my father, and you teach me about rock and roll, but I don’t have all the issues you have. I’m clean and sober, and I’ve never done anything, and he’s obviously the opposite of that. So we teach each other, but I really feel like Ava and I run the show.
Denis Leary: Yeah, there’s no question.
Elizabeth Gillies: We run that shit. [laughs]
Denis Leary: I think that’s the lesson here. I’m a huge Rolling Stones fan, and a huge fan of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, and I’ve always found it interesting that Keith Richards raised such normal kids. He’s been married for 30 years now – he’s a grandfather at this point. It’s really interesting to me to look at that guy, and to see him from that side. So I think if the show gets to go on and continue, it’s going to be really interesting to see what I’m gonna learn from her, and vice versa.
But clearly, the biggest lesson he’s gotta learn – which he kinda learns almost by the end of Season One – it starts to become clear that he’s never gonna be famous. If anybody in the family is, or the band, it’s gonna be her, so the idea of her getting more fame and him being in a room with her while somebody else famous is in it is always gonna be funny to me. Like if she’s hanging out with David Bowie in the recording studio, what Johnny’s gonna do to blow that up and piss off David Bowie – even though he’s the biggest Bowie fan in the world – is always gonna be funny to me.
Can we expect any rock star cameos?
Denis Leary: Well, I think I just gave up my biggest one. He’s a great actor – a lot of rock stars are actors, which really fucking pisses me off. Dave Grohl and Greg Dulli are on this show, they totally improvise…
Elizabeth Gillies: Joan Jett.
Denis Leary: Joan Jett! I’m telling you, whatever you see on that show, it took me hours in the editing room to make myself look even slightly cool as a rock star. The thing I’ve discovered – even after singing “The Asshole Song” after all these years and thinking I could be a rock star – I can’t. You have to actually be an unbelievably cool person to be up onstage for three hours.
Elizabeth Gillies: I think arguably though, if you ask our cast, we’re not bullshitting you. You’re a very cool person.
Denis Leary: Let me tell you something. Go watch Debbie Harry, and then…
Elizabeth Gillies: I can’t compare you to Debbie Harry! You’re very different.
Denis Leary: Well, anyone! I’m telling you, you have to actually be cool.
Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll will premiere on Thursday, July 16th at 10pm, exclusively on FX.