Denis Leary first hit the public eye as an angry comedian whose high-intensity rants about drugs, alcohol, death, freedom, and the general stupidity of the world made him a cult star on MTV and the stand-up circuit; his 1992 Showtime special No Cure For Cancer and the 1993 album version of the show made him a dorm-room favorite and launched his anthem, the rant-driven, exultant song "Asshole." Leary continued to tour as a comedian, but also moved into film and television, starring in movies like the black comedy The Ref, the caper-romance Two If By Sea, and the Ted Demme drama Monument Ave. Over the past decade, he's returned to his high-strung, acerbic character many times, but he's also explored a wide variety of projects, from voicing a grumpy sabertooth tiger in the 2002 CGI kids' film Ice Age to producing films and TV series. In 2000, he also founded the Boston nonprofit The Leary Firefighters Foundation, after his cousin and a childhood friend were killed while fighting a Massachusetts warehouse fire.
Leary's career entered a new phase in 2001, with the launch of his ABC television series The Job; he served as a creator, producer and writer, and he starred as a detective juggling a wife, a girlfriend, and a demanding career. When that series was canceled, Leary quickly bounced back with the FX firefighter series Rescue Me, again acting as creator, producer, writer, and star. As the first season of Rescue Me and the entire series The Job came out on DVD, and he headed into production for Rescue Me's second season, Leary spoke with The A.V. Club about his work with the two series, his comic persona, why TV is more fun than film, and why he still loves performing "Asshole."
The Onion: Toward the end, The Job seemed to be going in a more serious direction. Is there any place in particular you would have liked to have taken that series, had it gone longer?
Denis Leary: Well, I think we had plans—probably not too far ahead, 'cause we kind of worked as we went. But yeah, it always had kind of a serious undertow. I think there would have been a blowup with his wife over the girlfriend thing, but the great thing about that show was that the dramatic underpinnings were always built onto really, really funny foundations, you know? So, I don't think it would've ever been overtaken by the drama.
O: Rescue Me seemed like a natural follow-up, and it went in a more serious direction. Has that series let you try things that you couldn't do with The Job because it was more comedy-oriented?
DL: Yeah. Well, it was also because it was an hour, you know. It was sold as an hourlong drama. Even when the Golden Globes people were nominating us last year, they were saying, "Jeez, if we could nominate you guys in the comedy category, we think you'd win." But they couldn't, because ultimately it's about a guy who's dealing with grief and the artifacts of 9/11. So even though it's a funny show, the foundation of the show really is drama, and the comedy is part of the rigging, you know?
O: The Job was a testing ground for you as a TV writer-producer. Did you learn things from that series that you carried over into Rescue Me?
DL: I never wrote television before that, I'd never done a television series, so I learned that I loved the process. And as an actor, I learned that I loved playing the same guy, because I've never done that. In the movies, you spend 12 weeks playing a guy. So I really fell in love with the idea of being able to play a character long-term, and find out things about the character that you'd never have the chance to explore in a movie. Also, as a writer I liked that. The Job was the first time I learned how to write television, by working with [The Job co-creator] Peter Tolan. So by the time I got to Rescue Me, I had gotten a very, very thorough lesson in the ins and outs of producing scripts for TV. I wouldn't be able to do this series if I hadn't done the other one first.
O: You haven't done a lot of writing for films since Two If By Sea. Do you prefer television writing at this point?
DL: Again, it's because you can go places that you never have time to do in the movies. So for Monument Ave., which is a script that I didn't take credit on, it was myself and one of my oldest friends working on it together. That was rewarding because it was a neighborhood that I knew, and it was a story that I knew. But again, you only get to spend, you know, six, seven, eight weeks with those characters. One of those things that I like about TV is that if you get a group of people you like, you can work with these people for months at a time, and you can discover their strengths and weaknesses, and you can use those in the direction where you take the characters. On a movie, you have a great time, and you're really enjoying the work, and then everybody is done and goes their separate ways, and you maybe never get to work with those people again. So I'd love to work with Clint Eastwood again, I love working with the guy, but it depends on, when the movies come up that he's directing, if he wants me to play a part in them, and vice versa. With this, I get to go to work everyday with a bunch of people that I love. So it's great.
O: Have you played any particular film role that you'd really like to return to and explore further?
DL: The kid from Monument Ave. would have been interesting to see where—at the end of that movie, he becomes sort of the godfather, because he kills his boss. It would have been interesting to see what he would have been like. And I'm actually playing the animated character I did in Ice Age—I'm doing the sequel right now. So that's kind of interesting. [Laughs.] Yeah, the thing with movies is, because you have so little time, I always feel like there are more things we could've done with the character. If we'd done a sequel to The Thomas Crown Affair, what would that have been like? But for the most part, you try not to think of that, because it's just going to break your heart. You're not going to see those people again, unless it was an action film or one of those big-budget Star Wars things where you get to play the person more than once. I don't have the patience for those kinds of movies, though.
O: What kinds of movies? Action-adventures?
DL: Yeah. Science fiction was never my thing. I have no interest in it. So I don't think I could successfully pull off being on a project like that without really losing my mind. I mean, I like action movies, but I'm not—as an actor, it doesn't really—unless I was going to play the bad guy. That'd be interesting.
O: With Rescue Me, are you consciously working for realism?
DL: Yeah, yeah, our technical advisor is a friend of mine, Terry Quinn, who makes sure that all of that stuff is completely realistic. But also, most of the stories that we tell are stories that we've taken from various firemen and things that happened in their lives, things that happened on the job. I always find that that's the best place to find material, anyway.
O: You've had a long personal association with firefighters, especially through The Leary Firefighters Foundation. Are you taking the show primarily from your past experiences? Or are you actively going out and doing more research on it?
DL: Basically, it's past experience. We've got a bible of stories that's almost endless. All of those guys I've known over the years, their stories happen… Well, they happen almost every week. Even as we're gathering stories from the past, as we're putting them down on paper, some of these guys—we use all real firemen as our extra firemen on the set, so these guys come to work and tell a story about a fire that they were at last night. You just go "Oh my God. Dramatically or comically, we gotta use that. It's great."
O: How much of what we're seeing on The Job and Rescue Me is improvisation?
DL: It depends on the actors and the episode, but we like to let the actors have a little breathing room. Depending upon the scene and the combination of actors, sometimes they come up with better stuff than what we wrote. So we'll just toss the script out and go with what they've come up with.
O: You've done films where most of your dialogue was improv. Do you think working with film directors who were open to improv because of your history made you more likely to encourage it in your actors?
DL: Yeah. I've done a lot of that over the years. Certain movies like Wag The Dog, we used improv on every scene that we did. Pretty much, we would shoot from the script and then some stuff that we came up with in rehearsal, and then we'd have at least one or two takes where we completely went off the script and just flew by the seat of our pants. I like to apply the same thing to television, because if the actors are good, you're more than likely to get something, somewhere, that you can use.
O: Do you think your history as a comedian, and your particular comic style, gave you more freedom to improvise in film than most actors?
DL: It might. I think it's also more about how you've been trained. With any actor, if you know your character well enough, you'll know pretty much what he would say under any circumstance, or whatever situation might rear its head. So, that's an important part of being able to do it. There's nothing wrong with an actor that can't improvise, but if you're going to improvise, you gotta make sure you got people that can play the game, you know?
O: Speaking of training, you taught acting for several years at your alma mater, Emerson College in Boston. Do you have a philosophy about what parts of acting can be taught?
DL: There's a lot of it that you can—if somebody has the basic tools, there's a lot that you can be taught. But the bottom line is that at some level, you've got to have the ability to—especially in film and in front of the camera, you got to have the ability to drop into character and close off the entire crew and the camera and everything else, you know? The biggest battle for a lot of people who come out of the theater, which is where I was trained, is that they can never forget that a camera is pointed at them. I mean, I was doing a film with Peter Falk, who was 65 or 70 years old at that time, and he was talking about how that was a big battle for him every day, to forget about that big black box staring back at you.
O: What about with comedy? What can be taught and what can't?
DL: You can't teach somebody how to be funny. You're either funny, or you ain't.
O: Do you have any interest in teaching again in the future?
DL: I just agreed to do another thing at Emerson. 'Cause I think it's kind of important for these young kids to get a lot of camera time, to learn the really basic individual things you need to know in order to act on film. Michael Caine wrote a great book and did a videotape about the technical side of acting a few years ago, and I don't think enough of that information gets relayed to students. It's just practical stuff that you can say, "This is what you're going to find when you get to the set."
O: As an actor, what interests you in a role?
DL: The first thing is always who's directing. That's the most important thing. And then, at this point in my career, it has to be something that I haven't done before. You know, something kind of like, when I did Jesus' Son, I owed a favor to Billy Crudup, because he had done a small role in Monument Ave., but also I really, really liked the role, because I hadn't played anything like it. But then again, if somebody calls me and it's the right, good director, or somebody who I know, and they've got like a terrific, fun bunch of people—yeah, I'd go to work on something kind of like I've done before if I knew I was going to have a good time. But the days are over when I can go into doing a film because I thought it was interesting, but I find out that the director's an asshole and the people aren't necessarily even funny, or fun to be around. Life's too short.
O: Accounts of interviews with you often comment on how laid-back you are compared to your acting and comic persona. Interviewers often seem shocked that you're not in stage mode all the time. Do you get that a lot in your personal life?
DL: Yeah, I do. People are disappointed that you aren't exactly who they thought you were, you know, as opposed to somebody who's just walking around trying to get some laundry done.
O: Do you feel a pressure to be "on" when you're meeting new people?
DL: No, not at all. Not at all. I'm not Robin Williams, you know what I mean? That's his natural state of being. That's what he is. That's not my gig.
O: So do you think of your ranting comic persona as a character, as something you're just performing?
DL: Well, you get to a certain point, especially if you're a comedian, where people think certain things. It's like, I don't take the time to explain it to people, it's just part of what I do. Is that persona based on what I'm like sometimes? Yeah, but it's the same thing as people saying "You're not acting like the guy in Wag The Dog!" or in whatever it might be. It's like, "Well, yeah, I'm not him." But still, it's human nature for people to expect people to be what they see on the screen.
O: Has it gotten any harder to deal with the expectations for that persona as you've gotten older? Do you feel that you've moved away from it?
DL: No. Well, when I do stand-up now, it's just mostly for charity. No, I love doing it. It's still one of my favorite forms of entertainment. It's still a thrill. It's also a thing you can do as long as you're standing up and able to hold a microphone. But I don't even really think about it, except when I have a gig coming up that I need to get ready for.
O: Is there any aspect of that character that you've gotten tired of, or that you regret being associated with?
DL: No. It's made me a lot of money over the years. No regrets.
O: Several of your films—The Ref and The Secret Lives Of Dentists most come to mind—have channeled the ranting Denis Leary character as an outside force that shakes people out of their ruts by saying things to them that other people wouldn't say. Do you ever identify with that outsider truth-teller figure?
DL: It depends on the work. I obviously identify with the anti-authority figure. I've pretty much always had problems with authority, ever since I was a kid. But, yeah, it's not identifying, I think it's more a part of my natural DNA that I question anybody who has a plan. Everybody's got to have an angle, that's the way I grew up. So I'm the first guy in the room to raise his hand—or I won't even raise my hand, I'll just say, "What the fuck is this about? Why are we doing this? Why are we doing that?"
O: People still associate you strongly with the song "Asshole."
DL: Yeah, I know. Every time I do a live gig, I have to play it.
O: Do you ever get sick of it?
DL: No, I love it. Again, it's made me a lot of money, and it's a fucking fun song to sing. I've re-written it and changed it for various charity events I've done. You know, the band loves playing it, so it's all good.
O: It's a really fun song, but its popularity raises the question of why you haven't done more music.
DL: Well, we have a new record coming out at Christmas. It's called Merry Fucking Christmas. It's actually part of a new comedy special I'm doing. It's really because I don't have the time. It's hard to do, to have a film and television career and do music work at the same time. So it really just comes down to how much time I have with the band.
O: In your early comedy career, you co-produced your own TV specials, but over the last five years, you've gone full force into creating and producing your own work. How did you make the move into production?
DL: Well, I had Monument Ave. in the pipeline with my production company. Basically, Bob De Niro was attached as a producer from the beginning on that film, and he was the first guy to tell me that you really want to have a back-up plan, so when you don't feel like acting, or you're getting older and settling down, you can produce your own stuff. So that's when I set about forming my own company and getting creative control. Which I'm really glad I did, because now I can understand the value of it.
O: Did the move into production feel like a big step? Has there ever been any specific point in your career that felt like a big move or a big break?
DL: Nah, it's all just been one big, gradual flow. Like I said, it's all good.