On July 16, Denis Leary returns to television in the form of Johnny Rock, the washed-up frontman attempting to make a comeback on Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll. Along for the ride is the daughter he never knew he had (a revelatory Liz Gillies, previously seen on the Nickelodeon series Victorious), the only woman who still tolerates him (Elaine Hendrix), and his old band members (John Corbett, John Ales, and Bobby Kelly).
The 10-episode series marks Leary’s first TV project since Rescue Me wrapped up back in 2011. In fact, the seeds of Sex&Drugs were sewn while Leary’s firehouse dramedy was still operating. “I first conceived of the show just before we finished Rescue Me, and I wrote the theme song then,” Leary tells EW. In a freewheeling conversation, Leary pulled back the curtain on the roots and inspirations that went into building the world of Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll.
ON JOHNNY ROCK
“Iggy is in there. The New York Dolls are in there. There’s a little bit of Clash in Johnny. There’s a lot of nowhere-near-the-talent-level, but he’s got David Bowie on the brain. My dream is to write an episode where David Bowie plays David Bowie and Johnny gets to meet his hero. Of course, it has to blow up in Johnny’s face somehow.”
ON THE MUSIC
“I knew a lot of bands that came out of Boston. I knew the Cars, and they obviously became huge. I knew Steven Tyler and the guys from Aerosmith before I was famous. I got to see guys who weren’t rock stars become rock stars. But I thought the most interesting thing was the bands who were supposed to be huge, like the Del Fuegos, who broke up because of the same problems all bands have: the lead singer and the lead guitar player. I thought, how interesting would it be to investigate a guy whose band could have been huge, but he couldn’t work with his best friend because they both wanted to be the star.”
ON THE STYLE
“I looked at Springsteen and realized he’s kind of had the same look for 20 years. Mick Jagger has a certain look that he’s stuck with. So does Keith. Steven Tyler definitely does. I wanted Johnny to pick a look and think, ‘This is my look, and I’m sticking with it.’ He just happened to pick the wrong look. While we were shooting on Bond Street in New York, there were a couple of fans who wanted pictures. My son took the picture, and this one lady said, ‘Thank you— Glee is my favorite show and you’re my favorite character.’ And I realized that I was wearing a big leather jacket and these Jackie Onassis glasses, and my son went, ‘Dad, you look like Jane Lynch.'”
ON NEW YORK
“I probably could have told the story in L.A., but it’s a little different vibe out there. It’s the same financial situation, where if you don’t have a lot of money you have to live in a certain neighborhood, but it’s enough of a different vibe where the weather makes people a little happier than they would be if they were stuck living in the outer edges of Brooklyn. I think it was better to set it in New York, which is the place where Johnny thought he was going to become a star and didn’t.”
ON THE DAUGHTER
“I needed a great singer, and somebody who could do comedy, drama, and improvise, so I was asking for the world. My producing partner came in and said his three teenage boys told him there’s this girl Liz Gillies, who’s on a show on Nickelodeon with Ariana Grande. We brought her in and did some scripted stuff, and then we started improvising. I kind of started going at her, she came right back at me. She was really f—ing funny. She just sparkled.”