The new FX comedy series Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is so much debaucherous fun, with some great music thrown in. The story follows Johnny Rock (Denis Leary), who was the lead singer of legendary early ‘90s New York band, The Heathens. The band self-destructed and broke up on the same day that their album was released, and now, 25 years later, Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies) show up to meet the dad she never knew and to have him shine a spotlight on her own tremendous signing talent, in a way that he never could for himself.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Elizabeth Gillies talked about fighting for this role in a very primal way, how much of herself she sees in Gigi, just how quickly she hit it off with show creator Denis Leary, playing a character who has the talent to back up her desire to be famous, that this cast is just as crazy and dysfunctional as their characters are, her love of improv, how cool it is to get to record and perform original songs that will be available as each episode airs, her favorite track, and where she hopes the show will go, in the future.
Collider: This seems like the type of role that a lot of young actresses would want, but that not a lot would be able to pull off, and you do so quite beautifully. When you read this pilot, was this a character that you just immediately got?
ELIZABETH GILLIES: Yeah, it tripped me out. I got the script and I started reading it, and I was in awe. I saw a lot of myself in Gigi. Whenever I read something that I really want and really connect to, I get this weird animalistic thing through my body where I become a predator and need to get it. I’m very happy that I did. I wanted it so badly. It’s a dream role. I get to be funny, and then cry, and then be mean, and then be sweet, and then sing. I couldn’t ask for more.
You’ve said that this was a role you had to fight for. What did that process entail?
GILLIES: Well, it’s a big ask of the actors because it’s a singing part, as well as an acting part. I was in L.A. and they were casting in New York, so I did my audition tape. I tried to pick the hardest song I could find off of the song list because I thought maybe that would help, so I picked an Aretha Franklin song. And then, I heard I was going to be screen testing opposite Denis [Leary], and we had really great banter. We both speak very quickly and we have a biting sarcasm with the way we speak. People bought that I was his daughter. The chemistry test really sealed the deal, I think.
Was it scary to go in and convince them you could do this, knowing that the guy playing your dad is not only Denis Leary, but the creator of the show?
GILLIES: No, I was like a lion. I was so focused that I probably came off as kind of a bitch. I wanted it so badly, and I was very determined to make it happen. It’s nerve-wracking because the person opposite you is not some scene partner. He’s the guy in charge, on every level. That was a little intimidating. But, Denis is so cool. He set such a chill, funny, cool tone that for the audition, I felt like I was hanging out with a friend. Because of that, it made it easier.
Who is Gigi and why has she chosen this moment in her life to look her dad up and tell him that he has to make her famous?
GILLIES: I think that she’s had this plan in her head, for a long time, but she was under lock and key by her mother who wanted to protect her from this world that she fled from. She’s seen all of it, so she wants me to be safe. She wants me to change my aspiration of being a singer to avoid that life because it didn’t work out the way she wanted it to. So, I hit my 20s and I decide that now is the time. She gives me money, so I go out and bribe my father, who never knew I existed, to make me famous ‘cause it’s what I want. Really, I want my dad, too, and it’s so obvious. You can tell she’s very vulnerable and she wants her dad, just as much, if not more, as she wants to be famous.
Even though she’s decided that she wants to be famous now, she really wants to be famous for her talent. Is it nice to play a character that has the talent to back that up, in a world where we have so many people who are famous for just being famous?
GILLIES: Yeah, absolutely! I remember when I was trying to make an album for awhile, and real music is not around as much anymore. I would go into recording sessions, and one time, there was an iPhone. It was not even a computer making a beat, which I had grown accustom to, but an iPhone. The guy was like, “There’s this great app. You don’t even need a computer.” I was like, “I’m done! None of you guys can play an instrument? What’s going on?!” I like playing a character that admires real musicianship, and real talent and hard work. I think that’s a good message for everyone. It’s still around. There’s still great music. It’s just not in the forefront. It’s not on the radio. You can’t get it as easily, which is crazy. And the music on the radio is fine, it’s just not my type of music. You don’t to play an instrument, and you don’t need to be able to sing. You just need to be able to make a beat and use auto-tune. It’s crazy!
The imperfections are what make a rock album so great.
GILLIES: Totally! I agree. I’m a perfectionist and when we were recording, every time I would hit a wrong note, I would stop immediately and say, “Let me get it again.” Denis kept a lot of my little flubs in because he likes them. It makes me crazy! It makes me insane! But, he likes them. He likes it sounding real. He likes a wrong note, here or there. I don’t, but that’s okay. I’m growing up. It’s part of life, I guess.
We see Gigi have a little bit of a mini-meltdown before she goes on stage, for the first time. Will we continue to see her have some doubts in what she’s asked for, or will we see her gain more confidence in herself, as each performance happens?
GILLIES: She’s constantly growing, throughout the season, and she’s constantly learning and falling down a lot. She makes a lot of mistakes. Later on in the series, I don’t want to give too much away, but she gets an opportunity to sign with a pop label and sell out a little bit. For some reason, she forgoes authenticity, in the moment, and gives it a try, but she learns it was a mistake. She acts like an adult, but she’s young. She makes mistakes, but she learns from them. By the end, she’s totally different. From the pilot to the last episode, you watch the growth of a young adult to an adult.
Johnny Rock could have been a totally pathetic guy, and yet somehow you still really root for him. And Gigi could be much more selfish and self-centered, but there’s something very empowering about her. Was it important to you that these characters walk that line between depraved and likeable, and still have a relationship that can feel very relatable to people?
GILLIES: Yeah. No one on this show is pretending to be a saint. It’s real life, and it’s real. That’s why they’re relatable. That’s we can be total assholes and then be sweet, and people will still like us, even though we did that thing a minute ago. In real life, nobody is perfect and everyone has their moments. We do not shy away from that, on this show. Everybody has a weird moment on this show where they’re fighting, or someone is being an idiot, or the ego is out of control. That’s real life, especially in rock bands. There’s narcissism and ego, but the underlying love of the whole thing is the core of rock and roll, and what makes all of those great relationships work. Nobody is perfect, and we don’t try to be, at all.
This show is about a dysfunctional family to the extreme, but you can see that they all actually really love each other. Have you guys evolved into as equally dysfunctional but loving family on set, or are you much more functional than your characters are?
GILLIES: Hell no! We’re crazy! We bonded instantly. We were in these little dressing rooms on the same floor, like college, for three months, practicing music and hanging out. We would fight, and we knew what buttons to push. We would torture each other and prank each other, and point and laugh at each other, and then hug each other and say how much we respected each other. It’s insane! The line between reality and the show is blurred. It’s great. It’s fun. I couldn’t pick a better group of people to be doing it with. We’re all insane.
What’s it been like to work with Denis Leary? He’s someone who typically likes to do a lot of improv and work off-the-cuff. Is that something you’ve taken to and enjoyed?
GILLIES: I love it! It’s the best. I love working off-the-cuff, and I love improving. If I’ve had any training at all, it’s been in improv and musical theater. I was very happy to get to improv. I definitely didn’t get to improv on Nickelodeon. Denis and I both talk really fast, and we say mean things and then sweet things. It just worked out well. I think our improv scenes worked out great, and it made the relationship between Johnny and Gigi more real.
What’s it like to get to perform all original songs and know that you’ll be releasing the songs, as they appear on the show?
GILLIES: It’s beyond rare. This entire project is so surreal to me. It’s wonderful. He wrote great music, some with his band and some by himself. We made it work, so that it fit nicely in my voice and the band sounds great. And getting to perform live is so cool. It was like getting to do a rock concert a week. We would shoot the hell out of it. We’d have an audience there, and I’d be singing live with the band. It was really cool. I think you can tell that there’s no lip-synching in the show. It makes a difference.
Do you have a favorite song that you got to do?
GILLIES: I do. It’s in the final episode, and it’s called “Complicated.” It’s a ballad, and we play it in full. That’s rare. It’s the full song. It really sums up everything that’s going on with Gigi and the band. It’s emotional, but in a non-corny way. It’s emotional in a furrowed eyebrow, “I’m feeling this,” kind of way. And it really ends the season on the perfect note. I just really like the song. It’s a pretty song, and I think it’s in a good key.
When it comes to the scenes with the singing, do you prefer the moments when you’re in rehearsal and working the songs out, or do you prefer being on stage and full-out performing?
GILLIES: I like full-out performing. It’s fun. The rehearsal scenes are cute and fun, but we shoot them really quick. It’s not a big deal. Obviously, there’s a lot more coverage and it takes a lot more time to do the big performances. I like putting on my lizard skin pants and a crazy outfit and the make-up, and performing in front of real people. When you’re really singing, they’re not acting, they’re listening, so it turns into a mini-concert. But, the intimate moments are really sweet. I like those, too. I just like them all.
Gigi getting romantically involved with Flash could lead to some disaster. Is it fair to say that that might not work out so well, and has she thought that through, at all?
GILLIES: That’s where her youth plays in, a little bit. It starts as a way of getting back at her dad for not being there, and a way of getting his attention and pissing him off. And Flash is doing the same thing. He’s trying to get Johnny back, as well. As it evolves, there is a connection there. But starting a relationship off on the basis of revenge, and the fact that we’re in a band together, is not good. It’s set up to fail, but they do care for each other a lot. It will be interesting to see where it goes. There’s a funny episode where the age plays into it, a little bit.
You really do hold your own on this show, among the guys, as does Elaine Hendrix. What can you say about the relationship between Gigi and Ava?
GILLIES: Ava and Gigi really co-parent the entire group. We really run the show. We don’t have the issues that these guys have. I think that we’re two really strong women, and men listen to really strong women. They’re scared of them, and that works in our favor. We keep all the guys in check. She definitely keeps Johnny in check. Gigi keeps him in check, in a different way. It’s fun.
Have you had any discussions about where this show could go, in the future, or what you would like to see happen with your character?
GILLIES: Yeah. A part of me would like to see her totally strung out, in an alley, just for fun. But no, that’s not good. That’s just my acting selfishness. I like seeing her straight-edged and clear-minded. I think it would be interesting to see if she and her dad could exist on the same stage. That’s something that’s interesting to me. I would like to see the two of them try to take it on together. Otherwise, he would disappear, and I don’t think she would be the same without him. I think they need each other. So, I’d like to see Johnny find a way to get back in there. And maybe Gigi should date around, and date some famous rock stars to piss Johnny off. That would be fun. I keep saying she should date Steve Tyler. Denis and Steven are friends, so I keep saying, “Get him on the show to play Gigi’s boyfriend. She likes older guys.”
Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll airs on Thursday nights on FX.